Category Archives: bad days

Teaching Tuesday: The open house blues

I’m a parent who always goes to open house. Even when open house falls on the first teacher work day and I’ve spent 8 hours at my own school, rushed to meet my husband for a quick dinner and then had to come all the way back to the elementary school my kids go to (which is next door to my school and 45 minutes from our house) and we don’t even make it home until nearly 8 pm, I go.

This year the teachers hadn’t even met my kids and I went to open house so I could meet them and see their classrooms. I wanted to hear about their teaching philosophies and learn what the year has in store for my kiddos, one of whom was a little more excited to go back to school than the other.

My enthusiasm for open house at my school, however, is not nearly as strong. It’s not because I don’t love my job. I truly do. I cannot really imagine being anything other than a teacher (well, except rock star, famous author or movie star, but I’m not sure my real-life self will be as good at these jobs as my dream life self is).

The reason I dread open house night at my school is because of the 120 students I currently have enrolled in all of my classes, I met parents of about 30 of my students. Unlike the classrooms at the elementary school where each room was packed so full many parents were standing, my classroom  had a sea of open desks.

When I asked my students why their parents didn’t show up, the reply I got most was something along the lines of, “I’m almost out of school and my parents don’t think they need to come.” Basically, since my students are juniors and seniors, most of their parents don’t feel the need to come and meet their teachers, find out what their kids will be learning or get involved beyond signing a course expectation sheet and maybe (and this is a BIG maybe) dropping me an email if their kid’s grade dips down below a C.

What floors me is that the majority of my students are Advanced Placement English kids, who are all college bound. I would think these would be some of the most supportive and enthusiastic parents. My guess is that many of the parents feel like they don’t need to come to open house because their kids are advanced and probably will not struggle much in school.

But really, what kind of a message does this send to the kids? School is very important at the elementary level. Or at least important enough for their parents to give up an evening to come and meet their teachers. Even in middle school open house attendance rates are pretty high in my district. But for each birthday kids celebrate, fewer parents show up to school events like open house.

To me it sends a message that school isn’t a priority anymore. Their kids are almost out, so they don’t need to care as much. This may not be entirely harmful to the parents, but the kids see this message and that’s where I think the real issue lies. If kids don’t see their parents interested enough to go to the school and meet their teachers and hear about their classes, are they as likely to be interested?

I really feel that as parents, we need to make it clear to our kids that their education, no matter what level they are at, is important. It is important enough for us to give up our free time and come in to learn about what they will be learning. Even at 18, most children still really care what their parents think and they pick up on the messages, even the subtle ones, they send out.

I know that when my kids are in high school, I am going to make my husband come to open house. He will go around and meet all of their teachers (they’ll be going to my high school, so I’ll already know them). I want my kids to know that their education is important to both their parents, not just their geeky ol’ school lovin’ mom.

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Teaching Tuesday: Teaching is not a “calling”

I don’t know how many times in my life I’ve heard that teaching is a “calling.” Usually this phrase is invoked to criticize teachers who want pesky things like raises, better benefits or better working conditions. After all, teachers shouldn’t be in it for the money, right? It’s a “calling.” People should only go in to teaching because they want to help others, regardless of whether or not they can actually live off of the salary provided.

Once, at a school board meeting when members of our community were remonstrating against a desperately needed referendum, a member of the community actually stood up and suggested that locals should be able to pay us in fruits and vegetables rather than a standard salary, because, after all, teaching is a calling and we shouldn’t be in it for the money.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can’t pay my mortgage with turnips.

Despite what many people want the general public to believe, teaching is not a “calling.” Teaching is a profession, just like any other. There are teachers who excel in the profession. They go above and beyond what is needed to ensure they make education as enjoyable and as meaningful as possible. This does not happen simply through some sort of divine intervention or some inborn talent they have. It happens because they work very hard, sacrificing countless hours of their own time with friends and family in order to work on lesson plans, grading, training, etc.

