Category Archives: dilemmas of teaching

A College Professor Teaches History in High School

Not a “man bites dog” media story for sure, but university professors who willingly choose to teach at a high school for a semester or a year, well, that does cause a few heads to turn. Previous posts I have published (see here for a math professor and here for an education professor) raise similar issues to what this history professor learned by teaching for a semester at Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh (PA).

I have now been at Allderdice for five months, long enough to see sharp differences between high school and university teaching situations. From the very beginning the sharpest contrast has been in the physical environment and pace. Allderdice crowds into one building 3,200 students while [my university] has about 1,400 spread over 80 acres. The only room available at Allderdice for quiet study is a chemistry storeroom. At [my university] I share an
offiice the size of the men teachers’ room at Allderdice, with one colleague.

Moreover, nothing is leisurely at Allderdice. Clerical chores, opening exercises, and hurried conferences with students and colleagues crowd the hour between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. The five-minute break between classes is far too short to reinvigorate a teacher. Lunch half-hour is a race upstairs in the midst of a throng of students, a contest for a place at the head of the line, a few minutes respite in a crowded cafeteria where masses of students sit within eyesight, and
another dash to oPen the classroom before chaos erupts in the hallway.

Since January, I have been teaching six classes a day on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in order to be free to teach and observe at other schools on Tuesday and Thursday while my three Allderdice colleagues take my classes. By seventh Period on these crowded days, I teach poorly,
my energy dissipated, and my nerves worn thin. How my colleagues stand a similar pace year after year I do not understand.

My schedule-and the schedule of regular high school teachers-gives me far too little time to see students individually. Sixth period is usually crowded with appointments l can never talk to students over coffee, a happy pursuit which probably occupies far too much of my time at [the university]. Like many of my colleagues at Allderdice, I am unable to give students the individual attention they deserve, except by writing lengthy comments on their essay examinations
and other papers. When will citizens and school boards give teachers time to teach properly ?

If it were not for the excitement of the AP program, the constant stimulation from five colleagues who are teaching AP history in three high schools, and the sharp analytical minds of the 160 students I see one to three times a week, there would be very little intellectual stimulation in my high school job. Except during hectic lunch periods, there is no time to chat with colleagues from other departments.

Historians at [my university] will be surprised to learn that I miss department meetings where we frequently become involved in long discussions I find a half-hour to write and do research only late at night after-pdraeyp,a rations are ready for the next and I miss conversation with
colleagues who are carrying on similar research. High school, therefore, seems much less the free market place in ideas I had come to know at [my university], and opportunities for creative growth and development are not as great, except as one grows as a teacher.

Nor are teachers in high school accorded the considerations as professional people which we know in universities. They are required to be clerks, truant officers, and policemen. Books are chosen for them, and courses of studv are usually  Planned by others, although, of course, every teacher has numerous opportunities to develop original methods of presentation if he wishes to do so.

Frequent interruptions disrupt one class after another. Fire drills, air raid alerts, messages from the office, telephone calls, students distributing
bulletins, early dismissals-there seems no limit io the imaginations of people who disturb teachers. I can remember no occasion in the last five years when anyone has interrupted one of my classes at [the university]. Perhaps these conditions account largely for a significant difference in attitude which I find on the part of a larger percentage of my high school than of my college colleagues. Most of them admit to doing minimal work and to approaching teaching as a job rather than as a cteative intellectual experience. I do not believe that pay differentials account for this attitude….
Far more important, it seems to me, is the fact that high school teachers are unable because of their heavy teaching loads and the burden of their other tasks to do an esthetically satisfying job, except at great personal sacrifice. Many become discouraged, particularly if they are of less than average capability. But despite many handicaps, my high school colleagues are far better at some jobs than college professors.

High school teachers pay far more attention to their students as developing human beings than we do in the universities. One teacher after another has been able to supply me with details about a student’s personal problems and family background which have been most helpful. The counselors, principal, and vice principal, at least at Allderdice, seem to know every child in the school personally and to help them over innumerable hurdles. In coilege, we are more likely to let a student sink or swim unless he is in really serious trouble. Finally, high school instructors teach current events with great skill, while we tend to ignore them in the classroom.

My students at Allderdice are more fun to teach than their counterparts at [university].  Of course, I have only very able history students at Allderdice while many of our mathematical wizards [in the university] have somewhat more limited verbal skills. Ability differences, however, are not the heart of the matter. The more significant difference is that most of my high school students are hungry for intellectual stimulation. They are anxious to examine historical issues in the light of evidence, and they respond eagerly when challenged with a knotty problem of historical interpretation. Moreover, they seem more willing to express personal opinions and to put their opinions to the test of evidence than many college students. The false sophistication which marks many college freshmen and sophomores seems entirely-and happily-absent.

I have also been impressed by the relative intellectual sophistication of high school students. The 60 I know best at Ailderdice are remarkably well read and constantly make reference to leisure reading during class  discussions. They assimilate new ideas with great speed and often have remarkable insights into historical personalities. We are not tapping the potential abilities which lie dormant in many of our high school students. We cannot tap them fully, except in special instances where teachers have the privileges which we enjoy in the AP program, until society makes teaching a true profession offering opportunities to do an esthetically and intellectually satisfying job.

