Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Power of a Teacher

Tomorrow (Wednesday, May 25, 2011) will be the last talk show by Oprah Winfrey and the news pundits have all made an effort to know who will be on the final show.  Early returns indicate that no one person will be on--it will be Oprah herself reviewing those that have had an influence on her.

I suspect one of those flashbacks will be Mrs. Mary Duncan, Oprah's fourth grade teacher who got Oprah to open up and be the smart girl (woman) that she is.  Oprah has repeatedly said that Mrs. Duncan was highly influential in getting her (Oprah) to be what she could be.  

I hope I had a positive effect on my first fourth grade class.  I still remember the kids even if they don't remember me.  I had already taught three years as a fifth grade teacher and one more as an elementary music teacher for three schools and I had asked the school administration to let me go back to the elementary classroom.  I wanted experience in the lower grades although as the music teacher I did have the opportunity to teach from Kindergarden to the sixth grade. But my school district had a policy at that time that male teachers were not to be assigned below the fourth grade.  Don't ask me why--I haven't the slightest idea why the policy was in place.  However, I was assigned a fourth grade class in the school I previously taught fifth grade in.

I still remember setting my goals.  I was going to be the best teacher in the school and my kids would learn twice as much as the other fourth grades.  Right!  As did all the teachers, I had gone to the school before classes were started, got my room arranged for the time being in rows.  I matched the chairs to the desks so that big chairs weren't with little desks.  Didn't know teachers did that, did you?  I got the text books out that I would pass out on the first day, pile high on a counter and I had written some stuff on the blackboard.  I also had put together some material on the bulletin board--not much but a start.  I'd want to put student's work on there as soon as I had some good examples.  And of course I had gone to the office to get the files on the kids I would have that coming year although I didn't look at them until a month or two into the school year.  

First day of school.  The children's names that I would have were posted on the windows of my classroom and pretty soon a small pile of kids were peering in the windows and bunching up at the door eager for the school year to begin.

[an aside:  I get tickled by the kids.  By April of last year they were bored with school and couldn't wait for summer to begin. "No more school, no more books......" And then summer comes and within a few weeks the kids are saying, "when will school start again?"  I love 'em.]

The school bell rings and I opened the door and stood there.  "I want the girls along the wall line up and I want the boys to line up next to the girls."  "And do it quietly!" And then I said, "I want you to go into the classroom, do not take off your coats or jackets but sit down at the first open chair that you come to and be quiet."  The kids were apprehensive but excited--first day of class!  Then I stood in the front of the room and looked at all of them.  For some I was their first male teacher so they didn't know what to expect.  I just stood there.  The room got quiet, still, I just stood there and looked at them.  Finally I spoke, "I hear breathing!"  As I looked around the class I saw one little girl with tears coming down her cheeks.  Oh dear, this was not what I wanted--I had to smile and tell them how well they had done so far.  I remember going back to my little princess and saying "everything will be alright."   My oh my how to screw up an opening day.

Well, coats were put away, books were distributed, lunch money was collected [I remember asking who were Jo Tyllia's kids and picking three of them to collect the lunch money--they could do it better than me anyway].  School was underway.  Yes, we did the flag salute with the pledge of allegiance and I forget what else we did but but my opening salvo was shot down by some tears.  I do remember we had a good year and yes, my kids tested out well.  That was the year that one of the kids came to me and said, "we pretty smart, aren't we, Mr. Blackwell?"  They were and I had a good time.  I hope they did.

A few years later I left the school district to study full time at the university.  I've always wonder what might has happened had we stayed in the district and had I become a principal as I had planned.  But you don't look back except in satisfaction and the past will never be that again except in your memory.  I'm sure all my kids would have a different perception of what when on that year.

Several years later when I was a wet behind the ears professor at what I now call "my university,"  two freshman girls knocked on my door, one short, the other tall.  They were from that fourth grade class so many years back.  We had a wonderful time talking about what went on during that year and I was aghast at some of the things they said I did.  One of them said I teased her about her boyfriend.  I didn't do that!  The tall one said that I harassed her about her penmanship.  No!  Yes, you did.  So I had her write something and she still had horrible penmanship.  It was really bad.  The funny thing about that is that she eventually got her Master's degree with that horrible, terrible, miserable penmanship.  Oh well, you can win them all.  They were wonderful kids.  I miss them.

Go thank a teacher today.  They need it.  

Friday, May 20, 2011

What Would I Do?

