Sunday, December 09, 2012

A Teacher's Lament, Redux

As Lansing schemes, I ponder:
While others work a full calendar year, I enjoy gobs of vacation. While the Average Joe could lose his employment at whim, it is harder to fire me than it is to sell Amway in Canada. I receive guaranteed pay raises, and I get free donuts each time one of my clients has a birthday. Although I have enough college credit to fulfill a PhD program, I am an expert at zilch. Although the Average Joe would rather have his job than mine, he offers unsolicited advice about how I could do mine better, cheaper, and longer. By virtue of my humble position, I am an underachiever; suspect of laziness, pedophilia, and ignorance. Were I to debate the above, add whining, too.
Here's the rub: I don't care. Sure, it is disheartening when the bashing hits a critical mass; when one cannot open a newspaper, scan the Internet, talk to a friend or relative, or overhear a restaurant conversation without absorbing the mass critique of the job. The zillion irritating, belittling, frustrating things that happen weekly on the job are only bearable because I know I'd miss it. I'd miss the potential of actually teaching something, which has the same odds as a batter hitting a ball - often leaving me feeling like I've struck out. I'd miss children at their most precious stage of life - before they become Average Joes. I'd miss the perverse dichotomy of the huge responsibility I have without the accompanying authority.
Shame on me.

Monday, November 12, 2012


"If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you. "
Lyndon B. Johnson

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Flako the Clown*

"I think this country is full of geniuses, guys and gals so bright they make your average card-carrying MENSA member look like F**ko the Clown. And I think that most of them are teachers..."
                                                             - from Insomnia, by Stephen King.

I'll speak for myself; I am no genius. And, as evidenced by a class of 42 sixth graders this week as I tripped over a power cord while I shouted, in Spanish, 'No, the gorilla did not kiss Taylor Swift, the gorilla danced with Taylor Swift!" while holding a stuffed gorilla, I resemble Flako the Clown.

On top of teaching hundreds of kids a week as a transient language teacher, I have been charged  with training new teachers, as well. Over the past couple of years, thanks to a sick economy, our teacher trainees have brought wonderful backgrounds to the job: a former television producer, a Russian polyglot, a classic pianist, a Chinese housewife, a business owner, and a graduate of Quebec's oldest French speaking university.

I have noticed a dramatic shift during their first weeks of teaching. It is a kind of culture clash.

The first days of the school year are filled with comments volunteered to inform me, the humble career teacher. These second-careerists have experience rich and broad, and, coupled with the fact that they were formerly students, their insights are sharper and more refined than those blunted by years of bureaucratic mediocracy. Their observations of student behavior, teacher expectations, and content knowledge, you see, are superior. They were never tainted by the stain of teaching for money. Circumstances have put them in this temporary role, so that they may bless the public schools with their enlightenment. At this stage, the trainees see me as the good-natured, but bumbling, captain of a rusty back-water fish boat.

Within their first 48 hours of instruction, these pedagogical prodigies usually experience a violent shift. They realize that their sevant-like prowess is simply not appreciated by the kids. You see, today's kids aren't like yesterday's kids. American youth are genetically inferior to those from other nations. The school's culture is corrupted. The homeroom teacher doesn't get it. The students don't get it. The rooms are too big. The rooms are too small. The hands on the clock move too fast, then come to a complete halt. At this stage, the trainees see me as the drunken, short-sighted, neglectful, captain of a rusty, back-water fish boat.

Within the next 72 hours, or so, of instruction, after the trainees have been humbled and horrified by student behavior that would make a mosh pit look organized, the trainees start looking at ol' Flako a little differently. They focus less on my boat's rust, barnacles, and smoking engine room. In fact, they seem irritated by the fact that I seem to be having a good old time on my creaky craft. My nets are set, my anchor is properly weighed, and a few kids are actually eating my fish. At this stage I am bloody Captain Stubing from the Love Boat.

am no genius. I may resemble Flako the Clown.  Regardless, when the bell rings I'll be at the wheel - come hell or high water.

Su pobre payaso,

Profe Suave

*Mr. King's "F**ko has been changed to protect and respect the sensitive ears of myself and the esteemed reader. No disrespect is  intended to a writer who is, truly, a genius.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Lies, Liars, and Education as Usual

The Market Lie: We need to infuse U.S. public schools with competition. We must free up the education market with charters, vouchers, and other innovations.

The Market Truth: Parochial schools, home schooling, and other innovations offered generations of competition to the neighborhood public schools. In fact, it is just those competitors that are most impacted by the corporate charter movements. For-profit companies have little interest in the expensive clientele of public schools: the special needs, learning impaired, foreign, and/or poor. Those kids are hard on The Bottom Line. The parochial schools are shutting down faster than Blockbuster Video, their buildings leased out to charter schools that offer tuition-free programs to otherwise private school families.

The effect: Solid urban neighborhoods held intact with a rich mix of public and parochial schools are abandoned, as most charters are located on the rim of these areas, poised to skim the most profitable student bodies.

U.S Students Suck Lie: U.S. is losing ground to other countries. Remember Sputnik?  Well, the Chinese will own our children and our children's children because Asians, obviously, make nutty mathematicians. It's in their genes.

U.S. Students Suck Truth: Anyone of this opinion needs to fortify it with an extended stay in foreign countries - especially those countries that are apparently "beating" the U.S. educationally. There is no country on earth that does more for less with its schools that the United States of America. We educate everyone. I mean everyone. If you cross the threshold of our Public Schools, you get a desk in a classroom (Or mop closet. Note for future entry). It's the law.  "Everyone" includes the poor, the disinterested, the uninvested, the poor. Everyone.

