Adult Drama in the Classroom?

Why teacher’s professional issues are more important than student’s concerns when building effective professional learning communities.

Previously published in the The Educator’s Room, “Is Adult Drama the Elephant in the Classroom?


Learning Styles, Collaborative Learning, Project-Based Learning (PBL) — these are just three of the many instructional approaches that I have been trained to implement during my twenty-two-year teaching career. All of the above-mentioned approaches have been seen as educational fads and have not fully caught on as the silver bullet in education. Ultimately, there does not seem to be only one way to reach all students.

Has all of my previous training missed the real issue? What if effective pedagogy has less to do with the students and has more to do with the adults cooperating, sharing best practices, and analyzing student progress collectively?

What if the adult drama is the elephant in the classroom?

I have taught in my current school building for fourteen years. In that time, I have said goodbye to over 8,000 graduates, over nine administrators, and two superintendents. However, I have worked with many of the same teachers for most, if not all, of those fourteen years — we have “outlived” students and administrators. Teaching is one of the few remaining professions where people work their entire, or a majority, of their working years in one place. But, are teachers truly working together, or are we shutting our doors and teaching in isolation?

The veteran teachers that I work with have been hardened by change, the disillusionment of so-called reform, and the alphabet soup language of educational vernacular. Please pardon our reluctance to jump on any bandwagon that any new leader, reformer, or expert presents to us!

That is not to say that my colleagues are “stuck.” On the contrary, I work with professionals who are creative, dynamic, and compassionate. However, we are also just tired of “experts” telling us what we need.

We are also so exhausted by the lack of consistency from our leaders, who in our building have come and gone like a revolving door — usually, these assistant principals use our high school as a stepping stone to running their own buildings. Many of these administrators have great ideas, but most do not stay long enough to do the hard work of getting to know the teaching staff well enough to affect critical change.

What if the teachers stopped listening to so-called experts, and stopped waiting for leadership? What if teachers, collectively, figured out what their students, buildings, or districts needed and then were given the time and freedom to accomplish their goals? Dr. Luis Cruz, of Solution Tree, a professional development company, empowered my colleagues and me to become experts in our own building when he spoke at our school in October.

Dr. Luis Cruz presented about the power of professional learning communities (PLCs). A dynamic, humorous speaker, Dr. Cruz inspired the audience of teachers to figure out their own, collective, “whys and hows” — he pushed us to create professional learning communities where teachers decide what students need (the why) and then decide actions to help students meet goals (the how).

Dr. Cruz helped us recognize examples of adult drama — including teachers who are unwilling to work with others, insecure professionals, and overworked educators — as the biggest impediments to meaningful change.

Since Dr. Cruz’s performance (yes, it was part stand-up and part lecture), I have been listening to the adult drama emerge. My colleagues are fatigued. They are secondary teachers with large curriculums, heavy student loads, and great student needs. The adults are also confused as to what professional learning communities will look like in our school. Although Dr. Cruz enlightened the staff to a degree, we still need training. We need time and a blueprint.

Although Professional Learning Communities can be authentic and exciting, teachers need the following things to effectively implement and sustain PLCs, each is subsequently dependent on the other:

Collective Teacher Training:

A few teachers and administrators in my district have traveled San Diego, CA and San Antonio, TX — places that sound exotic to teachers in a suburban school north of cloudy, Syracuse, NY. Although these individuals have returned energetically enthusiastic about the concept of professional learning communities, what our building needs now is collective training. We need consistent definitions; we need to recognize the protocols of learning communities; we need to see a model of a PLC. Teachers not selected to travel to sunny places desperately need to feel included in the process, and that includes the training process. Furthermore, without instruction teachers will never be on the “same page” as one another. The adults will not be able to properly assess student needs if their vocabulary is not universal.

Teacher Acceptance (Buy-in):

After instruction, teachers must have time to assess the needs of their students. This evaluation that Dr. Cruz calls the “hows and the whys” is crucial as the first step in teachers accepting that professional learning communities have staying power. There will be no teacher buy-in without purpose. Needs assessments allow for purpose and help to give a path for action. Action, however, needs to be teacher directed. In his presentation, Dr. Cruz stated that the administrators need to be there to support, but also get out of the way of the teachers.

