Sunday, June 30, 2013

Taking It To The Heart

me grey
Author: Shella Zelenz
As a parent, teacher, and  human being, I’ve been through some journeys and I’ve learned as I went along. One thing that has been universal in all of these experiences is the mental, physical, and emotional impact of each experience. We often ignore these aspects because we are trained to push through and produce. The side-effects are inconsequential to the end goal. I personally feel that is quite the opposite of effective production. The end product will not be the same if it is derived from a period of exhaustion, stress and pressure. Whereas a product generated out of contemplative reflection, peaceful approach, and coming from a physical realm of rest and rejuvenation will be more impressive and have a greater impact. This of course leads me to address these concepts inside our public school classrooms.
Although I could spend a great deal of time pointing out the systemic reasons why schools are a space of high stress, pressure, exhaustion and unhealthy physical practice, I’m not going to for this article. I am going to focus instead on how to solve these problems. How do I solve them? Well for starters, I can always start with myself. No one is responsible for my experience more than I am. Yes, there are pressures that can often feel smothering. The way in which these pressures manifest as reactive behaviors that I either harbor, suppress, or release upon those around me can be destructive to my health and well being as well as the health and well being of those exposed to my reaction. This was quite a quandry for me in my earlier days of teaching. I felt so out of alignment with what felt right when I was forced to do things that felt so wrong.
As I was very aware that I am the only one who will take care of me, I have made it my mission to take pro-active steps to ensure that I take great care of myself so that I can bring my best to the students and of course offer them a safe space where they can also bring their best to the table. It seemed to produce a synergistic energy and the amount and quality of what we were able to accomplish as a result was phenomenal. I saw a quote this morning, which I feel summarized this concept quite nicely. It said the following:
“Discipline is about making disciples. Disciples choose to follow out of love and trust, not coercion and fear. Parental discipline must also be based in a relationship with so much love and trust that our children choose to learn from us, not from fear of punishment, but because our example is worth following”  Dulce Chale
Granted teachers are not the parents of the students, but they are given a very similar responsibility that we all take quite seriously. When one is conscious of their own self-awareness, they also teach that to their students. With this in mind, I will offer some basic steps that can be done by any teacher anywhere to help them feel their best and be their best as well as encouraging their students to do the same.

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Exercise - daily - in a way that makes you feel good (walk, yoga, run, etc.)
  • Eat food that makes your body sing
  • Stretch your mind daily - learn something new
  • Allow your inner-child to play every day
  • Create a nurturing environment that rejuvenates you just by being there
  • Delve into the arts - who cares if you think you're not talented - we all need it
  • Do not try to control anyone else, but yourself (this is a huge one that will be addressed soon)
  • Get outside in nature every day (most of the above can be accomplished simultaneously)

BATs of History

Support State Bills to repeal acceptance of Race to The Top in your state.

This is the text of a speech I gave at a Long Island Rally in support of Assembly Bill A7994. I am almost 64 years old. I have spent all but 4 of those in NYS public schools either as a student, teacher for 38 years, coach, or teacher mentor. This was on the front page of my local newspaper…. I bet it is not unlike yours. STATE FAULTS GRAD PREP. According to the state, and what they have given the ridiculous name of The Aspirational Performance measure… to be college and career ready, a high school graduate must score at least a 75 on their English Regents and at least an 80 on an Algebra Regents. I went to the Bronx High School of Science, one of the most prestigious high schools in the nation because I passed a test in the 9th grade. I received a BA (cum Laude) from Fordham University, an MA from CCNY, and have earned an additional 90 graduate credits…. However, according to the State’s APM, I was neither college nor career ready because I never got higher than an 80 on ANY math Regents…. even at the Bx HS of Science. How many of you are HS graduates? How many, like me would not have been “C&C ready”?
I met 16 year-old Tyree 2 years ago while mentoring his TFA semi trained teacher in the Bronx. He was still in the 8th grade. He was on the verge of being tossed out of his Bronx middle school even though everyone knew he was one of the brightest kids there. He and I connected. When I asked him why he was failing, he said… “I can’t stand this. Why should I be doing the same “frckn” thing since I was in 3rd grade? He is typical. They took his passion, his curiosity, and his humanity and replaced it with boredom. 
When did we lose our way? The founding fathers knew that in a democracy public schools were necessary to have an informed citizenry. Public schools are not just to develop reading and math scores. Public schools are meant for the development of well-rounded adults able to contribute to their communities in whatever way they can, as college professors and auto mechanics, computer scientists and sanitation engineers. Public schools are meant to teach not just academics, but citizenship, and humanity. Public schools, next to family, are the most important institution in the socialization process of developing mature capable adults in our society. When did they turn into factories creating test scores, not adults?
 Many of you see your boys and girls, little and big, hating and getting stressed in school precisely because of what schools are increasingly forced to do in this DOE controlled prescribed manner. But why is there a prescribed manner? I taught American History for years. One extremely important era was the post Civil War Gilded Age when US Congress was owned lock, stock, and barrel by the powerful Trusts of that era. A very famous political cartoon of the time depicted a legislative chamber watched over by HUGE figures of trusts represented by the FAT INDUSTRIALISTS of the era, like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie.
 Similarly, education bills all over the country today are being guided by our version of these Fat Cats: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, the Koch brothers, Eli Broad, and the Walton Family…. Today they are profiting from the education of our children by buying politicians from DC to Albany and indoctrinated them with their pseudo-science and their INADEQUATE $700 million BIG BUCKS!!! George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Arne Duncan, Wendy Kopp, Michelle Rhee and countless other so-called educational reformers have hijacked our education system. They provide corporations like Pearson profit at the cost of our children! They “embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value.” …Like the Common Core and Standardized testing. 
NYS, for better and worse, has had K-12 syllabi and curricula for decades that other states hoped to emulate. It wasn’t perfect, but it was not prescribed. It wasn’t forced down the throats of schools, teachers, and children. They replaced it with Race to The Top formulas and The Common Core. We have to make our political leaders regret that decision to be bought off, bribed, and blackmailed by Arne Duncan’s and the Federal DOE.
I went to elementary school in a poor working class integrated South Bronx neighborhood. I learned to love school in 2nd grade because I was encouraged to learn by Ms. Rita Stafford, a teacher who thoroughly engaged all of us… We learned astronomy by hanging a solar system from the ceiling. We learned how to help our parents in neighborhood stores by learning long division. We learned how to fight for civil rights and for what is right by writing letters to President Eisenhower during the Little Rock crisis. We were published in the NYT. SHE is why I am here today. I am the SEED she planted! Because we love our children we must fight for their right to have a teacher like my Ms. Stafford, and perhaps many of yours who planted the seed of who you are today. Because we love our children, we must fight for the education they and the future of this country deserve. We must be sure we allow our children to flower as we have. Fight to repeal RTTT in NYS. Fight to get Assembly Bill A7994 passed.
With apologies to Quentin Taratino, and the movie Inglourious Basterds.. “Ed deformers ain’t got no humanity. They’re the foot soldiers of a teacher hating, kid smothering maniac and they need to be dee-stroyed. “…But I got a word of warning for all you would-be warriors. When we joined this command, we took on a debit. A debit we owe our children personally. “