A reader wrote me recently and asked what would I do if I had my druthers in today's education system.  I have given this assignment over the years to many of my graduate courses--the day dream assignment.  I think most professors of education have done that in the past at one time or another.  And I think it is a good assignment--John Dewey wrote a whole book on the subject.  What fascinates me is that Professor Dewey's thoughts apply today just as well as when he wrote the book many years ago.  I would dearly like to talk to John about "change" that he so much espoused in the curriculum that would be proper in today's educational world.  

But let me first answer my young writer.  We need to educate ALL the children of our society, not just the rich but those that are struggling as well.  Perhaps we need to work harder on those children that have a difficult environment.  At the moment I am reading on my Kindle (which I still like) a sailing/cruising/introspective book, entitled "The Motion of the Ocean," by Janna Cawrse Esarey.  A very funny book and very well written.  But there is an aside in the book by Janna that she started teaching for "Teach for America" in New Orleans and would go to work each morning full of expectations to save the world and go home that evening entirely lost.  She admits you can't teach the child without attacking the environment in which the children live.  Janna goes on to become a high school English teacher and if her style of writing is any indication of her teaching skills, I wish I had been in her class.  So with Janna's cautions before my eyes, I still think we have to in some way teach ALL the children of society, not just the rich.

And I remember what an assistant superintendent of the Seattle Schools once told me as we toured one the elementary schools in her charge.....A disadvantage child is one who learns something at home that is not reinforced at school and learns at school something that is not reinforced at home.  The school and the home have to be in sync in what they want the child to learn.

So let me generalize some thoughts here.  I would like to see education in the United States upgrade their public school buildings.  I have been in so many public schools that need serious remodeling, upgrading, or even removal.  We need classrooms with adequate heat and light and sound control.  I was in one classroom where the teacher had bought several rugs (at a flea market) where she used them for sound control.  I WANT Smart boards, while boards, computers or iPad devices, storage areas, television for viewing and tons and tons of learning devices and materials.  You get the picture--I want good designed classrooms suitable for learning for students of appropriate ages.  I know I've written this before but Winston Churchill once said, "We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us."  I want to shape students for life-long learning.  AND I WANT THOSE SCHOOLS AND CLASSROOMS TO BE ATTRACTIVE.  The top rated school district in this state and the only one to be selected for the top high schools in America has also the best looking schools.  Come on now, all you architects, help me out here!

Once we have the buildings we need TEACHERS, certified College of Education graduates who know their subject matter.  Which means I want people who have an English degree to teach English, those with history degrees to teach history, and so on.  I don't want to take Political Science majors  (who haven't had education classes) and have them teach biology.  My kids deserve better then that.  And I want NEW teachers, OLD teachers, EXPERIENCED teachers, MALE and FEMALE teachers and RETIRED teachers.  I don't want people being brought in off the street to teach my kids.  I want trained professionals.  This blog has always been in defense of the professional teacher.  They are the salt of the earth as far as I am concerned.  That is who I want in my classrooms.  And then get out of their way and let them teach.

The third item that good schools need is an up-to-date curriculum.  What do we want our children to learn?  Getting new school buildings and getting trained teachers is easy--this is the tough one to obtain.  What do we want the kids to learn?  Part of the problem is that we (i.e., society) loves tradition so that what was good in my day should be good for my kids....right?  And we (the people) love our special subjects, like patriotism, reading of the classics, honesty (honestly can we teach that?), frugality, history of American Wars.  "Kids ought to be able to shape pen quill feathers."  Believe it or not that was written by a parent when the Boston schools introduced metal (OMG) quills.  We love tradition.

So what should our kids learn?  How to Read. Check.  How to Speak correctly. Check. How to write a sentence.  Check.   How to do their numbers.  Chec......well hold on now.  How much math should they be able to do?  Algebra?  Geometry?  Quantum Physics?  How about Health?  Check.  wait, wait now, no Sex Education.  That should be taught at home.  Right?  Geography, yeah, we need that since so many countries have changed their names and borders in recent times.  Science?  Of course we need all the sciences except in certain parts of the country where it get in way of religion.  In other parts of the country, we need biology, chemistry, astronomy, botany,  Social Science....another hold on now.  You mean psychology?  You want kids to learn about themselves?  Well, I have some reservations here.  And you want Sociology too?  Oh my.  Isn't that how we behave in small or large groups?  Okay, we need some social sciences.  I almost forgot History, the study of American Wars.  

Then we need to teach keyboarding (penmanship?), web searching (Google in most states but Bing in Washington State), Powerpoint development, spelling (even with spell checkers?) and television production (you got to be kidding).
Don't forget computer programming.  Essential....so they say. 