Furthermore, needs assessments should be standardized, in a scientific, organized manner to better enhance the collective reform of the various issues. Teachers are very wary of assembling in a big room where they are told to write down their ideas with funny smelling markers on big sheets of paper. Those lists, seldom ever spoken about again, disappear like candy after Halloween. A needs assessments should be transparent and accessible to all staff.

Time for Teacher Reflection:

Reflection of and reaction to the implementation of reforms, learning strategies, and teaching techniques need to be sacrosanct. It cannot be done when the teachers are tired after a long day of teaching. Without meaningful reflection, PLCs will fade away into the wastebin of educational reform. Too many times teachers are shown great ideas, implement those changes, and then fail to be given time to assess the impact of their pedagogy. Without reflection, there also cannot be redirection and future changes. Without reflection, institutions stagnate — teachers close their doors and return to isolation.

Ultimately, learning environments are more akin to a marital relationship than a parental one. To have a strong family, you must have a strong marriage. To create a rich professional learning community, a school must empower teachers to have healthy relationships with each other. When adults “put on their oxygen masks first” then they have the ability to “save” the children. To create rich, effective PLCs the adult drama must be kept to a minimum and the teachers need to be given collective instruction, room for collaborative instructional implementation, and loads of time for reflection.

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My classroom is a dance floor: A lesson on student leadership, dedication, and taking chances.

Before the first meeting of the UMOJA-Step Team began, the team captain arrived at my classroom early and immediately pushed back all of my desks and chairs. I grew nervous. What the heck did I agree to do?

Last spring a student asked me to consider advising the UMOJA-Step Team at the high school where I teach. I had reservations. The team had a negative reputation and I am a busy mom. A few people told me that the team was drama filled, loud, and difficult to control. However, at every pep rally, the students in the bleachers look forward to the step team’s performance. The cheers for this crew are always thunderous and authentic.

That student’s request gnawed at me all summer. When the first faculty meeting of the school year revealed that the group still lacked an advisor, I decided, for many reasons, to give it a try.

Now it is September 14, 2017, and all of my desks and chairs are piled up in the back of my classroom. Twenty-five kids have entered my room, eager to be members of a group that puts the pep in the pep rallies. While listening to the team captains explain expectations, the other students devour the candy that I left out like a trusting house at Halloween.

The leaders, two young women of color, emphasize qualities that adults respect: promptness, dedication, and maintaining high grades. After laying down the law, the captain smiles and says: “We are a family.” Many kids nod their heads in agreement.

After the power point presentation, the students begin to dance. I now understand why the desks and chairs were moved — my classroom is a dance floor! I thought this was just an informational meeting, but these kids came to move — they are dancing with enthusiasm and delight. It reminds me of watching the television show F.A.M.E. When I was a kid I loved how the students on that show would spontaneously burst into song and dance. F.A.M.E. was happening in my high school! I was on F.A.M.E.!

Reality, however, entered in the form of the sweet school secretary who informed me that F.A.M.E. was disturbing a parent-conference going in the office next door. I apologized profusely.

At the end of that first, boisterous meeting, the team leaders made a circle where each student demonstrated their “moves” in the middle of my classroom. As I watched these young people, I began to realize that I was going to be a part of a rare and special group.

We moved the subsequent meetings to the cafeteria where, unfortunately, the kids needed to move the tables and chairs. The teardown and setting back up of the room ate into about ten minutes of precious rehearsal time. Not to mention the occasional squished grape that the students danced around.

Mostly, however, what I noticed about these rehearsals was an intensity of engagement with student-led participation. The pressure of performing for the entire student body in just a few weeks motivated them to practice, learn, adjust, practice, and repeat.

At the end of every rehearsal, I filled out twenty-five bus passes — these high school students do not have rides or cars like many of their high school peers — they must take the late bus home. The team includes mostly female students, most of whom are African-American. Three are white. There are a few young men sprinkled in the group, and they can move.

I teach in a suburban high school that houses over 1,800 students a day. The demographics are mostly working and middle-class households, over seventy-five percent Caucasian. The UMOJA-Step Team members flip that demographic. The word umoja means unity in Swahili and the team is both a cultural and performance group. February brings the celebration of Black History Month and a dinner for the school and community. Although African-American and Afro-Caribbean culture is highlighted, the group is inclusive of non-Afro students. If you have dedication, spirit, and talent, you can belong.