I shall be forever grateful to [my university], the Pittsburgh public schools, The Ford and Mellon Foundations, and my colleagues and the students at
Allderdice for making this year possible. I shall never again teach as poorly as I did before this exciting experience in the public schools. I shall never agaln be as free with my criticisms of public school teachers and courses of study. Nor shall I ever again accepl the argument that little can be done. Endless opportunities for improving course offerings and methods of teaching present themselves daily. I hope to continue to explore these opportunities with my new friends on high school faculties-that is if I survive until June 23!

Ted Fenton taught the first Advanced Placement history courses offered to Allderdice students in 1959-1960. He published this article in the Pennsylvania School Journal (May 1960). He was then at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) and taught for one semester. Within a few years, he and other academics passionate about improving high school social studies launched a movement then called the “New Social Studies” following on the heels of the New Math, New Biology, New Physics, etc.

What struck me about the article published in 1960 is Fenton’s  comparisons of university and high school teaching loads, working conditions, and climate of learning that existed in both places then. More than a half-century later, what Fenton wrote describes accurately, in my opinion, what occurs in many high schools today.

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Breaking Down the Natural Isolation and Insulation of High School Teachers

A good friend for many years and guest blogger (see here and here), Jerry Brodkey has taught social studies and math for over 30 years at Menlo-Atherton High School  (MA) in Northern California. He currently teaches Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus and Integrated Algebra. Well-respected among his colleagues–he has been a member for many years of the union negotiating team that  bargains with the district when a contract expires–Brodkey sent out the following email to his colleagues just before the school year ended.

 

One of the best parts of the school year for me is after the AP test. In addition to some other activities, each student in my AP Calculus classes is asked to speak for approximately 15 minutes about themselves. They may talk about their families, travels, hobbies, sports, college decisions, etc., Some of these presentations are light-hearted, some very serious.  We all learn about each other in  a gentle, supportive environment.  Students seem to love this, and so do I.

I’d like to try this with staff members, too. Even though I have been here many years, I realize that there are many staff I simply don’t know, and even among the members of my own department,  I’d like to know them at a more personal level. So I’d like to try this.  Some of the best moments I have had at MA have been the results of feeling a sense of community, a deepening of relationships with all who work here.

Although my room is open for students almost every day at lunch, I’d like to dedicate  Thursday lunches to this small initiative.  I’ll simply tell my students that Thursday at lunch I won’t be available. Instead, I’d like to invite all staff to my room  (or some other place ….) for this experiment.  We might have a pretty good crowd, or I might be eating lunch by myself.  If my room is too small we’ll find another place. I’ll be happy to organize a schedule.  Since lunch is short, I think one or perhaps two speakers per week.  No obligation, no memberships, come when you can.  Bring papers to grade if you want. Come late, leave early if you need to.  Classified, certificated, administrative, everyone.

If we need a moderator I’ll be happy to do so.
I am thinking each presenter can begin (if they’d like) by addressing these  questions.

1. Who are you?
2. How did you come to be at MA?
3. Why are you here and what are you trying to achieve?
4. What are your biggest challenges and frustrations?

5. What do you like to do away from MA?
6. How would you hope to be remembered?

So that is my idea. Nothing complicated, nothing to do now. I’ll bring this back up  in August, I just thought I’d present the idea now.

Best wishes for a successful conclusion to this year.

Jerry Brodkey

Brodkey’s invitation to get to know colleagues, I believe, comes from at least two impulses. First, it is what he said it is–an effort to get to know his co-workers, many of whom he exchanges pleasantries with as they pass one another on their way to and from class or in monthly faculty meetings. Second, it is the beginning of an effort to build a community among those with whom he works daily. High schools are hard places to develop any sense of community teaching five or more classes a day, meeting with students individually, grading homework and tests, and dealing with unpredictable crises that arise. Brodkey and others have, at best, one non-teaching period a day to prepare for the next class and rush through homework that has to be returned to students that day. Sure, there are and have been “professional learning communities” of teachers teaching the same subject or across disciplines, but the fact is that such PLCs are the exception rather than the rule. Why is it so hard to build community in a high school?

The setting itself provides one explanation. Housed in an age-graded school (grades 9-12), organized by departments, with a daily schedule that leaves little time for teachers to plan, congregate, or get to know one another beyond the chance meeting in the same corridor–that is the modern U.S. high school. I do not mention faculty meetings since they are often set up and run in ways that discourage camaraderie.

If you wanted to isolate teachers from one another, no better way is to organize the school by grades, have departments, and a daily schedule that leaves little time for teachers before, during, and after classes to work together in a community focused on better teaching and student learning. These structures left unattended insulate and isolate teachers from one another. The dilemma is plain: How to create a community of teachers working toward common goals within a structure and culture dedicated to keeping teachers apart from one another?

Here is a veteran teacher in the sunset of his career  with “school smarts” and wisdom gained from decades of experience in a high school who knows that building community begins with knowing who sits next to you. He wants to do the same thing among MA’s teachers. I wish him and his colleagues well.

