Summer Slide

My wife and I made the mistake of grabbing lunch at a Chick-fil-a around lunch time last week.  I had done this before on several occasions, and while always quite busy, it had not warranted not returning.

As we walked in, we were overwhelmed by the chaos of a restaurant full of kids and parents.  I had forgotten how crowded and loud Chick-Fil-A could be when school is out for the summer.  Inside, we were soon surrounded by hungry children and their parents.  SUV after SUV seemed to be pulling up and dumping out children dressed in clothes from camps, sports, activities, etc.

In sitting amongst this chaos, we noticed a trend in the conversations.  The kids were talking about the camps or activities they had just attended or had scheduled later.  Their parents were discussing tutoring and various lessons their children were taking.   It was overwhelming seeing and hearing the diverse range of activities available to kids during the summer. It seemed like these families were a microcosm of the over planned, over stressed life that many adults lead.

And then I considered the kids who went to my wife’s school and how different their summer would be. The feelings must have shown on my face, as my wife asked what was wrong.  My answer brought a knowing acknowledgement and tacit understanding for the sadness on my face.  The kids in my wife’s old school would have a very different summer.

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A Farewell to Teaching

Near the end of his WWI classic, A Farewell to Arms, Hemmingway wrote :

“The world breaks everyone, and some are stronger at the broken parts.”

Even in high school, I loved the sentiment.  Sure, the quote is often applied in the “what doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger” category.  Yet, my appreciation for the quote fed off the word “some.”  Not everyone, not all, not most.  Only “some” become stronger at the broken parts.

In retrospect, it was a wise recognition in my youth, having no depth of experience to justify this belief.  Years later, I have found that many of my greatest defeats and failures have served as catalysts for transformation.  The pain and suffering I felt provided the foundation of many of my greatest strengths today.  I am better and stronger having been broken down.

Yet, I will admit that there are parts that are not stronger.  Parts that may in fact still be broken. These are parts that may never heal and may never function as they once did.  They still hurt today.   Only time will tell if I can ever recover.

“. . .some are stronger at the broken parts.”

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Why There’s A Contract

One of the biggest complaints from education reformers and politicians is that contracts negotiated by teachers’ unions are full of perks and benefits that prevent quick transformation of schools.  One report suggests that redistributing the cost of these “perks” to other programs and initiatives would be more useful.  The report goes on to attack teacher retirement programs, professional development, and salary structure based on length of experience among other factors.

Yet, as they lament the terms of the contracts, the question never revolves back to the fact that the contract is negotiated.  It never discusses that two parties are involved and the unions are just one part.  No blame goes towards the administrators or politicians in signing such a “bad” deal.  Maybe, it is because administration is the target audience for this type of report. Perhaps that is why it doesn’t seem even handed.  Maybe, it is not meant to be.

If it was, it may have addressed the fact that one of the most common weapons that teachers’ unions use in negotiations is “working to contract.”  What does this mean?  Simply, the contract hours that teachers are required to work, is all that they work.  In my wife’s first school, it meant that the teachers all walked into the building at 8:15 and out of the building at 4:00.  It means no before or after school staff meetings.  No committees.  No tutoring.  No parent-teacher conferences. No voluntary after school clubs. If it can’t be done during contract hours, it wasn’t done. Athletics and other school activities continued on site, but only if the teachers received a stipend to perform that work.

This does not mean that the teachers didn’t work after school.  Lessons needed to be planned; grading still needed to be done; parents needed to be contacted, but all off site, outside the other requirements imposed on teachers, requirements that reformers don’t or won’t acknowledge. The same reformers would probably decry this outcome.  How dare these selfish teachers work only the 7 hours that we give them credit for anyway?

