We all have a stake in education and deserve a voice

We all have a stake in education and deserve a voice

My first thought when I read this article by Education Post was to come out guns a-blazzing for the public to have input in education issues. When I read one of the first supporting links, I’ve come to a slightly different feeling.

In this The Educator’s Room post, the teacher is simply stating that teachers want to see more of themselves in leadership positions. I would argue that the opportunities aren’t readily accessible or teachers don’t try hard enough to get those opportunities. I had an idea of starting an institute that would coach and train teachers to run for office. I think effective teachers carry many of the qualities of a great public official, but so few end up going in that direction. And honestly, unions have not been helping to make these opportunities possible or maybe there would be fewer complaints about how there is never a teacher to provide input.

It could be that teachers are just tired, and don’t have the energy to pursue something different. Their teacher salaries don’t allow for a huge savings that you could campaign without working and still pay your bills. Teachers are more generically also women who traditionally carry multiple roles in their household in addition to teacher, wife, mother, care giver…etc. I want to make those opportunities more available to teachers.

However, to follow the author of the Education Post piece, yes I think that non-teachers are often criticized and left out of important discussions about education.

The first is that we, tax payers are paying for the schools, and we should have say in whether we are satisfied with the results or not.

©Depositphotos.com/Margaret Paynich

©Depositphotos.com/Margaret Paynich

As parents,  we have a right to make sure our child is in the best possible school for him or her. We want and deserve to have choices. We see how school affects our kids and that feedback is valuable. How parents feel about the school and the staff is valuable.

Student have a tremendous amount of feedback that we rarely, if ever listen to. This is their education. They need to have a say in what works for them and what can be done differently. That doesn’t mean you give in to silly things, but talking with students to get that one or two tidbit that you didn’t know that would really make a difference for them.

Other people with related skills should be able to consult on those skills – such as finance, human resources, health, counseling, management – many items that teachers often may not.

I’m not over here telling you what should be in the English curriculum. But I can tell you that the high school graduates we need should be able to do x,y, and z. I know from my own personal experience that I didn’t learn how to write anything but a simple research paper in all of high school. And I never understood why I didn’t get a high grade in 12th grade English. By the time I got to college I realized I lack certain writing skills and worked to build them.

But I can tell you that many students are not engaging with traditional curriculum and I think they would perform better and be more engaged with all electives based classes with intentional ways of developing English skills. Model UN doesn’t have to be an after school program, or just an elective. It could be regular class where you learn history, writing skills, public speaking skills, strategy, team work, and responsibility. And it’s a real entity of the World that brings real world experience right to students. Why can’t you have gardening classes where you can learn science, math and incorporate a reading and writing element. I learned more in my “elective” history classes than I ever did in my required classes.

These are common observances that all people have and they all have a right to express them and others should listen and take that into account. When the public has questions about the school department budget, they have as much responsibility as a tax payer as the person who wrote the budget to ensure it’s spent well.

Personally, I have a Master’s in school counseling. I interned at an at-risk middle school in Worcester to specifically have that experience to learn from. You know a good teacher when you see one and who know those who are just biding their time. The biggest revelation I had was that no matter if I spent 30 minutes counseling a student, he/she was just going to have to return to 7 hours of subpar teaching. my work would probably be erased in the first 30 minutes. These kids need to be rescued from their own school. I felt like they were just required by law to be there and everyone is just going through the motions. These are experiences that are worth while that deserve to be heard.

I try to stay in my “camp” if you will when I make suggestions, but my 60-credit masters in school counseling gave me much greater knowledge of psychology and how students and adults learn than many teachers received training in. I may not be qualified to contribute in a curriculum way, but the implementation and how students learn is something that I know about. Differentiated learning is very important. Looking at a student and working to discover what emotionally, academically or physically is holding him back, before you discipline, assume that the student “doesn’t want to learn”, send to the principal’s office…and the rest of the menu of discipline. If you treat kids like animals, they will most certainly act like animals.

Career and college guidance. That is a whole other story. Schools are doing very little if any college and career guidance. Not in middle school where it needs to be and not with every child in high school. Schools need to admit they are not accomplishing these goals and make sure that utilize community resources to do so. And you HAVE to start in middle school if you have any hope of the student starting 9th grade on the right foot. All the resources being poured into high schools are completing missing the beginning of the pipeline.



