5 Things Teachers Can Do to Save Their Profession

The teaching profession is under attack. The disgruntled parent is gossiping at the coffee house about some injustice done in the classroom. The taxpayer complains that the kids these days aren’t learning anything. Business leaders want to come in and tell the schools how everything should be done. Politicians simultaneously add more accountability measures from public schools while funneling more resources toward alternative education. And no one seems to believe that the teacher in the classroom actually might know what she’s doing.

7403731050_9a1ee480de_zThroughout my career, I’ve heard teachers lamenting the fact that they’re not treated like the professionals they are. Most of them have master’s degrees. They’re licensed professionals. Yet no one seems to take them seriously. Everyone wants to tell them how to do their jobs.

From a parent’s perspective, I have worked with about 50 teachers in three different school districts so far. My kids — currently in 7th and 9th grades — have had some outstanding teachers. And they’ve also had some awful teachers. About half of them were average. They had their strengths and weaknesses. They seemed to have their hearts in the right place, even if they didn’t stand out as stellar educators. Another third or so of their teachers have been horrible. Again, this is across five school buildings in three districts. There are some teachers who shouldn’t be in the classroom. I never would have dreamed that it was a third of them, but that’s been my experience so far. The others, that minority of teachers we’re delighted to see years after our students have left their classrooms, are special. They’re the ones who make this whole educational process worth the effort. We need more teachers like that. We need more people who are working to make a positive difference in kids’ lives. We need real professional teachers.

There are some pretty common sense things teachers can do — and not do — to encourage people to take them more seriously and to become the professionals they want to be. Here are five:

Stop complaining that you don’t have time. Yes, I know. You work at home. You have lesson plans to write, and papers to grade. I’m going to avoid the cheap shot of telling you not to make the kids do so many stupid worksheets, and you won’t have to grade them. And I’m not going to focus on three months off, because we all know you don’t really have three months off.

But the teachers in my school district work 186 days a year. That means they have 179 days off. Outside of education, most people work 240-250 days per year. That’s 60 days — a full 12 weeks — more. Sure, teachers work long hours during the school year, but so do doctors and attorneys and anyone putting their MBA to good use. And they don’t get overtime either.

I’m not saying you don’t deserve time off. And I’m not saying you’re not worth it. But let’s give the comments like “I can’t believe we have to come back to school already” and “why can’t spring break be two weeks long?” and “I just don’t have time to put anything else on my plate right now” a rest, shall we?

Know the content that you teach. I’m trained as a math teacher. That means I had more than 30 semester hours of college math, the very first course of which was calculus. If I can’t teach trigonometry or algebra II, I shouldn’t be in the classroom. Honestly, AP Calc and AP Stats shouldn’t be a problem either. The same is true across the content areas. My daughter’s middle school science teacher shouldn’t have fundamental misunderstandings about properties of matter. I realize that you may not have signed up to teach the class you find yourself in now. But you’re a professional, and this is all pretty basic stuff.

If one of my daughters is struggling with content, and that content is wrong, I will tell her it’s wrong. Usually, I’ll say something like “you misunderstood what the teacher said” or “she was trying to simplify it to make you understand better.” But that doesn’t have to happen too many times before the child figures out that I really mean “the teacher doesn’t have any idea what she’s talking about.”

Be an education expert. If I’m in a parent-teacher conference, your eyes shouldn’t glaze over when I mention Bloom’s taxonomy or UBD. You should have a philosophy of education, and it should be evident in your classroom. Your assessments should clearly measure your instructional objectives, and the grades you assign should be an indicator of what the student has learned, not what he has done. You should be able to defend the instructional value of everything you ask your learners to do.

You should not be ASKED to defend everything you ask your learners to do, but there are too many teachers in too many classrooms who aren’t being purposeful and intentional about their craft, and people are starting to ask what the hell is going on in the classroom because no one — including the teacher — seems to know.

I’m often amazed at the things we spend our professional development time on. We need to develop common assessments, because we’re not all on the same page when it comes to measuring student learning. We need to map our curriculum to content standards to make sure that the stuff we’re teaching is actually what we’re supposed to be teaching. We need to learn about professional learning communities, because working collaboratively to provide the best learning environment that we can for students is not something we already know how to do.