Friday, June 28, 2013

Duncan Should Fear the BATs

What do the BATs have against Arne Duncan?
The first action the BAT Association took was to call the White House on Monday, June 24, and ask for Duncan's removal. But, why?
It's because he's a terrible Secretary of Education and his continuing presence in that office is emblematic of the contempt and disregard of real education by the Obama Administration specifically, and the power brokers in Education generally.
Let's begin with his qualifications. If you wanted someone to be the chief administrator of education in the United States, what do you think you would look for? A law degree? A distinguished career in politics? A degree in Zoology? If not, you may not be a sitting president as the former holders of this office have all had these qualifications. Career politicians and lawyers; that's who primarily has been in office as Secretary of Education since 1979 when the office was created. Is it really that odd that our educational system has been a mess in the last several decades?
So, by these standards, Duncan fits right in. He got a Sociology degree from Harvard and he was co-captain of the college basketball team. However, at least he has some experience in education having been the CEO of a charter school (not a public school, however) and then working as Deputy Chief of Staff for the Chicago Public Schools, and later the CEO for same. There are mixed reviews for his success in this area.
It could also be said that the reviews for his tenure as Secretary of Ed. are also mixed. His chief program has been Race to the Top, a series of incentives to push schools to reform and, supposedly, be better. However, one thing to think about: is it really a good idea to think of education as a race, with winners and losers? I think most BATs would agree that education is not a competition and that using such a metaphor tends to suggest you do not understand how students learn. It may seem trivial to some but it sets the tone.
Arne Duncan has demonstrated contempt for teachers. He has said, "Class size has been a sacred cow, and I think we need to take it on." Bear in mind, this is from someone who never had to stand in front of class of any size day in and day out. How he would be qualified to hold this opinion is a bit mystifying. But, what is not mysterious is the contempt this shows. The implication is that teachers are lazy or lying when we say that class size matters. It says that if we were really good teachers, we could teach to a large class just as well as a smaller class; it shouldn't matter what size it is. As a teacher of 12 years, having had both large and small classes, I can tell you this is not even close to reality. Smaller classes are always better. The only people that think larger classes are better are those more interested in saving/making money out of schools than seeing that kids get a real education.
Duncan gave a speech in 2009 that called for, among other things, unions to change their minds about tenure and teacher evaluation. This is a tired argument that blames teachers and unions for the problems facing the schools. Tenure doesn't keep bad teachers in the classroom, however. Bad administrators keep bad teachers in the classroom. Tenure is probably mis-named. It is really just due process. It means that you can't decide on a whim to remove a teacher because you don't like the cut of their jib. It means that you have to observe and document the poor teaching. You then have to discuss with the teacher ways to improve their teaching and give them the opportunity to improve. If they don't improve, then you document that and you can fire them. What's unreasonable about that? The truth is, many administrators don't want to do the hard work it takes to work with a teacher and help them get better. It is the equivalent of seeing a kid failing in class and telling him he's failing and then giving him an "F" without any opportunity or help to get better! We wouldn't accept that in a teacher and we shouldn't accept it in administrators.
But, the bottom line to this BAT is that Duncan clearly does not understand teaching, unions, or teachers. He goes on in the same speech to make a case for merit pay. At first, merit pay seems to make sense. You give extra money to teachers who do a good job. Sounds good, right? But, tell me, how many times have you heard a teacher say, "I got into this job because of the money." "I work harder because they pay me more," is not something any teacher ever uttered!
The real problem, though, is how do you identify better teachers? Test scores? I guess that's okay if you are really looking for higher test scores. However, I bet if you were to ask, most people would say they think education should produce better thinkers, problem solvers, or even a love for learning. I doubt many would even say, without prompting, that education's goal is higher test scores. So, why would you pay for higher test scores? Maybe you would need to observe teachers in the classroom, then. But, that takes a lot of hours by administrators. What criteria would be used to judge a good teacher? Are you looking for specific teaching techniques? You'd need to be specific as there is money on the line. Do you think a teacher who has honors students might look better than a teacher who has low-achieving students? Might that bias your judgment? There are a host of reasons why merit pay is not so cut and dry.
Every business professional will tell you that giving a reward for a certain behavior is going to get more of that behavior. Is money really a good motivator? This article from Forbes says no. This article from the BBC does a comprehensive review of money as motivator and also concludes that money is a poor motivator. In fact, when money is the motivator, particularly for specific tasks, it tends to decrease motivation overall. From the article:
“I am not suggesting that they [people] should not be well paid for doing their work," says Deci. "I am saying we need to get out of the place of thinking that the way to motivate is to give them incentives for specific tasks. We need to think about how to make the workplace one in which people will get their needs satisfied and in which they will perform well.”
It makes you wonder, with a degree in sociology, how does someone like Duncan convince himself that giving teachers an extra thousand bucks is going to make him work harder when a cursory Google search can lead to several reputable sources showing merit pay is a terrible idea, even if you do actually figure out a good way to judge teachers fairly.