Not the right teacher, in the right place, at the right time

©Depositphotos.com/Margaret Paynich

©Depositphotos.com/Margaret Paynich

I’ve been thinking about this alot lately. Teachers become extremely defensive whenever we try to talk about effectiveness. But the reality is that our kids need to learn and be in the best environment to do so. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are an in effective teacher all the time everywhere – it doesn’t mean that you didn’t earn your degree and learn how to be a teacher – it just means that you are not the right teacher, in the right place, at the right time.

I remember a friend of mine who is a teacher at a charter school here in Atlanta and she mentioned how she is going to be taking over some classes for a teacher who is leaving. I was amazed! Their school actually has attentive students (though not for lack of effort but into it), flexible curriculum, basically a teacher’s dream compared to traditional public school settings. Yet, she still didn’t feel comfortable in that setting. She apparently needed an even more controlled, smarter, more motivated group of kids to teach. The upside is that she knows that, and she seeks it out.

Perhaps we go too far when we say “ineffective teacher” because surely there is a classroom environment that this teacher would thrive in. But we all have to be willing to acknowledge when a situation is not one that the teacher or the students thrive in. There may not be enough positions available in all the schools with attentive and engaged students for all the teachers who best work in that environment. But that does not mean that the students who are harder to teach should suffer with a mismatched teacher.

Many of the teachers who would thrive in a more controlled classroom are simply less equipped to teach today’s students. a decade or two ago we all lived in a different environment. Kids were simply easier to teach in those days. Today’s teachers need to be able to compensate for the social emotional disadvantages our poorest children suffer from. They need to have stellar classroom management skills – and not the bossy, military style threaten and yell style, but a compassionate and firm style that teaches classroom standards without shredding students of their dignity with punishment and yelling.

Then there is the “real” reason we have a problem. I would bet that a majority of teachers don’t have a second career lined up. I’m willing to bet there are few immediate opportunities available to teachers if they are not teaching. Perhaps in part to the subpar education they themselves earned. When a teacher is challenged about their role as a teacher, what do you think is a pretty common reaction? Their own self interest. The school district has a responsibility to the students first and foremost. But the teacher may have a responsibility to his or her family over the students in his/her class. If a teacher has a choice between putting the classes first or putting their own family first…..I’ll bet the family comes first most of the time. Therefore, even if it is in the best interest of the students to have a different teacher, their teacher will stay for the paycheck. For their family.

No matter how hard it is to do, the school district has a responsibility to the students first and teachers second. If that means letting some teachers go and hiring teachers that are more adequately prepared to manage a classroom today, then it needs to be done. The school district can’t weigh the needs of the teacher to support his/her family over the needs of students.

What is antiquated about our schools?

When I returned from Washington D.C. to my home state, Rhode Island I remember a distinct interaction. One of the first meetings I went to in 2009 was a public meeting about the potential creation of the Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy. What became very clear to me while teacher after teacher talked about why the school shouldn’t happen – this is about self preservation. If this public charter school group (or anyone for that matter) comes in and says “What you’ve been doing for 30 years is not working,” it leads to instant feelings of defensiveness. No one wants to be told that everything that they have done for their career has been a waste. Even if it were true, no on would choose to believe that.

When it was my turn, my comments were along the lines of: “Our school system is over 150 years old. The schedule is based on students being able to pick crops over the summer. We have been making modest (at best) changes to our school system but it is largely an ancient design. Our teachers have been doing the best they can with the system they have been given. Our schools are not performing as well as we need them to but it’s not entirely the teachers fault. It’s an antiquated school system. Let us work to provide you a newer, better functioning school system based on modern day needs and we want you to be a part of the discussion. But we can’t continue with the structure of the school systems we have today.”

Everything needs to be re-evaluated including:

  • The school year – move away from an agrarian system and into one that doesn’t foster loss of education over a three month break.
    • I would suggest a year long school year with some combination of more frequent breaks of either 1, 2, 3, 4 weeks long.
  • Time of the day that students attend class. I know one argument is that older students need to start school earlier so there is enough time for sports and afterschool activities. Well, find another way to get it done. Have practices or meetings in the morning when you are currently sending students to school, if they are so motivated. Studies show that older students are more awake and more able to learn later in the morning than 7:30AM. Alternatively, these are the student who could feasibly get themselves to school yet they are one of the only groups of students that leaves for school when a parent normally would be able to drop off a younger child. Younger children are often up and ready earlier, but don’t start school until almost 9am? Then parents have to drop off at a school early for “day care” because they need to go to work
    • I would suggest Elementary starts earliest around 7am, then middle school, then high school. But whatever we do, lets back it up with some research not “after school activities.” You can make the buses work with a schedule like I’ve outlined
  • School Discipline & School Counseling – This is a topic I’ve spoke at length about please see: What unions should advocate for to allow teachers to teach
  • Teachers Unions & the laws around teacher salary scales – There was a time when unions were needed to help protect the public and employees. But now we have plenty of labor laws in place and even if you can argue that workers who have jobs where it is difficult to determine performance (such as a factory job) teaching is one where effectiveness can be measured and no job is the same. Why can’t school districts and principals manage their negotiations of their own staff? Why can’t I negotiate my own salary as a potential school counselor? It actually demeans teachers that there is a salary scale.
  • Function of our school buildings – We’ve done a good job I would say with new buildings, but those schools which are stuck in older building are suffering greatly.
  • Learning strategies – it is an antiquated process to have all students sit, all day long and have the teacher “lecture” to the class. Research doesn’t demonstrate that anyone, especially children and young adults are benefited or should be expected to sit all day long. Students should benefit from strategies I’ve seen work with my own sister at the Met Center in Providence, RI which incorporates internships, project based learning, small teacher lead advisories and student presentations on what they’ve learned.
  • Curriculum – I’m ok with common core, but my problem is more related to this common denominator of math, science, social studies & English. Cant we teach the standards without specifically labeling each class one of these 4 subjects? Why can’t every class be more elective based, while also teaching those standards. Can’t you have an astronomy class where you learn math and science? Can’t you have a law class where you learn writing (English) and history and public speaking and how to make arguments?…etc If one room school houses could teach all their students, we could have 9-12 in the same elective based class and provide roles to the student who could do that specific part of the project. Middle School students have an after school class called Model UN, why cant that be a class instead of just an afterschool program?

I could go on…but this getting to be a long post and what else do you think is antiquated about our schools that we should be looking at??

It’s Not About You, It’s About the Kids

I am so sick and tired of hearing that “xyz” person doesn’t have teaching experience, or is a “non-educator” and therefore can’t possibly have a worthwhile view on the education of our kids.

We are not applying for teaching jobs. We are not writing curriculum (standards are not curriculum). We do however, pay for education and that comes with the responsibility to ensure our money is spent effectively.

Every single person in this country helps to pay for education. Every single person has the right to question if their money is being spent properly, when the results they see are not ideal.

If you were having your car worked on and upon receiving it back to you were unsure of the proper operation of the car. Would you just say, ‘Oh well, I am not a mechanic, so it must be fine, who am I to question the professional?” Or would you go back to the mechanic, explain what you noticed differently, how it is not performing as you expected and could you explain in detail what you did to fix my car and confirm that everything was done correctly? Maybe you would just go to another mechanic instead?

Parents and students (who may not be education professionals) are the first impacted by their or their kids education. They have a pretty good idea whether they are getting what they need and want out of their schools. When they ask questions it should be taken as a sign that they are invested in their education, not as an affront to the system. They are looking for an explanation, and a change of course, they are not recommending a specific course of action.

I may say to the mechanic, “Is there any other way to fix this problem? Any other strategies to complete this repair? Could it be part of a larger issue I should have addressed?” I wouldn’t be suggesting a specific repair strategy, but asking the questions I would need in order to assess my results and options.

Anti-reformers need to stop taking questions personally and understand that it’s really ACTUALLY personal for the student and his/her parent. Every single day that a student is not receiving the education they need is a waste of tax payer dollars, a waste of everyone’s time and education instructional time that the student will never regain.

For taxpayers, for business, for everyone else in the community paying for education – everyone has a right to ask questions and demand results for their money. If the county water system was pumping out infected water, surely residents would be in an uproar about it. Not only is the water paid for by taxes, but it is a public health concern. And it would be fixed immediately (hopefully). Now, is it the whole city government’s fault? no. Is it maybe one person’s fault? or a couple of people? maybe. Will they be trained better or some other change? Probably.

So why is it that anti-reformers take it so personally when anyone, students, parents, taxpayers, question how a school is performing? Why are we getting the results we are? What else can be done to change the performance of our students? Is there another school I can send my child to? These are VALID questions for tax payers who are paying for schools and students who need to be able to rely on their education to allow them to be competitive in today’s market. Businesses need qualified workers.

The answer is in the constituency. The public education system as a whole is responsible to tax payers, citizens, students, parents, communities…etc. but they are commingled with education professionals who have a constituency to teachers (and union dues) ONLY. So how can the public get a straight, respectful answer from education professionals with such conflicting constituencies?