A former student, one of the student leaders, says: “You should dance with us, Momma Brown.”

I laugh and say: “Yeah, that is what you need, an old white woman to mess up your beautiful group.”

She laughs. I am serious. This is a student group.

As the first pep rally approaches, I begin to look forward to staying at school later. It is crazy, but in many ways, these dedicated dancers are renewing my teaching spirit. I adore them, especially the leaders.

Two weeks before the pep rally, the captain invites me to go bowling with the group. I felt so honored. I gave her my cell number in case plans changed. (I have never given a student my phone number.) I didn’t go bowling with the group, but I really wanted to. That pull between my own family and my school “kids” was difficult.

A week before the pep rally, I noticed a familiar frustration in the captain — she wants the team to get the dances perfect. She wants the UMOJA-STEP SQUAD to get the school crowd roaring. She feels the pressure. I tell her that I know her crazy — her statements and body language are reminiscent of mine the weeks before the New York State Global Regents Exam. Every June, I look at my classes, drill them constantly on their “moves,” encourage, scold, and prepare them to get the “best” grade they can earn. She is doing the same thing: she is showing them that perseverance breeds excellence. Her frequent refrain is, “Do it again.” She would make an outstanding educator. She has got “it.” You can’t teach that sort of with-it-ness. It shines off of this strong, young woman.

After the cafeteria is unavailable one day, the squad moves practice from the cafeteria to the auditorium commons, a large space that does not require the time of tearing down and setting back up of cafeteria tables. The open space in the commons allows other students to stop and watch the team practice. I enjoy these voyeur students’ expressions: they smile, they clap, they take video.

However, I wish the team could have a space of their own. I teach in a large building that is always busy, with the two gymnasiums and the auditorium reserved far in advance. What this team needs is a room with mirrors!

The captains want this year to be drama-free. They want a faculty advisor to stick around. They tell the members to bring problems to me. I act as their human boundary, happy to let the captains lead the dance. I am strong enough to handle the management of people. My role is one of organizer and advocate. This group, I repeat, is student-run.

By Thursday, October 5, 2017, the pep rally is only eight days away, and a long Columbus Day weekend interrupts the flow. Everyone is feeling tired, run-down. The student dancers have a poor first rehearsal on the field. The pressure mounts with only three more possible after-school practices. They are allowed only thirty minutes on the turf until the football players are suited up and ready to practice. Time is the enemy. The captains are worried, but I have faith in this group. I can see that they only need to tighten up a few moves.

On the eve of the pep rally, the team is a well-oiled machine. Their timing is on fleek! (My twelve-year-old gave me permission to use that term.) As they practice, I notice that they are truly enjoying themselves. I drive home smiling.

On the day of the pep rally, I wake with nervous excitement. I normally have very little enthusiasm for pep rally days — they make my teaching time shrink and the kids get off kilter. Typically, when I wear my school t-shirt, my husband (who thinks he is hilarious) will ask me:

“Did you bring it?”

I will respond with, “Bring what?”

He will say: “Team spirit.”

This day, however, I am actually bringing it. I am both excited and a little bit nervous for the Step Team. They are an amazing group of students, but there is also enormous pressure on them to perform at a high level.

At 12:45pm the athletes are dismissed, the lead captain, who the kids affectionally call “Grandma” instructs the dancers to meet her in the auditorium commons for one last run through before we take the field.

When I arrive, they are decked out in red shirts, black leggings, and red shoes. Those are not the school colors of orange and blue. The excitement is electric. The quickly rehearse their routine one, more time.

Walking to the stadium, I ask the kids why the color red. No one can tell me why red is important. We will need to discuss colors and their significance later.Today is not the day to discuss the future, it is a day for them to show off their hard work.

The students wait on the field for their turn in the pep rally, a group in red, in a sea of orange and blue. I tell them that they will perform near the end, joking that the best is saved for last.

When they perform, I feel like a proud parent. I didn’t choreograph the moves, or pick out the music, or act as a dance “coach.” All I did was make some meetings calendars and help organize the group. That is all that they needed.

