Friday, January 30, 2009

How Teachers Get Paid....

An extraordinary thing happened to me yesterday.  At around eleven o'clock in the morning the phone rang and on the other end was a student that had been in my fifth grade classroom in the late 1950s....fifty years ago.  Extraordinary.  He has phoned a few times over the years and I was sure he had forgotten me by this time.

Teachers have a strange job.  As a teacher you work with students, sometimes struggle to get them to understand something but at other times you just assist them with the daily assignments never realizing that at that precise moment you as the teacher are making a difference in that life.  Yes, mothers and dads are terribly important and so are other members of the family.  But a teacher is outside that circle and quite often doesn't even know when she/he has touched some student.

But there is another characteristic of teaching is that your students leave--most never come back to say "hi".  You get Charles to understand how to do algebra in which you spent hours thinking of other ways to explain it to him and after that year, he leaves.  It doesn't hurt but there is an ache at times.  Teachers have a strong feeling for their students.  They want them to be successful, to be true  to themselves.  So when they leave a piece of you leaves as well. But here is an important point, I believe.  While we have this strong desire to help our students we also don't want them depending upon us.  We want them to learn.  So when they do leave at the end of the school year, you wish them well but are still sad to see them go.

So a phone call yesterday was extraordinary to me--only word I can think of.  Bobby (not real names) said he still remembers a extra assignment that I gave him that he didn't finish.  Something about the Merrimack and the Monitor.  I don't remember.  Did I give extra assignments to good students?  Apparently.  He also remembers me taking the class to the gym to play Dodge Ball.  That I remember.  It was a good game in which half the class was on one side of the gym and the other half the other side and you threw large soft balls trying to hit someone on the other side.  It was a good game to tire the kids out and it allowed for those that were not athletic to participate as well and feel successful.  I like things that kids can feel successful about and you'll hear me say this time after time--success breeds success.  Probably another blog on this theme sometime later.

Bobby (Bob?) also remembers a new kid coming into the classroom.  Being in the lower end of the middle class area we had a lot of kids that would join the class after the school year had started and also some of the children would leave.  I quickly learned not to erase their names in my ever important grade book as some of them would also come back.  Life for the family wasn't any better wherever they went and so they would come back to "grandma's place."  

Jack, the new student, was bright but because he joined the class after the school year had started I was concerned about how he would make friends.  My task was to formulate a method so that would take place.  So we did an old parlor trick I had learned--mental thinking.  After getting Jack to agree, I talked to the class and explained that because Jack and I had bumped heads on the playground, we found out we could "read" each other's thoughts, not on everything but on simple things.  Of course the class was dubious--fifth graders are very wary of something like this.  So I said that Jack and I would demonstrate--it really depended upon radio waves not interfering.  I was leading the class on....  I finally sent Jack and another student outside so they couldn't hear our discussion in the classroom.  I then asked the class to decide on a city that I would think of and that Jack would "discover."  I don't remember which city they picked--we'll say Denver for this illustration.  We brought Jack and the classmate back into the room.  Asking the classmate, could you hear anything that we had said?  "No, not a thing."  Okay then.  Jack, you stand there with your back to me and I will stand here with my back to you so we can't give any visual signals.  Ready?

Is it Seattle?  Nope, came the reply.  Is it Portland?  No.  Is it Chicago?  No, not that one.  Is it New York?  No, not New York.  Is it Denver?  Long pause and, "yes!, that's the one."  The class was in shock.  Disbelief.  We cheated they said.  So we did once again--different city of course.  And again, Jack was able to pick the city that the class had secretively selected.  The students were beside themselves.  I remember they put blind folds on both Jack and me thinking our eyes had something to do with it.  

We never told the class the key to this little game--the city after the city that had a two word name like New York, San Francisco, St. Louis, was the correct answer.  Jack never told anyone but he had lots of friends from that date on.  Bobby, my long ago student said it took him several years to figure out our stunt.  It was this type of activity that had intrigued him and made him look forward to coming to school.  Strange how we keep the kids attention between the learning activities.

I don't think Bobby will ever know what his phone call to me yesterday meant.  I walked around on cloud nine most of the day.  One of my student's had remembered and I had made a difference, however slight.  He remembered me after about fifty years.  This is how teachers are paid.  So if you have some time today and you know where one of your former teachers now lives, give a call and say, "I remember and thank you for all you did for me."  

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Nine Decision Points in Teaching....Ugh!

As I wrote earlier in this blog I would expound upon the nine decision points or categories of teaching and learning.  Very academic.  Sleep inducing for some.  And yet, a tool for analyzing what a teacher does.  Teachers use these nine points all the time but I doubt if they even realize it when they do it.  For some it's intuitive.  They just do it....and correctly.  Let's do a quick skim over and see what develops, okay?

We go from the boring to the sublime.  Let's start with the easy, that being the environment of learning.  Three categories.  They are 1) the individual, 2) small groups and 3) large groups.  There are no other possibilities when doing a teaching/learning act.  Let's take a quick analysis of each environment.
  1. Individual.  "I going to teach you the bassoon.  Sit up in your chair and hold it this way."  This is the classic student on one end of the log and the teacher on the other end.  We can go at my speed or if I'm a good teacher, the student's speed.  If I write a book and you read it, you are the student and I am the presenter, the teacher, the instructor.  One on one.  I can even give you instruction over the internet--one on one.  Very big log.
  2. Small groups.  There have been tons of sociological research on what constitutes the best small group, however, teachers are use to teaching two to five students in a reading group or a high school group of student doing a group civic report.  There is some research that girls (women) learn best in groups [more about this in a later blog].  For the purpose of this blog, the definition of a small group is where a student cannot "hide" from the teacher, i.e., hang back, be quiet, don't say anything, let the others do the talking.  that is a small group.
  3. Large Groups.  Much debate has gone under the bridge as to class size--how big is too big.  Parents want smaller classes to be sure that their child gets maximum instruction.  However, one university had a professor who taught Irish History to 200+ students.....and they flocked to his class because he was such an excellent instructor.  Boeing taught large classes to its employees with the opening line, "If you do not learn the following you will be given a pink slip and two weeks notice."  So there--that should get your attention.  I believe the debate on class size will go on for some time in the future.
The next three points are classified in just about every educational textbook as (drum roll)...Objectives.  I hear the collective groan from all the teachers reading this.  They are so tired of "objectives" and yet, they are the past masters of setting up objectives for their students.  One high school English teacher might say, "I need to get Charles to write more complex sentences in his short stories,"  or an intermediate grade teacher saying to a colleague that she needs to work on their long division.  All objectives.