It seems like we’re constantly pulling science teachers together to teach them how to teach science. And we have to have a meeting of social studies teachers to go over the new social studies standards. And we need to work on differentiating instruction, because it turns out that our students don’t all learn the same way. And we need a model for intervention, so we’re not totally lost when our students don’t learn something the first time. And now you’re telling me that you want me to use something new and high-tech like the Internet as part of my instructional practice? That’s just going too far.

I think that many objective people looking at professional development schedules and topics might wonder what it is that these professionals are experts in. And they do have a point.

Be the professional you want others to see in you. Dress like a professional. Be organized and prepared and on time. Articulate your ideas clearly. Get rid of the cute fonts that keep people from taking you seriously. Know how to write in complete sentences that have subjects and predicates and verbs that agree and words that are spelled correctly. Use apostrophes and quotation marks where they belong.

Think of any two colleagues. Do you have their names in your mind? One of the three of you really needs to work on your written expression skills. If it’s not immediately apparent which of you it is, it’s probably you. If you need a refresher on basic grammar, ask any third grade teacher or any freshman English teacher to look at your writing. And for God’s sake, proofread your work if it’s going to be read by more than one person. I know you’re in a hurry. It’s worth the extra five minutes to make sure you look like you’re literate.

Be clear in your expectations. Most parents and students want to know one thing: how do I get a good grade in this class? You can eschew grades and assessment all you want, and that’s probably a very good thing. You can have the kids do projects and collaborate and work on activities that demonstrate their learning in all kinds of unique and innovative ways. You can motivate some of your learners to have a passion for the subject of your class, and they’ll do anything for you. But for most, it’s about the grade. If you tell them how to get the grade, and you’re fair about it, things will be much easier for you.

That doesn’t mean that you have to give up on your philosophy of education. It doesn’t mean that you have to compromize your principles or give up on common assessments. But it does mean that you should set reasonable expectations for your students, clearly articulate them, and hold students accountable for them.

One last thing: care. Care about your students. Care about your school. Care about education. This is a noble profession. You’re passing along our civilization, our culture, to the next generation. That’s important work. Take it serously. Love the kids. Prepare them for the world we’re leaving them. And people will treat you like the professional you are.

Photo credit: Audio-luci-store.it on Flickr



5 Things We Don’t Agree On

One of the frustrations with the current conversation in public education is that we’re not all talking about the same thing. We’re all experts in education, because we’ve all spent thousands of hours in school. But when it comes to some of the fundamental questions surrounding education, we’re not all on the same page. Here are five things we don’t agree on:

7632212948_5a2ca26f59_n[1]What’s the purpose of education?
Some make the argument that education is all about providing a basic level of literacy to the populace. We should teach our kids to read and write and do basic math. We should give our children the basic skills they need to function in daily life. Others point to career readiness. The point of education is to prepare learners to succeed in real jobs that will give them enough income to live without being a burden on society. Others point to higher education. K-12 education prepares students for college or technical school, which in turn prepares students to get good jobs.  A few idealists point to lofty goals like passing along our culture — our civilization — to the next generation, or to creating an informed, functional citizenry. But your view of education, including the degree to which the U.S. system is successful, will depend on which lens you’re using.

What do we mean by “learning”?
When I was a kid, we were told that knowledge is power. If you have the information, and you control access to information, you’re more powerful than those who don’t. That may still be true to a degree, but for the most part, everyone has the information now. If school is all about disseminating content to children, we’re wasting our time. They already have the content. Now, what can we do with that content?

We’re moving further up the Bloom’s pyramid than we give ourselves credit for. But if we want to measure this kind of learning, we have to ask better questions. We have to challenge students to think in new ways, to combine ideas from different areas, and to create something new. If you want to measure whether students have developed their problem solving skills, you have to give them problems that they haven’t seen the solution to. I’m not sure our high-stakes testing and assessment system will let that happen.

What’s the right balance between local and centralized control of education?
Whenever we don’t like something we’re being told to do, we drag out the old “local control” argument. Traditionally, education has been a local responsibility. We decide what to teach our kids, and how to do it. The government stays out of it. At the same time, though, we seem to welcome centralized standardization when we agree with it. If you have too much local control, then you find creationism showing up in the science curriculum, global warming being taught as a debateable theory, and any novel that encourages students to think and speak for themselves being labeled as subversive trash. The common core is not a bad thing, and most people who object to it actually object to the way it’s measured more than the standards themselves. If we do have standards, we ought to be able to leverage collaboration to make implementation easier for all of us. Part of the friction here comes from fundamental disagreements on some of the questions I’ve already mentioned.