We still have more to learn and prepare for: another pep rally in December and February’s Black History celebrations. There are still many questions to answer: Are they a dance team, a step team, or an African-American cultural team? What are the team’s colors? We need to discuss the group’s name and identity.

Right now, however, we are a happy group. Next week, we will celebrate with pizza in room 811 where my classroom might become a dance floor yet again.

Taking a Knee for Public Education

Call me a son of a bitch, I don’t care. The national anthem is not sacred. The United States is not about one single person, belief system, or song from the war of 1812. Nothing is sacrosanct and that is why the United States will endure.

What can students learn about the NFL controversy and President Trump’s remarks? The biggest lesson to gain from this is that we can disagree and survive. To quote the 18th Century French Enlightenment thinker Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire, who raged against the Catholic Church, promoting crushing that infamous thing, would definitely be on my side of this argument.

First a caveat: I am not a “sports fan.” I don’t watch football and I don’t care about the sport. I have often thought that some Americans take it too seriously, and I would much rather play any sport than watch it. This post is not about football.

Second caveat: I love the U.S.A. I am a patriot. I proudly stand for the pledge of allegiance every school day. I teach social studies with respect for American law and institutions. I am neither a communist nor a member of ANTIFA. I am not radical. I am a white, middle-aged (sorry, my friend, Jen, said I can’t describe myself like that). I am a white, mature, middle-class woman living on 40 acres in Upstate New York. I am related to many war veterans and I greatly appreciate their sacrifice. This post is about patriotism and how dissenting is a form of patriotism.

So, why do I connect the NFL with public education? Where is patriotism instilled? In public schools, every day when we stand, put our little hands on our hearts and pledge our allegiance to the U.S. of A. Because every American is entitled to NOT stand when the national anthem or the pledge of allegiance is recited. Dissent is liberty. Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy — it is a form of action.

By not standing for the anthem, or for the pledge, individuals are sending a message. Our country is bent — not broken, but bent — and is in need of repair. The knee represents the need for dialogue and collective introspection. Blind loyalty is not patriotism, it is a form of vapid nationalism.

Public education is my “knee” issue. If President Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy “Amway” Devos, is able to dismantle public education further, I will take a knee. Every time that I have stood for the anthem, and the pledge, since the 2016 election, I have reflected on the state of my country. Since the election, I have grown more and more aware of the savage inequalities that permeate our schools, our communities — all threats to the American dream.

Jose Vilson, in his recent post entitled “A Note On Teaching as Activism,” writes about this issue with more clarity. He points out:

“It’s little wonder that less than 20% of the entire teaching force is of color. It’s even less curious that the schools with higher percentages of educators of color are more subject to scripted lessons, standardized testing, crooked teacher ratings, and oppressive staffing decisions — including suspension and expulsion for frivolous reasons.”

 

So, stand if you believe our country is a great place and deserves praise. Kneel if you don’t. Maybe you have a “knee” issue, maybe you don’t. Transparency, discussion, and dissent are “the way home through Baghdad.” Change happens with resistance, not stasis. We will never embody the message of Francis Scott Key, or the words in the Pledge of Allegiance if we don’t have a country that values every resident and gives everyone a voice.

#whyweM4PE

What if we forget? Teaching September 11, 2001, as a history lesson.

Many of my current sophomores were not alive on the day the world stopped turning.

September 11, 2017, marked the sixteen-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Most sophomores are fifteen-years-old — these adolescents are the post-911 generation. They know no other reality than the war on terror. And yet, they really know so little about the events of that tragic day.

For example, when asked many of my students did not know:

How many planes were hijacked.

That the Pentagon was attacked.

That a plane went down in that Pennsylvania field.

The difference between Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

The location of Iraq and Afghanistan.

When and why the U.S. military invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.

To combat my sophomore’s ignorance, I gave them an assignment that I have given every year since that infamous date. They were tasked with interviewing their friends and family members concerning the events and lessons of 9–11–2001.