Historically, there are three categories of objectives.  1) Cognitive Domain, 2) Affective Domain and the 3) Psycho-motor Domain.  Let's briefly examine them here.
  1. Cognitive Domain.  This domain is pure knowledge--from knowing your alphabet to understanding sarcasm.  The encyclopedia is chock full of information--cognition.  From the simple to the complex.  We teachers are really cool at teaching knowledge.  With one hand behind our back.  History of the world?  No problem.  Parts of an insect?  They will pass the test on Friday.  The big, no, BIG problem in the Cognitive Domain is deciding on WHICH knowledge is of most use.  What should we teach in our schools?  How much "stuff" do you know that is now totally useless that you learned in school.  Which brings us to the WASL and No Child Left Behind tests--is this the cognition that you want the students to learn?  You choice.  (more of this in a later blog)
  2. Affective Domain.  This deals with feelings and values.  Do you like Mathematics?  "Like" is in the affective domain.  I can teach a child to read.  That is cognition.  But if that same child after learning to read, would choose to read then watch television, that is the affective domain.  Perhaps I have taught a value.  I once took a specialized phycology class--dislike the instructor so much that even now I don't read about that type of learning--I know the material, I just don't like it.  We teachers teach a lot of the affective domain and sometimes we don't know it.
  3. Psycho-motor Domain.  Probably the least understood of the domains--but we're learning.  Anything that deals with brain/muscle connection is in this domain.  First grade teachers have to teach the students how to hold a pencil to write.  Left or right handed.  Turn the paper this way or that.  Move your arm this way.  All psycho-motor.  A high school chemistry teacher teaching first year students how to hold a petri dish to distribute the bacteria in a scientific manner.   Psycho-motor skills.  A high school band teacher getting a band to march in unison is a psycho-motor skill.  Shooting a three point basket?  Psycho-motor skills.
The last three categories that teachers decide on I call the teaching/learning domains.  Again, there are just three.  Write me if you can think of more--I'm open to suggestions.  They are 1) expository, 2) performance and 3) investigative.  Let's take a look at three very complex categories.
  1. Expository.  Anytime a teacher tells a class something about a subject or process, that is expository mode.  When asked a question and a student responds with words, both the question and answer are expository.  If you read a book or magazine article, that is expository mode.  Listening to "talk radio" is another example of expository mode.  We're not talking about whether the information is good or bad, correct or incorrect, if it is from a sender to a receiver, that message is in the expository mode.  We teachers are good at expository teaching.  "Please sit down and get your books out."  "Turn to the Development of Europe." "In carrying, you take this number from here to there." "Tell me, Jane, what is the correct spelling?"  All these examples are in the expository mode. With me so far?  Good. (I'm being expository!)
  2. Performance.  Anytime someone "does" something in a learning situation, they are in performance mode. A local high school did an amazing performance of Les Miserabes.  I heard some students in the halls afterwards saying things such as: "I was so scared standing on that stage!"  "I was surprised that my voice would even sing." "That was the greatest night of my life."  All expository statements about their performance.  Those students learned much about themselves (Affective domain) by doing the performance.  Collecting 25 different bugs for a high school biology class is performance although writing about it is expository.  There are many times that "doing" is mandated for obtaining the  expected learning.  Performance.
  3. Investigative.  I doubt if there is a child born that doesn't naturally take to investigative learning.  The two year old who looks at Mom and then knocks something off the coffee table....deliberately.   That two year old learns that Mom didn't like that, or that is one way to get Mom's attention, or I am the center of attention.  How about a youngster who has just learned to ride a two wheel bike and tries to turn too quickly and falls.  It may not have been intended as a learning situation, but learning has taken place the result of trial and error--investigative learning.  Have you ever cooked something and added a spice and decided afterwards not to do that again?  Investigative learning.
It is true that we merge these teaching/learning modes quite often as we do the same with the learning objectives.  But in the analysis of the teaching moment, you can see the 1) environment, 2) the objectives which the teacher is trying to reach and the 3) teaching/learning method in which to reach those objectives.  

Teachers make these decisions intuitively thousands of times per day.  Who does she give the answer to and who does she say, "go read that chapter again."  "Class, class, you're not getting it.  Follow me while I do this problem again on the blackboard."  All are decisions made on the fly.  Interesting enough, the philosophy of the teacher, the school or district may well dictate some of these decision.  But that is another blog at another time.

So don't forget to thank a teacher for all those decisions........ 

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Teacher Control--you gotta have it.

[I deleted the last post.  After repeatedly reading it I felt it was too much like the beginning of a lecture.  Too wordy.  I think I have a better idea and hope you will agree with me]

In a day or so I am going to write about the nine functions that a teacher does when teaching but before we review them, I want to talk about "control."  Perhaps one reason I like teachers is their presence.  They garner respect and of course they do--everyday they have to stand in front of a group of students, explain what is to be accomplished and learned and how to do effectively.  Beside being a chore, it is a gift.  

I've watched teachers get up in front of sixty fourth graders who were at their best in talking and wiggling and within minutes have them quiet and paying attention.  I am always in awe when they do this.  Some teachers do it with a quiet voice, others raise their voice and a few just stand there.  In all cases, a class comes to paying attention.  Every teacher has this control.

I once had a student teacher in a second grade in a somewhat remote country school.  The district was conservative in nature and maybe that is why folks lived here.  "Leave me along and I'll do it myself, thank you."  They were good folks who would help you if you needed help but would leave you alone if that was what you wanted.

The school was one of those post WWII brick buildings, one level with the primary grades down one end of the hall and the upper grades at the other end with the office in the middle.  The classes were disciplined with rows of desks in a straight line.  There was learning taking place.

An aside: one of the things that I noticed was if a student was having trouble with a problem they were apt to lean across the aisle and ask his/her neighbor how to do the problem instead of raising their hand and asking the teacher for help.  They did this far more then the city kids.  I suspect this was what Mom and Dad did when they had a problem--ask a neighbor for help and the behavior was being passed down as a value in their children.  Just an observation.