The effect: Repeated time after time, the U.S. Students Suck Lie starts to sound like truth to some folks. They demand changes based on the lie. Because it is easy and manipulatable, the change is usually some sort of test. Thing is, tests don't teach. Redundant testing is expensive and unproductive.

Personal Anecdote: I lived and taught in Mexico for a semester. A Mexican man befriended me on the street one day. He regaled me with stories of the two years he and his family lived in Texas, and his hatred for the U.S., our president, our values, etc. I offered to buy him a coffee if I could ask him some questions. As he sipped his Folgers, I learned that he had first emigrated with his family to Canada. He and his family loved it there. Why did he move to the U.S.? Because his kids could go to school in the U.S., but not in Canada.
Full disclosure: He was deported for child abuse. His children remain in the U.S.

Poverty Doesn't Matter Lie: Poverty is just an excuse. Good schools should be able to educate everyone, no matter their zip code.

Poverty Doesn't Matter Truth: Put down your tea, hold your "Socialist!" ejaculation for a moment, and hear me out. Poor students do not suck. Teachers of poor students do not suck. Poverty sucks. It puts a good percentage of Public School clientele behind the eight ball from the cradle.  Welfare cheats, lazy folk, schemers, and the like aside, the U.S. has poor people. Poverty is the grubby side of our freedom. Don't argue about it. Deal with it.

The effect: Repeated time after time, the U.S. Poverty Doesn't Matter Lie starts to sound like truth to some folks. They demand changes based on the lie. Because it is easy and manipulatable, the change is usually some sort of test. Thing is, tests don't teach. Redundant testing is expensive and unproductive.

U.S. Public Schools Are Failures Lie: Uncle Sid said it, they're all saying it, so it must be true. They're even making movies about it. If the documentary says our schools suck, then they suck.

U.S. Public Schools Are Failures Truth: U.S. Public Schools have a literacy rate that would rival that of any other country in the world, in spite of the many challenges that the competitors do not have. Remember, we are one of only a few public educational systems that is universally available and compulsory in the developed world.

The effect: Repeated time after time, the Most Public Schools Are Failures Lie starts to sound like truth to some folks. They demand changes based on the lie. Because it is easy and manipulatable, the change is usually some sort of test. Thing is, tests don't teach. Redundant testing is expensive and unproductive.

In Conclusion: There is money in them there schools. It is the lust for that money that fuels the lies above and many other half-truths, misconceptions, and assorted bull pucky.

Fellow patriots, don't let them take our schools.

God bless America,

Prof. Pepino Suave
Public School Teacher
Public School Parent

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Teach to the Eyes

An ancient instructional secret: teach to the eyes.

Once the bell has rung, don't scan the room with your eyes. Don't look furtively at your notes. Don't refer to the curriculum guide, or preoccupy yourself with the teacher's edition, the principal's latest mandate, the temperature of the coffee in the teacher's lounge, or the wheezy whistle from the asthmatic kid's schnoz. Start making eye contact. Address a kid, address her eyes. Take a knee and look at kids. Move around and lock eyes. Sure, the pubescent students will be creeped out at a certain level, but at a more profound level they will be connected - humanly.

Don't fall in love with your gadgets. Brilliant cyber displays, magical white boards, nor dancing special effects have the power that locked human eyes contain.

Once you're comfortable with engaging students more, you might try something else that truly sets the stage for learning: the human touch. YIKES! I know, I've stepped into a goopy pool of liability where no lawyer would tread. But, let's face it, nobody with any sense of personal liability would cross the threshold of a classroom, anyway. Come on, teachers, you are  already a prosecuting attorney's sugar plum dream; why not teach kids? I'm talking the tap on the shoulder, the nudge with an elbow, a high-five (realistically speaking, keep your torso a safe, even awkward, distance from the student. It is scary out there).

 In any other human-to- human vocation, from healing to sales, the stage for success is set by human contact.

The most effective teachers I've met have been far more involved with people than with paraphernalia.

Con el calor humano,

Profesor Suave

Friday, August 17, 2012

El Destino

"Soy un aventurero en busca de un tesoro"
- Paulo Coelho, La Alchemista

Friday, August 10, 2012

Boot Camp for Teachers - The Atlantic

By Amanda Ripley

Before the Air Force technician George Deneault flew combat missions, he had to practice—a lot. “You can’t fool around on combat aircraft.” But when Deneault retired and became a special-ed math teacher, he walked into a Virginia classroom cold. When asked which was easier—being a military commander or being a teacher—he didn’t hesitate. “Commander.”
Now that researchers have quantified the impact that teachers make, we should do more to train them rigorously. And we could learn from the military, where a mantra of readiness is referred to as the “Eight P’s”: “Proper prior planning and preparation prevent piss-poor performance.”
The only way the brain learns to handle unpredictable environments is to practice. Before student teachers enter classes, Boston’s Match Teacher Residency program puts them through 100 hours of drills with students and adults acting like slouching, fiddling, back-talking kids. The brain learns to respond to routine misbehavior, so it can focus on the harder work of teaching. The Institute for Simulation and Training runs a virtual classroom at 12 education colleges nationwide—using artificial intelligence, five child avatars, and a behind-the-scenes actor. Some trainees find the simulation so arduous that they decide not to go into teaching after all.
But these innovations are rare. The average teacher-to-be does about 12 to 15 weeks of student teaching. Once on the job, most teachers get only nominal supervision, and 46 percent quit within five years.
It is time, finally, to start training teachers the way we train doctors and pilots, with intense, realistic practice, using humans, simulations, and master instructors—time to stop saying teaching is hard work and start acting like it.