Wherein I Weave Together Some Disparate Ideas, Part I

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As usual, life (by which I really mean “school”) has gotten in the way of blogging. But I’ve finally reached a less stressful point in the semester. I have a few days where I can actually breathe, and I’ve got some things to say. They’re not as timely as they could have been had I gotten around to posting them a few weeks (or months) ago, but better late than never, I suppose.

I also apologize in advance if this post gets a bit long-winded. For a while now, I’ve had a fairly focused post in mind, but the longer I went without writing anything, the more I’ve added to it in my head. Now I have what should probably be at least three or four separate posts, but I’ve decided to combine them into two, because they are—to my mind—very much related.

The first point is a feeling of anger about some of the invective that’s been spewed by those who oppose teachers’ unions. I’m not personally a member of a union, and I often think for all the good they do for their members, they generate some serious negative externalities that deserve to be examined in the light of day. I could probably rant for days about how the MLB Player’s Association has ruined baseball, but I’ll spare you. So, suffice it to say, even though I certainly lean left, I’m not in lockstep with unions, whether teachers’ or otherwise.

Regardless of your political views, though, everyone should be able to recognize that teachers have an incredibly difficult but incredibly important job, and in most cases, they do it for very little pay and only average benefits. “Summers off” seems to get thrown around as a benefit, but I don’t think that counts if you also use that to justify the low pay. Let’s not forget that many teachers have to work summer jobs to make ends meet.

For the sake of simple math, let’s say that a teacher works 40 weeks a year. That gives her eight weeks “off” in the summer, two weeks around Christmas, a week for Spring Break, and a week’s worth of assorted other holidays that other workers might not receive. And let’s say that this teacher’s salary is $40,000, or $1,000 per working week. (For the record, that’s a sum many teachers—especially those early-career teachers most susceptible to burnout and career change—would love to have.) And let’s say that this teacher, when she’s “working,” puts in 50 hours/week—probably a conservative. So before taxes, this teacher makes $20/hour, about as much as a journeyman plumber.

And this brings me to my next point. No one teaches for the money. That should be obvious, but maybe it’s not. Most of the teachers I know chose teaching because they are selfless people. They teach because they feel a desire to give something back to society. Because they want to make a difference. And they are willing to make sacrifices—financial and otherwise—to feel as if they are doing some good. As such, their identities as teachers and their identities as people are often one and the same.

Tell a teacher enough times that he or she is doing a terrible job, and the truly good ones—the ones who really care—will start to look for another career. If you can’t be a good person, if you can’t give back to society as well as you had hoped, why not at least make a little money? By bashing teachers, I fear that we drive away not the “bad” ones, but the good ones.

I can only speak for myself on this one, but I know that too much of my self-worth as a person is wrapped up in the kind of teacher that I am. When I feel that I have failed a student, I feel that I am a failure. Unlike some in the corporate world, I don’t say, “Well, it’s other people’s money. I’ll still get paid at the end of the week.” Because it’s not other people’s money—it’s other people.

It’s not uncommon for me to work from 7:30 am until 4:30 pm, come home, take care of some chores around the house, eat dinner, and then put in a couple more hours of grading before bed. During baseball season, I go strong from 7:30 am to 6:30 pm, skip the chores (leaving them to my overburdened by amazingly understanding wife), and then do an hour or two of work before I crash. And I work (planning, grading, etc.) almost every Sunday, usually somewhere from 4-8 hours, catching up from the previous week and getting ready for the week ahead.

I’ve purposely avoided calculating the exact number of hours I work in a week, because I’m pretty good at basic math. I’m afraid the hourly wage would be intolerable, especially in those weeks where I feel like I wasn’t able to do “enough” for my students. Of course, I chose this line of work, so I’m not asking for pity. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we teachers be spared the nonsense that we don’t work hard for what little we make. Are there some freeloaders and hangers-on? Of course, just as there are in all professions. But the overwhelming majority of teachers and dedicated, hardworking, selfless people.

I suppose many Wall Street executives are dedicated and hardworking people as well (selfless, I’m not so sure), but I know that I, for one, could endure a whole lot more negativity toward the profession if I had more money. We’ve seen a whole lot of negativity directed at the fat cats on Wall Street over the past year or two, but many of those same people received multi-million dollar bonuses even as their companies tanked. If I got a multi-million dollar bonus, perhaps I could buy a pair of those really nice noise-cancelling headphones from Bose. Then you could gripe all day long about how easy teachers have it and it might not bother me a bit.

Actually, it would probably still get me fired up, because as I said before, my identity as a person is wrapped up in my identity as a teacher. At my core, I am a teacher, and I am not the only one who feels this way. So, don’t attack us and then act surprised when we get indignant and start storming the statehouse. And more to the point, don’t attack teachers and then expect the problems we face in education to clear themselves up. If teachers are the number one factor in student achievement, as many politicians and “reformers” claim, they need to be rewarded and encouraged, not browbeaten.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but ultimately, to devalue the profession in any way is counterproductive. It’s already hard enough to find qualified teachers, is it not? So whose bright idea was it to challenge their economic security and make disparaging remarks about them at the same time? I’m sure that will bring aspiring teachers out of the woodwork.

