Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Spy Wednesday

8th grade got a little off track today.  One of the boys asked what Jesus "did" that saved us, making the distinction between teaching and salvation.  It being a Catholic school, and this being Holy Week, and that being an important question, I tried to give him an answer, which spawned more questions, and so it went.  One boy eventually asked, "Why did Judas betray Jesus?"

Good question, kid (They're full of those).

I've wondered this off and on over the years (the "on" usually being right about this time during Holy Week), and I've never been able to come up with an answer. I can think of possibilities.  None stand out as particularly motivating, at least not to me, who spends much more time wishing the be close to Jesus, but of course I'm looking at it from the comfort of certainty and 2,000 years temporal distance.

And yet, I wonder about that certainty bit.  So many Christians try to make Jesus in their own image -- style him into something that fits their existing view of the world and how things are and how things ought to be.  I'd wager a majority of believing Christians are pretty certain they have the right conception of who and what Jesus is, but of course with all those different variations, someone is going to be wrong.

So, I wonder if Judas wasn't just another of us trying to make his messiah what he was supposed to be, doggonit, and fed up that he wasn't or frustrated with events that weren't going the way he'd have liked, and decided he was going to do something, anything.  And like all of us when we sin, he thought he was doing a good thing. He thought he knew better than Jesus, Christ or no Christ.

I'm not making light of the betrayal, and neither do I attempt to outline mitigating factors of the willful catalyst in the crucifixion of the Son of God.  It's simpler than that -- it's an observation of how alike so much sin is, and the suggestion that perhaps we are not so different from Judas ourselves.

Tomorrow evening, we gather 'round the table and break bread with our Lord, and like every other Mass, there will be John's and Peter's -- and Judas's.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Logophilia Relapse

When I was a kid, nothing on earth or in heaven could keep me from reading.  I was the kid reading under the desk instead of listening in class -- ironically, the kid I now have to correct, though I feel her pain.

College, though, brought upon me the same ill as so many other readers: the high volume of required reading took some of the joy out and simultaneously gave me less time for leisure reading.  The first year of teaching didn't give me space to work on that, and I spent most of last year laboring through One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book I loved but couldn't plow through and yet I refused to read anything else at the same time.

Since August, though, I've started plowing through again.  And it has been wonderful.  It's like being reunited with a dear old friend, except this friend is an addiction.  I've gotten back to the point where I have to be reading, and when I'm doing anything else, I'm thinking about my current volume and when I'll be able to read again.

There's not much point to this, except to note a curious side effect: the impulse to write has also been making a comeback.  Mostly in handwritten notes and ponderings in margins and notebooks, but this might bode well for this neglected old blog.  I know -- I've said it before.  I've left you hanging.  I'm not making any promises just observations.

Now, off to battle this recent bout of insomnia with a cup of tea and a book...

Monday, March 22, 2010

Such Wisdom!

Confession: I stay logged into gchat on my Gmail all day.  Mostly, I read people's statuses between classes.  My dear frien Ginna (not, mind you, Gina or Jenna), who teaches 7th grade in Mississippi, has some funny kids -- I just had to share this:

"You need to get a husband.  Actually, first you need to get your feet under you by figuring out your financial situation."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Yes, I'm Alive, Yes, I Still Love Teaching, and Yes, I'm Still Very Opinionated.

My poor mother.  All she wants from me is a blog update, and I fail her daily.  I don't like writing if I don't have something worthwhile to say, which I usually feel like I don't.  Sometimes, I feel I don't have the time to craft something.  Well, that is until I get on Facebook, see a discussion I feel the need to get involved in, and end up writing something I'm actually pretty proud of (in a comment window in ten minutes).

I am proud to be a teacher.  Some of the people I've worked with, some I've studied with, and some of the unbelievable women in my family have shown me what it means to be a teacher.  It disinclines me to make many excuses for my profession.

A few notes: My writing was part of a conversation that spanned a day or two, so I've preserved it as such, removing names.  Also, I have edited out a few choice phrases and rephrased a couple things in my own writing for clarity.  No changes to content.  Please remember this is Facebook, where conventions of writing are applied creatively.

My friend R: YES - Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers
[Note: I have yet to actually read the article; all my comments were in direct response to others.]

R's friend D: "Many more teachers are overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. Maybe they'd get more respect if the truly bad teachers were let go."
Girl, I hate this article.

R: haha, must have missed that part when i was reading it between classes this morning. but i've seen firsthand too many schools where AWFUL teachers will never be fired... something needs to change.

Me: AGREE!! If teaching is supposed to be a profession, then the bad professionals don't get to keep their jobs.

D: Here's your problem -- How do you determine a "bad" teacher? Test scores? Because that's currently the way the public school system judges teacher performance, and it's piss poor. Teachers shouldn't be punished for students who are bad testtakers. Furthermore, teachers shouldn't be encouraged to teach to fit a standarized test instead of teaching so that students can learn the material.
And the answer of a drastic teachers shortage in the United States shouldn't be the mass-firing of teachers.
R: no, i'm not talking about standardized tests. bad teachers - the ones i've seen and/or heard about - are the ones who show movies everyday instead of teaching (true story: some of my students have watched Borat and The House Bunny during other classes). they're the ones who are teaching middle school literature & language arts, and cannot even write a paragraph of their own that is free of grammar and spelling errors. they're the ones that have no background in math or science and yet are allowed to teach advanced courses in these areas to high school students. i know that this type of stuff can't be easily quantified, but we need to find a way to increase accountability. i wouldn't mind staying an extra 25 min everyday and eating lunch with the kids once a week.
Me: (R, I'm sorry I'm ranting on your wall.)

