Friday, June 29, 2012

Are You Sure You Want to Do This?

(bit late to the party, sorry... been rather preocupado, although according to Dave Cox, I'm not allowed to complain unless I'm endeavoring to walk to Argentina, which I'm not, so I'll get on with it.)

Dear New Teacher:

Are you sure about this? I mean, I feel it's only fair to warn you. Older people in your life, parents, etc, have probably filled your head with silly notions about how teaching is a good job. It's rapidly becoming not that great a job.

Pension-wise, New York just went to Tier Six. SIX. I won't go into details, but Tier Six is pretty shitty. Granted, ten years from now, they will probably be on Tier Eight, and you will be feeling all smug to be on Tier Six. Tier Eight is going to be, like, a standard-issue leather jacket and spiky shoulder pads and lessons on shooting an automatic weapon out the back of a moving pickup truck.

Otherwise intelligent, nice people will assume you had to go into teaching because you are such a dimwit, you can't do anything else, or perhaps just misguided about what is important in life, namely having expensive stuff. You will hear some variation on the "If you are so smart, why are you a teacher?" question at least once every few months. From people it would be impolitic to offend with a smartass response, like your boyfriend's dad. Have an answer ready for that, one that is both diplomatic and speaks your truth.

You probably suspect the children will love you. They will not love you. Once you get decent at this, they will grudgingly respect you. That will take at least three years.

You will pour your every ounce of intellect and ability into teaching the Algebra 2 class of your life, and then the outside testing agency paid to test your kids and rate you based on their performance will write a lazy, error-ridden, confusingly-worded exam that only reflects about 75% of the standards they told you to teach. Some kids you really like, who you know learned a whole bunch in your class, will fail it. You will beat yourself up for the rest of the summer.

Your first year will be 50% drudgery, 45% heartache, and 5% awesomeness. After seven years I've gotten that down to about 40:40:20.

Okay, if you're still sure, understanding all that... you probably have a chance. And, given all that, this is the best job in the world. Getting someone else to understand something is HARD. But it's an intellectual puzzle that's worth building a career on.

I'm rooting for you.

But maybe open a 401k.

Update 30 Jun: Okay, to counteract the negativity above (even though all of it is totally true, and newbs need to hear it), here is a

List of Things That Are Awesome about Teaching that Politicians Probably Can't Screw Up:

1. You get to hang out with young people all day. Who are funny, idealistic, emotional, open-minded, and overall, a trip.

2. You get to learn all the new slang before other adults.

3. Office supplies.

4. You can propagandize for your favorite mathematicians TEAM LEIBNIZ!

5. You have the power to make a place where people have to spend 45 minutes a day into a joyful place of learning and safe risk-taking.

6. You get to play a part in what kind of people kids will turn into, hence what kind of world we live in.

7. Continuing to learn new things is a job requirement.

8. You will get to work with colleagues who are some of the kindest, smartest, most genuine people you have ever met.

9. That moment you find the key to that part of a person's brain that unlocks the thing you want her to understand.

10. That moment a class asks its own question and runs with it.

In a nutshell: you get to share the best of civilization with new humans. That will be enough to sustain you through a whole lot.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Hi My Name is Kate and I'm an Office Supplies Hoarder

The packing is reaching a fever pitch, as classes have ended so there are only two more weeks of work at my current school, and I will be out of my apartment soon. My apartment is a horrible place to spend time right now. Half the furniture is gone, there are piles of stuff in various states of disorganization everywhere, there are boxes. The feng shui is terrible in here. I am sitting on the floor of my empty, dirty back porch writing this so I could escape from the chaos for a minute. There are rogue items with no home yet whose fate is uncertain. There are things I have never used that I can't bear to part with because they evoke some image of myself that I have yet to realize. There is the feeling that if this were the Game of Life I am moving five spaces back. It's terrifying. But also pretty liberating. It's just stuff.

Delta will let me check ten items, one of them will be a bicycle (already re-packaged in a box, check), so I get nine bags for everything I want/need. You might think that sounds like plenty of room. You would be wrong. Just try packing one even very large suitcase and see how little goes in it when compared to all the items in your dwelling. So the culling, it is ruthless. I am trying to dedicate just one bag for school-related items. These are things I'm planning to put in it, so far, until the next round of culling:

 - Books: Key Press Discovering Geometry, CME Algebra 2, CME Geometry
 - The better posters from my classroom, to make the new one feel more like home
 - A folder of keepsakes : thank you cards, senior portraits, etc
 - Approximately three dozen freezer bags containing sets of index cards, blocks, etc made specially for different lessons.
 - A bag of counting chips in four different colors
 - A small set of connect-to-class hubs and cables for the Nspire
 - Three calculators with assorted accessories
 - An economy pack of AAA batteries
 - A full, new set of: sharpie markers, sharpie pens, and mechanical pencils
 - Three packs of these divider pocket things
 - A good three-hole punch and stapler (a Swingline, natch. Not red.)
 - As many packs of index cards as will fit in the remaining space. Blank, lined, white, colored, grid.