Back to my story.  A conservative and well run school.  My student teacher was assigned one of the two second grades.  Reading her file, she was a good student, had good grades and good comments from my colleagues whose classes she had taken.  She was a tall thin girl, perhaps 5'10" or 5'11" with long auburn hair.  I know she looked down at me.  She was easy to like from our first meeting and I had hopes of a successful student teaching experience for her.

Student teaching experiences mostly go like this:  first week observation, maybe help grade papers, second week, teach a small group, go around the room helping where necessary, third week start teaching a subject and then the following weeks add subjects until near the end of the twelve weeks the student teacher is teaching the whole class all day.  Sounds simple but it isn't.  In this case we were starting in January which means the children were already into group behaviors with their regular teacher.  You might say a rhythm had already be established.  So starting in January is a bit harder then starting in the fall.

Mary (no real names as usual) Smith, my student teacher did well with the initial small groups and the cooperating teacher and I were pleased.  However, when it came time for the whole class, the little ones just didn't pay attention.  There wasn't that control.  I talked to Mary and mentioned that she might want to raise her voice--she was quiet by nature.  Even raising her voice she was quiet and the kids continued not to pay attention.  I had a problem--what to do.

I tried other ideas to suggest to Mary but nothing seemed to work with the little kids.  When she was in front of the classroom their eyes were elsewhere along with their feet, hands and little bodies.  No control.  I was frustrated and I know Mary was as well.  

One afternoon after the children had gone home, the cooperating teacher, Mary and me talked about the problem  There were tears.  She wanted very much to be a teacher--she HAD to be a teacher.  The following week would be the fourth week and a decision had to be made.  If I pulled her from her assignment Mary would be able to get her tuition back and we could start over in the spring at another school.  As I said, it was crunch time for Mary. 

I went back the beginning of the next week and sat in the back of the room.  No difference.  Mary's quiet voice was just not getting through to the children.  I was feeling bad.

I have to admit I didn't want to go out to the school on Wednesday.  Any time I pulled a student from a teaching assignment it was like I had failed.  I was totally frustrated in not being able to solve the problem in getting Mary to learn how to control a classroom.  My suggestions had all failed.  Trust me, I am a grump in these situations.  And I was at the height of my grumpiness.

I pulled into the school parking lot parking at the far end so as not to take spaces for the parents who come to help in the school.  I walked into the office and told them I'd be in the second grade room although I was mentally preparing what I might say to Mary about breaking off her assignment.  I would have to council her on how she might approach the class  to announce that Friday would be her last day and......   What else could I say to her?  And how could I help the cooperating teacher for something like this upsets the children and she will have to re-establish control--more work for her.  It was not a good situation.  And I would have to face tears and I do not handle tears well.  

I opened the door and quickly went to the back of the room.  Mary was in front of the class--and the class was paying attention.  Paying attention? Paying attention!  I looked over at the cooperating teacher who was leaning against a window sill on the far side and she smiled at me.  SMILED!  What the hell was going on?  I watch Mary go through the lesson, helping the children and they hung on every word.  They were in adoration of Mary.  It was amazing and I was totally baffled.  But "pleased" was also a word I would use.  Ecstatic would be another word I would encompass.  

I remember quietly walking over to the cooperating teacher by the window.  "Okay, what's up?"  She smiled one of those cat got the canary smiles and looked out into the parking lot, not saying a word to me.  At that moment Mary and she were teachers and they weren't going to give me a break here.  I looked again at the parking lot and down at the far end where I had told my student teachers to park was a Harley Davidson black and chrome motorcycle--a fairly large one.  Impressive as only a Harley can be.  

I finally got the whole story from several teachers including my cooperating teacher.  Mary was late (I tell all my student teachers to be the first one in the room) getting to the school arriving after the buses had shown up.  This bike comes in with a rider all in black leather, black helmet, the works.  It goes slowly up and down the parking lot with just about every student in the school watching.  This was bike country.  And then at the far end, it backed in a slot and Mary took off her helmet, shook out her long hair and there was applause from the kids.  Applause.  At least that is what I was told.  She took off her leathers, stowed them in the saddle bags and walked into the school with just about every pair of children's eyes on her.  One of the upper grade teachers told me it was like a TV scene. 

The cooperating teacher told me the kids were completely in her control from the moment they came into the classroom.  Questions flew about her bike and she responded that if they were good that day, she would answer questions before they went home.  They were good and they were good until spring when Mary completed her student teaching assignment.  I gave her an "A", she "earned" an "A".  Had there been an opening at that school I think they would have offered the position to her.  As soon as Mary had control of the class the other teachers in the school considered her one of them.  She was a teacher.

Strange what that bike did for her.  My analysis of the situation was that as soon as the children saw the bike they realized Mary was one of them.  This was bike country.  And they understood her.  She never raised her voice--it was always quiet but those little children hung on to every word.  Apparently, Mary also did well in the parent/teacher conferences and the parents accepted her.  

I have never seen such a change in a classroom since that time.  Doubt if I ever will.  What it told me is that the teachers and the community have to be alike.  Everything fits like a glove.  
In this case a motorcycle glove.   

Again, a bit of luck.  And if you remember one of your favorite teachers after reading this, be sure to thank another teacher.  

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The art of teaching, the science of teaching and the luck of teaching.

Watching all the high school bands in the Inaugural Parade makes me think of all those band teachers, parents, bus drivers and members of the community that got them there.  No science involved but a lot of hard work by all.  Pretty impressive.

The high school band from the State of Washington was from Longview and is three hundred strong--a multi award winning band.  Nice going.  But how do you get that many kids playing instruments--and all  together!  Just getting uniforms for them all that fit must be a feat.  Much of all this starts in the grade school mostly around the fourth grade.

As soon as classes are settled, the elementary school music teacher goes to each fourth grade and gives the children a music aptitude test.  I don't know how good these tests are but at least it gives the music teacher some idea of what some kids might do.  Then letters go home to the parents telling them of  "band night," to explain how kids can start learning a musical instrument.  Before that night the teacher needs to contact local music stores that will sell, rent, or somehow provide instruments.  For the moment, I cannot remember an elementary school having instruments to loan to their students.  It is mostly a "buy" or "rent" situation.