On Tuesday, June 25th, Duncan gave a speech in which he allegedly defends the Common Core State Standards. The problem is, he avoids all the real issues that real teachers and critics have with Common Core and instead either sets up strawmen arguments or only addresses those held by crackpots and conspiracy theorists.
The real concerns about the Common Core were not addressed by Mr. Duncan. There are concerns that they are inappropriate developmentally for the lower grades. There are concerns about how these will be tested. There are concerns that the standards are being implemented without field testing and that they have been created largely without the input of teachers who will actually be using them. These are legitimate concerns. One of the largest and most serious concerns is that Pearson Education and other corporations stand to gain a great deal of money via textbook and assessment item creation. Pearson has the contract to create the assessments to be administered in 2014-2015. If you understand teaching then you must know that you should teach what you will test and test what you will teach. By Pearson controlling the testing, they are, in effect, controlling the teaching. A corporation's sole purpose is to gain greater profits for its shareholders. Corporations are not altruistic. One might argue that since Pearson makes money by educating students that it would be in their best interest to do a good job. But, that doesn't necessarily follow. How many products can you think of that are not of the highest quality but are still yielding a good profit for the seller? Therefore, it should be troubling that we are allowing, no, promoting the corporate takeover of public education in America.
The fact that Duncan does not address the real concerns about Common Core tells me that either he cannot because he doesn't have the wherewithal to defend the standards, or that he doesn't care to because they are indefensible and he serves the corporate agenda. In any case, you should feel insulted that he didn't offer a more substantive defense. The use of fallacies like strawmen typically indicates the speaker knows how weak their argument is and they are seeking to distract you from that weakness.
In 2012, Duncan gave a keynote speech, which you can view on YouTube or click below, in which he mentions the statistic that "Today, 2/3 of our teachers come from the bottom 1/3 of their graduating classes." (about 23:00 in) Larry Ferlazzo heard this stat being used elsewhere and dove into it in this blog post.
In addition, this article from Valerie Strauss' "The Answer Sheet" also looks at the numbers. Feel free to read these posts and the comments on Larry's post for yourself. My takeaway is that A) the thing he is quoting as a fact is not true, strictly speaking, and B) He is speaking in 2012 using data from 1999 and/or 2002 as if it was completely relevant to today. If this doesn't convince you of his ultimate contempt for teachers, I don't know what will. He very clearly will use bad information to besmirch the very people he is supposed to oversee. This is such a "businessman" mentality, to view his employees as mere resources to be consumed at will, rather than people.
The fact is that people like Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and Bill Gates who purport to want reform in education have attitudes like this. They throw out "facts" like this hoping you won't look into them, hoping their media profile will carry the day and you won't question if it's true or not. All they want is to destroy the credibility of teachers and their unions.
Why? Teachers have traditionally been very highly regarded, except in the last ten years or so. We have the relatively unique combination of being highly educated and of noble purpose. We have college degrees, sometimes more than one, and we spend our days trying to help people. As such, our opinions have carried clout. So, you can imagine that an organized group of teachers, like a union, can wield a big stick. If you are trying to take over public education because you, as a CEO, can see all the money running through schools and you'd like to skim some of that by running it through your corporation, you would realize that teachers' unions could present a stumbling point, or even an outright brick wall. You'd need to neutralize them. You can't have teachers looking at your business practices and products too closely and determining them to not be in the best interest of education, or kids. And that's why you see one negative story after another about teachers in the media. You have to get people to think teachers aren't worth listening to if you're going to start dismantling public education.
This is why Duncan should fear badass teachers, the BATs. We are not afraid. We are knowledgeable. We are not motivated by money. And, despite his smear tactics, we are not from the lower percentiles. Worse than that, we are angry. We are tired of being labeled "failures" despite being successful against all odds and with rapidly diminishing support and resources. We are sick of the ad hominem attacks against us. Most of all, we are pissed off that these people are coming in with the goal of making money off of our kids instead of educating them. For myself, I see myself as an advocate for, and protector of, my students. I think many teachers share this mindset, and I know badass teachers do. It's part of what makes us so badass.
So, when you show up with a smile and a hand reaching into our district's pocket, trying to say that you are here for the kids and you just want good teachers (after all, who doesn't want good teachers?) when in reality what you're doing is tearing all of us down, good or bad, that your standards, your assessments, and your policies are specifically designed to allow you to control all of us, regardless of quality, then we get angry. And, now there are a lot of us, together, and angry. Duncan should definitely fear us us because we will not use outdated stats twisted to our own ends. We will use real, current facts to expose you. We will see to it that you, and the other charlatans, are tossed aside and ignored. This is our profession. This is our life! We are teachers, we are badass, and we are not going away.