Whose responsibility is education?
This is different from the last question. In the 19th century, American communities decided that it was the responsibility of the community to create and support local schools for the education of their children. Education was entirely local and community-driven. As time has gone on, the community has assumed a smaller role. Education is the government’s responsibility. Education is the parent’s responsibility. Now we end up in all of these convoluted strategies to try to make education relevant to the community as a whole. “Why should I vote for the school levy? My children are grown. I’m on a fixed income. I can’t afford higher taxes.” We need to invest in education because it’s the right thing to do. We need to invest in education because it will benefit our society and our country in the long term. There’s no short term return on investment. Support schools for the same reason that you still plant trees, even though you may not live to see them fully grown. Whether you’re a teacher, parent, grandparent, child, or community member, education is YOUR responsibility.

How does the U.S. stack up against other countries?
Education in the United States is better now than it has ever been. That’s not news. It doesn’t generate the same response as the reports claiming our kids don’t know basic math or that Finland provides a better education at a fraction of the price. But if our schools are changing — if we really are re-examining what we mean by “education” — then the scores our students earn on traditional knowledge-based tests are not going to improve. If we look at the tests that we’re using to measure students around the world, I don’t think we’ll find that our students are doing worse than other countries on the things we actually care about. Which takes us back to the questions on purpose and learning.

We skip these questions. Even in conversations about Next Generation schools. Even in discussions about appropriate professional development programs to transform learning. Even in deep, thoughtful reflections on what we’re doing in public education. We can spin our wheels around these things for hours without getting anywhere. But until we start agreeing on the basic parameters of what we’re talking about, we’re not going to get anywhere.

Photo credit: NikitaY on Flickr.

Part 1: It’s Someone You Know

This is the first part of a three part series chronicling my family’s experience with a potential child predator. Parts two and three will be posted within the next few days.

It was late on a Friday afternoon in February, and I was packing. We were set to leave on a vacation to Disney World the following morning, and there was still a lot to be done. I was surprised to hear the doorbell, and glanced out the upstairs window. There were two cars in the driveway. Two men were standing in the drive. Four more were on the front porch.

The detective showed me his badge. “Is there somewhere we can talk?” I put on some shoes and joined them on the porch. “We have reason to believe your daughter may have been a victim of a sexual predator.” I realized the shaking may not have been entirely due to standing out in the cold without a coat.

135276_b8940d5c3a[1]It took a couple hours, but we finally determined that it was very unlikely that either daughter was actually a victim. Still, they seemed to know quite a lot about our neighbor, and we tried to help them fill in some of the gaps.

He lives in the house behind us. His property is higher than ours, and from his house and second-floor deck, he has a great view of the back of our house and our entire yard. He and his wife moved in during the summer of 2009, and we finally got around to introducing ourselves on Halloween as the kids were trick-or-treating. He’s retired, in his mid 70’s. He and his wife recently moved back to Ohio from New Mexico. He’s an amateur painter. He loves rocks and geology.

He had a lot in common with the kids. Our older daughter loved painting, and had taken a few art classes in the area. Both girls were interested in rocks, and had recently joined the local Geo-Juniors lapidary club. Neither my wife nor I shared this passion, but our neighbor was just as excited about looking for fossils and cracking geodes as the kids were.

It wasn’t long before we discussed painting classes. He had previously taught painting, but didn’t have any students at the moment. He had a studio in his basement, and was more than willing to share his passion with a budding young artist. They started simply, and within a few months my daughter was producing astounding artwork. At age eleven, she was learning the fundamentals of color, texture, lighting, and composition. She soon outgrew acrylics and moved on to oils.

We dropped in on her classes occasionally, always unannounced. Usually, they were working. Sometimes they would be playing or doing other things. We talked about safety with our daughter. She would let us know if he ever made her feel uncomfortable. We made sure that his wife was always home whenever there was a painting lesson.

Because he had much more of an interest in rocks than we did, he would often accompany the girls to lapidary club meetings and gem shows. We were only too happy to let him share his interest with the kids. He soon became a fixture at club meetings and took an active role working with the children.

Sometimes, he would buy them gifts. Usually, they were small things. Maybe a couple rocks from the gem show, or a hot dog from the concession stand. He bought most of the painting supplies, and wouldn’t accept reimbursement for them. He’d give the girls candy and other treats. Christmas and birthdays would not pass without a gift.