This brings me to my final point. I finally had the opportunity to watch Waiting for Superman over the weekend. I’m still processing it, but I do think it’s very much related to what I’ve written above: debates over how to improve education get to the very core of what we value as a society, and what we value as a society is very much in a state of flux. Ultimately, though, Waiting for Superman proposes incremental changes at best. Even if we could snap our fingers and make the changes that the filmmakers seem to support, our education system would still be fundamentally flawed. In that sense, the film is little more than a red herring, diverting our attention from a more fundamental (and, likely, more controversial and intractable) problem. I’ll address this in my next post.


New Year’s Resolutions

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I know, it’s pretty strange to be posting about New Year’s Resolutions in February, but if you haven’t noticed, I’ve been mostly MIA over the past month. It’s all I can do to keep up with what others are writing and saying, and I never seem to have time to get my own thoughts down on the… screen?

Still, this is a topic that’s been brewing in my head for a couple of months now. Toward the end of last semester, I gave my students a teacher evaluation form. My school also gave one, but I frankly find that one pretty useless. For the most part, the answers are all multiple choice, “never-through-always” or “1-through-5” kinds of things. I’m not sure what to make of it when students give me an average of 3.92 for “The teacher is prepared for class.” Seems to me that I’m either prepared for class or I’m not.

In any event, the form I gave students was much more open-ended. I asked them to reflect on what they would and wouldn’t change about the course, as well as what they thought I did well and didn’t do well as a teacher. I got a lot of good feedback, and much of it has informed my New Year’s Resolutions. Despite the fact that I’m just getting around to posting them, I’m happy to say that I’ve been trying to uphold them for the past month, and so far, I think it’s going well.

Although they said plenty of good things as well, many of my students conveyed in their evaluations that my “expectations are too high.” Typically, this was in response to the question of what they would change or what I don’t do well. I actually take that as a compliment. I’m glad to hear that they think my expectations are high, because they are high. At least we’re on the same page there. On the other hand, several of them used words like “harsh” or “uncompromising” or “severe” to describe my grading. This stuck with me.

The longer I teach, the more I despair about grading. I’ve written about this before. One part of the problem (but certainly not the whole problem) is that my school is fairly lax about student enrollment in advanced courses, and every year, I end up with a number of students who probably shouldn’t be in my class. As a colleague of mine put it recently, there’s a clear tension between the need to teach the kids you’ve got and the need to teach the course you’ve got. The more I think about this, the more I realize that the kids are the ones that matter. That seems obvious, of course, but when you’re in the thick of things, that sometimes gets lost. I can honestly say that I sometimes lose sight of the forest because I’m so busy cursing the trees (whether those are tall administrative cedars or underachieving young saplings)–which brings me to my first resolution.

In the new year, I plan to be a more compassionate teacher. I don’t mean to say that I plan to relax my grading standards (OK, maybe the kids wore me down a little bit, but I still like my average to be in the B-/C+ range). Rather, I hope to be more thoughtful about the way that I present constructive criticism, to make sure that it truly comes across in the spirit in which it is intended. Especially for those kids who are underprepared for my course, I’ve increasingly come to realize something. They’re there because someone or something–be it their parents, their peers, or their perception of the college admissions process–is pushing them to be there. Those same forces teach them that Cs are unacceptable, that the only grade worth getting is an A.

In short, these kids are being told that they have to take the most advanced courses that they can possibly take, and that they have to get the highest grades they can possibly get. For many kids, these expectations are totally unrealistic. And so, even though she’s still struggling to comprehend the difference between a primary source and a secondary source, this sixteen year-old girl enrolls in an advanced history course. And when her teacher asks her to write an essay analyzing how race and religion contribute to change over time, supported both primary and secondary sources, she does her best. The grade at the top of the page is a C+. Although there’s clearly room for improvement, she should be pleased with herself. Instead, what she hears (or reads) is “You’re stupid.”

Those words will be found nowhere on the page, of course, but no matter. Our culture tells kids that a C+ is tantamount to failure. Now, I firmly believe that kids need to learn to fail. To be more accurate, they should be pushed to the edge of failure, because it is on the threshold of failure that true learning happens. But a C+ is not failure. Still, I think I could do a better job of putting grades in context for my students. A student who begins the year earning Cs and Ds needs to have at least some hope that by the end of the year, he can be earning Bs. And the student who earns a C on her first essay should be praised mightily for a B- on her next–as long as she’s working honestly toward her potential all along. And that brings me to my other resolution, which has little do with my students.