Baby Steps Away From Slacktivism

With the rise of, and the accompanying fervor and enthusiasm for, the Badass Teachers Association, a bit of Devil’s advocacy from educator and blogger Shaun Johnson on @thechalkface.

I read this post, and subsequent comments he made on the BAT Facebook page as I was leaving for a trip into the mountains, in an attempt to decompress after a moderately stressful school year of my own. A chance to get away from the city, from the computer, from the phone, and just soak up Rocky Mountain splendor. But alas, I could not get away from Johnson’s words, and for three days I’ve been asking myself the same question:

Am I a slacktivist?

After some serious reflection, I think not, though I certainly once was. But his posts gave me enough pause to consider addressing others of my ilk that I believe make up the bulk of the BAT group: teachers that are mad as hell about the state of public ed. in the United States but may not know how to do anything about it.

I am not an expert. I have never chained myself to a bulldozer in a rainforest or been tased and arrested in a state capitol building. But over the past year, I have gradually become more educated, more involved, and more vocal in the fight to save our schools from corporate raiders, empty suits, and ideology-driven politicians. And as I become more involved and embark upon my inevitable destiny of making speeches delivered through a bullhorn from the steps of some government edifice or other, I would like to share my series of baby steps away from slacktivism. Consider this the first part in an as-yet-undetermined number of installments.

The fact that you’ve joined a group like the BATs really is a positive step. You admit there’s a problem that is not being addressed properly, you’re looking for like-minded people to share your story with. Some of you are probably shocked at the stories you are hearing. The more stories you read, the angrier you become. Excellent. To quote the bard: “Be this the whetstone of your sword. Blunt not the heart, enrage it.” Get passionate. Stand for something. This is your career, your livelihood. This is the job you chose despite the long hours and lousy pay. People who know precisely zero about what it’s like to be in a classroom are making your decisions for you. Get angry. Get tough. Make some noise.

Next, if you are not already, start following the education blogs. There are many, many strong voices for public education out there, and knowing the issues is key.  Read Johnson and Tim Slekar, Diane Ravitch, Anthony Cody, Crazy Crawfish, EduShyster, Mercedes Schneider. Read the bloggers they link to on their sites. Follow them on Twitter and read the links they post. Learn enough about the issues that you can cite specific research or news stories at the drop of a hat when challenged in person or online:“Parent trigger laws? Yeah, that worked like a charm in Adelanto.”

The power of social media in activism, at this point, simply cannot be denied, and I believe this is our greatest advantage. To network with people we know and share stories about the dismantling of public ed with them, and to enlist them into our cause. What still surprises me is the number of people out there, teachers included, who are mostly clueless about the state of public ed. School board elections tend to have the lowest voter turnout of any local elections because few realize what is at stake of late. People need to know what game is afoot, and you need to tell them. Post links to pro-public education blogs and stories in the media on your Facebook page. Make your views on current ed. policy known via your status updates. I’m not saying quit sharing your vacation photos to make room for your political views, but keep on your pro-public ed. message frequently. I do have lots of Facebook friends that are educators, but I also am friends with former students, parents, and other community members, and it’s these folks that will help us turn the tide, provided we get the word out to them.

To be honest, you will likely lose a couple FB friends along the way. I received a message from a college acquaintance of mine just last month: “If you don’t stop ranting about education all the time on Facebook, I’m gonna have to unfriend you.”

Shoot, that’s a badge of honor right there.

Next time: Twitter bombing and other mischief

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Excite, Invite, Inspire Me

It seems like for 10 years I've been living the life of a venomous creature inside a sealed transparent container.

People walk by me, see me, talk about me like I'm not there.

People tap on the glass of where I am confined for 8 hours a day to get my attention and hope I'll do something they think is interesting.

People are afraid to clean my tank, you know, take me out for awhile, because I am so dangerous.  So instead they feed me contrived forms of nutrition (not anything I might eat if I could choose myself) through a little hole, when it is convenient for them (not when I might be hungry). They know it is only a matter of time before I expire - that's OK.  I'm only there for their entertainment - a commodity to satisfy their needs.  When I'm gone they'll just buy a new one.

Once, people thought it might be interesting to put me with other venomous creatures just to "see what would happen".  I was scared at first, but I learned to not only appreciate the company, I THRIVED.  Sadly, a family of thriving dangerous creatures was a threat to the people, so they did everything in their power to separate us. And they won. I was alone.  Until last week when...

