Autonomy is NOT for the weak of spirit.

In the final months of 2015 and beginning 2016, I learned how the word autonomy is often carelessly substituted for it’s  more distant cousin, tenure.  In the State of Iowa, educators at the K-12 level determined the use of the word autonomy  was a great way to cover many aspects of teacher professionalism, including stagnation.  I am sure autonomy was meant to reward teachers for persistent professional development and changes in their professional practice in much the way tenure is handed out. The problem is tenure and autonomy do not mean the same thing, do not convey the same entitlements and both are not a singular, crowning achievement. Both words are based upon concepts of good judgement,  efficacy and use of prudent thought- especially in the realm of education.  Autonomy does not mean ‘right to self govern’ by caveat and it is not an excuse for poor teaching practices.

Autonomy has now been bandied about in a number of  meetings I have attended at the bequest of parents for students who fall in the category of being entitled to a 504 (http://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/section-504-2/ ) or IEP (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Individualized_Education_Program).   It is the practice of misusing the term autonomy which has become an anathema to the education process. I have reason to believe administrators at the school, district, county and state levels inherently know the mis-appropriation of the word and yet have nothing else to use to cover what does not happen in the classroom.

Although I understood the context of how autonomy was being used, it took multiple school districts and situations for me to determine the consistency of the application of the word to get around students with different needs. The common practice  in Iowa seems to be identifying a behavioral problem instead of the learning issue/disability preventing the student from succeeding.  While it is disturbing to see so many students not receive appropriate services and disheartening to see it covered up by selective use of vocabulary, it does not change the fact – Iowa can and should do better.

In my brief experience(s) with local schools and districts, I have witnessed a pretty firm degree of  intractability and disengagement from teachers and administration. I can not help but wonder how things could be different if these self same people decided to work with students and parents.  I need to introduce the word fulcrum . Fulcrum is much more useful and seems to actually change situations.

 

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Logic Applied……nothing new under the sun.

I have thumbed through Drug Topics magazine forever. My father was a pharmacist; He read the magazine and left it lying around. It was something we discussed as he thought, when I was in high school, I might wish to try out the profession. My father suggested I join the Air Force (he had been drafted Army). All those years ago I just did not feel compelled to study so much chemistry, although in retrospect I wish I had. Biochemistry/biotechnology is the ‘new-new’ thing of my lifetime.

Despite my father trying to convince me of serving my country and obtaining a stellar education via the Air Force, I took a different path. I kept with the science and medicine type themes, earning a BA in Speech Pathology (after leaving nursing right at the beginning of clinicals). I so wanted and needed to see positive outcomes, I left speech pathology for education. My head and heart told me I could apply what I learned as an undergrad and help many students do well. Neuro, learning, behavioral outcomes and more were what motivated me. Watching people slowly be overtaken by declining health, descending into  the depths of hell with the many types of brain damage nature provides (organic and via car accidents, etc.), I had to leave speech pathology.  I went on to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.

My father pursued an advanced  degree in public administration as he foresaw the Kaiser Permanente model to be the future. My father had worked for Kaiser way, way back. He re-invented himself and did things he loved, including working as a consulting pharmacist. He did chart reviews, he   spoke with community members and educated them on everything from how to read up on the medicines they were taking to understanding the difference between a cure and something which treats a symptom (antibiotics vs. other stuff). My father worked with the Red Cross. He wanted to be part of the re-trenching of pharmacy tech programs (more on this in following paragraphs) so he taught pharmacy tech with the INTENTION of getting students into pharmacy school – which he did accomplish with quite a few students.

Education was a great fit for me. I taught for many years – formally, informally, public, charter/public, private, corporate. Each day I always found one ah-ha and it sustained me. I left the classroom/corporate (formal setting) about eight years ago for tutoring and consulting work in ed-tech. The first four to five years were difficult. I was not willing to compete with the shills who promised all parents they could ‘brain train’, teach their child to read, etc. as it was not true. It took awhile to define myself (I was NOT a snake oil salesperson) and clarify there are times when some students do indeed have deficiencies which can not be overcome with what we know currently. I had to admit failure where failure was due, own it and move forward.   From this time period, I  learned how to write tight, effective IEP’s and 504’s. I learned how to have conversations with parents, teachers and admin which actually matter instead of being vague, noncommittal and wishy-washy. I have many accomplishments of which I am thrilled as I have, and continue to, change lives for students and families.

Simultaneously the Silicon Valley folks taught me something completely different – failure was absolutely necessary. Essentially Silicon Valley reiterated what I knew about scientific method. Failure was indeed the answer. Only through failing could you see what you needed to do differently and better.  In Silicon Valley, you are not worth much if you do not take a calculated risk and fail. Confirmation bias is quickly obliterated if you learn to work in and with people from Silicon Valley. I have, by complete accident, had the pleasure to work with some of the brightest talent in Silicon Valley who do and make things which matter. I take calculated risks regularly.

Along the way I obtained my Pharmacy Technician’s License. I did this as I love traveling and living abroad. It gave me hope to know between being a pharmacy tech and tutoring, I could travel, come back to the states, land on both feet and function. Not so. A pharmacy tech license is the equivalent of Gr 9-10 Algebra and chemistry/bio. Everyone told me to cold cock the test (including my father who stated I could do it with one eye covered and a hand behind my back). I was afraid. I took a course. Holy moly. I began to understand some major problems, the least of which is who takes responsibility for what.