The evening arrives and the parents and the music stores all show up in the gym or multipurpose room.  Some parents bring an instrument from home....."It was my grandmothers.." or "Dad played this in the war!"  Even though the letter stated clearly that this would be for a band, not an orchestra, some parents brought violins and the spare guitar.  I suspect after all these years there would be more guitars now and indeed, some schools have guitar bands.

Anyway, as a music teacher you sort out the parents that want to buy and those that want to rent.  You've told the group that you really would like some trombones for the larger kids and "we need some French horns."  But trumpets, clarinets, and flutes are normally the instrument of choice.  Actually the really nifty thing is that many of the parents have gone through this as children themselves.  Some of them actually bring their old instruments that generally are in pretty good shape.  It is a long evening......

Generally a week or two later the big day arrives.  The music stores deliver the instruments to the school and the teacher, bless her/his heart gets to sort them out to the right kid.  "Don't open the cases yet!"  The kids are excited and really don't hear you.  It is total confusion and if the principal ever showed up at that moment would probably think the music teacher was devoid of discipline and organization.  But truthfully, we do get organized, the horns are passed out with new beginner level music books.  The band is taught how to get chairs and where to sit and where the music stands are.  And now it is time for instruction...on how to play your instrument.  Quite a feat.

After a few weeks the band has settle down into a routine and simple songs are starting to come together.  As a music teacher when we finished our first song, even I was amazed.  Totally surprised.  I'll be damned.  The kids are smiling and you are smiling.  The weeks go by--band meets two or three times a week--and you are making progress.  "Don't forget to practice!"

It was about this time when I was a elementary band teacher that I was prowling around the high school band storage room probably looking for some old unused French horns.  Among the old cases was one particularly beaten up case that contained a bassoon--not in bad shape.  I asked Bill, the high school teacher if I could loan it out to a student and he agreed.  The high school band hadn't a bassoonist in quite some time.

Now to find a fourth grade student who would like to play this instrument.  Our district was pretty much a middle class bedroom district close to a major city.  But one of our schools had more parents that were struggling then the others.  I decided to start at that school.  First I talked to the secretary (school secretaries always know everything) and she gave me some leads.  I was looking educationaleese,  a smart social isolate--someone who was not popular but smart.  I talked to the two third grade teachers and then to the two fourth grade teachers.  

Everyone agreed that this one child was a problem.  Very smart, an only child, but who lacked social skills.  She always wanted to help others but didn't do it very well.  Didn't stay in her seat much and didn't always follow directions although to be fair she quite often seemed bored.  

So that afternoon I called her mother.  I said something like your child has music talent (I lied, I didn't know), and I would like to loan her a bassoon and give her free lessons on how to play it (I never played a bassoon in my life).  My other condition was that they had to buy the reeds which were expensive, around five dollars a reed.  Mom told me she'd talk to her daughter and to her husband and they would get back to me.  They did with alacrity almost the next morning.  It was a go!  

So that afternoon my new student and I opened the case, put the parts together, the strap around her neck and I showed her how to hold the instrument.  Some beginning attempts and finally a sound of a bassoon.  It was a beginning.  I explained notation in the book and then told her what I expected for some homework and the next two pages which she was to practice for me.  We would have another session in a three or four days and I would review what she had done.  OKay?  You have any questions?   She was ready to start.

I went back to that school a few days later and she stopped me on the playground.  "Could I have book 2 please?"  "I'm sorry, what did you say?"  "Could I have book 2?"  We made a date for after school so she could show me what she had done--I was positive that she could not have finished book one in two days.  Positive!  

Well, she got the bassoon out of the case (which had been beautifully repaired by her dad) and she proceeded to blow me off my chair and through the book.  She had learned everything in the book--about twenty to thirty pages of drills, different fingerings and simple songs.  "Could I now have book 2?"   That evening, I went into the city and bought books 2, 3, and 4.  And the next day even though that school wasn't on my agenda, I stopped off and gave her the books. She was already beyond me in playing the bassoon.  I could help her music wise but she was now on her own.  Before I left the school I dropped in to the teachers room to say hi.  The two fourth grade teachers grabbed me and asked, "What have you done with Jane?  Totally a different girl.  Hasn't been a problem since you started giving her lessons.  A pure delight."  My stock in the teachers' room went up immensely that day.  Hot damn.

In about two weeks, Jane had proceeded to improve with such great leaps and bounds that I asked her to come to band practice.  You never saw such a proud, confident little girl come into the band and open up her case and get her bassoon put together.  The other kids watched with open mouths--really.  She never said a word to any of them even though several asked her what she was playing.  I introduced her to the band and said something like, "Jane is our new bassoonist." "Jane, play some notes for the group, please."  She ripped off a scale or two and did a simple song from memory and proceeded to wow the rest of the kids.  She instantly became their hero.  I will never forget that moment.  It is how teachers get paid.

She went on to junior high and then high school all the time playing the bassoon and becoming an outstanding student....some say a leader.  Her parents called me one evening and asked how they could buy her a new bassoon.  I told them they could use the one she had all the way through school if they wanted but no, they wanted to buy a new bassoon.  They were so pleased with her progress.  I talked to one music store whose owner also played with the major symphony in the city.  He said something about the new plastic bassoons and he would talk to the first bassoonist in the symphony about which one to buy.  Jane did get her new bassoon and also lessons from the first bassoonist.  And word got back to me many years later that she would occasionally be asked to be the fourth bassoonist in the symphony when there was a need for one.  I lost track of Jane but trust me, I'd do it all again.  

Sometimes it is not the science of teaching or even the art of teaching.  Sometimes it is just pure luck.  


Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Day in the Life of a Teacher--Part 2

Let's continue this thread--what do teachers do and follow a high school or secondary school teacher.  In this case, let's follow a high school music teacher, although it could be an English teacher, a civics teacher, perhaps a science teacher--but today it will be music.  My undergraduate degree was in music education and my goal at that time was to become the best high school music teacher that ever was......  Started out as an elementary music teacher and during that first year, the high school music teacher became quite ill and they moved me up to the high school.  Bill Morse (no real names in any of my blogs except in rare occasions) was probably one of the finest high school music teacher in a smallish high school.   He didn't have kids make music--he taught them music.  He was good and so when he took seriously ill, I held down the fort so to speak.  I was in over my head.