In the new year, I plan to be a more self-forgiving person. In much the same way that I set high expectations for my students, I put a lot of pressure on myself. When things in any aspect of life don’t go as I hoped, I fret about it. When students don’t learn as much as I thought they should, I take it personally and blame myself. But I have to realize that I can only do so much. It sounds corny, I know, but in 2011, I will try to take each day as an opportunity. If, at the end of the day, I can say that I gave it my all, I will try to be happy with that.

In that sense, I will try to live a more healthy and happy life–one in which neither the successes nor the failures of my career will define me. So maybe it has everything to do with my students.

Career Envy

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Like many teachers, I think, I occasionally suffer from “career envy.” Around this time last year, I visited the state farmer’s market and the state fair in the same day, and I came away from that experience wanting to become–get this–a dairy/poultry/goat farmer. There is something about becoming intimately reacquainted with the land that really appeals to the romantic in me. And there is something about becoming more self-sufficient that really appeals to the cheapskate in me. (As a side note, I think both of these qualities do serve me well in my actual career.)

I’ve also thought at various times about going to law school or getting involved in politics. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if any of the careers I find myself envying would actually make me happier. It seems that all of the “careers” I find myself drawn to are ones in which you must work long hours and take your work home with you, and this is exactly what I would be trying to escape in leaving the teaching profession. So perhaps what I really want is not a career at all, but rather, a job. And specifically a job that you can leave at the office and not think about between the hours of 5:00 pm and 9:00 am.

Honestly, there are times–usually when my grading “inbox” has gotten backed up–when I would kill for a 9-to-5. I know that this would leave me unfulfilled professionally, but I do wonder if it wouldn’t allow me to feel more fulfilled personally. Would I be happier day-to-day if I could come home and spend time with my wife rather than quarantining myself in another room, grading essay after essay after essay? Would I be happier week-to-week if I could go 48 hours without thinking about work, rather than spending most of Sunday a) grading, b) preparing for class, or c) both?

I’ve been told that, in this economy, I should just be thankful to have a job–and I am. Don’t get me wrong: there are many things I love about my job. I love that I start over with a clean slate every year (at least in theory). And I love the life of the mind–always thinking, questioning, reflecting. I also–most of the time, at least–love the kids, and I especially love the kids when they show an interest in the life of the mind. And, of course, I can’t lie: I love having the summers off. I know I would start to go crazy in a job that involved menial labor or simple repetition. But sometimes I start to go crazy now, usually around 9:00 or 10:00 on Sunday night, after putting in 6-8 hours of work before the week has even begun.

Most of my job-related stress centers on grading. In case you haven’t caught my drift yet, please allow me to be clear: I HATE GRADING. And I’m not talking about multiple choice tests here. If I could, in good conscience, give nothing but multiple choice tests, my life would be much more pleasant. But, as it turns out, I am that teacher who requires his students to write–a lot–and as much as they hate writing essays, I hate grading them.

I especially hate trying to figure out if an essay is a B or B- and worrying that a student may compare his grade with a classmate’s and have a legitimate complaint about fairness. I hate seeing the looks on students’ faces when they get another C, and then I hate myself for feeling guilty, because they’re the ones not putting in the effort to learn from their mistakes. And I especially hate when parents ask me if there’s “anything Susie can do to raise her grade” right before report cards come out (read: “anything you can do to artificially reward her for failing to meet expectations”), even though they know her essay was totally off-topic.

It seems to me that grading (especially meaningful grading of writing assignments that prompt critical thinking) requires a vast investment of time and energy, only to put unnecessary strain on teacher-student and teacher-parent relationships in the end. And, as I mentioned, it’s also caused me to want to become a farmer. For all of these reasons, Alfie Kohn’s 1999 article “From Degrading to De-Grading” really speaks to me. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that “de-grading” (i.e., not giving grades) is an option for me given my school’s culture.

My wife tells me that I simply need to relax my standards. Don’t assign so many essays, she says, and don’t grade them so strictly. After all, there are a few teachers in my school who basically “hand out” A’s and B’s for mediocre work, and they seem to be well-liked by students and parents. To my knowledge, at least, they don’t receive any pushback from the administration either. But I find that this is easier said than done. For better or worse, I think that part of my identity as a teacher (and thus, as a person) is tied up in trying to show students that success requires hard work. It’s not something that’s handed out freely. I suppose I’m trying to teach them life lessons as well as history lessons. Maybe I’m trying too hard.

But given that I have no farming skills to speak of, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to re-vamp my grading process. Now that I’ve laid out the “problem,” if you will, my next post will start to address how I hope to solve it. Honestly, I expect the solution to come to me in fits and starts, but if there’s anyone out there reading this, I certainly welcome your input.

How do you manage the stress associated with honest, meaningful grading that accomplishes your pedagogical goals without sacrificing your personal sanity? I’d love to hear from you.