The students interviewed three people who were of various ages on September 11, 2001. The following were the interview questions:

1. Where were you when you heard of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?

2. What do you remember were your feelings and reactions to hearing of the attacks?

3. What was happening in the world, in the nation, and/or in your personal life at the time of the attacks?

4. Who did you think was responsible for the attacks (then)? Were you correct?

5. Why do you think the United States was attacked?

6. How do you think life in general, life for Americans, and your life specifically, has changed since the attacks?

7. What are your feelings about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

8. What would be the lesson you would like children in the future to take away from the attacks of September 11, 2001?

Students then analyzed the three responses to each question and wrote their evaluations based on the following inquiries:

  • How are the responses similar?
  • Were the people you interviewed mostly in agreement, or do they disagree in terms of their feelings and perceptions? Explain how and why.
  • What can you learn about history by completing these interviews?
  • Did the age of the person you interviewed have any impact on the type of responses you received? Why or why not?
  • What do you think these responses tell you about the future of the United States in general, and future United States foreign policy?

The students’ analysis included some remarkable insight into the common person’s psyche and these responses may help all Americans realize that the events of September 11, 2001, were a dynamic turning point — a pivot point into fear, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and protectionism that permeates our political, economic, and social interactions sixteen years later.

The student’s action research yielded quotes from their interviewees like:

“I hyperventilate whenever I see an Arab person on an airplane. I know he’s probably not a bad person, but I can’t stop it even if I wanted to.”

When asked to predict future foreign policy, some students responded with statements about xenophobia:

“After hearing these responses, I think the United States will continue to limit the amount of foreigners in our country”

or

“I think the foreign policy will become air tight, shutting out nearly all foreigners. However this causes problems because not all foreign people are terrorists. In fact many are people trying to escape the horrors they face in their country be coming to the United States.”

Many students commented on how the nation was united after the attacks, stating the common statement:

“ Our country came together after and made us stronger.”

After discussing their interviews, I began to lay down the facts of that day. I showed the students video of Diane Sawyer and Peter Jennings. I played them songs by Alan Jackson, Toby Keith and Bruce Springsteen. Many students acknowledged that they had not seen the footage of September 11, 2001, before.

By the end of today, I began to wonder if students across our nation — our post-911 generation — are learning about September 11, 2001? Are we collectively forgetting? Are we failing a generation?

But then I drive home. My phone notifies me that I have a Remind App notification — my youngest daughter’s fourth-grade teacher informs the parents that the class learned about 9/11/2001 and made Patriot paper chains. The message is complete with a picture of adorable eight and nine-year-olds holding their paper chains. When I return home, my seventh grade daughter tells me that today was the first year a teacher discussed the events of September 11, 2001. Both of my daughters give me their versions of the classroom discussions.

I am hopeful that maybe we are ready to face our history. Maybe enough time has passed to begin to place the anniversary of September 11, 2001, into our social studies curriculums. I shudder to think about what my grandparents would think about my students not being taught about December 7, 1941. Both my grandfather’s and grandfather-in-laws’ sacrificed for our country and became known as the greatest generation. Furthermore, military service people and their families have been sacrificing for our country since September 11, 2001. Any Social Studies teacher that ignores this anniversary is doing a disservice to those military families, to the people who died on that September day, and to our post-911 generation.

Our students need the details. They need to learn the stories. They must never forget.

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

I can’t even get my tomatoes to line up straight…


My window.  My tomatoes.

10 Years. 10 Goals.

How am I going to be ready for September 7, 2017? Every new school year gets me nervous. I always worry that the upcoming year will be the year my luck runs out. Because, seriously, I have been a lucky teacher. But what if this year I just suck? What if everyone (students, colleagues, parents, administrators) acknowledge that I don’t know what the hell I am doing? This fear both paralyzes and motivates. Simultaneous paralyzing motivation defines back to school jitters. To reduce my anxiety, I need a game plan, a mission, goals.


Besides being my niece’s 27th birthday, September 7, 2017, is the day that my tenth year of teaching begins. If you have followed my writing (thank you my three faithful followers), you might be scratching your heads as to the number ten. I am constantly going on about how I have been teaching for 23 years. I am a veteran teacher. Blah, blah, blah. What does professing my experience really matter to anyone else? It doesn’t offer any insight into my state of mind, nor does it enlighten anyone as to my teaching philosophy.

No, from now on, instead of stating how long I have been teaching, I am going to count down to retirement. Not because I want to retire. Not because I look forward to stress-free Sundays and stress-free months of August (the Sunday of the summer month). No, I am going to count down to retirement to remind myself that time is short and I better do a great job of “seeing” my students, imparting some words of wisdom, and teaching students significant historical lessons. I am a short timer and I need to be my best self.