Teachers are not religious leaders. They do not live off the charity of their parishioners. They do not take vows of poverty. They do not have the ability to ex-communicate any member of their flock. Sure, administrators can expel students, but it is a whole lot easier for a pastor to tell someone not to come back to the church than it is to kick a student out of a school. There are no laws telling pastors how to run their churches, who they have to serve within the community, or how long they have to allow people to stay in their congregations. Anyone who wants to can become a pastor. Although many pastors do go to seminary or have religious training, there is no mandate that they do. Thanks to the internet, anyone who wants to can get ordained. Anyone who wants to can recruit followers and set up their own church. Teachers cannot do this.

Teachers, like people in a great many other professions, have to have college degrees. They have to pass state and national exams. They have to be licensed by the state. They are employees of a school corporation. Teachers, are doing a JOB. And like members of every other profession, they deserve to be properly compensated. Yes, believe it or not, teachers become teachers because they want to be paid for their knowledge and their skills. It is our lively hood, not a “calling.” While I love my job and work very hard at it, I go to work every day, not because of some divine “calling,” but because I have a family to support. And my children deserve a good life, just like the children I teach, whose parents are doctors, lawyers, accountants, mechanics, etc.

Indiana is currently experiencing a rather large teacher shortage. While “experts” speculate on why this is, any teacher can tell you why: teachers in Indiana are not well compensated, are being vilified in the media and are being forced to jump through ridiculous hoops to prove they are “qualified.” The state keeps rolling out new tests to measure students, slashing education budges and adding more to the already overworked shoulders of teachers. Is it a wonder that articles like this one in the Indianapolis Star are popping up in newspapers around the state?

While I appreciate the Star trying to shed light onto a very real problem, I found myself getting so annoyed when they referred to those who are still willing to become teachers as people who have a “calling.” This myth needs to be put to bed. People who become teachers may be following their passions. They are hopefully going into a profession where they feel their skills will be put to good use. But they are not on some divine mission, nor should they be treated as they are.

Teachers are professionals who want to do their jobs. They want to give their students the best educations they can. They deserve respect and compensation, not sainthood and poverty.

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Throwback Thursday: Travel mugs

owlI have lost another travel mug. I don’t quite understand how I have done this, but this is the second mug I’ve lost in the past two years. And once again, it is not one of the random travel mugs students or extended family members have gotten me as gifts.

This mug was one from my children’s first school. It was not only easy to carry and easy to clean, but also the exact perfect size to hold the water I heat up for my tea in my Keurig. I don’t actually make the tea in the Keurig…I think it’s too weak that way, but I get the hot water from my Keurig and the mug that has gone missing perfectly held one run on the medium fill and one on the small.

Although I did love this mug, it was not quite as important as the first one I lost. The first one, which I’d had for several years, was full of pictures of my kids and my dad, who has passed away. I know exactly where I left it: at an education conference on a university campus. When I realized it was gone the next day, I knew I’d never see it again. I lost it the Tuesday before Thanksgiving break and the only reason the building was open was because of our meeting. I knew everyone would be gone until Monday and that by the time I called about it, some janitor would have tossed it. I was right.

I should be clear that I am not someone who loses things often. I may misplace my keys for a few minutes or forget where I set something down in my house, but I never just leave things behind. So to do it twice, in two years, is a big deal. Especially since I used these mugs all the time. I had the one with my kids on it for about 3 years and the one from my kids’ school for 6.

The only upshot to losing my mug is that I had to use one of those generic mugs someone got me as a gift. It is not a great mug: it’s too heavy, is not insulated so it gets way too hot and is a sort of ugly plaid color. The reason I’m calling this an upshot is because I do get to use the adorable drink koozie one of my best friends got me a few years back. She bought it not just because it was adorable, but also because an owl was the mascot for my kids’ school. Every day when I see it on my desk in my classroom, it makes me smile.

So even though I’m drinking from a new mug, I get to see my old friend the owl every day.