Now ask yourself, what would happen if these “perks” were not in the contract? Beyond that, think about if the contract failed to address simple requirements like a break period for lunch or planning time during the school day.  While the reformers harp on these mandatory elements in the teachers’ contract, they never explore what would happen if these elements weren’t there.  They never address why a union would fight for dedicated professional development time or increased sick leave.  They never speak to what would happen if simple expectations like a 20 minute lunch break or 30 minutes of plan time were not included in the contract.  Maybe they just don’t know.  Maybe, they don’t want to know.

In my wife’s current school, there is no requirement for teachers to get a 20 minute lunch break. So guess what happens?  My wife doesn’t have time to eat lunch.  Meetings or lunch duty interfere with that most days.  We have had to adjust what she takes for lunch. No leftovers, there is no time to heat it up. Nothing requiring utensil or more than one hand, because you always need a free hand during lunch duty.  Going to the bathroom, not an option during lunch, the kids need your full attention, save the trip for your plan time.

Did I mention that there is no requirement for a planning period each day either?  So sometimes she gets a planning period, and sometimes not.  Actually, make that most times not, as frequently, meetings are scheduled during that time.  Not once or twice a month, more like 3-5 times a week.  So, no time to plan lessons, or make copies.  No time during the day to call a parent or document a student’s progress. Again, this assumes that she even gets a planning period on that day in the first place.

In the past six weeks, my wife and her colleagues have had less than 5 planning periods.  In the last 2 weeks, planning periods have been canceled. Oh, in that same time period, they haven’t had a lunch break either.  That means from when the kids come in at 8:30 to 3:35 when they leave for the day, she has no break.   Why? To give you the short answer, because the contract doesn’t require it.

So when reports come out complaining about mandatory elements in teacher contracts, please stop and consider why.  Please think about what happens if these “mandatory” elements are not included.  Please consider that there are two sides to this equation and that the contracts are negotiated, not dictated.

Because the administrators that are the target audience for these report know the truth. They know the “perks” in the contracts are far outweighed by the dedication that the majority of teachers bring. They know that schools cannot run if teachers don’t put in the extra effort. They know that the “bad” teachers that are highlighted in these reports are the exception not the rule.  They realize that the worst thing that could happen is teachers “only” working to contract.

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Bringing Out the Me in Team

Test scores are the new epicenter for the war over education.  On one side are politicians and reformers advocating test scores to evaluate teachers.  On the other side are teachers and unions arguing for more comprehensive evaluations rather than relying on scores alone.  In a society that values results, reformers are gaining the upper hand.  In report after report, districts and states have adopted evaluations primarily based on student achievement on end of grade tests. The results, the reformers argue, will retain the best teachers while removing the bad ones. It is a system that has worked in the private sector and could revolutionize our schools.

Despite the mountain of evidence against using test scores in this way (a nice summary here), I have to admit, there seems to be a bit of logic to the argument.  A talented teacher like my wife would be rewarded in a system like this, while lesser teachers would soon be removed.  In theory, it seems reasonable. . . until I saw it in action.

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240 Minutes

Fourth grade, four hours.  240 Minutes.  Four hours of testing per day for fourth graders last week on the end of grade testing.  Not easy, but doable, right?  Actually, four straight hours of testing (9:30-1:30).  Don’t worry, they get up to 3 three minute breaks during that time period.  Well, a break being a chance to stand up and move around a bit.  No bathroom break.  No snack.  No drink of water.  240 Minutes.

In solidarity with my wife’s class, I tried to follow the same ethic at my job.  I got to my desk and then tried to sit for 240 straight minutes, allowing myself 3 three minute breaks periodically (every hour or so) during that time.  No water. No snacks.  No other stimulation.

I lasted just over an hour and even that was painful.  But, after my second 3 minute break in 70 minutes, I decided that I had had enough. I checked my email, had some water, and ate a snack.  All things the 9 and 10 year olds in my wife’s class can’t do during their test.  Did I mention they were taking a grueling standardized test that last up to 4 hours?  Also, they’re in 4TH GRADE. On the other hand, I was working on something that had only a minimal impact on my future or on my boss’s ability to keep his job (unlike the state tests for students and teachers alike).