Although my life and my garden vegetables are often unruly, I am going to attempt to outline my goals for my last ten years. Even though it might take all of the time I have left to achieve my goals, the following is my ten-year to-do list:

1.To “learn” my students.

I will have approximately 1,200 students enter room 811 in the next ten years. I want to help them be successful and overcome any challenges they face. Socrates said: “Know thyself.” I must know my students. I must see them, listen to them and meet them where they are. In the same manner that I need to accept my daughters for who they are, I must greet my students with kindness and respect. I need to value their experiences.

2. To teach and embrace different classes.

One of the reasons that I changed districts, was to have the opportunity to teach different classes. If I had stayed at my first teaching position, I most likely would have taught eighth grade United States History for thirty-four years. After only eight years, it already felt stale. At my current district, I have been fortunate to teach many topics, usually in elective classes. In my last ten years of teaching, I will embrace opportunities to teach diverse students and take on the challenge of teaching new classes. I will not allow myself stagnation and comfort.

3. To be more of a student myself.

I have been fortunate to teach education courses at the college level. However, the commitment to teaching one night a week has left no time for me to pursue taking courses. Unfortunately, enrollment in the college education programs has decreased significantly, leaving me unemployed as an adjunct. If that trend continues, I will look for courses that engage me as a learner.

4. To continue to collaborate, often.

I work with amazing, creative people. Through past collaboration, I have been allowed a window into their classrooms. Although I will continue to reach out to my allies, I will also attempt to bravely connect with colleagues that I have yet to connect. I need to trust to collaborate, but I trust a teacher more once we have worked together successfully. It is a sort of Catch-22. I will look for avenues of connection with the professionals in my district. I will remind myself that my students always benefit from my efforts at co-teaching.

5. To open my mind to new things.

I cannot predict all of the new things that will enter my classroom. I am sure technology will change. I am confident that students’ needs and demographics will shift. I can assure myself that district administration will push new initiatives. Regardless, I must open my mind and challenge myself to examine the benefits of such changes.

6. To see the other side of the other side of the teacher’s desk (ie. administration).

I would not make an effective administrator. I can inspire adolescents, but I am often befuddled by adults. Students are simply more honest and raw. Adult relationships take more time to establish rapport and trust. However, I want to understand administrators’ roles, challenges, and victories. A dear friend of mine declared how much she enjoyed interning as an administrator this summer. Her insight into the world of administration will inform her teaching. I seek to be better educated.

7. To connect with families.

In the past, I have connected with families formally through email, monthly letters, and at the obligatory open house night (which I hate). I have avoided difficult conversations, but I have gained great insight from the hour long phone calls. I need to be better. Even though I teach high school, parents of students at that level deserve (and probably crave) communication. I pledge to communicate more meaningfully with the parents of my students.

8. To attend more school events.

I am a mom of two competitive swimmers, with busy evening schedules. I try (and fail) to juggle motherhood and teacher-hood (it is my new word). Every time a doe-eyed student asks me if I will attend their game and wear their jersey to school, I cringe. I want to attend their games. I want to know my students outside of the classroom. I am honored to be asked. I am also conflicted. After 3:30 pm, any teaching obligations collide with my parental duties. Last school year I was able to attend three students’ special games. My goal is to increase that frequency, but also to allow myself a balance. My own children deserve my time as well.

9. To teach fiercely about historical connections to current events.

The 2016–2017 school year knocked me out. I was unprepared for how the frequency and intensity of current events would impact my teaching of Global History. By the end of the 2016–2017 school year, however, I was proud of the journey traveled with my students. We had some very difficult discussions on race, gender, equity, religion, and freedoms. I did not cover all of my content. When the New York State Global Regents Exam was passed out on June 15, 2017, I held my breath, hoping that the content I omitted was forgotten on the assessment — it was. I got lucky, again. In my last ten years, I will continue to draw connections to current events. It is my responsibility to give my students a safe place to explore opposing views and more importantly, to connect historic legacies to modern topics.