 

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Teaching Tuesday: Back to School

It’s official, we are back to school. While I was completely ready for my children to go back–they were extremely argumentative that last week–I was not ready to go back.

Ok, technically I was ready. My lesson plans were done. My courses were set up in Canvas, our classroom management system. My room was clean, in order and even had new posters and bulletin boards up. I had student books ready for distribution and class lists printed. My new grade book was sitting on my desk (although I can’t put names in it until the end of the second week as students are still dropping and adding classes now).

Anyone looking into my room on Monday morning at 8:00 am, would have seen a very prepared teacher.

Except, of course, I wasn’t. Not mentally anyway. My daughter woke up in the early hours of Monday morning. At 3:45 am to be exact. She had a nightmare about a zombie apocalypse. Despite not watching any shows/movies with zombies or playing any games with zombies, she has seen her older brother’s Plants vs. Zombies books and so bad dreams ensued. Even as I tried to console her and tell her zombies were not real, all she could do was cry, “but what if they are?!?!?!” There was no reasoning with her. So, I made the mistake of letting her spread her sleeping bag on our bedroom floor to finish out the night.

Not that either of us slept. I dozed off for just long enough to have not one, not two, but three dreams about sending her back to her room to sleep. Each one was interrupted by her making lots of noise. First she was “whispering” to the cat to come down and play with her. Then, she woke me up to tell me she heard some kind of buzzing noise in my room. Next, she woke me up again to tell me about the mysterious buzzing noise. She had a string of coughs that sounded decidedly fake. There was also general tossing and turning…all of which my husband slept through.

Finally, five minutes before my alarm clock was set to go off, she shouted out “YES!” so loud I almost fell out of bed. It seems it was close enough to wake up time, so she thought we should all just get up and get ready for our first day of school.

I did, but boy was I unhappy about it.

It doesn’t help that I don’t drink coffee and all my school teas are herbal, so there was not even an artificial pick me up for me.

I made it through the day though. My students all seemed fairly alert and as I looked out over my classroom to gauge how well they were handing the first day back, I got several enthusiastic head nods, a ton of smiles and even some laughter.

Although I was exhausted by the end of the day, I made it. And, when I picked my daughter up after school, even though we still had to get through some pretty major traffic and swim lessons, I liked her a lot more that afternoon than I had in the morning. At 4:00 her enthusiasm about her good day was endearing.

Despite a rocky start, I think it may be a good year.

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Teaching Tuesday: School supplies

school supply close upRecently one of my best friends and I got into a bit of a debate about school supply shopping. I’d just come back from supply shopping and I was feeling some rather serious sticker shock. Aside from buying each of my kids two notebooks with designs on them (which cost $2.50 each), everything else I bought my kids was the cheapest version of the supply available. For two kids going into grades 2 and 5, that came to $100 and some changes.┬áThree items on my son’s list (a Trapper Keeper that zips, a set of ultra fine color Sharpie’s and a white t-shirt) totaled $31, nearly a third of the total cost.

This $100 didn’t cover backpacks, lunchboxes, headphones, styluses, or scissors (we are reusing from last year). It also didn’t cover pencils or pocket folders for my son since he already has the required amount at home. That $100 also does not cover the fees I have to pay the school to cover their iPads/books, which will be an additional $150 each.

Target bagsSo, in order to send my kids back to school next week, I will spend about $400. Of course that $400 doesn’t include the money I am also going to have to spend on school supplies…for my own classroom.

I teach high school and for a variety of different reasons, we don’t send out classroom supply lists.* I can give students a list of materials they will need for my classroom, and hope that they get them, but one thing I’ve learned is that both student and parental concern for these issues greatly wane as students get older. Need proof? Go to any open house. Last year when I walked into my son’s 4th grade classroom during open house, it was packed, with many adults standing. At our open house I am lucky to get 5 or 6 parents per class section. I also know that even when I do require them to have materials, since I have no storage for them, my kids will not remember them, so it is just easier for me to keep class sets of markers, pencils, rulers, scissors, Post-Its, etc.

