Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Blame Game

More than half of my 65 Geometry students are failing. The obvious conclusion is that I'm doing something horribly wrong is it not? But I've been teaching for 6 years and I've never had a failure rate this high. What's more, the other 5 Geometry teachers in my building have failure rates on par with mine. So is the conclusion then that there is something wrong with the students?

I hate this game. I pride myself on not being "that guy" who simply blames the students and goes about his business. I've reinvented my teaching almost every year in an effort to improve and adapt with the needs of my students. I've even changed practices mid-year as I evaluate the effectiveness of what I'm doing. Recently, I got to thinking about why I hate the thought of being "that guy" so much. I think it goes deeper than simply wanting to be seen as a dedicated and hard working educator.

Here's the thing: if my students' successes & failures are my fault, then I can claim the credit if I'm also willing to accept the blame. Moreover, by accepting the blame, I can use that feedback to change and be a better teacher for the next crop of students. Simply put, if *I* am the #1 most important factor, then I have control. 

If the evidence suggests that I do not have control, that this crop of students is lacking in basic number sense, that their study habits are abysmal, that attendance and behavior statistics all point to a group of students seemingly doomed to fail, then I've lost my control. For better or worse, if the students (and their families) are to blame, then there is nothing I can do about it. Some might look at that and think that it's a freeing conclusion - why worry about something you can't control? For myself, and I'm guessing for any teacher who enjoys teaching, this is a terrifying realization.

If I can't control the outcome, then why am I wasting my time? Why did I stay up last night writing out this problem set if no one is going to complete it? Why did I come in early this morning to fine tune this quiz if most of the kids are simply going to leave it blank? Why should I bother creating an assessment designed to effectively gauge student understanding if there's no understanding to gauge? These thoughts are why some teachers burn out. Once that happens, they either leave the profession, or they settle in, unable to accept the pay cut that comes with starting over, and simply come in every day and go through the motions.

To quote Yoda: "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering." I'm afraid that I don't have control over whether my students pass or fail. That fear makes me angry that I am powerless to control my own destiny. That anger leads me to hate (some of my) students. That hate leads to suffering for all parties involved. 

I honestly have no idea what a solution to this problem would even look like. It'd be a nice first step if the involved stakeholders (parents, school administrators, legislators, etc) simply acknowledged the problem so that we could all begin working toward a solution. Note: I'm NOT asking for everyone to just agree that I'm awesome and the students suck  - that's exactly the mindset that leads to frustration. What I want is for those in power to acknowledge that I've tried everything that could be expected of me and I'm still not able to provide evidence of my effectiveness. That must mean that the root of the problem lies elsewhere - let's find it, and then work toward a solution. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

It's all a matter of trust

I'm white. My students (predominantly) are not. The weird thing is that most of the time, I don't even notice it. I can't speak for the students, but I hardly ever feel racial tensions - either between students & staff, or among the students themselves. But the tensions are there, if only subconsciously. 

I'll be the first to acknowledge the fact that my students and I come from different worlds. I don't need to go into the differences, but long story short: I was raised in a middle to upper-middle class suburb of NYC which was overwhelmingly white. I teach in a district in which the demographics of the community have changed drastically over the past decade and is now predominantly black, comprised mostly of working class families. 

Every aspect of a teacher's job is inherently based on trust. Implicit in every direction we give students is the reasoning that "we know what's best for you better than you do." Why did I tell you to put your phone away? It's not because I'm allergic to phones, it's because I know that you will have an easier time learning the content that we're covering if you're not subject surrounded by distractions. Why did I assign homework? It's because I know that practice is vital to forming a comprehensive understanding of the material. Why do I insist on your daily on-time attendance? Because you can't participate in the learning process if you're not here. 

For those that argue that schools should adopt a culture of less regulation and encourage students to essentially do as they please, I'd argue that philosophy is built on the assumption that students are mature enough to make sound and rational decisions. They're not. Sure, there are a handful of exceptional students who are wise beyond their years, but our entire society is predicated on the notion that minors lack the reasoning ability to make competent decisions. Minors are subject to a different legal system than adults. Minors aren't allowed to vote, buy tobacco or alcohol, or even drive a car after dark. Why should we assume that they understand the need to sometimes suffer through arduous tasks in order to reap long term rewards? 