10. To ditch the stress of the New York State Regents and the AP Exam.

I am going to give myself permission to acknowledge that after a certain point in the school year, I have given all that I can give. I have stayed late to run review sessions, I have made review videos, and I have tutored individual students. “I have done all I can.” That phrase must be my new motto in the Spring. The tests are only snapshots of what my students have learned. The teacher evaluation process is ridiculous. The value-added model is outdated. The test and punish structure needs to end. Entering summer as an empty vessel is not productive. Raising my blood pressure and cortisol levels is not healthy. This will be my most difficult challenge because it is really an internal fight. This struggle returns me to the beginning of this post — my fear of being an incompetent teacher. I fear my own failure because it never feels like mine alone. I always fear that I did not reach a student when they needed a teacher most. I will no longer believe the lie that it is all my responsibility.

2017–2018 begins my tenth year of teaching. Wish me luck.

Tonight I Saw America.

“How do you pronounce this name?”

Colleagues huddle over white sheets, names neatly typed, organized in order of appearance. We, the teachers, wearing our “better” clothes, with makeup freshly applied, smile. We are happy tonight as we celebrate both the foreign and the familiar names. These names belong to students who have excelled in subjects like Business, Science, History, Foreign Language, English, Geometry, and Algebra — the subjects in which we attempt to breathe life into every academic day. These names represent our collective efforts and fulfill our aspirations we hold every September — that our students will learn, grow, and flourish.

The audience is filled with parents who proudly rushed home from work, prepared dinner, and helped sons with their ties and daughters with their outfits. One son on the stage was born in Nepal, and now awaits his certificate of excellence in his freshly pressed suit. As I gaze out at the audience I see smiling faces of parents supporting their children. Some are holding flowers. Many families include parents, siblings, and grandparents. The applause is constant and sincere.

On the stage are many white kids born and raised in suburbia who have utilized the available resources to the best of their abilities. Many of these white suburban students have overcome obstacles and have benefitted from a standardized, stable system. Many of these white kid’s names include Italian, German, and Irish surnames — descendants from the immigrants who came to Syracuse to work in the salt works and dig the Erie Canal. I see black kids, some of whom transferred from local city schools, one of which will be graduating in three years — one year short of the norm. She will attend Spelman College. I see brown kids, some wearing hijabs and one donning Sikh headwear. Many of their parents are immigrants and have instilled in them a work ethic that strives for excellence. I see Latino students (often a mixture of white, brown, and black), with names like Gonzales, proudly receiving their awards. These Latino students are part of the fastest-growing population in the country. That stage contained every race and creed — the embodiment of the American dream.

I saw America tonight on a stage in an auditorium housed in a PUBLIC SCHOOL, which is located north of a city that is rusted and worn out but not defeated. It is a city, and a region, that has weathered economic blight and has suffered its children fleeing to other states for job opportunities. It is an area, however, that has remained committed to funding public education. As I look out on the diversity and the collective achievements of the crowd, I am so astonished and proud to be a public school teacher. I am so honored to see America at its best.

The July 22, 2017, March for Public Education is critical. Please consider following the March For Education Blog Publication, following on Twitter, liking the page on Facebook, participating in the march, and donating to the march. You can also buy a t-shirt to support public education by clicking here.

The Unequal United States — Which State is the best to teach in?

Divide and conquer.

This piece was originally published in the Bad Ass Teachers Association Blog.

In one of the Facebook groups that I follow, a member posed this question: “Just out of curiosity: what’s the best state to teach in, and why?” A flurry of comments came in — 347 comments were generated from that one question! I found the responses to be both enlightening and disturbing.

Some of the comments were humorous:

“A state of bliss.”

“A state of denial.”

“A state of sobriety.”

“A state of intoxication.”

Some comments looked outside of the United States:

“Finland” (This country was written many times.)

“International schools.”

“On-line.”

While a few teachers commented:

“No state.”

“None, get out of teaching.”

“Don’t go into any state of teaching.”

Most respondents answered very strongly concerning the state they taught in. The “best” states characteristics tended to be geographically north-eastern, union-supported, secure in teacher tenure rights and included average to above-average teacher pay, including pensions.

The top state responses: Massachusetts, New York (but not always NYC), New Jersey (but there was much discussion over Governor Christie), Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, and northern Virginia (not southern), Minnesota, and California.