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Bringing a ruler to a knife fight.

I wish this was a clever analogy that referred to testing or lesson plans or anything else school related.  Unfortunately,  this is about school safety.

Last week, my wife’s week culminated with a gun being brought to school.  It was not the first time that a gun had been brought to school.  In fact, the same 5th grade student brought a gun previously, but with a group of accomplices was able to pass the gun, keeping it from detection.  On Friday of last week, someone heard about the gun and assembled the group and confiscated the gun.

How did my wife hear about it?  When a child in her classroom yelled out when the entered, “__________, has a gun.”  My wife locked her class door and proceeded to try and get control of the classroom.  Not surprisingly, the class didn’t have a good day.

This has been built on consistent threats from students in her class.  It goes beyond just the usual tantrums.  She has had children scream in her face with no repercussions.  She has been caught in a middle of a fight, with no ability to get the child to listen to reason.  Just last week, a kid threatened to kill her.  Nothing happened to him.

So he brought a knife to elementary school today.  Show and tell I’m sure.

Luckily, he talked about it on the bus and it was intercepted before he got into the school. Not that the administration told my wife.  She heard about it from a counselor and then the child’s sister. Why would an administrator talk to her about it?

In a meeting last week, it was made clear that once a child is sent to the office, the punishment is squarely in the administrators’ hand.  They won’t bother to tell the teacher what happened.  They won’t tell them if their child was in a fight on the bus, or the cafeteria or art.  Or, evidently, if they had a knife.

Following that start to her day, one of her students threw a marker at her and stormed out of the room.  This a child who wouldn’t normally do this (as my wife said), but lost her cool and reacted to an argument.  The child apologized and was back in the class by the end of the day.

Later, a second child decided to be silly in the hall, and, wearing her hoodie backwards, put the hood over her head so she couldn’t see (she could).  She then proceeded to try and “guess” who people were by touch despite my wife’s protest.  No less than 10 times, she told her to stop.  Finally, the child stopped. . . .AFTER she groped my wife’s breast.

My wife called down to the office, but no one was available to come get this child.  So she walked her entire class down to the office to drop this child off.  Assaulted twice in one day.  I expect both kids to be in class tomorrow.


Well, this is a district that rewards schools for lowering their suspension rate.  My wife’s principal is constantly complaining about how other schools get awards for lowering their suspension rate.  Her school is languishing.

So she responds.

Or more accurately, doesn’t respond.  Very few suspensions.  Kids ending up back in the classroom a mere hour later.  No consequences.

Which signals to the kids that they can do what they want.

That’s why they assault teachers.  That’s why they throw things at them. That’s why they threaten them.  This is why no substitutes will come back to the school unless no other school will accept them. That’s why most kids are fearful.  That’s why most teachers are fearful.

That’s why the kids in my wife’s classroom ask her if she is ok just as often as she asks them.  They are all just trying to survive.

I wish my wife’s classroom was the exception, but it appears that every teacher is dealing with this.  That’s why the office doesn’t respond. Too many problem children.  That or the adminstrators are in district meeting watching other schools get awards that they so badly want.

Maybe they can win an award.  If the kid with the knife only gets 5 days instead of the mandated 365 for bringing a weapon.  Maybe if the child that assaulted my wife and has been a constant nuisance is back in the classroom with no punishment.  Maybe then they can get that award.

I just hope that a funeral is not the price that needs to be paid for it.

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Class size, who cares?

Do you care what a stranger thinks?  How about a friend?

Most people would say that they care more about a friend’s opinion versus a stranger’s, although many would say both.  I imagine Bill Gates is in the former camp.  As he laments the state of education in his recent op-ed and advocates for larger class sizes with better teachers, I imagine that he doesn’t care that I think he is foolish and wrong.  Loud wrong.

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