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Monday, July 7, 2014

How to be a Teacher

How to be a Teacher
Subtitle: My response to "The Tough Decision to Leave the Classroom"

DISCLAIMER: I am usually VERY careful to not offend anyone in my postings because I am a VERY accepting person and really only get truly incensed when what YOU do causes HARM to someone else. 

This post will probably offend some, so sorry, that, as always, is never the intention.

All I have ever wanted to do was to be a teacher. 


I remember a small stint in 8th grade where someone told me that a teacher wasn't a good job and I should be a vet (that little phase lasted about as long as it took for me to see ONE surgery, ew, gross) and some survey given to me by a guidance counselor in 9th grade that recommended I be a dentist (My OWN teeth gross me out, does that work?). In the end, as my mother predicted, there I was, standing at the front of the classroom, at 20 years old with a sea of faces not much younger than I waiting for me to impart my wisdom.

Yep, 20.

That happened, and it was utterly terrifying.

Here I am, 13 years later, embarking on my PhD in education so that I may become a professor of Education and teach the next generation of teachers how to navigate what I feel is the greatest thing that I have EVER done, second only to being a mother.

So when fellow teacher Josh Waldron posted his "Tough Decision to Leave the Classroom" that went viral on my social media pages, I was incensed for lack of a better word. All I could think was, congrats on your awards, you should be very proud, but if that's why you're leaving, then maybe it's for the best that you do.

Never, ever, have I subscribed to the idea that my job would be easy, but moreover, that it would be fair. All other talking points aside, my job, in a nutshell, is to instruct, in a subject area, to state and national standards, one or more content areas in which I may or may not have received the proper instruction myself for what the current standards say and thereby need to make sure I know what I'm talking about before I present it to children, communicate with parents, administrators, counselors and community leaders, be a role model, be a shoulder to cry on, while filling out an insane amount of paperwork that has no point whatsoever in the grand scheme of education.

Yes, that was intended to be a run-on sentence.

You get the idea, though, that I knew going in this was going to be the hardest thing I ever did and I had to love it like nothing else to make it my life's work.

With that in mind, and all due respect to the hard work of the blog's author, I think someone didn't inform you what you were getting in to.

This is my response, point by point to your public resignation. I hope that people reading this entry will realize how wonderful a profession it is and how it's all in what you make it.

1. Use the Hoops.

Every job you will EVER have has hoops. EVERY job. My friends works in finance, real estate, administration, pharmaceuticals, veterinary medicine, you name it, I've got someone in my life that works it. They all have to sit through meetings with tag lines like "21st Century Learner" and "Power" this, that and the other. ALL of them, and to be honest, some in a way that I will never understand.

It's not going away, it's been a part of education SINCE the dawn of public education, so why not USE it to our advantage instead of complain about it? I'm also a Girl Scout leader and we get the SAME little "hoops" for our volunteer organization, so education is not alone in this.

What do I do?

I lay it out to the kids, yep, even my 7 year old Girl Scouts. Children are BRILLIANT creatures and by explaining to them at a young age that things like this are part of adulthood you can work together to USE these ideas, tools, or "hoops" to help you. When I taught for Hanover Schools the CLC program was very popular, but World Language teachers were never trained in how to use it for World Language. So, I just made a few copies, gave them out to my AP/IB Spanish students and ASKED for help. The things these brilliant children came up with are things that to THIS DAY I use in my current position.

That, my friends, is 21st Century Learning :)

2. Realize that you can plan all you want, but that never works with a field like this.

I'd like to clarify that I'm not saying don't plan. Waldron in particular cites the economic downturn and how plans were not made for what to do when there no longer needed to be slashing. Problem is, as someone who now has access to what is going on on the administrative side of things, that is far easier said than done, and despite what news media outlets are reporting, spend a day in the General Assembly of Virginia.

We're not out of the economic mess by a long shot.

What needs to happen is instead of pitting teachers against policy makers, there needs to be a way for people to work together rather than point fingers, but really, isn't that what the WORLD needs to start doing in general?

That's not a reason to leave teaching, if anything, that seems to be a reason to leave civil society.

As far as the bleachers go, I'll speak to sports in a minute.

3. If a teacher is a good teacher, assessments don't really matter. 

Don't scream at me teachers because you need to see where I'm going with this.

YOU are awesome. You just are, period. Yes, the SOLs are the thing in VA, as is Common Core, etc. in other places. You hear about it, hear about it, and is it going away?


Just like inventory managers will always have a quota system to deal with loss, or a doctor has to meet standards of insurance companies, there will always be a new and better standard that someone had to meet and we are just another part of it.

Will the pendulum swing back? Yep, it will. Already, here in Virginia, the General Assembly is cutting back on the number of SOL tests and the College Board is restructuring the SATs again. AP (College Board) has already seen the benefit of the more "prove what you know" approach to learning that the IB (International Baccalaureate) program uses. While there is still testing, it is changing, researchers are being heard and while it is not fast change (but really what is?) change IS coming, and for the better.

Ok, so what about those darn SOLs and the tests for the "average" child?

I'm gonna brag on Beaverdam Elementary.

At Beaverdam, you would never know that SOL tests are the end-all-be-all that media has made it. The students take the tests and year after year BLAST them out of the water. Beaverdam is NOT a high socio-economnic school, it's rural, with probably more students at the lower end of the income scale then at the higher end. The building is well over 50 years old and teachers are expected to "do more with less" as is the mantra of the school system.