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Is It Worth Being a Teacher? (Dave Reid)

Dave Reid is a high school mathematics teacher in his third year of teaching.   He received his MA in Education and credential in secondary mathematics and physics from Stanford University in 2011.  Dave spent a quarter of a century in high-tech primarily in the wireless and Global Positioning System (GPS) industries.  He earned a BS degree in electrical engineering from George Mason University, and an MBA in finance and marketing from Santa Clara University.  He also attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He blogs as Mr. Math Teacher and tweets as @mathequality.

Five years ago, I decided not to continue with my career in high-tech.  After twenty-five years rising, and falling, and rising again, through the ranks in my field, I decided to follow a growing calling to teach.

Little did I realize, or appreciate in others, that teaching entails great sacrifice.  This from a man whose wife started teaching nearly a decade before him.

While the sacrifices I detail below are true, and challenging, I still feel that the call to teach outweighs their weight.  The true test will be do I feel the same next week, month, or year, as this job is the most demanding I have ever held, even though I have worked for some demanding high-tech companies, such as Motorola and Qualcomm, and a start-up where I slept on my office floor many nights and weekends.

A Sacrifice in Income

As the following graphic illustrates, my compensation dropped precipitously when I elected to follow my calling to teach, and remains much lower than I earned in high-tech; I knew this going in, so it was not a surprise.  Nonetheless, without adjusting for inflation, my present salary equates to what I made in the early 1990 as an engineer.  Adjusting for inflation, I make about what someone with a high school diploma would make thirty plus years after high school; assuming they rose in their field to managerial positions that did not need a college degree.  While I might be a newer teacher, hence, not as expert as those who have taught for longer periods, the life experience and deep content knowledge I bring to the classroom is not adequately reflected in the salary schedule used in most districts, where years of service and continuing education credits determine your income.  This situation alone inhibits many in industry from entering the teaching profession.

my-career-path-wages

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Sacrifice of “Free” Time

In terms of hours worked, many believe, as I did before I made my career change, that teachers work many less hours than non-teachers.  They even have their summers off!   The latter may be true for some, perhaps many.  For others, the desire to deliver the most effective lessons, activities, resources, and etcetera to our students leads us to work many hours per day over the summer gratis, especially for newer teachers like myself.

Furthermore, the recent adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) imposes great hardship on teachers given the dearth of curricular resources, textbooks, etc.  While the following cartoon is in jest, it does hold a pinch of truth, as does much of the work of excellent political satirists, such as this cartoon by Tom Meyers.

what-i-did-on-my-summer-vacation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The challenges faced by many students during the summer is not meant to be diminished, however.

Also, administrators may change the master schedule for teaching assignments from year to year trying to improve student outcomes, which necessitates developing an entirely new curriculum before the new school year begins; not an easy task.  Additionally, there are professional development conferences to attend, or summer school to teach.  While the latter is paid time, it does not move the total compensation meter that much.

A Sacrifice of Family Time

Prior to becoming a teacher, I thought I would have more time in the afternoons to spend with my school age boys.  Boy, was I wrong.  While working in high-tech, I could easily juggle my schedule to attend a sporting event, teacher’s conference, daytime school play, or other activity, such as coaching little league.  As a teacher, while my duty to deliver instruction might end at 3:00 PM, a host of other responsibilities to include creating lecture presentations, activities, or assessments; grading past assignments and/or assessments; discussing errant student misbehavior with students serving detention; meeting with administrators; collaborating with other teachers, often heavily influenced by administration; meeting with, calling, or responding to emails from parents; and reflecting upon past performance for improvement occupy my time well into the late evening, and sometimes beyond.

Sadly, even with this extra effort, since the typical secondary teacher has 150+ students under their purview, an extra two and a half hours per day correcting assessments translates into a mere 1 minute per student.  You cannot offer much written feedback on a student’s work in a sub-minute period, all the while checking their work for accuracy, thought, etcetera.

A Sacrifice of Staying in Physical Shape

Six months before my transition into teaching commenced, I earned a first degree black belt in Tae Kwan Do.  It took nearly four years to earn the degree.  Over that time, I flew to San Diego 50-75 times per year as well as nationally and internationally two to three times per month, while working for Qualcomm in their SnapTrack subsidiary, as well as their QIS division on QPoint, BREW, and QChat and their QCT division on gpsOne.  Most weeks my return flight from San Diego landed at 6:30 PM whereupon I hustled home then to the martial arts studio for a 7:30 PM class.  Some weeks, this happened twice or three times, as it was nearly the same price to stay in San Diego or fly back and forth each day.  Even with this very hectic schedule, I maintained my physical shape while working towards my black belt.  I could easily set aside my work tasks while I dedicated time to myself.

Since transitioning to teaching, I have allowed myself to spend nearly every hour outside of my classroom planning, developing, assessing, and reflecting upon the subjects I teach (algebra intervention, algebra 1, AP Calculus AB).  No matter how much time I spend, there is more to do, and at a higher level of quality.  It is very much like a black hole that pulls you into its inescapable center.

As such, I’ve regained all the weight I lost earning my black belt, and then some.  I feel drained every afternoon, and more and more often when I wake up in the morning before the school day begins.  I am unable to continue at this pace, yet, I have not made the adjustments necessary to do so.  There is always the next day’s activity to develop, or yesterday’s assessment to grade.  All of this saps me of my energy, as well as the desire to work out.  This must change.