While my administration will provide some of these materials, like all teachers I have to purchase additional supplies on my own. Last year I spent over $300 of my own money on classroom supplies. I’m sure this year will be no different.

Now, before anyone gets ready to fly off the handle, I know that even with the supplies I am sending my kids to school with, elementary teachers will also be spending their hard earned money on additional classroom supplies. I also know that elementary students go through a LOT more supplies than high school kids do. I know that some of the supplies I send in will no doubt be put into a classroom “pot” for all kids to use and I am 100% fine with that. I do not begrudge any student or elementary teacher these supplies. I want both the teachers and the students to have these supplies.

I recently read some really good articles/posts about the importance of buying school supplies. The first one I read was here. The other one, which I can’t find at the moment was written by a teacher who heard one parent railing about the cost of school supplies and how it was wrong and unfair, etc. while another parent gave her a gift card to buy supplies because he wanted to make sure his daughter understood the value of education. I agree completely with both of the ideas/sentiments in both of these articles. As a teacher and a parent, however, I’m getting hit with the double whammy here. I am paying for supplies twice and it’s a little hard to swallow.

Luckily, because both my husband and I have jobs, we are able to pay for these supplies, even if it means some cutting back for the next few weeks. However, my kids go to a school where over 1/3 of the students are eligible for free/reduced meals because they fall below community poverty standards. So, while these fees are a small hardship for my family, they are HUGE bills to many other families in our district who I know cannot afford to shell out $31 for three items on the list.

I am a teacher because I value education. I think an educated society is one of the most important things in the world. I know that it is impossible to provide that education without the proper supplies. I know that those supplies vary based on age and experience.

It’s hard to explain my anger over paying for school supplies. It’s not really the cost that angers me. It’s the fact that we live in a society that thinks providing supplies to teachers is NOT important. I am angry that I live in a society that is constantly demonizing teachers and railing about how we make too much money, but also thinks it is perfectly acceptable to expect us to pay for our own supplies. People want us to do our jobs, but they don’t want to give us the supplies and materials we need to do our jobs.

Although I’ve been a teacher for 20 years, I’ve also worked outside of education for 8 years. In those years, I was never once expected to provide my own supplies. My husband works for a publishing company and he is not expected to provide his own supplies. I have friends who are reporters, lobbyists, non-profit organizers, lawyers, doctors…and they are not expected to provide their own supplies.

I don’t think parents should have to pay for school supplies any more than I think teachers should have to pay for them. If we want an educated society, we need to make education a priority. We send a very big message to kids when we make educational cut after educational cut: Education is not important. It is not worth spending money on. And whether we realize it or not, that message is also interpreted as: Kids are not important. Their futures are not important. And what that really means is: Our future is not important.

Those are ridiculous and short-sighted messages to send.

*There are several reasons we don’t do this, the biggest is that unlike elementary teachers who have 20-30 kids in one year, this year I will have about 125 students who will only be in my classroom for 1/4 of their day (we are on block scheduling). My classroom has no built in student storage, so there would be no place to store their supplies other than their lockers, which not all students have/use and even if they did, they would then have to go back to their lockers to get supplies, which would waste valuable class time.

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Teaching Tuesday: AP scores are in!

AP scoresEvery summer there is one event that seriously kicks my lesson planning for the next year into gear: The College Board releases the Advanced Placement scores.

Each May, students across the country take Advanced Placement exams in a variety of subjects. Although I am always interested in the overall success rate of all the AP teachers at my school, I am, of course, anxious to see how well my AP Lit and Comp and AP Lang and Comp kids are going to do. Although the tests are taken in May, due to the complexity of the tests, they must be hand scored, which is time consuming. Each of my tests not only has a 48-55 question multiple choice section which students get one hour to answer (after reading 4-5 excerpts from poems, literature and works of non-fiction), but they also have to write 3 essays, also based on poetry, literature and non-fiction in the span of 2 hours.