So, what's their secret????

Their teachers are AWESOME. Each and every teacher in that building has a love for children and for learning that IS the definition of education. Their principal meets EVERY child as they walk into the school to shake their hand and greet them good morning, EVERY child, EVERY day and the moment you walk through those doors you KNOW that THIS is an environment for learning. Sure, there are probably tears shed over the SOLs but no more than getting into (or not making it into) the Talent Show or a skinned knee on the playground. What is on those tests isn't taught where teachers are spoon-feeding trivia questions even though the standards themselves can be read like that. It's part of learning, part of the bigger picture and teachers TAKE the time to make those connections.

That's what makes the students of BES BLOW the SOLs out of the water, good teachers, plain and simple.

To be honest, though, it's good for children to learn these skills. We as educators moan about SOLs and the like all of the time, but we have to take Praxis I, Praxis II at the very least to get our license. Part of being an adult is being tested, and, like the hoops, we can USE this as an opportunity to create yet another teachable experience.

4. Realize the parents DO support us, but just need our guidance as to what we need. 

Ok, let's tackle that sports issue.

Fact: The average American understands Football.

Fact: The average American is TERRIFIED of looking stupid.

Yes, when I was a younger and less experienced teacher, and not a parent, I too lamented the numbers of parents that showed up for a football game versus the number that came to parent teacher conferences.

Then, I realized a few things...

#1: People get football. You can understand sports and it's an easy way to connect with your child AT the school level. What people may not get is Algebra, Chemistry or Spanish. For those of you who are parents, do you remember the first time your kid proved you wrong? Do you remember how that felt? Parents today WANT to help, but the more and more I talk to them they are at a complete and total loss as to HOW they can help. Remember, I teach Spanish, and that's something that many of the parents of my students have no background in whatsoever. I'll never forget talking to one parent over the phone while they were on their computer, walking them through how to use to help their child.


And then they told me how they WANT to help but Education has changed so much that they feel completely lost and stupid.

THIS is where we as teachers need to refocus our energy when it comes to community. The community is THERE, they will wave banners at Spelling Bees just as fervently as they do at Football games if we tell them WHAT we need them to do and make sure they DON'T feel stupid or ill-informed.

#2: Football games are at 7 p.m. on Fridays, yet we schedule Parent-Teacher conferences for the middle of the work day.

Let that sink in for a second.

We want parents to be involved in non-athletic affairs just we put all things academic when they're working. Remember discussing the down-turn? People have to work, that's a fact of life. Instead of whining about community involvement, let's make academic events not only more accessible to parents, but inform them of when they are happening well in advance. I'll give it to football coaches and athletic conferences, you know the next's season's events BEFORE the first season has ended.

Why aren't we doing that with the Parent Coffees?

Oh, and just throwing out there, but with the focus on social media, I find a Facebook page to be VERY effective.

I told you all that I run a Girl Scout troop. I have 100% parental involvement. 100%.  All I have done is make sure they are a) educated in the information and b) are informed of dates and times in advance (via a simple Facebook page and email distribution list).

Sometimes we just need to step back and ask WHY something is happening.

5. While I wish that teachers were fairly compensated, if you thought for a moment that we were you were grossly misinformed, and for that I am sorry. 

I knew going into this that I would make FAR less money than my peers from college and would never be able to own the finer things in life. I'm not going to discuss my personal financials but I will say that the hardships that the author of the article endures (i.e. home, growing his own food, working multiple jobs) are ones that I have never had to deal with. I say this noting that my husband was a stay at home parent and I was the sole source of income, for years, as a teacher. I have a modest house on a nice sized piece of land and I took my entire family to England last year for vacation. I do not teach for a wealthy district, in fact, based on the salary scale it looks like one might even make a little more money teaching in Waynesboro.

That being said, it's what you make of it.

Even if I had to do those extra things, I'd rather do that and keep teaching than I would EVER want to step foot in an office of any type. I'd rather have to make dinner at home than ever stop hearing a student tell me about their weekend. Of course I would want more money, who doesn't, but just think of how MANY students we have and how MANY teachers must be employed to serve them and there is a point where we must consider HOW much money and manpower the system takes.

The wisest thing I have heard in a LONG time came from my friend Jay on a recent visit to Canada. We were sitting around the table, discussing the socialization of medicine in Canada and the pros and cons of such a system in America. America gets bashed for a lot of things, it seems to be quite popular to do so, even by Americans, but before the conversation could go too far Jay calmly spoke up and said:

"Don't forget, Canada DOES have free healthcare for 35 million people. The USA has 314 million people. Sometimes we all forget that."

As of 2011 the USDOE reports 50+ MILLION students in public education, more than the entire population of Canada, and half of the entire population of Mexico (just to use our neighbors as a point of reference).

I personally cannot imagine having to figure out how in the WORLD to fund that.

In closing, I will not being leaving the classroom, ever.

Right now I am in the Virtual Classroom (which STILL does the same as a brick and mortar teacher just FYI), but I still work with districts and schools on a face to face basis and I hopefully will be stepping into the College classroom soon. I have no plans of retiring, ever, nor can I even imagine a day without being a teacher. It has been the most wonderful thing that I have ever experienced in my entire life and even if all of the points made in other blogs are true, my heart will never let me leave.