A Sacrifice of Personal Time

Near the same time I earned my black belt, I joined a men’s team in the area committed to helping men improve themselves in whatever areas they deemed necessary, such as being in relationship with other men, improving one’s relationship with a spouse or significant other, or finding the power within.

For five years, I’ve been a member of a men’s organization, initially attending all of our monthly organization-wide meetings, weekly team meetings, and our fall events.  Over time, my attendance at each of these started to wane, so much so, that I am now a ghost of my former self in the organization.

Why? Since becoming a teacher, through a combination of conflicts due to grading and planning as well as the cumulative effect of my energy levels diminishing over time, my ability to attend these meetings has lessened significantly.  The emotional energy required to keep a classroom of adolescents focused, especially freshman who range from thirteen to fifteen, is enormous; it is even difficult to engage juniors and seniors in open discussions about mathematical concepts, for they are often overly committed to a series of AP courses, extracurricular activities, and work, leaving them exhausted and often dozing off in class.

On the freshman side, for those of you who have ever held a birthday party for your six to twelve-year-old child, where more than ten children are present, you have a small taste of the dynamic in many classrooms, especially one at a Title I school.  Simply keeping everyone in their seats and quiet presents a challenge, much less enticing them to engage in the learning objective(s) du jour.  Each day, with multiple, similar periods requiring your concerted effort to manage classroom behavior, while helping students engage sufficiently with the content to have any chance of developing skill with it, much less any understanding, requires a tremendous supply of physical, intellectual, and emotional energy.  You leave work drained nearly every day.

I challenge anyone who has not recently taught in a Title I school to do so for just one day to see how they view teaching; I especially invite those who spout about how poorly teachers do their job educating our nation’s children.  I would love to see footage of them demonstrating the supposedly obvious methods by which miracles occur.

Still Worth It, For Now

To answer this post’s title, yes, it is worth being a teacher, if your passion to teach has not been extinguished by the demands of teaching, which are extensive.  On many days, my emotional account is overdrawn.  Students flow through our public school systems like a river through a gorge, generating intense forces that move most objects in its path.  Rerouting the river, as we are asked to do with exhortations to close the opportunity gap or the achievement gap is easier said than done.  Most efforts over the decades where this has been the focus have failed to yield any significant results.  Why?  I do not believe it is for the lack of effort on the part of teachers or administrators.  I believe it is because it might be a bridge too far given the initial conditions as well as the constraints of the existing system.

In fact, the longer I teach, the more convinced I become that a teacher’s ability to change student outcomes in any uniform, meaningful, and consistent manner irrespective of students’ socioeconomic status (SES), environmental conditions, and self-agency is minimal at best.  Nonetheless, teachers are a powerful force in students’ lives with the ability to inspire greatness in our children.  The irony is the overemphasis on an equality of outcomes for all may weaken the net outcome for our nation as a whole, for teachers are increasingly demotivated by the incessant demands to do something, anything, to improve outcomes for low SES populations of students so that they attain similar outcomes as high SES populations.  Without addressing the SES aspect in the differences in the populations, the leverage a teacher wields will likely remain woefully inadequate, much like a hastily built earthen levee intended to hold back an overflowing river.

 

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When Classroom Culture Conflicts With EdTech (Christina Quattrocchi)

The following guest post appeared in EdSurge, February 9, 2014

 Teachers have a multitude of tools to choose from. Not every tool can exactly match every teachers’ pedagogical approach. However, for some when it doesn’t quite match up it can be the difference between trying it out or walking away.

Elementary teachers Erin Klein and Karen Lirenman share their thoughts about ClassDojo, a free tool for classroom management used by … million[s of] teachers. The tool allows teachers to give students points to reinforce positive behaviors, assign negative points for undesirable behaviors and allows teachers to track behavior data over time, sharing with parents and administrators through reports.

Here’s how these two teachers address the conflicts that arise between a tool and the culture of learning in their classrooms.

Karen Lirenman: Can’t See Eye To Eye

Before I begin I need to be perfectly honest that I have never tried ClassDojo with my grade one students. Normally I wouldn’t critique something without trying it first, however, philosophically ClassDojo just doesn’t sit right with me. I strongly believe children should be in charge of their behaviour through being taught and using self regulation skills and ClassDojo takes that away from them. Here’s why.

ClassDojo seems to enforce external rewards. And no matter how you jazz it up, external rewards don’t work in the long run. Yes, you may see results in the short term, but what happens when you remove the reward? From what I’ve seen, there is little authenticity and ownership of that said action. Using ClassDojo would make it hard for students to self regulate.

The one click assessment also bothers me too. It doesn’t allow me to differentiate and add any specific individual details as to why they are receiving, or not receiving a click. Whether it be a specific behaviour, or a learning objective, very little boils down to just one click.What that one click system is vastly missing is the information that the child brings with them surrounding their behaviour or performance of learning outcomes. I can have two children in my class who have not yet mastered a learning outcome but for two completely different reasons.That specific child-dependent information is extremely important to me, yet there is no way to differentiate that information with ClassDojo. It’s what my formative assessment is built around and it’s what guides me as their teacher. The simplicity of the one click negates all of that assessment data.