High schools start earlier than grade schools.  I had to be at work by seven thirty although classes started at eight o'clock.  I'd leave my house at about seven fifteen still getting dressed.  I'm not a morning person.  We had to wear dress shirts, ties, slacks and jackets.  I would be buttoning my white shirt with one hand and driving with the other.  Then a clip on bow tie.  You'll hear more about this later on in this blog.

Before class I'd go to the office to get my mail and announcements.  There were always announcements.  Some schools today have someone read the announcements over a speaker system to the rooms but back in my day, I had to read it to the first period students.  First period was "home period" where you got kids from all over the school--each teacher had a group of kids and I'm not sure how they were divided up.  I'd read the announcements, answer questions if I could, take roll, fill out the form and then post the form outside the door of my classroom.  At least for me, it was mostly small talk among the students and me since it was not a true class. A few kids would ask for a hall pass to go to the office for some reason and I'd scribble something on a form and off they would go.

At eight twenty, kids would depart for their first period.  Mine first class was "B" band, all the kids that hadn't made the big band.  Mostly freshman and some transfers who wanted to learn a musical instrument.  It would take them a few minutes to settle down, get their music out and be ready for me.  We'd do scales to warm up, then some simple songs with me trying to get them to listen to each other.  Music teachers will smile at this:  "everyone playing but one band sound!"  B band never made one band sound which is why they were in that band.  But I felt good working with them--not far ahead of my elementary bands.

Next period started at nine twenty and it was the Stage Band.  Some schools call it the Jazz or Swing band and I know one school that calls it the Broadway band.  These are pretty good musicians already, have control of their instruments, like music and probably could have practice without me.  It was a fun period and I enjoyed it.

Now before I go to third period I need to tell you a little about me at that time.  This was my first year of teaching having just graduated the year before from college.  I was single although I had a steady girl friend who was still at college.  I'm a white male reasonably good looking and dressed.  I'm twenty-three years old.  I wanted to do well at my job.  I tell you all this because third period was for me the period from hell.  Pure hell.

It was Girls Glee Club.  About twenty girls who all were very excellent singers.  Many of them seniors were taking the class for fun.  And they had fun.  They picked on me, oh my on my how they enjoyed that.  "Do you have a girl friend, Mr. Blackwell?"  "Do you like girls?"  I'd respond, "Okay, let's settle down.  First song--here's the upbeat"  And I start them singing.  That was my only defense.  Those girls sang more for me then they ever did for Bill.  They petrified me.  Some were only five years younger than me but at least ten years older in the ability to tease a man.  Oh, dear!   They took great delight in harassing me and if you walked into the room at any time they would have looked like angles.  I was not me.

The last day that I was to substitute for Bill, a Friday if I remember, these girls, not an angle among them, came to class all wearing blue skirts, white blouses and big, BIG colorful bow ties.  They had a ball with me.

Next came lunch for me--I ate in the music room office.  It was too far to the teacher's room and I really didn't know many of the other teachers.  

After lunch it was the fourth and fifth periods.  That would be first the choir and then the big band.  Afternoons for me were pure delight.  The choir could really sing and so it was more of teaching them how to interpret the music or making sure they hit the right notes for the harmony.  We'd practice but it was enjoyable for me.  Pure fun and they paid me to do this.

Last period was band.  Most of the kids had been in music for several years including elementary band and junior high band so it was not much basic teaching for me.  Band teachers really don't have discipline problems.  The kids enjoy what they are doing and so we did it for an hour or so.   It think it was an eighty minute period.   Those were good times.

First buses came around two thirty.  Do you know why high schools start so early in the morning?  So that the athletic teams can practice in the afternoon.  Very important to a community are the athletic teams.  Get a winning football team and you can almost always pass a school bond.  Have a losing team and the bond issue is a maybe.  

For the music teacher some of that afternoon time was working with different music groups that came in to practice.  A saxophone quartette, maybe the trumpet section wants to improve a section of a piece.   Even if we started earlier in the day at the high school it would be easily four thirty by the time I headed home.  But one of the perks of my job as music teacher is that I didn't have that many papers to correct.  I have always felt sorry for my English teacher colleagues.

On the other hand, I was lucky.  The kids and I got to work on music for the spring performances.  Had it been early fall, the band would have been out in the field practicing marching formations until the five thirty buses.  Hey, it is a skill they have to learn--how to play and march at the same time.  But I was spared that teaching assignment.

I only taught in the high school for a couple of months.  But I have been in many high schools and those teachers are amazing.  These students are young adults and they want to flex their wings.....and they all think they are smart--many are.  I had several student teachers in a high school setting.  I was always impressed.

I've generalized a bit here but I suspect many high school teachers will recognize their day. A few have longer periods and a few high schools have different periods on different days to give some classes like science time to complete experiments.  But the main clog in the wheels are the teachers.  They are good.

If you still play a musical instrument or like to sing, go thank a music teacher.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Before we get too deep into teachers, let's review what a teacher's day is like.  I'm going to generalize a bit but I suspect I'm pretty close to what many teachers do.  Let's start first with the grade school teacher--a fourth grade teacher in a regular public school.  ME!

Most grade schools start classes at nine in the morning but teachers normally are required to be there generally by eight AM.  I would unlock my room, hang up my coat and just look things over. My first task of the day was to put away yesterdays lesson plans, generally jotting some notes on what was good and what was bad on them.  I'd file those and get the days lesson plans.  Let me be clear on this--at the first of the year, the principal would pass out a lesson plan book--a week on two pages with little squares for each hour and a grade book.  About all you could do is write the subject in the square and page number.  But I've had principals that demanded that the lesson plan book be on the right hand side of my desk every day.  Without fail.  For me it was totally useless but I'd fill it out.  One year I changed the dates and used the previous year's book--no one  seemed to notice.  

Back to the real lesson plans.  I normally had them on 8X11 sheets of paper for each subject in manilla folders by subject.  The plans were numbered so I could find where I was fairly quickly.  Some lesson plans were used for several days--a continuation of what the children and I were doing.  Other lessons changed day by day.  These lesson plans I normally wrote at home on the weekends and used several years in a row with modifications.  [I'll write more about lesson plans, objectives and evaluations later on.]

Most of my lessons for the day were on a clipboard which I  (or one of the students) could carry around.  Being the clipboard monitor was a coveted position  which changed weekly.  Some of the kids while being the clipboard monitor would actually tell me when I had deviated from my lesson plan.  I like that--kept me on my toes.