No, I haven't forgotten Physical Education, Music or the Arts.  Each of these subjects could be a blog of their own.  In fact, I've left out many subjects that adults want their children to learn.  Indeed, some business round tables have contributed to the discussion about what to teach so they could have cheap labor that they wouldn't have to train.  

There are so many subjects that could be useful in a curriculum that I would not want to be on a curriculum committee for a school district.  Plato said it well, "What knowledge is of most worth?"  Well, maybe it wasn't Plato.  Maybe Churchill.  I think in todays world one of the major problems facing society is what to teach our children.  If I were president of this counry, I would set up a commission to explore what subjects would be helpful to our kids.  That commission would be made up of teachers and parents, no administrators.  I suspect it would take a number of years to come to some conclusions.  And as soon as it was completed it probably be out of date.  Thanks, John Dewey, for your comments on change.  You were right all along.

Do I have more on what I think our schools should resemble?  Yes, but I have to go thank some teachers at the moment.   I'll get back to you on this.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Who Will Teach Our Children?

I recently talked to two teachers, one who retired before her retirement time and the other teacher is going to retire this year--also at an earlier date.  Both express concern about the negative feelings about teachers and how it affected their outlook in the classroom.  They agreed that there was not the satisfaction they once got from working with their students.  Both were primary teachers.

One teacher, Gail, who had taught for twenty-eight years and I knew to be an excellent teacher, was reflective on the fact that the negativity was coming from many sources.  I asked about this and she said that two years ago a new young principal was assigned to the school and told the staff they were going to raise the testing scores for the next year.  But Gail was upset because she and her colleagues thought they were doing a pretty good job at the time.  It appears that the new principal hadn't really looked at the test scores.  She also mentioned that he changed some of the policies and time schedules, the latter seems to have upset the faculty more then anything.

You see an elementary school, a good one, runs like a fine tuned watch.  This class had the gym at this time because the other fifth grade has library at that time or the first graders put their classes together so that the music teacher can get to them every week rather then every other week.  There is sensitivity to the schedules in school down to who goes to the buses first.

Then Gail mentioned that it seem to her that the parents were more on edge then in the past.  Instead of "how is my child doing?" it was more "how are you teaching my child?"  I asked Gail if she thought that parents were changing because of the TV news, web articles and newspaper reports on education and she did think it had an influence.  

Both teachers mentioned the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) as being a focus for the schools and both thought it took away from the teaching.  But Gail said that she still got in much of her reading instruction in spite of the extra demands on the curriculum for testing.

There is a point I wish to make, that both of these elementary teachers are married and both are comfortably well off.  Retiring early would probably have little to do with their level of income.  The majority of teachers in this country are women. And without going to the web to check statistics, I would suspect that a least a majority of them are married.  So my assumption is that a number of women teachers are going to leave the teaching profession for one reason or the other.  This worries me.

When I first started teaching fifth grade (I had already a year of teaching music in the elementary classrooms), I was young, I was popular with the kids, and the parents liked me.  But I know now that I did not teach to my full potential.  Many times during the first year I went to Jo Tylia or one of the other upper grade teachers and asked, "How do you do the following......"  OR, "what do I do next?"  I needed those more experienced teachers to guide me along my first year of classroom teaching.  They saved my butt.  

Now I hear that many local school districts are preparing layoff notices for faculty and because the state legislature has changed the rules of layoffs, the old rule that the last to be hired is the first to go will not be in effect.  Now there is an understanding that no one seems to want to mention, that by laying off experienced (read at the higher end of the salary level) teachers you save a bundle of money and can hire MORE beginning teachers thereby keeping classroom levels somewhat lower.  I think we'll lose a quality of teaching if that happens.  Losing quality and experienced teachers will cost society in a long run.

There is a comparison that I want to make that I found interesting.  The level of salaries of teachers and those that are in the military appear to be quite similar. But society makes sure that the military get the best equipment to do the job, the military personnel and families get free medical help, and when the time comes to do another term, military personnel get bonuses.  The military families also get to use the P-X where food is much lower in price.  Yes, me being a veteran I know about the hazards of being in the military.  But if we keep making teaching a hazardous job, we may need to do some of the same things we do to ensure our military levels.  Already some colleges of education are reporting a drop in enrollment.  This is not good.  And as the cost of tuition continues to rise the ratio of college costs to teaching salaries will continue to be a negative number.  The future in teaching is not very bright.

[editorial update]  A friend of mine who taught at the community college level in Portland, Oregon,  just wrote me and asked had I seen a recent article, "The High Cost of Low Teachers' Salaries," in a recent New York Times.  They said it better.

Have you thanked a teacher today for teaching kids?  They could use your pat on the back and support.