I BROKE FREE.  How? EXCITEMENT came into my life! Another creature like me had the courage to not accept what others had labeled them and demanded to determine their own name and therefore drive their own destiny.  They took the name Badass Teacher and INVITED all of us - the dangerous - to share in the freedom that is derived from self determination.  Now that I have this freedom I am INSPIRED to cherish it and to share it, to understand it and protect it.

When I came into this world I had expectations.  I expected to be sheltered, nourished, comforted, unconditionally. I expected to be encouraged and supported to think and create and dance and sing and to succeed and fail and succeed and fail and succeed.  I expected that the people who came before me were afforded these things so they would provide me with them, unconditionally. I expected family. I expected community. Imagine my surprise to learn that my caregivers were often denied these things and so either couldn't give them to me or wouldn't. Imagine my horror to learn and to come to understand by experience that humanity in our schools was not what was valued and institutionalized.  

Imagine the paralysis caused by fear and exercised through compliance to change the way you view your self.  Imagine who benefits from this conditioning.  Now imagine resisting the effort to deny you freedom for no other reason than to satiate their indulgences.

Now get up. Stand up. Rise. Fulfill your destiny and Be.

In solidarity Badasses.


Know Your Badasses: Part 2

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

What's Your Passion

What’s your passion?  If you don’t answer quickly and honestly with your current career, you’re probably in the wrong one.  I remember lining up my stuffed animals as a child.  The bedroom of my parents’ double wide trailer became a classroom in which I was a teacher.  Back then, there was no KERA, no NCLB, no Race to the Top, no Common Core.  I was learning for learning’s sake.  I probably did a better job teaching my Care Bears and Pound Puppies than I do teaching my current students (by the current standards).  Why?    Because I was passionate about learning.  When did kids lose that?  Our education system today robs students and teachers of the joy and excitement that comes with learning something new.  The focus is on perfecting specific skill sets in specific standards, not on learning.

Students today don’t become passionate about school and learning.  They become passionate about things outside of school.  Why not build on those interests?  The idea behind out country is centered on independence, but in schools, every child is supposed to be taught an identical curriculum.  This is a disservice, especially to those students who fall behind in grade level and the so-called gap only continues to widen until there is never an opportunity for them to catch up in all areas.  Let’s move away from teaching content and to teaching skills and strategies.  By doing this, we open the whole world to kids instead of narrowing their education to reading, writing, math, science and social studies.  Even that list sounds boring!  What about promoting critical thinking and creativity above all else?  I really can’t see how multiple choice and extended response questions can function as an effective assessment of these skills.  In the real world, I have never been instructed to sit down and write a 3.5 essay.  Never have I been asked to compute a calculus problem.  I most definitely have never been quizzed over geographical land forms, electricity, or “The Grapes of Wrath”.  I’m sure we can all agree that in some very specific careers, these pieces of knowledge are important.  But what about those who dream of being a mechanic, a construction worker, a plumber, or an office secretary?  These careers require a specific set of skills and knowledge.  Beyond basic reading, writing and arithmetic, the skills needed are not those in the required Common Core State Standards.   Let’s base learning on a passion.  Let’s give kids options and choice in their own education.

What about the standardized testing we force on our students?  In Kentucky, all juniors are required to take the ACT, if they are on the high school diploma track.  Our students with mild mental disabilities who struggle to read at an elementary level and have difficulties with basic math skills are not excluded.  We put an insane amount of pressure on these kids to score well, and while many of them want to please and try their best, all we do is set them up to fail miserably.  These scores are used only for data for the “powers that be”.  This year I had a gifted student who had been placed in my Response to Intervention “class”.  First of all, it was ridiculous that I had this group of students in an intervention class to begin with.  They all belonged in a class where they could extend their learning.  This particular student, however, was frustrated and slightly upset because he missed a test question, on yet another assessment, that asked what a gerund was.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I, a reading and writing specialist with three college degrees, had to look at him and say, “I have no idea.”  But I did know how to find the answer and having that skill was way more important and beneficial than having that useless piece of knowledge that is so unimportant in life.

For all of society’s advances, education seems to be taking a step backward.  It’s not keeping up with society.  Actually, in my opinion, it’s not keeping up with common sense.  Kids are so constrained by the standards-based boundaries that we are actually restricting their growth instead of allowing them to flourish.  If we want individuals who become functioning members of society, we need to focus on their strengths and talents and stop training them in such a conformist manner.

Those Who Can

“He who can, does.  He who cannot, teaches.” – George Bernard Shaw

Unfortunately, this old adage and its various permutations serve to pollute the minds of the general public and their stereotypical views of teachers.  I recently had a conversation with a fellow educator who threw this quote at me after his complaint that very few teachers are business-savvy and could never cut it in the business world.  While I found his statement offensive, it made me consider that he is not alone in his opinion.  In today’s society, teachers are viewed far from the respected, revered leaders of the past.  Instead, they are held by many in low regard as the aforementioned quote depicts.  However, for the most part, teachers are extremely capable professionals who possess the ability to do anything they teach others to do.

The lack of respect I feel has contributed to my growing disillusion with the teaching profession.  Not because I can’t teach.  Not because I don’t enjoy watching children learn and inspiring children to become the best person they can be.  Not because of the multitude of challenges I face daily.  I have become disillusioned by the soul-sucking expectations set forth by a government that regards academics in such high regard that they forget that our children are not A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s, or F’s.  Our children are not collective data.  But if the data doesn't show that our children are progressing by grandiose, sometimes impossible, leaps and bounds, the public is quick to point out the ‘terrible state of education and the teaching profession.’