So now it is about eight twenty and the first children are beginning to show up outside the room.  Busses began to show up around eight thirty and the kids began to gather at the same time.  I'd open the door about then and some of the kids would get the playground equipment (tether balls, Four square ball, jump rope, etc.) while other children would want to come in the room.  It was their world, their classroom.  A place where they felt okay.  Some would grab my clipboard to see what we were doing that day--interesting aside--I use to say don't read my lesson plans but the kids would sneak a peak when I wasn't paying attention.  What I quickly found out was that some of them actually would get organized for the day's work.  I soon just let them read the lesson plans.  About eight forty I would write the days objectives on the blackboard in one of the corners.  I hoped it would help the kids keep organized--lots of teachers do this activity.

Generally about eight forty five I'd head to the teachers' room for my last cup of coffee and pick up my mail.  Back at the classroom door by a couple of minutes to nine.  I always (well, most of the time) greeted the kids at the door--girls lines up closer to the building while the boys lines up on the outside (all under cover).  The bell would ring and I'd let them in trying to greet each child.  Some would want to rush right in while others would wait until I would say, "good morning, Ann" or something like that.  It was a ritual for some......and for me.  It was the beginning of my teaching day.

Coats would get hung up, lunch boxes were stored on a counter near the sink...more so that the kids didn't eat everything in their lunchbox by lunchtime....and still be hungry.  Then the Pledge of Allegiance--everyone stood up.  I didn't do this everyday after my first year as the children began to recite it in a drone like fashion.  They were really not paying attention--just saying something.  So we would do it maybe once a week. 

But after the pledge it was lunch money time.  I hated this part and towards the middle of the year would pick two kids who had good number control.  But early in the year it was my duty to collect the lunch money.  Some schools have the children visit the office before school--we tried that but some of the kids duly forgot each day.  Anyway, children would come to my desk row by row and I would write their names and dump the money in an envelope.  No matter what I did later on in the day the office would call me and say I was so many cents short.  Never over.  Always short.  It would come out of my pocket.  

Now that that measurable task was over (nine ten) it was spelling time.  We had booklets with words for each week.  Introduce the words on Monday, use them on Tuesday, trial test on Wednesday, more use on Thursday and final test on Friday.  More on spelling at a later blog.

Nine thirty and it is time for reading.  There is tons of research on how to teach reading and don't bother me with the phonetic method being perfect for all kids--it isn't.  I don't know what the best method to teach reading to EACH child is--I normally tried them all.  At the fourth grade most children could already read--what they needed was practice.  Those that couldn't read (very few) I'd sit next them and help them along.  I'll write about learning how to read at a later day.  However, reading in my class went from nine thirty to ten fifteen.  AND THEN IT WAS RECESS.  The kids needed it--not so much for me but if they had been going since nine, they were tired mentally.  It was time for a break.

If I wasn't on playground duty, I'd head for the teachers room for a quick cup of coffee if I got their in time.  For most of the teachers it was a ten minute break given time to walk to the teachers room and back.  There were times when I would stay in the room to get some equipment or lesson plan lined up.  I normally told the children they had to go our even if they only walked around the building.  Everybody out!  But of course there were always someone with a cold, or a note from Mom to stay in.  So in reality I always had kids in the room.

Ten thirty to eleven thirty was Arithmetic.  Numbers.  Abstractions.  How to add, divide, subtract and multiply.  For some children it was tough.  When I was teaching we didn't yet know about dyslexia and I now know that I had children that just couldn't see the numbers or they wrote them in wrong places.  I remember one child who always wrote the number "5" backwards.  He was always sorry and would correct it but when doing the next problem, the "5" would be done backwards again. Perhaps he was dyslexic--I wish I knew.

Most of the children could do their numbers and I would walk around the room helping kids, praising some, telling others to redo a problem or two.  Things would get hard when we started "fractions" including "improper fractions."   It is an abstraction that takes a bit to understand and the class and I would struggle with the concepts.  It is hard work for fourth graders.

Most of the time by eleven thirty the kids were tired--all thought out.  And I tried to have some sort of an art or music lesson.  It was a good time to sing and they enjoyed it.  I tried to find folk tunes that might be associated with the social studies lessons.  But not always.  It was also a time for writing.  I would give assignments like to write five sentences that had at least two adjectives in the sentence.  English lessons would merge from reading to writing to social studies.  It was a fluid lesson.

Lunch came around noon.  Yes, I did say "came" to our room.  Another part that I disliked intensely.  They would wheel carts with hot food, dishes, milk cartons and silverware to the rooms and the teachers had to serve the kids.  More then once I've served the kids only to find myself short in serving all of them.  Or some child would get in line who forgot he wasn't getting lunch that day.  Always a hassle.  The rest of the kids would get their lunch and eat at their desks.  It was a noisy time and I learned to overlook some exchange of foods, a few bad eating styles (although I would say something if it was totally off the wall).  The students needed their food and some space.  I would eat at my desk and invite several different children each day to join me--high point for some of the children.  We'd talk about things in general, mostly what was going on at home.

Twelve twenty and those that had finished lunch were allowed outside for noon recess.  Most of the time they were ready to blow off some steam.  I watch some children just run for the enjoyment of just running.  Most of the time they had been sitting since nine that morning.

Now it was time (twelve thirty) for me to take a break.  Most of the morning I have been standing and walking around the room.  Some of the time I had taken a small chair with me to sit next to different children and help them with their work.  But it is a tiring morning physically.  Down to the teachers room and plop down on a couch or chair.  the chit-chat was minimal and was not about teaching.  "Where should I get my car repaired?"  "Where did you get that good looking skirt?"  Out of sixteen teaching stations (classrooms), there were only three male teachers--the women teachers outnumbed us.  Some schools the teachers eat together and I longed for that.  It would have been fun.  Now, mostly we just sat and did small talk.

One o'clock.  Another bell and another afternoon of teaching to begin.  I normally started my afternoon by reading to the children out of a young adult book--a continued saga day in and day out.  This was a survival technique by me.  The kids come in from afternoon recess  and they are excited, sometimes sweaty, and they have had a good recess.  A few who have won at a playground game don't want to let go.  Everyone it seems wants to tell me something.  The class is high.  If I were to start teaching a subject at this moment, I'd probably have about half of them paying attention.  The others would be in their minds still enjoying the recess.