The meh states included Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The characteristics of states to avoid included: hostile governors, anti-union sentiment, right-to-work laws, lacked teacher tenure rights, lacked pension benefits, and paid teachers unlivable wages. These “bad” states were listed as: Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Texas, Wisconsin, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico.

I was happy to see New York (my home state) cited favorably frequently among the comments. Although Governor Cuomo and the Board of Regents have caused havoc to the teacher evaluation process and continue to over-test our children, it was a bit encouraging to hear from NY teachers that they still believed in our public schools. I am sure all the New York teachers posting could easily point out huge issues in New York schools, but the negative comments are nothing close to what teachers from the “bad” states were saying.

Florida was touted as the worst of the worst.

Why is this stark inequality so significant? Because inequity is the fuel for the fire of corporate education reform. Inequity ignites the narrative of “those failing public schools” and the “need” for more choices. Inequity attracts residents and teachers to flock to certain “good” schools in certain “desirable” areas. Inequity promotes corporation’s profits recruits corporate charter school investment. Inequity increases segregation along both racial and socio-economic divides.

The “state” of public education is so disparate and the inequity in funding is so varied that we can no longer define “American Education.” Instead, each state’s education has its own meaning — creating savage inequalities in the United States.

So which schools has Betsy DeVos visited in her short tenure as the United States Secretary of Education?

  • Jefferson Middle School Academy, Washington, D.C. on February 10, 2017.
  • St. Andrew Catholic School, Orlando, Florida, on March 3, 2017 (accompanied by Trump).
  • Carderock Springs Elementary School, Bethesda, Maryland on March 23, 2017, where she read from Dr. Suess’ Oh The Places You Will Go.
  • Kimberly Hampton Primary School, Fort Bragg, North Carolina on April 3, 2017 — a school run by the Department of Defense.
  • Excel Academy Public Charter School, Washington, D.C., on April 5, 2017, (accompanied by the First Lady and the Queen of Jordan).
  • Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence (CARE) Elementary School, Miami Florida on April 6, 2017.
  • SLAM Charter School, Miami, Florida on April 6, 2017 (the school is supported by the rapper, Pitbull).
  • Royal Palm Elementary School, Miami, Florida on April 7, 2017 (this is a traditional public school).
  • Van Wert Elementary and Van Wert High School, Van Wert, Ohio on April 20, 2017 (accompanied by Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT).
  • Ashland Elementary School, Manassas, Virginia, on April 25, 2017 (student population is largely from military families).
  • North Park Elementary School, Los Angelos, California, on April 28, 2017 (after a teacher and her student were killed by a gunman).
  • Cornerstone Christian School, Washington, D.C., on May 4, 2017 (as the name suggests, this school is Christian school).
  • Center City Charter School, Washington, D.C., on May 5, 2017 (first Catholic-to-charter school conversion).
  • Granite Technical Institute, Salt Lake City, Utah on May 9, 2017.

Source: Education Week: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2017/04/weingarten_devos_van_wert_hold.html

Overwhelmingly Betsy DeVos has visited schools that fit her perspective of “good” schools. These schools tend to be located in regions of the United States where funding for public education is abysmal and where school vouchers, educational scholarships, and white flight from public schools is typical. And, with the exception of a few schools listed above, most of these schools are located in states where professionals are urging their fellow teachers to avoid.

In war, a great strategy is divide and conquer. Public schools in the United States are already horribly divided — divided by curriculum, funding, facilities, teacher preparation, race, and socio-economic factors. The public’s opinion of schools is at all time low. Make no mistake, the war on public education is raging. Betsy DeVos and the forces of privatization and corporatization are closing in. Their victory would be a tremendous loss for the children of the United States.

It is time for battle. It is time for public school advocates to lead. It is time for teachers to find their voices, collectively. How does the resistance begin? The first step comes in sensible shoes during the upcoming March For Public Education in our nation’s capital on July 22, 2017, or in sister-city marches across the country.

The July 22, 2017, March for Public Education is critical. Please consider clicking the heart ❤️ icon above, following the March For Education Blog Publication, following on Twitter, liking the page on Facebook, participating in the march, and donating to the march. You can also buy a t-shirt to support public education by clicking here.