Unfortunately, I view each child as a unique individual, not a letter grade or a test score.  I view my classroom as a place to grow, learn and develop into a productive person that can persevere and succeed in today’s world.  I learn about their talents, their interests, their dreams, and their desires.  When a child enters my room, we talk about their life, their family, and their dreams for the future.  I haven’t gotten to the point where my focus is on “the data”.  My focus is, has always been, and will always be on the child.  This does not always bode well for me, especially when my success as a teacher is based on my classroom data.
As a group, I believe educators – or perhaps administrators and government officials – tend to forget that curriculum is only part of education.  As I recall my first teaching job, I think of a first grade student who became my greatest joy.  And my greatest challenge.  He couldn't have been more than four feet tall, sixty pounds at best.  His dark skin was covered with faded white scars that screamed the story of the abuse he endured at his fathers’ hands during his first seven years of life.  He was angry and justifiably so.  He had been identified as trouble.  He was violent, defiant, disruptive, and a bad influence on every other child in the classroom.  He had a smile that could light up a room – a room that he would tear apart moments later on a whim.  His classroom antics didn't anger me, but I quickly became frustrated and overwhelmed with his resistance to anything educational.  My principal at the time offered me some advice that changed my entire outlook on education and teaching.
“Tiffany,” she said, “in this classroom, education does not come first.  The mental health of these children is the priority.”
From that moment on, I put curriculum and content into my bag of tools, but I have always remembered her message to me.  My students come first; NOT the data they generate.  Children are fragile, and many times, we forget that they have needs we ignore or simply cannot see.
  The lesson I take away from this experience and the many similar experiences I have had since is that as a teacher, I make an impact on every student I come into contact with. There are hundreds of other professions I could enter, many less stressful and less emotionally painful.  It is not because I can’t do anything else.  It is because I know I can make a difference.  I can teach, but I can also do.  While I mull over Shaw’s quote, what continues to come to mind is that the words could be made true with very little editing.  Therefore, I propose the following revisions:

“He who can, does.  He who can do anything, teaches.”

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

My Wife is a Teacher

by Vic DeSantis

I am a guy who lives for summers. I wasn’t always like this but I’m pretty sure I can pinpoint the exact time in my life where the months of June, July, and August became such an integral part of my happiness.

You might be inclined to deduce that my yearning for these warmer times is related to a sports season or a passion for outdoor activities; perhaps even slower times at work. In some regards you might be correct but not exactly for the any one of the three multiple choice answers provided.  

You see, my wife is a teacher.

When I met my wife she was not a teacher - she was a student. When we married she was finishing her degree and starting out on her own professional career. To say that I knew nothing about the educational system at that point would be an enormous understatement.  In the nearly 20 years that followed I have learned everything that a parent, student, citizen, and spouse should know about the challenges that every teacher faces. Armed with those insights it is difficult to reconcile the carefully framed messages of politicians and privatized education proponents with the realities of life in the classroom.

My wife is a teacher.  I’ve never once, in the history of our life together, seen her trading derivatives, speculate in real estate, engage in subprime lending practices, or make exorbitant demands on her employer for an outrageous salary. It is perplexing to me that over the past few years she and her colleagues have, at least in the eyes of many, become public enemy number one. I suspect that a good portion of this misguided angst is directly related to the economic environment; something that she had absolutely no part in creating. Is she without fault?  Absolutely not. I have over the years thought that she would have been much better off taking her well-earned college degree and her intelligence into the private sector and guiltlessly accumulated as much wealth and material possessions as possible. Sometimes you just can’t talk sense into these folks.

My wife is a teacher. Instead of making money she decided to make a difference.

My wife is a teacher.  For nearly 2 years she worked diligently to achieve the prestigious designation as a nationally board certified teacher – a designation that came with a small annual bonus.  After meeting her end of the bargain, the state pulled the funding.

My wife is a teacher. She has worked for a decade and a half for far less money than her counterparts who are not public employees. She did this satisfied with the proposition that the pay was steady, a small retirement income certain, and the intangible satisfaction of steering the lives of children.

My wife is a teacher. Her income is now in decline.  As a reward for her faithful years of service our state has decided that she should give back 3% of her salary towards her retirement.  After all they say “this is what folks in the private sector do.”  Tack-on another 2% reduction for the expired payroll tax holiday and the hits just keep on coming.
My wife is a teacher.  Despite continuous assaults on her take-home pay, she shells out thousands of her own dollars for classroom supplies.  She is impervious to the yearly barrage of administrative mandates established by politicians and so-called “educational experts” – she soldiers on.

My wife is a teacher.  She is reviled by certain segments of our society who labor under the belief that she is underworked and overpaid.  One would think that after fifteen plus years in a professional where a four-year college degree is a minimum entry requirement that most would not begrudge her a $40,000 a year salary.  And for those less inclined to the truth, her salary is adjusted to smaller twice-a-month paychecks to cover the summer months when school is not in session.

My wife is a teacher.  She is tasked with the enormous responsibility for the care and safety of your children.  I’ll dispense with the lengthy analysis on this topic.  Two words suffice – Newtown and Oklahoma.  Someone please let me know the next time Lebron James throws his body between a child and the working end of an assault rifle and I will hold professional athletes in the same reverence I do teachers.