So I would read to the children.  I had a stool for a few years and I sit on it in front of the room and just hold the book.  It would only take a moment for the class to settle down.  No heads down or fold your hands as some teachers do.  I'd just hold the book.  It was like a soap opera on TV with each day something happening in the book that I was reading.  Now remember I was doing this for survival but I soon realized that the kids were learning from my reading as well.  How to read aloud.  How to change one's inflection.  How to pause.  And something that was a surprise to me I also was teaching them about humor.  I'd stop and explain why I though it was funny and they would join me.  Later on someone in the class would say, that part is funny because I do the same thing.....or my mother yells at me the same way.  They were learning story line recognition.  I enjoyed reading to them.  I started this activity planning on only ten minutes but it soon became twenty minutes and if the book was really gooooood, we might go thirty.

By one thirty we had either Social Studies or Science or Health.  The latter two sometimes merged--it was hard to tell the difference between the two.  Social studies was fun particularly when we had maps.  Not all rooms had maps so we sometimes shared between grade levels.  The district would buy only one set of maps be year per building.  Pity.  Those maps really promoted day dreaming and excitement.  Both I thought these behaviors were valuable.  By three o'clock we began to straighten up our room and our desks.  

Busses started coming at around three twenty and I had to get the kids down to the bus stop by that time.  I don't know how many times I had to drive a few kids home because we MISSED the bus.  I didn't like the system but that was what we had.  

Before going to the bus, the room had to be straightened up.  Desks were aligned, tables put back, the music stand put in the corner (we used it for other things--more later), maps put away or returned to other rooms.  The kids were good about this housekeeping work.  They took pride in the classroom.  We finally put our chairs on the top of the desks (more about this later too)   so that the janitor could sweep underneath.  Coats and lunch boxes were collected, the coats were put on and I would go around the room to see if anything was left or out of place.  Once the kids were lined up we head for the bus ramp.  No, I didn't say good bye to each one--I was too tired and they were too although there was always someone who would say, "see you tomorrow."

If a bus didn't show up, a teacher was required to stay with the children, their own and the other kids for that bus.  Bus Seven was notorious for breaking down and we'd have to wait until the back up came--about a half hour or so.

Once the kids were gone, it was back to the room, check out one more time.  Put my clip board away.  Put my chair on the desk.   That was about it.  I was tired.  We were required to stay at the school until four or four fifteen--I don't remember.  But some of us were ready to head home.  I'd collect spelling papers or writing work or arithmetic papers for grading.  I didn't always get them done. I normally didn't stop at the office mostly because I wanted to be left alone for a time.  

When I go home sometime after four thirty I use to flop down on the couch and fall sound asleep which use to tick my wife off.  It did seem like I ought to get the dinner started so that when she came home from work we could have a quiet dinner together.  But mostly I napped.

One day in the life of a fourth grade teacher.....

Note that I haven't written about computers (which I didn't have), or physical education or a few other subjects.  We had no music teacher or art teacher.  More about this later.

So if you've read all this and even understand some of it, thank a teacher.  It's been a long day.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


I like the format offered me by Blogger when I started this blog--the one with the black background and white letters that you are now reading.  It reminds me somewhat of a blackboard.  I've used many blackboards in my career and cleaned almost as many.  And, yes, I do like the new Smart Boards.  Great technology.  But for a long time the only technology for teachers was the blackboard and chalk.   A few teachers even had colored chalk but it wasn't common. 

And when I think of blackboards I always think of Susan  (names will be changed in all my blogs).  Susan was a experienced first grade teacher in an established neighborhood school.  My reason to be in her room was that I was supervising a student teacher from my university for the quarter.  The student teacher, Anne, was a solid top of the line candidate to be a teacher.  I had good feelings with pairing Anne with Susan and I looked forward to at least one student teaching stop in my rounds that would be easy to supervise.  

It was early September only a few days into the start of the school year and Susan was warmly greeting Anne and showing her around the room, explaining what will happen when the first bell rings and what she will do to introduce her to the class.  All first graders eager to learn--about twenty five students if I remember correctly.  As I walked around the room looking at how the room was set up I noticed that the blackboards had not been cleaned, indeed, the boards were quite dusty from the previous day's use and a few days before that as well.  This is not a criticism of Mrs Donnelly.  Many teachers clean the boards maybe once a week.  It is easier to write on when there is a coating of chalk then when they are spotless clean.

As I passed the blackboards I couldn't resist and I made little footprints in the dust on the blackboard.  Never done that before?  It's easy.  Make a fist with your thumb at the top and roll the bottom of your hand (opposite of your thumb) on the board.  You'll leave a little print that looks like a small foot.  Now do the other hand and make a corresponding foot.  When you have made enough foot prints, go back and add three toe prints on each foot with the tips of your three biggest fingers.  It's easy and doesn't take much time.  

When I got done there were little foot prints that went across the blackboard.  Cute.  Anne was interested as she didn't know how to do that.  The three of us got to talking and pretty soon the first bell rang and in came the children.  They had had a week or so with Mrs. Donnelly before we showed up.  But today was the first time with Anne and me.  We were introduced and class started.  Pledge of Allegiance, lunch money collection, a quick look to the one blackboard to see what Mrs. Donnelly was going to teach them that day--the usual start for a first grade classroom.  

But it was quite obvious that the children wanted to say something about the foot prints I had left on the front board.  Yes, my fault, I should have erased them but I hadn't.  Now what.  Mrs. Donnelly called on one child--"Mrs Donnelly, someone has been walking on our blackboard."  Susan looked and said in a quiet voice, "I think I told all of you before that you are not to come into the room before the first bell unless I am here.  And certainly, I don't want you running on my blackboards."

I was amused by her remarks but even more so as some of the children looked at their feel and compared sizes.  "No" they assured her, "we weren't in the room before school started--we didn't do that and those feet are much smaller then ours."  

Susan and the kids discussed who might have made those footprints, even a number of them going up to the board and taking a closer look.  Anne and I kept straight faces and just watched.  Finally, Susan asked the children who might have made those foot prints and the kids considered the janitor (He had much bigger feet then any of them) and the hamsters' feet were way too small.  Who could it be and what should they do.  The first graders were really puzzled and paying close attention.  The class finally decided that they should write a note and leave it for who ever came into their room at night.  So Mrs. Donnelly got a large piece of tag board and with the help of Anne, the class composed a note.