Two things - One, As R points out, the teachers at that school in Rhode Island *refused* to put in any extra time because it wasn't in their contract. Contract my hind foot.  It's your JOB to help these KIDS. Teaching is plagued by indifference and an obnoxious martyr mentality (although it also has so many gifted, enthusiastic, giving people), and I have no qualms or hesitation saying they need to get the hell out of the classroom.

Second, the undeniable difficulty in quantifying good teaching does not mean we can shrug and let troops of indifferent non-teachers stay in the classroom. Some teachers are objectively, obviously BAD, and they should not have a job. Yes, many of the current teacher evaluation systems leave much to be desired. Find a better way to evaluate teachers. Do it case by case. No excuses for anyone, teachers or administrators (or students, but that's a separate issue).

Some states are experimenting with new ways of using test scores to evaluate teachers. First, they're evaluating individual teachers instead of whole schools. Then, they're measuring individual student *growth*. For example, if a teacher has a kid who comes in two grade levels behind and then tests half a grade level behind after having that teacher, the teacher get rewarded for the time-and-a-half gains of the student, not punished because the student is still behind. Even if a kid is a bad test taker, she should still show gains. It's not perfect. But it's better than nothing.
My friend B: You're both right that it's not easily quantifiable. But anyone in education can tell you that it's EASY to qualitatively distinguish a good teacher from a bad teacher. Just spend an hour in the classroom and watch what happens. 
D: And qualitative evidence is inherently subjective. Your version of a bad teacher won't look like mine. And who draws the line when a teacher becomes "unacceptably bad"? How many people have to agree?

And Andrea, actually I'd argue that using test scores as a measure of a teacher's ability is actually worse than the current system, because test scores really have ****-all to do with whether the kids are actually learning or not.

And who decides that teachers are obligated to do everything they can to help kids? Last time I checked, parents need to step in at some point. Teachers' employment contracts don't obligate them to become babysitters, psychiatrists, etc. Maybe if teachers are compensated like lawyers and accountants, you can expect them to put in big law firm hours. Until then, to obligate them to do whatever they can to help a student, and branding them a "bad" teacher if they want to actually stick to their work hours, is insane. Their job is to come in prepared, teach lessons, give grades, and manage parents. They aren't nannies or afterschool care providers.
R: sure, the job is to come in prepared, teach lessons, give grades, and manage parents. (a) what about the teachers who don't even do those things? the ones who are unprepared, let the kids goof off for 50 minutes, then bolt as soon as the final bell rings (even though their contracts require them to stay another half an hour)? those are the ones i would like to label as "bad" teachers, and the ones i would like to see fired. or at least given SOME kind of consequences, because there are currently none. and (b) i think this article is pointing out (and i would agree) that the teachers who get the best results are the ones who go above and beyond this job description and actually care about their students and their learning... no way that teachers can be required to do this, of course, but it's nice to dream. 
Me: (Sorry again, R!)

B! I miss you. Well put. Sure, there are problems with subjectivity, but sometimes (...too often) it's SO OBVIOUSLY BAD, it's easy to see a particular teacher needs to go. Yeah, there's a gray area. But we KNOW what good teaching does and what it looks like (and it can look a lot of ways). We're educators -- we're supposed to know how to set objectives and create rubrics for evaluations. Why can't we do that for teachers? You set a standard, you stick to it, and the professionals will work to meet it.

D, you're saying we need to use quantifiable data to assess student learning, but tests (usually) aren't reliable indicators of student learning. I agree on both counts. The solution is to fix the way testing is conducted, used, and thought about (which ABSOLUTELY needs to happen, esp. in public schools), not ditch testing all together. How else can we assess how well our children are learning? That's an honest question; if anyone has a better idea, please speak up because testing it fraught with serious issues. It's also effectively our only option.

Perhaps the biggest problem in education today is that educators don't think of themselves as professionals -- and neither does anyone else. The way many teachers perform and the way they talk about their work, I can't blame the general population. There is one real, credible way to fix that: act like a professional. Act like what you do is more than a set of tasks and obligations to check off. Act like it matters. Teaching is not like any other occupation. Multiple studies in the last couple of years have shown that the single greatest influence on a student's learning is the teacher -- not the school, not the money spent per pupil, not the parents. Teachers don't deal with bottom lines and action items. We deal with people. Children. Not just their brains, either, the whole kid. So I don't buy that teachers aren't obligated to go the extra mile. No, we shouldn't kill ourselves -- we truly can only do so much. But we should be willing to work pretty damn hard.

Then maybe the rest of the country would take us teachers more seriously, eh?
Me (again): R, I think we were typing at the same time. Yes -- there's an ideal, and there's a minimum, and there's all the teachers who don't even try. Great is preferable, but good is still good. Outstanding may be rare, but awful is still awful.