To take this even further, it is this simplified data that is shared with families. I think it’s great that parents are aware of where their children are succeeding and struggling, but the one click assessment tells them so little. It  would undermine my ability to be specific with their child’s needs, and to provide suggestions on ways to support them.

I am also bothered by the fact that the assessment is done in front of the class. For those who are successful on a consistent basis, I’m sure this isn’t really a problem, but for those who struggle I can only imagine that it would be.  Kids know when they are struggling with something and the last thing they need is to have it pointed out to them in front of their peers.  What about a child’s dignity? When has humiliation ever helped anyone?

As a teacher it’s my responsibility to build an authentic relationship with each of my students. This relationship is key to help my students overcome their area(s) of difficulty, and to push them along with their learning.  If I really want to make a difference in their lives I need to support, nurture, and guide. I need to help my students learn to self regulate, because ultimately the rewards should come from within. Because of a philosophical conflict, I won’t be using ClassDojo with my class.

Karen Lirenman is a grade one teacher in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada who loves to provide her students with choice in how they learn, show, and share their knowledge.

Erin Klein: There’s More Than Meets the Eye

I’ll admit, when I was first presented with ClassDojo, I was a bit apprehensive about using a tool that relied on extrinsic motivation. You see, building intrinsic motivation in my students is an important part of my educational philosophy and at first glance, ClassDojo didn’t quite fit. I thought there was no way I could get behind a technology tool that was based on points, or rewards and punishments.

And yet, I was excited to offer support to a new startup. So I agreed to help, reminding myself to be open-minded. I found, it’s not about the tool itself, but how the tool is used. Here’s how I used it with my second graders to go beyond extrinsic rewards:

 Attendance: My students love entering the classroom and touching their Dojo Character to mark themselves present for the day. This was a great way to track how many days of school each child had attended. They loved seeing the days of school tracked on the SMART Board using ClassDojo because it gave them ownership over their attendance. ClassDojo now has a separate attendance feature that is awesome!

 Anchor Chart Workshop Expectations: Each year, we come together and brainstorm a list of expectations for our reading and writing workshop time. We typically use chart paper and jot down our notes. Then, we hang these charts and reference them as needed.  We did the same this year, but we integrated ClassDojo to track whether students were successful in meeting their own expectations in the workshop. This also helped track what students needed to work on as well. You can click here to read more about how we used this in our workshop.

Special Needs and IEPs: Because ClassDojo is also offered as an app, teaching assistants use their smart phones to monitor student’s focus, interest level, attentiveness, and participation. The program tracks and stores all data that can be configured into brilliant graphs automatically. Each graph can be easily shared with parents, teachers, special education directors, etc. This helps the adults better understand student behavior so we can better support our students.

 Classroom Behavior: ClassDojo was designed to track student behavior and encourage positive interactions. My former school used a district-wide positive behavior system. So, ClassDojo supported exactly what my school was doing. Students could earn points for following the classroom expectations. This information was saved and could easily be shared if needed.

In closing, I’m sure you can find fault with several tools, strategies, philosophies, methods, textbooks, and apps. But I encourage you to think beyond what meets the surface. I’m glad I invested the time to think creatively about the uses for ClassDojo.  It has really made a positive difference in the way I organize important information for my students.  Start with your classroom and your students in mind. Then use the tool to fit you and your students.

Erin Klein is a teacher, author, and parent who has earned her Master’s of Education in Curriculum and Instruction and currently teaches second grade. She has previously taught first, sixth, and seventh grade.

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Harold, William, Victor, and Me (Part 2)

I saved Victor for last.

Neatly dressed, carrying a large notebook and a couple of bulky textbooks, Victor would smile at my “good morning,” walk to the rear of the room and sit down. He would put aside a ruler, open a book, take out paper and begin writing. He often wrote steadily  and intensely for 10 or 15 minutes. If we were in the midst of a discussion or group work, I would quietly ease over to him and ask what he was writing. He would smile, close the book and put away the paper. Victor, you see, could not read above the fourth grade level.

He could copy page after page of a textbook–and repeatedly did so– but did not understand what he was writing. Victor was a junior and nearly 20 years of age. His tested IQ was 63 and he had been in a special class in elementary school but had been mainstreamed since then.

High school was very different for Victor. He had learned to survive by keeping his mouth shut, acting studious, and turning in work that was incomprehensible. He would get As in citizenship and Ds and Fs in academic achievement. What he could decipher in textbooks in his various classes, he seldom comprehended.

While he was in my class, Victor spoke out three times. In each instance what he said made sense except that it had little to do with what the rest of the class was discussing. Most of the time he would write or stare at the blackboard. His face was a mask.

Whenever the class worked independently, he would laboriously copy word-for-word paragraphs from the U.S. History text. I would talk to him. These exchanges would make him very antsy and I would break them off. Occasionally, he would want to talk and he would tell me of his church activities and how much he enjoyed sketching pictures. A few times he would let me look through his sketchbook.

Other students in the class ignored Victor. I do not recall anyone ever initiating a conversation with him. When he would speak, snickers would flit around the room. Not once did I see him talking with another student when we would pass in the halls.