Now remember, this is early September--school had been going on for only two weeks and most of these children didn't know how to write or read.  True a few did, but not well by any means.  So Mrs. Donnelly would get them to agree on a sentence and then Anne would print it in big letters on the tag board.  The children were beginning to see the correlation between the printing of letters and what they wanted to say.  

It was a brilliant beginning to teaching of reading and writing by Mrs. Donnelly.  She had seize the moment and the children's attention.  There are those that say that teaching is a science, particularly those who study at the university level, however, teaching is also an art of how you do things at that precise moment.  But I'd also have to say that some teaching is pure luck.  On this day in Mrs. Donnelly's first grade I saw aspects of all three characteristics of teaching.  The children's note was left for whomever came to their room at night.  Big time excitement for the children.

Well--that's not the end of the story.  Susan and Anne put their heads together and decided on a message to respond to the children's note.  But they decided to code the message so that those children who already knew how to read would not be able to claim the spotlight.  Made sense to me.  I deliberately went back the next day to see what transpired.  Here was a note on the new tag board in the blackboard tray.  But no one could read it.  The letters were recognizable but not the words.  

The children tried a number of ways of decoding the message.  They tried it backwards, also backwards one word at a time.  Northing worked.  And then in the middle of the session, one of the shyest boys in class very carefully raised his hand and announced he could decode the message.  We all looked at him with surprise and it was a surprise.  He had brought to school a 1933 decoding slide rule that his farther had in his desk drawer at home.  By moving the slide rule one place to the right, he could effectively decode the words.  A task that Susan and Anne had decided might take a few weeks was solved in the first hour.  And the shyest guy in the class made many friends that day.  Sometimes luck goes in strange directions in teaching.

Ah, yes, the note was from Fred F. Foote (his middle initial stood for Friendly) and he was terribly shy (which endeared him to a number of children in the room).  He was also very sorry he had left his foot prints on the black board.  He really only came back at night to the classroom to talk to the hamsters.  When the children read this part of the message the whole class got up and went to talk to the little animals.  It was fun to watch.

Mrs. Donnelly was on a roll.  During the following weeks, she started the children in writing messages to "Fred".  Anne, the student teacher, had a minor in computer languages and had found a ton of old punch cards for an old computer.  By using a primary typewriter (for those not in the know, there was a time when we had a special typewriter with extra large print which was used quite a bit by the primary grades), the children would write their messages, bad spelling and all, and then take them to Anne who would type them on the back of the punch cards with correct spelling and punctuation.   The kids were learning from the corrections.  And one of the rules that Susan had told the class was that they couldn't just leave their message to Fred--they had to read it to five other students in the class first.  You're right, some of them couldn't read, but they knew what they had wanted to say and they would say that back as they "read" their note to Fred.  And yes, the sentences were simple.  "How are you?  I am fine."  That was the start.  By the next week when I came back, they had moved ahead with more complex sentences and questions.  "Questions" written by a first grader?  It is not a common occurrence.  Maybe by the end of the first year of school but not the first month of the school year.  The kids were really learning about writing and reading.

Of course my poor student teacher was busy after school writing "notes" back from "Fred" to the different children.  She would put them in their desk so that the next day they would find them first thing in the morning.  I've never seen so many children who wanted the school day to start and were excited about learning.  Sometimes Anne would write on a card, "Your teacher says you did well on your numbers today!"  These notes became powerful tools in learning to read.  They were also a slight problem.  One child was ill and her mother kept her at home. Except the little girl cried and cried to go to school (with a high temperature) to see if she had a "letter" from Fred.  Mom brought her in late, she got her note and went home happy if still sick.  Powerful motivation.

Mrs. Donnelly finally set up a bulletin board with the title "Footnotes."  Only we adults enjoyed the "pun."  By the end of the school year it is my estimation that those children were reading at least a grade higher than normal--closer to third grade level then I would normally expect.  They also could compose sentences and were starting to work on paragraphs.  What kept them back was the fact that they didn't have the muscle dexterity to do the writing.  In this case the body had not keep up with the brain.  It would come together as they grew older.

Anne did well and went on to become a successful grade school teacher herself.  Then I lost track of her.   Susan said she had fun with "Fred."  I wanted the two of them to write a book or an article about Fred but it never came to pass.  

Footprints on the blackboard.  Seizing the moment to teach.  The art of teaching.  Exciting the children to want to learn.  Helping students overcome shyness.

And if you will forgive me a political point, Mrs. Donnelly, one of my favorite first grade teachers, was teaching for the moment, not to a test.  It was the art of teaching--not a curriculum mandated by the school board or the state.  It was beautiful to watch.

If you've read all this, whether you agree or not, be sure to thank a teacher.

Monday, January 5, 2009

I like teachers.  They are the salt of the earth.  All of us can remember a teacher that took time to talk to us, help us with our school work, give encouragement and be our friend when we needed it.  From grade school to college there has always been a teacher for you and me to help us on our way.   Teachers are terrific--but hey, I am biased, without a doubt.  I'm a teacher.  

Some years ago, the National Education Association (NEA) had a movie called, "A Desk For Billie."  A semi-documentary about a young girl during the time of the great depression when her family loses everything in the dust bowl and moves hopefully to a better place for work.  Dirt poor no matter where her parents moved the family time after time, there was always a school, a desk and a teacher for Billie.  

Somewhat like Billie but because of World War II, we moved a lot--I moved eight times by the eighth grade.  And I can remember walking by myself to a school carrying a folder from my last school and telling the secretary I was a new student.  There was always a desk for me and a teacher who helped me along.  Not the best of an educational program but it was doable and I learned.  

This is a blog about teachers and some of the amazing teaching they do.  I hear from time to time people who say, "get rid of the poor teachers and I'll consider voting for the school bond." But in the forty five years of teaching and watching teachers do their thing in the classroom, I have yet to find a "poor" teacher.  Some were in the wrong grade level and a few were in a wrong district for their teaching styles but they were all good teachers.  They all have the welfare of the kids that were in their charge at heart.  

So with this preamble, I hope you will join me in describing and perhaps prasing some of the teachers of the world.  And if you were able to read this missive, "Thank a teacher."