My wife is a teacher.  For nine months of every year our family lives in the metronomic cycle of early morning wake-ups and late evening lesson-planning.  We revel in the plethora of candies and candles, gift-cards and gadgets that herald the arrival of the “Christmas Break,” and I observe with interest the emotion that a hand-written note from a 1st grader can bring at the end of a school year.

My wife is a teacher.  From August to May she had dedicated herself to the interests of her kids and her school.  She has prepared and toiled, laughed and cried – and shared one hundred stories about the amazing kids that walk through her door each morning.  She has left me wondering in awe how she does so much with - and for - so little.

It is the summer now – my happy time comprised of the few short weeks that I do not have to share her.  My wife is a teacher – she is also my hero.  I promise to return her in August.

A story about BTA from


‘Badass Teachers’ Fights for Public Education
Thousands of teachers have come together to push back against high-stakes tests and the privatization of education.

Know Your Badasses: Part 1

Monday, June 24, 2013

You might be a badass if...

I was wondering, "Am I really a badass teacher?" So, I thought about what might make me a badass.

You might be a badass if you sit in professional development meetings and wonder why they sent you since you already do these things in your classroom. Moreover, you have told your colleagues about this, or maybe you tweeted it to your followers. In any case, for you, the professional development was not time well spent.

You might be a badass if your motivation to get work done for your class is because the kids will be better for it.

You might be a badass if you think merit pay would be stupid. How the hell do you figure out which teachers merit more pay than another? Test scores? Really? You want me to get higher test scores? Since when did higher test scores mean someone learned more or taught better?

You might be a badass if you spend evenings, at your own direction, reading about education, lessons, or subject matter knowledge. Why? Because it's fun.

You might be a badass if you spent your own money on supplies you used in the classroom.

You might be a badass if you were lesson planning and got pretty excited and couldn't wait to go to work tomorrow to show the kids the lesson!

You might be badass if you often think about how your lessons went that day and try to figure out how to make them better tomorrow.

You might be a badass if you saw a good idea and stole it immediately to use in a lesson tomorrow.

You might be a badass if part of your daily conversation with a spouse or friend is about how things went in class today. You might be a bigger badass if you worry aloud to said listener about how much the kids are learning and what you can do to help them.

You might be a badass if you ever started listening to the awful music your students listen to because you wanted to understand them better. Or, you watched the same TV shows or movies and oddly found yourself enjoying them.

You might be a badass if you have ever had a kid tell you something that broke your heart because you suddenly realized how hard their life was.

You might be a badass if you have filed a report for the police because you suspected child abuse because you were paying enough attention to notice.

You are definitely a badass if you filed a report because a kid trusted you enough to be the teacher they told about their abuse.

You might be a badass if kids are frequently telling you how much they like your class. The chances you are a badass is even higher if you teach high school and this happens. The chances further increase if the kids also complain about how hard your class is, how much work they have to do, and how you never watch movies, and you're their favorite teacher.

You might be a badass if you spent several days over the summer getting ready in your room getting ready for the year. You cleaned, decorated, straightened and organized so everything would be right when the kids showed up.

You might be a badass if your principal doesn't like you. (This one isn't always true. It's possible your an a-hole. You will need a few more badass traits than just this one. Just saying.)

You might be a badass if you speak at board meetings.

You might be a badass if your principal avoids you or is scared of you. There could be non-badass reasons they are afraid of you, granted. But, if you are a badass, your principal is scared of you because you speak the truth. This truth often makes more work for them. Many principals hate getting more work to do. Also, this truth might make them feel stupid. Or expose their stupidity. Principals really hate that.

You might be a badass if students try to take your class again next year. You are almost certainly a badass if even the kids who wouldn't work, wouldn't stop talking, and got in trouble with you also want to take your class again. Like, seriously? After all of that you still want to be in my class? Why? (It might be because you're a badass teacher!)

You might be a badass if you are watching a show or movie and think, "Oh, this would be really good to help explain that thing the kids are having trouble understanding."

You are almost certainly a badass if you get a copy of that thing and show it to them the next day.

You might be a badass if your kids didn't realize they were learning in class because they enjoyed it.

You might be a badass if kids didn't realize class was almost over. "That's it? Oh, wow, that went by fast!"

You might be a badass if kids want to eat lunch in your room. And breakfast, sometimes.

You might be a badass if kids say hi to you when they see you out of class.

You might be a badass if you're reading an article and want to read it with your class so you make copies and rearrange lessons so you can share it with them.

You might be a badass if you like going to teacher supply stores.

You might be a badass if you get angry when you have to do test prep during class time. You do it anyway and you might not say anything to the kids but you're still mad that you're wasting time going over test prep strategies. If you figure out a way to disguise your regular lesson as test prep, you are almost certainly a badass.

You might be a badass if you think standardized testing is stupid and a horrible way to judge how much a kid has learned that year.

You might be a badass if you realized that one of the biggest reasons for the push for Common Core is so textbook makers only have to make one book for all the states instead of multiple versions for various state standards.