Being in five classes where he was unable to read, speak, or connect to other students must have taken its toll. How much he endured, I had no way of knowing. He never permitted me to enter his private world.

Because I wrote letters and called parents of students–both those doing well and not so well–I called Victor’s mother. I pointed out to her what I had observed about his behavior and inability to understand the text, assignments, and classwork. I also told her that I was a history teacher, not a reading teacher. She became angry with me and went into a heated description of Victor’s early years as one of several foster children in the family. She urged me to get him tutoring, to give him extra assignments–anything to get him to pass. She was determined to have Victor complete high school.

In an attempt to help Victor, I and two other of his teachers requested a conference with his foster mother. It was a disaster.

Along with the assistant principal, a counselor, teachers and mother, Victor’s social worker was present. The social worker had recommended to the mother on an earlier occasion that Victor be transferred to a vocational school or to a rehabilitation center where he could learn useful skills, where he would not have to sit for six hours a day writing out paragraphs from different texts. Victor’s mother had dismissed the suggestion and did so again. Victor, she said, could do the work if he tried harder and if his teachers tried harder.

Victor stayed in school. He received an F in my class.

Here again, I failed. I was unequipped to teach Victor how to read sufficiently to understand the text. Nor could I crack the defenses Victor had built to protect himself from people like me.

Did he learn anything from me as a person as well as from the content and skills I taught? I doubt it but, in truth, I do not know.

Let me be clear about my teaching as perceived by others. In every school I have taught principals have judged me effective in “ability to communicate with students,” in “knowledge and skillful use of materials and techniques,” in blah, blah, blah.

Other districts and universities have invited me to teach demonstration lessons and speak to their faculties.

I have written  instructional materials, articles in professional journals and books. And they have been well received. Thus, I ask myself: if I am so effective, why are there Harolds, Williams, and Victors that I have failed to reach and teach?

I raise this question simply because I know both in my gut and in my head that there are many teachers like myself who try hard, are evaluated as highly effective, and believe deeply, very deeply, that they can make a difference in children’s and youth’s lives. But not every child, not every teenager. There are situations that simply are beyond their control and failing with certain students is one of those situations.

“Beyond their control?”

Yes. When teachers succeed with most of their students, it is clear that what the student brings to the classroom, what the teacher possesses in knowledge and skills, and the structures of schooling in which both live are aligned sufficiently for success to occur. Teaching and learning is a complex process and, at the minimum, these three factors (and there are many more) have to be in sync for any degree of success to happen. When success with children and youth does happen, and it does, the complexity is often hidden from sight.

However, when students fail, blame is distributed among students, teachers, and the school and, in prior years, the family. Blame, however, hides the many moving parts and interactions that happen in classrooms and schools, the sheer complexity of teaching and learning in age-graded schools.

So in the case of Harold, William, and Victor, I brought limited knowledge and expertise to the table in dealing with these three students. They, in turn, brought to the very same table, strengths and limitations that made it difficult to find success in a complex organization designed for mass production of teaching and learning.

What does that last sentence mean?

Teachers did not design the age-graded high school structure for 1500-plus students that puts teachers into self-contained classrooms, mandates 45-60 minute periods of instruction and report cards every nine weeks. These structures trap students into routines that seem to work for most but not all students. These structures also trap teachers into routines as well that work for most but not all teachers.

Time, for example, is crucial since all students do not learn at the same pace. Daily school schedules seldom reflect that fact. Time is also crucial for teachers to work together for lessons and students that they share.

These and many other interacting factors led, I believe, to the conflicted relationships I had with these three students, making their learning U.S. history both superficial and doubtful.

For many observers, schooling appears easy enough when stories of teachers and students turn out to be successes (however defined). It is those instances, however, when students like Harold, William, and Victor fail that these and many other interacting factors, come together to reveal, for those who can see, the sheer complexity of schooling. It is that complexity that foils, time and again, reformers’ claims that changing curriculum, improving tests to measure curricular changes, raising the stakes in teacher evaluation, converting systems into markets where parents can choose schools, and holding both teachers and students  accountable will solve thorny problems. These “solutions” somehow will magically improve how teachers teach and students learn.

Hasn’t happened yet.

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Harold, William, Victor, and Me (Part 1)

I want to tell you about three high school students I have taught.

First, Harold. Lanky, always stylishly dressed and so clever, he drove me up one of my four walls. Harold was 19 and in the 11th grade. He had failed all of his subjects the year before he entered my U.S. history class. Yet he scored above national norms on college board exams.

Harold was never, and I mean, never on time to class, that is, when he chose to come to class. About five minutes after the bell, he would bang through the rear door of the room, clip-clop over to his seat. Passing a friend, he would lean over, hand cupped to his mouth and whisper something. Anyone in earshot would laugh uproariously. Harold had arrived. Another lesson interrupted.

Whenever the class got into meaty discussions with students interacting over ideas raised in the lesson, Harold was superb in his insights and arguing skills. He used evidence to back up his words without any encouragement from me. He revealed a sharp, inquiring mind.