For anyone who has never taken an AP test, these are not easy questions. Passing the test is supposed to show that students in high school have the same general knowledge a student would have after completing and passing an introductory college course in the subject. These kids have to not only be able to read and analyze complicated piece of literature and non-fiction, they have to answer nuanced questions about author’s intent, themes, and literary techniques and they have to do it in a manner of minutes. Really more like seconds when you consider they have to first read and analyze each passage. They get around 30 seconds to answer each question.

Here’s a sample question for you: Paragraphs 1 and 2 develop their ideas by means of

I) metaphor and simile
II) allusion
III) paradox

A) I
B) II
C) III
D) I and II
E) I, II and III

So, in 30 seconds, students have to go through and look over two paragraphs, figure out which of these literary devises are used and if they help develop the idea of the paragraph. They call these “killer questions” for a reason.

These tests are pretty darn stressful for my students. And while their performance on these tests does not directly impact my evaluation as a teacher the way the results of the ISTEP tests do*, I know my principal and my superintendent, as well as our community cares very much about the outcome of these tests. In fact, only two years ago, it was decided that the majority of our AP math and science classes would be replaced with ACP courses in order to give more students a chance to earn college credit (our AP scores in these areas were low). I love the AP program I have developed in the English department and I desperately want to keep it going, so every summer I wait for the scores to be released.

When the scores are released, I hold my breath, sign in and hope they’ve absorbed all I’ve tried to teach them.

I always check on my seniors first. In part because most of them have taken an AP test, and more importantly, an AP English test before. They know how the test will be structured, how to manage their time, and they have practiced answering both the multiple choice and essay questions so often, I’m pretty sure most of them could take the test in their sleep. Considering how some of them looked the day of the test, they might have actually been sleeping a bit. This year my seniors made me very proud. Not only did 82% of them pass the test (the national average is 55%), 63% got 4’s or 5’s on the test** which is more than double the national average of 28%. In general, my kids pass this test at a rate of 78-100% (only got that 100% one year, but I’ll take it), so this was about what I expected, but their 4 and 5 rates were just wonderful.

My confidence was not as high when I opened the file with my junior scores. Their scores are historically lower. This is due in part to inexperience with the test and inexperience in English classes. It is also due to the fact that I teach AP Lit to juniors, which is not a common practice. I have my reasons. I think they are very good reasons, but I know a large percentage of schools basically replace American Literature, which is generally taught during 11th grade with AP Language, since this course is supposed to focus more on non-fiction and it is very easy to work the founding documents of our country into the curriculum. This is a great way to teach the course. I did it for years and it worked fine. The way I teach it now just works better for me and since I made the change 3 years ago, the overwhelming majority of students who I keep in touch with after high school say the switch in classes was very beneficial to them in college.

As usual, I digress a bit.

As predicted, my AP Lit scores were not what I was hoping for. My pass rate was only 58%, which is the lowest pass rate I’ve had in just over a decade of teaching the course. I was expecting lower scores than usual. This is the largest group of students I’ve ever had take the test (it was nearly 4 times as large as the first group I taught 11 years ago). This was also the first year I had multiple students fail my actual class. As a rule, I have two or three kids who get a D during a grading period. Until this year, I’ve only had one student actually get an F in AP Lit. This year I had 7 kids get F’s and several more get D’s. I also had far too many barely scrape by with the C needed for academic honors. I expected my lowest pass rate ever, but I didn’t expect it to be only 5% higher than the national pass rate. I’ve never had a pass rate below 65% in this course. It was a bit of a blow.

My one bright moment, however, was when I went online to find the national averages and found out that according to Trevor Packer, the head of the College Board, this was lowest pass rate for AP Lit in a decade. So while my kids hit a historic low, so did kids across the nation.

Now I wait for the AP planning guides to come out so I can get a better understanding of where my kids struggled the most on the test in order to retool those lessons in hopes of boosting those scores next year.