You might be a badass if you're tired of people disrespecting teachers and you are sick of hearing how easy your job is, how short your hours are, and how long your "paid vacations" are. You'd love to have them try to control a classroom full of runny noses, whining, giggling, and waving hands that have to go to the bathroom. Or a room full of hormones, flirting with each other, giggling, and nasty comments to the other kid they hate that may or may not erupt into a fight. Even better, you'd like to send them with 30 homework packets, or 165 essays to grade. If not that, you'd like to have them do some lesson planning, just so they can get an idea of your "easy" job and "short" hours. Then, you'd like to let them live off your paycheck after all of that, especially when they can do some professional development and curriculum planning during "vacation" while you don't get paycheck, or if you do, it's because the district got to hold it, interest free.

You are almost certainly a badass if you want to do something about all of it. You want to stand up and be heard. You want to stop the testing, the valued-added evaluations, the merit pay proposals. You'd much rather have up to date text books, carpet without stains and holes, desks without writing on them, computers that work, up to date software. You'd probably murder to get more boxes of tissues, more paper, more pencils and pens, more copies and the ability to get a bulb for your projector or ink for your printer at the time it needs it and not in a week or two.

If you care about students, care how much they learn, take your job seriously, and get pissed when you know what could be done to help kids but get told, "We don't have the money for that," or "We need to see if that fits into the site plan before we can implement that." If you're tired of being treated like a curriculum delivery device rather than a professional practitioner of a craft that is part art and and part science. If you're tired of people saying "It's for the kids!" when it's clearly being done in the interest of adults, then you are probably a badass


Indiana: Where "Reform" Meets the End

David Frizzell, Indiana Legislator

David Frizzell is someone that has made your life miserable.  Merit pay?  TFA in the building?  Larger class sizes?  You can thank David Frizzell.   David Frizzell is a state representative from Indiana, a member of the General Assembly since 1993, representing the city of Indianapolis in the state government.  You are probably wondering how this guy has any effect on your life; after all isn’t Indiana considered one of those “fly over” states, the ones that are culturally equivalent to dry toast?  So you might ask why this politician has any bearing on your life as an educator, administrator, a parent or a student.  

David Frizzell was the National Chairman of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council in 2010 and 2011.  During his tenure over this infamous organization that has ties to right-leaning funders such as the Koch brothers and the DeVoss family, ALEC created model legislation that was made specifically for Indiana, because Mr. Frizzell knew that Indiana would just let these reforms sail through the General Assembly.  He was so sure that Indiana would adopt every part of this education reform legislation that it was named The IndianaEducation Reform Package.  This document contains everything that has brought public schools to its knees with specific legislative language for each of these false reforms:

·       Charter Schools

·       School Vouchers

·       Teacher pay tied to school “grades”

·       Licensing for anyone

·       Eliminating collective bargaining

·       Turnaround Academies and Parent Triggers

·       Early Graduation Scholarship

·       Remove local control of textbook selection and adoption

All of this legislation was quickly passed into law in Indiana during the 2011 legislative session thanks to David Frizzell. It is no coincidence that the Charter Schools Law from Indiana looks just like the one in Wisconsin and Utah.  Licensing rules and teacher evaluations that were put into place in Indiana suddenly popped up in Ohio, New York, and Michigan. A to F grades for schools were put into place in Florida first, but Indiana took that law and made it more painful by being one of the first to tie teacher pay to the school grade.  In many states the laws have been changed to match the law in Indiana that allows nearly anyone with a degree from a college to get a teaching license without attending a graduate education program, and administrators are not required to have any educational experience at all.  Collective bargaining, well we can all forget about that, thanks to David Frizzell and ALEC.

By now I am sure you are thinking that Indiana and all of the Hoosiers that reside in the state are terrible people.  After all, not only do we have David Frizzell, but there is Mitch Daniels, our former governor who strong-armed the ALEC legislation and of course we had Tony Bennett, fondly called the spawn of Jeb Bush.  But last fall many of us, 1.3 million of us in fact decided to do something about David Frizzell and his buddies, particularly Tony Bennett.  The Superintendent of Public Instruction is the educational leader of Indiana and is an elected position.  Tony Bennett was voted into office in 2008 and quickly made his mark by endorsing the ALEC legislation while showing his contempt not only for public schools, but those public school teachers too.  When he was up for re-election in 2012 teachers had decided that enough was enough and we organized.  Glenda Ritz, a librarian and union leader from Indianapolis decided to run against Tony Bennett with virtually no money in comparison to his millions.  But teachers stepped in to make up for the lack of funds.  We talked to people, posted on Facebook, Tweeted, handed out out flyers, made signs and phone calls.  On election night things went downhill quickly for Bennett, he lost by 9 percentage points and Glenda Ritz received the most votes of any candidate in the state-wide races. This election night rout of the GOP-backed education reforms sent a clear message to the political leaders of the state, don’t mess with teachers, don’t mess with their schools and don’t mess with their kids.

Teachers campaigning for Glenda Ritz in Indiana

Reform may have gotten its start with ALEC in Indiana, but its also where Reform met its end.  So if we are to be Badass and stand up to well-funded self-serving politicians and billionaires then we need to follow the lead established in Indiana.  Talk, communicate.  speak up against these people that claim to know what is best for education.  Pay attention to who is running for local, county and state offices.  Your state legislature has more control over your life than anything that Arne Duncan can do so be the ultimate Badass Teacher and run for office in your state.  Every state has a David Frizzell; we just have to stand up to them.