But this did not happen often. What happened most of the time was that Harold would wisecrack, twist what people say, or simply beat a point to death. When that occurred, class discussion swirled around him. He loved that. He was frequently funny and delivered marvelous gag lines impromptu. In short, within the first few weeks of this class, he had settled into a comfortable role of wise buffoon. He knew precisely how to psyche teachers and how far he could go with each one.

I’m unsure how the class perceived him. When students worked in groups, no one chose to work with Harold. When I selected group members, the one he was in quickly fragmented and he would ask to work independently. On a number of occasions during class discussions, other students would tell him to shut up. I suspect that his fellow students liked him as a clown as much as he needed to act as one.

I grew to dislike Harold’s behavior intensely while trying hard not to dislike him. It was tough. I tried to deal with his wise buffoon role through after-class conferences and calls to his home with short conversations with his parent.  If he would come to class after these conferences and phone calls, his intelligence would shine as he contributed to class discussions. Time after time, however, he would back-slide. He would keep up with assignments for a week or two then do nothing for a month. He would cut class and when we would see one another in the hallway the same day, we would wave and say hello to one another.

The necessary time and energy for Harold considering one hundred-plus other students, I just didn’t have. In the last three weeks of the semester, when his class-busting behavior crossed my last threshold, I told him that every time he was late, he would spend the period in the library working independently. It was a solution that satisfied him since he would make a dramatic tardy entrance, I would give him the thumb, he would turn, salute me, and exit. It quickly became a ritual that I had locked myself into. And that is how the semester ended.

Due to his sporadic attendance, missed tests and assignments–and I searched my conscience to separate pique from fairness–I gave Harold a failing grade.

But I failed also. I could not reach Harold. He continued to stereotype me as the Teacher and I slipped into perceiving him as a stereotyped pain-in-the-ass Student. Did he learn anything from me as a person or from the content and skills I taught? I doubt it but, in truth, I simply don’t know.

William was quiet in class. Kept back twice in elementary school, the school psychologist diagnosed him as “below-average” in tested intelligence but did not find any intellectual or emotional disabilities. Now, 18 years of age, he was in the 11th grade and earning As and Bs in his courses, including mine, and looking forward to graduating high school.

After school one day–he would also come in to my room to talk while I was eating lunch–we engaged in a long conversation about his future. I asked about college and he shook his head, saying “No.” He had once wanted to be a engineer but now he had given up that idea. His father had encouraged him to go to college also as I had but now, according to William, it was out of the question.

Why? I asked.

Turns out that William was a member of a religious group that believed Armageddon would occur sooner rather than later and that God would only save those who accepted Jesus Christ as the Savior. He was a recent convert to the group and a true believer in the imminent end-of-the world.

Before school, during lunch, and after school, we would discuss both his and my religious beliefs. He brought in pamphlets from his group. We would discuss them often returning to the question of his continuing his schooling. When our conversation would go that way, William would smile and, as if he were dealing with a very slow teacher, politely explain to me that he believed life as we know it will end in a holocaust of earthquakes, fires, and hailstorms. The Bible foretold it and it could occur as soon as the end of the decade. Since there would be few survivors, he had to prepare himself for what would occur. To attend college would be foolish. Given his beliefs, he was right.

I admired William for his staunch beliefs even when, without a blink of his eye, he said I and my family would die in the fire to come because we were unbelievers. I took him as seriously as he took himself.

In a high school of 1500, he identified one person as a friend. More than once, he told me, his beliefs had become the butt of jokes in classes and among other students. Much of his time outside of school was spent in studying, attending meetings at his church, and, on weekends, doing street ministry work.

In class, William would participate often in discussions, do his assignments and perform well on tests. Whenever the class worked independently on short research papers or contracts, he did especially well. He received a B+.

I guess by conventional criteria, I was effective with William (e.g., did assignments, got high scores on tests, participated in class discussions). He seemed to have learned content and skills from me as a history teacher. The question I have, however, is what did William learn from me as a person in the many hours of talking during the semester?

I can say that in one sense, I failed William. Why I failed, I am unsure. If a teacher is to get students to examine their values, clarify them while they are being examined, then I was unsuccessful. My job, as I saw it, was not to dismantle his beliefs but to get him to reflect on them. He surely got me to do so by throwing my questions back at me. But I had gone through that process–and still do. He hurled my questions back at me to defend himself. I sensed this and chose not to continue that line of questioning. So I believe that I failed William.

Part 2 takes up Victor’s story and the reasons I have written about my failures with particular students.

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Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science. It’s Harder (Ryan Fuller)

Ryan Fuller, a former aerospace engineer, is a high school teacher in Colorado Springs, Colo.This piece appeared in Slate, December 18, 2013 A version of this post originally appeared on TeacherPop, the blog of Teach for America corps members.

 In 2007, when I was 22, I took a position as an aerospace engineer working on the design of NASA’s next-generation spacecraft. It was my dream job. I had just received a degree in mechanical engineering, and the only career ambition I could articulate was to work on something space-related. On my first days of work, I was awestruck by the drawings of Apollo-like spacecraft structures, by the conversations about how the heat shield would deflect when the craft landed in water and how much g-force astronauts could withstand. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t just watching a documentary on the space industry—I was inside it.