See how that list devolves from "Sure, those things would be very hard to replace. Totally reasonable." to "Don't they have office supply stores in Argentina?" and yet I will feel unready to plan a lesson without index cards and Sharpies! They are like my teacher safety blanket. I needs them. Don't judge.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Hey hey Ho Ho this aphorism has got to go

I would like to nominate for "teaching aphorism most in need of jettison" right up there with "don't smile until Christmas" :

"Never write anything on the board that is not true"

I heard it first when i was in my masters program (I think) and i heard it most recently today out of a student teacher. It makes me want to hurl. Seriously this strikes me as something some know-nothing said one time that was subsequently repeated by know-littles who want to sound like they know what they are talking about.

I suppose I get why you'd want to adopt this as a guideline when you are super-green and can't manage the most basic of lessons but make no mistake, this is not how learning works.

If you are doing it right your kids will be making conjectures. Conjectures are guesses. Guesses are often wrong. Write them on the board. Be noncommittal as to your agreement with the conjectures. Give the children the air and light to disagree with the conjectures and argue with them. THAT'S MATH. BEING RIGHT ALL THE TIME IS NOT MATH. I CAN'T BELIEVE I HAVE TO SAY THIS.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


I'd like to elaborate on a few things that became too long for a comment on Dans post questioning the call for policy makers to take standardized tests.

On the rationale behind it: I get that people don't understand what it would accomplish. Direct action often isn't meant to accomplish anything for its own sake. Gandhi didnt just want everyone to get some free salt (Don't worry I am not comparing this situation to oppression by the British Empire. It's just an example.) Rather it's symbolic and intended to draw attention to something larger. The inappropriate use of standardized tests to punish and shame teachers and schools is a public policy crisis. Evaluating politicians on their performance on a math or literacy test would be equally inappropriate. That's the point.

On whether activism is appropriate here: Our elected and appointed decision makers have been unresponsive to professional educators, historians, and statisticians voicing our concerns calmly and politely since NCLB started failing to improve schools ten+ years ago. Most, I'd say nearly all, educators have responded by putting their heads down and doing their best despite constraints imposed by testing, and waiting for the insanity to pass. We are a practical lot, we tend to be rule-followers and respectful of authority, and are motivated by what's best for the kids in front of us right now. However for some people with more money than morals, the motive is not to help schools improve but to end public education. If you believe a sound education is a human right, this has got to piss you off. If you are like me, you try to think of ways you can do something about it, and you try to teach your kids that they have responsibilities if they want to live in a functioning democracy.

On what I hope this could accomplish if enough people pay attention: I don't think all of our politicians and policy makers are dumb or evil or need to be publicly humiliated. But I do want to try, with what limited reach I have, and suggest to the ones who can be swayed that bad-test-based accountability-mania is wrong and destructive and there is a better way, if what we really want is effective public schools and a citizenry with a sound basic education. So if any of you are listening: take a test and see how you do, and reflect on what that number says about you. Reflect on what influences that number for a variety of kids with varieties of challenges in their lives. Reflect on whether it makes sense to judge and compare schools and teachers based on that number. Reflect on how kids and teachers are spending their time in school if they are motivated by fear to maximize that number, and whether you think that is a healthy use of their time. Ask yourself if punishment is an appropriate response. And then start listening and talking to people who know how to do this better.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Diane Ravitch Gets on the Rabblerousing Train

In December I made a plea for everyone to pester Gov Cuomo about this horrible, very bad, no good algebra 2 and trigonometry exam we (ritualistic coming-of-age tribal style) subject our young people to. I'm currently preparing the cherubs to pass it (not to be confused with "teaching them mathematics") so my populist panties have extra knots in them this month. I was delighted to see Diane Ravitch start beating the drum. Thanks Ben for the tip.

Criticism + Ennui

I have been going through my far-flung poorly-organized digital files and attempting to bring some order to the chaos (it's basically hopeless but was prompted by Project "scan all the paper so you don't have to move it to Argentina.") And for SOME reason I saved a pdf of a Mathematics Teacher article based on the problem below. Evidently I thought it was worth saving in July of 2008. Now I don't know which it makes me want to do more: scream, hide, or sigh really loud. It makes me sad for my profession. We are never going to figure this out. He wants to keep his lines of sight perpendicular? Excuse me? What? We can't do any better than that?