By the summer of 2011, he was a regular fixture in the girls’ lives. Whenever they went in the back yard, he would be around. They’d share stories with him and he would show them his garden and let them play with his cats and dog. The paintings were getting better. When the older daughter enrolled in a virtual school, he offered to help out with her art classes. He took the lead on working through the curriculum and completing the projects with her.

Still, something wasn’t quite right. The kids were getting very close, and our unannounced visits during her lessons were less welcome. The time off task was becoming more frequent, and we would hear stories of tickling and roughhousing that didn’t seem appropriate for painting lessons.

We tightened the reins. We moved the art classes to our house instead of his, a move he wasn’t at all happy with. We made sure a parent was always home whenever he was over. We still gave them some privacy — they worked in the basement — but there was always someone upstairs. Meanwhile, the involvement in the lapidary club continued.

In the winter of 2012, he held an exhibition at a local library, and invited his two students to show their work as well. Each girl showed a handful of paintings, and we held a reception for visitors when the show opened. He also encouraged them to enter competitions and helped them select and display their best work.

As the girls got older, they started using online media more and more. In our house, our children’s use of social media is monitored. We see copies of incoming email. Chat sessions are logged. This data would become very useful later.

By the fall of 2012, the online communication had become excessive, and we stepped in. There were chats with the 13-year-old as early as 6:00 in the morning, and after 10:00 at night. Some of these messages contained veiled innuendo, most of which went over her head. There were emails and chat messages when she should have been doing schoolwork. In one case, he encouraged her to lie to her mother about what she was doing online.

That’s when it stopped. We confronted him in a grown-ups-only meeting in October of 2012. We shared the chat and email transcripts with him. He feigned ignorance. He was just fooling around. He didn’t mean anything by it. We were taking things out of context.

We ended the art lessons. The children were not to visit his house. They could wave across the yard, but should not visit with him unless a parent was present. He continued to attend the lapidary club meetings. The little gifts continued, often left on our front porch.

Meanwhile, we started doing some research. Unfortunately, he has a very common name. A man with his same name and birthday was a registered sex offender in California, but was not registered in Ohio. Our neighbor was previously divorced, and was estranged from his adult children. He talked often of his time in the Army in the late ‘50’s, and of his travels in Europe, but rarely mentioned anything that he did in the fifty years between his Army service and the time we met him. His Facebook timeline didn’t include any of these details either. He had lived in at least four states, so we knew he had moved around a fair bit. But that was all we know.

I consulted a police officer at work, and a friend who works with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Both advised me to keep my children away from him. We didn’t take it any further than that. There wasn’t any proof that he had actually done anything wrong. But as we told him, we would rather be wrong and have him upset with us than be wrong and put our children in danger. We would err on the side of protecting our kids, and cut off ties to him out of an abundance of caution.

That was four months before the visit from the detectives.

A week after our return from vacation, we received a lengthy email from our neighbor. He explained that he had been caught in an Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force operation that had occurred a year prior, and that his computer had been confiscated the previous summer. The detective had confronted him with the chat transcripts that we provided, and he wanted us to know that he knew that we knew about the investigation. He tried to explain his actions and asked for our forgiveness. We shared his email with the detective.

After nearly three more months of waiting, charges were finally filed in May. One of the conditions of his bond was that he have no contact with any underage persons without their parents present. This was an added condition due to his proximity to our children. My wife had several conversations with the prosecutor’s office before he finally pleaded guilty to two felony counts of child pornography. We were asked by the prosecutor’s office to attend the sentencing.

On August 29, 2013, he was sentenced to four years in prison for the second degree felony offense, and 11 months in prison for the 5th degree felony. These sentences were not suspended, and will be consecutive. He will be eligible for judicial release, however. Following release, he must have post-release community control for five years. As a Tier 2 sex offender, he is also required to register every 180 days for the next five years, and he is not allowed to live in a restricted zone. Since he currently lives within 1000 feet of a school, he will need to move. He must also pay the costs of the prosecution.

So for us, at least, there’s some closure. It’s pretty clear that he won’t be involved in our lives or our children’s lives from now on.  But there’s more to say about this. You can continue on to Part 2: Warning Signs and Part 3: Lessons Learned.

Photo source: Myblackrainbow on Twitter.