I was extremely motivated during my first year of work. I got in earlier and stayed later than most, and I tried to learn everything I could from my more experienced colleagues. The work wasn’t easy. Our team was trying to re-engineer, with modern technology, something that was designed in the ’60s. As a design engineer, I had to integrate the efforts of several different groups that often didn’t talk to each other or even get along very well. My deadlines haunted me like a thousand nightmares. Over the course of the next few years, though, I received awards and exceptional performance reviews, and I gained the respect of my colleagues, some of whom had been in the business for about as long as I had been alive.

Because I’ve worked as an aerospace engineer and later as a teacher through Teach for America—this is my second year of teaching 11th grade math and robotics at Sierra High School in Colorado Springs—I find the public perception of both careers to be fascinating. When I tell people that I worked on the design of a NASA spacecraft, their mouths drop and their eyes pop, and their minds are no doubt filled with images of men in white lab coats running between rocket engines and blackboards filled with equations of untold complexity. Most people will give aerospace engineers tremendous respect, without having any idea what they actually do.

But no one can fully understand how difficult teaching in America’s highest-need communities is until he or she personally experiences it. When I solved engineering problems, I had to use my brain. When I solve teaching problems, I use my entire being—everything I have. A typical engineering task involves sending an email to a colleague about a potential design solution. A typical teacher task involves explaining for the fourth time how to get the variable out of the exponent while two students put their heads down, three students start texting, two girls in the back start talking, and one student provokes another from across the classroom.

As a teacher, I must prioritize the problems of getting the distracted students refocused and stabilizing the cross-classroom conflict before it escalates into a shouting match or worse, all the while making sure the learning of the other 25 students in the room doesn’t come to a complete halt. I also must address these problems in a consistent, respectful way that best serves the needs of the students, because if I don’t, the problems will increase in number and become more difficult to solve.

As an engineer, I dealt with very complex design problems, but before I decided how to solve them, I had a chance to think, research, and reflect for hours, days, or even weeks. I also had many opportunities to consult colleagues for advice before making any decisions. As a teacher, I have seconds to decide how to solve several problems at once, for hours at a time, without any real break, and with no other adults in the room to support them. There are days of teaching that make a day in the office seem like a vacation.

One of the biggest misconceptions about teaching is that it is a single job. Teaching is actually two jobs. The first job is the one that teachers are familiar with; people who have not taught can pretend it doesn’t exist. The tasks involved in this first job include lesson planning, grading, calling parents, writing emails, filling out paperwork, going to meetings, attending training, tutoring, and occasionally sponsoring a club or coaching a sport. The time allotted to teachers for this work is usually one hour per workday. But these tasks alone could easily fill a traditional 40-hour work week.

The second job is the teaching part of teaching, which would more aptly be called the performance. Every day, a teacher takes the stage to conduct a symphony of human development. A teacher must simultaneously explain the content correctly, make the material interesting, ensure that students are staying on task and understanding the material, and be ready to deal with the curve balls that will be thrown at her every 15 seconds—without flinching—for five hours. If, for some reason, she is not able to inspire, educate, and relate to 30 students at once, she has to be ready to get them back on track, because no matter what students say or do to detract from the lesson, they want structure, they want to learn, and they want to be prepared for life.

I experience more failure every five minutes of teaching than I experienced in an entire week as an engineer. Giving a presentation to NASA about how the thermal protection system of a spacecraft is connected to its primary structure is a cakewalk compared to getting 30 teenagers excited about logarithms. A difficult moment in engineering involves a customer in a big meeting pointing out a design problem that I hadn’t considered. The customer’s concerns can be eased with a carefully crafted statement along the lines of, “You’re right. We’ll look into it.” A difficult moment in teaching involves a student—one who has a history of being bullied and having suicidal thoughts—telling me that she is pregnant 30 seconds before class starts. What carefully crafted statement will help her?

Moments of success seem to come less often as a teacher, but when they do arrive, they can make up for all the failures: the excitement on a student’s face when she understands a concept after lots of struggle; the feeling of exhilaration when all the energy in the room is directed toward the day’s lesson; the shared laughter between teacher and student at a joke that only they understand. Sometimes successes doesn’t strike until later, as when I found out that a two-minute presentation I gave on petroleum engineering changed the areer path of one of my students. In each second of her chaotic day, a teacher has a chance to transform the lives of young people for the better. How many aerospace engineers can say that?

In teaching, a person can be extremely competent, work relentlessly, and still fail miserably. Especially in the first year or two on the job, success can seem impossible. For people who have been so successful up to that point in their lives—failure is a difficult thing to face, especially when that failure involves young people not being able to realize their full potential in life.

Because of all this, sometimes teachers in high-need communities think about leaving for other professions. As someone who quit his job designing a NASA spacecraft during a severe recession without any clear plan, I understand the power of doing what feels right to you—you have that choice, that privilege.

Just don’t forget about the ones who don’t have much in the way of choices and privileges. Don’t forget about the ones that don’t get to choose what school they go to. Who don’t get to choose who their teachers are. Who don’t get to choose how the students around them act. Who don’t get to choose what kind of environment they were born into. Don’t forget about them. They’ll be there Monday morning.

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