*Part of my “success” as an educator is based on how well students at my school perform on the ISTEP test. They take the English portion of this test during their sophomore year of high school. Despite the fact that I only teach juniors and seniors and have no chance to impact their ability to pass this test, part of how “effective” I am as a teacher is based on their scores. I am also impacted by their scores on the ISTEP math and biology test. This is true for every teacher in my school. Art teachers, music teachers, PE teachers, social studies teachers, etc. are all held accountable for students they have never had in class in subjects they don’t teach. Now, go ahead and tell me teachers are the problem with our education system.

**The test is scored 1-5 with a score of 3, 4 or 5 as passing

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Throwback Thursday: Small town blues

My mom is in town. For some people that is probably not really a big deal. I have lots of friends who see their mothers at least weekly and a few who see or talk to their moms every day. My mom and I, however, haven’t lived in the same state for 28 years and have only seen each other about 8 or ten times since I was 14. We don’t exactly have the mother-daughter relationship that Hallmark dreams of.

What we do have is my 97-year-old grandmother who is seriously declining health. As hard as it is to see my grandmother, who has always been a major force to be reckoned with becoming meeker every day, it has brought my mom and I much closer. She’s actually been back to visit three times in the last 18 months. Each time she comes to stay with my grandmother for a week or two, I take my kids up to visit with them.

The trip up is always a bit odd for me. Not because my mom and I have a strained and complicated past that we both sort of pretend doesn’t exist, but because my grandmother still lives in the same tiny (and I do mean tiny) town both my mom and dad grew up in. While I only lived in the town for the first year or two of my life, it is still a place flooded with memories for me as two sets of grandparents, my great grandmother and various aunts and uncles lived there throughout my childhood. It’s a place where I used to go to the Labor Day carnival which I thought was spectacular, but also terrifying. One of my earliest memories is of my youngest aunt, who is only 10 years older than me, in a cast after her seat on the swing ride (you know the one that tilts and turns as riders fly up in the air) broke and sent her uncontrollably airborne.

The town also has the community center my family meets at every year to celebrate Christmas together. Sure, we usually celebrate a week or two after the actual holiday, but I come from a family of paramedics and firefighters who often had to work on holidays, so we’ve never been huge sticklers to the date itself.

On the main road through town, which houses every business in the actual town is the park where we took pictures when I was the maid of honor at my aunt’s wedding. There is “The Little Store,” a convenience store so small it’s hard for more than three people to be in it at the same time, where my dad used to stop and buy me treats.

Driving down the main road, I can still see the charred remains where my great-aunt’s apartment used to be. I’m not actually sure apartment is the right word for it, but she always called it her apartment building. And it was hers. She owned the property. Only a small portion of it faced the main road. The rest of it was on the street behind the main thoroughfare. There was a lovely garden with a tiny bridge over a tiny creek. There were raspberry bushes she’d let me stuff myself on. There was a giant balcony that ran the entire length of the second floor of the building that I could run around and play on. I know she had a few small apartments that she rented to people, but she and my uncle owned a rather massive two story apartment that had a secret passage way behind a giant picture of the Virgin Mary. The passage way actually led into the shop that she owned (but rented out) which was on the main drag. I think it was a Christian bookstore, which might explain the picture. I can’t recall her ever actually being religious.

The town also houses the cemetery where my dad, my step-mother and my little brother are buried. I cannot make a trip to see my grandmother without passing it and every time I do, the wound opens back up for a bit. Since my parents’ deaths, I don’t go to my home town anymore. There’s no reason to. No one else in my family lives there. My parents’ house, which was not the one I grew up in was sold off a few years ago and I have no desire to see someone else living there. I have a few high school friends who still live in the area, but we keep in touch over social media and haven’t met up in a decade or so. Which means I can avoid the pain I know would come from being back there.

But I can’t avoid my grandmother (not that I want to). So every time I see her, I am thrown back to my childhood. And when I get to that cemetery, all I can feel is the ache of a little girl missing her daddy.

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