Ideally, everything that goes on inside of a school happens for a reason, and that reason should be to benefit the education of the students. Questioning authority is natural for teenagers, and teachers/administrators should be up to the challenge of answering those questions. "Because I said so" is the fastest way to lose the trust of the learner. 

But here's the thing: I'm beginning to realize that my students don't trust me, and not because I've been unable to provide satisfactory answers to their 'why?' questions. My fear is that the lack of trust is because I don't look like them. I doubt (or sincerely hope) that this is not a conscious decision, but rather a consequence of the culture they've been raised in. I don't think that they approach a white person and immediately think "I'd better be wary of anything this person says," but in the back of their minds, they're missing the fundamental trust of their leader. It's possible that deep down, the root cause is that of differing socio-economic status, but skin color is a very visible trigger. At the end of the day, it's clear that I am not one of them, so they have a natural inclination to be wary of my actions and my motives. Or to put it another way, they don't trust me. 

Mind you, I'm not suggesting any solutions to the problem, I'm simply trying to pin down the cause of the problem itself. Maybe I can work harder to bridge the culture gap between myself and my students. Maybe it's something about me specifically, or maybe the same could be said for my particular group of students. Maybe there is no solution - maybe learners will never learn as fully as they can from a teacher who's not one of them. Regardless, we can't even begin to work toward a solution until we acknowledge and fully understand the problem. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Rules - HUH - what are they good for?

Rules are everywhere in society, and they range from the formal - the penal code for example - to the informal - form a single file line when waiting at the bank. Some rules have definite consequences, while others bear no repercussion beyond mild embarrassment. At their core, rules exist to create order in an otherwise chaotic environment.

Is there a more potentially chaotic environment than a public high school? Schools rely on rules to create a safe and secure learning environment free from distractions. Enforcement of school rules has changed dramatically over the past few generations. There was was a time when teachers were allowed to abuse students, both physically and emotionally. Late to class? Detention. Talking when you're not supposed to be? See me after class. Fighting? Get out. A growing body of research and the continuing pussification of America has forced us to reevaluate how we enforce rules. 

It's my opinion that rules give educators an opportunity to decide what is truly important in the daily operation of our schools. Which rules are directly related to learning and which relate primarily to behavior? Is our goal to change a problem behavior, or are we merely attempting to maintain order? Are there aspects of the classroom and school environment that are beyond our control? If so, should we have rules to address those issues?

Consider on-time behavior for example. Why should a teacher care if a student is tardy? If classroom time is being utilized to its fullest extent, then having missed out on a portion of the lesson should serve as its own punishment. If a student arrives 10 minutes late to class and didn't miss anything of consequence, where is the crime? 

There are a few common points brought up in regards to tardiness. One is that schools should be encouraging a strong work ethic, and part of that involves an appreciation for being on time. After all, at some point this kids are going to find a job that requires them to be on time, and if the school never enforced on-time behavior, then they won't be able to hold down a job. This raises an interesting issue - how much of a classroom teacher's day should be spent teaching things like "work ethic?" If we concede the point (that schools should be responsible for promoting on-time behavior), how should schools approach the issue? Should students be punished for being late or rewarded for being on time In either event, wouldn't the result be that students still have no appreciation for being on-time, they've simply developed certain positive or negative associations with certain actions (the argument against behaviorism). 

Another rebuttal involves a tardy student being disruptive. I'd contend that the issue there is that of disruption, not of tardiness. Certainly there are students who can manage to be late and not bother anyone. 

Then there's the slippery slope example - if we didn't enforced a tardy policy, then students would wander the halls and never go to class! That may be, but would that also imply that those students would be disrupting the learning of others (a different issue to be addressed separately) and probably failing their classes? Who's to blame here? If a school takes the position of "Show up at 7:45 am and we'll teach you a bunch of stuff" and the student's response is "I'll show up whenever I feel like it," why can't we simply record when the student chose to arrive at school and go on about our business?