Pharmacists created the pharmacy tech program and  never intended for it to be a pathway to pharmacy, dental, med or nursing school. It was meant to alleviate pharmacists of the non-thinking portion of their job. With this in mind, a pharmacy tech is little more sophisticated than working any other repetitive job as the pharmacist still carries the responsibility for the ‘final product’. I know as much about sanitation as I would working in a restaurant and learned more as a science teacher. Since the threshold to train pharmacy techs was so low and the pay little over minimum wage, it did not encourage the right kind of people to come into the program. More often than not, pharmacy techs are underutilized since the program (aside from how the military trains pharmacy techs) is deficient on so many levels.

It could be said the pharmacy tech program in the U.S. is an abysmal failure of everything from logic to creativity to improving healthcare. It failed at launch and has slid downhill ever since.  It was created by pharmacists and  should be re-configured into something valuable, useful and appropriate.

All of this led me to wonder about the article by Jim Plagakis in Drug Topics from September 2014. He addresses the issue of legacy pharmacists, those who are highly paid with no more room to go upward without a career change or pursuing something different. If pharmacists are worried about losing their prestigious place in the dog pile, they should be doing something more akin to what Dr. Atul Gawande does outside the surgical suite. Even though Dr. Gawande has stated over and over he is near or at the top of his game, he finds something new to pursue with excellence on behalf of patients.

Pharmacists have reached the point in time where they need to drop the stance of having ‘earned their keep’ (the equivalent of tenure for teachers) and actually do something above and beyond. Find out what is happening in Silicon Valley regarding ACA (don’t be afraid – there is this amazing place with a med school called Stanford and another place called UCSF with a pharmacy school in the area). Along the way, it would be great if pharmacists thought about improving the pharmacy tech program so they could actually train responsible people looking to pursue a medical career. Create a step-ladder for people to go to pharmacy, medical, nursing and dental school. I would imagine a pre-med student who  worked as a compounding pharmacy tech and was intellectually engaged by the pharmacists would be a shoe in for an outstanding medical program and/or biotech.  According to everything I hear on NPR, we are desperately short of doctors.

Comparing  ‘legacy’ pharmacists to tenured teachers  not only weakens the argument, it begins a strange comparison which benefits neither teachers nor pharmacists. Using the word legacy does nothing to change the connotation. Very few professions in todays 21st Century stay constant. Stagnation or inertia is when some one chooses not to move.

The legacy my father left was very genuine and real. Education was seen not as a mere accomplishment, rather a continuous expectation. One did not stop learning by being ‘done with school’.  He earned the Governor’s Award for Volunteering in IA while he was cycling through various cancer treatments . He volunteered regularly on an exhibit (Iowa Roots, Global Impact: The Life and Legacy of George Washington Carver) which he felt could re-invigorate scientific thinking. Most of all he helped me embrace change as real, necessary and of the utmost importance for succeeding in life.

When Price and Toll Are Mutually Exclusive Concepts

As a tutor I face an abundance of conundrums.  I have to make decisions as to whether or not to take a job as each student I tutor, each assignment I work on with a student reflects on me, my credibility, integrity and reputation. There is no price for having integrity and a good reputation, especially if you have a teaching credential.  My teaching credential makes it even more of a challenge when tutoring in areas involving writing as there is the doctrine of academic dishonesty, which is as serious or more than plagiarism.  It is common for me to turn down jobs and recently I have had to specify for English and History tutoring, there needs to be a draft paper completed by student before I will tutor. All of this came about many years ago for me and has recently reared its ugly head in fine form.

Most teachers figure out a way to obtain a ‘writing’ sample of students the first week of school – in all subjects. This is done as a baseline of sorts and also as comparison for future assignments. It helps support your Spidey Sense if a student suddenly writes above their ability.  When I tutor, I ask to see a past assignment(s) so I can understand my student and understand where the gaps are and work with them to master the rubric or expectations of the assignment.  In addition, teachers who have graded thousands upon thousands of papers, have a true sense of something cut and pasted from the internet versus actual student work AND we should know how to ask appropriate questions regarding work quality before we make the shot off the bow of academic dishonesty.   Often times, students in middle school and the start of high school are not aware of what plagiarism and/or academic dishonesty looks like, sounds like or feels like. More often than not the ‘first time’ can be a great learning experience if handled correctly and professionally. If a teacher really has their game on, they can help the student not only overcome the problem, they can be instrumental in helping the student push forward and do their best work.

In addition to the obvious issues of plagiarism and academic integrity, there is something called style and it is not the latest fashion trend.  Style is how each individual writes and is often something akin to a ‘personality’ of the writer or how the writer presents themselves. It is not easy to qualify or quantify and for some it is easy to replicate (Ex: a current author completing a book based on an unfinished transcript/document of a now deceased author – (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/books/review/book-review-the-pale-king-by-david-foster-wallace.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0    and http://nypost.com/2013/08/25/five-new-j-d-salinger-novels-to-be-released-starting-in-2015/) which can, much like a forged painting, cause many problems.   Interestingly though, style is in some ways akin to  ‘quality’ of writing – Can you write a compelling piece of which a bored person will enjoy reading OR will some one just put it down out of boredom?

I have found more often than not, students cheat since they do NOT know better, not the wish to pull one over on a teacher. Some students do indeed pay for essays and there are secret mills which sell all manner of garbage to the highest bidder to submit as their paper.  It is incredibly easy to talk to a student and ascertain they did not write the essay. There is no need to mount a CIA and NSA investigation as simple questions indicate what a student knows or bought.  Some school districts now require students to ‘run’ their essay through some software product which does word count, lexile, sentence analysis and all other manner of  technologically intriguing things to suss out if the paper was indeed written or cut and pasted from various internet sources. Three of my students attend this type of school district.

I never had the joy of cutting and pasting anything other than a quote as I am hell bound to get my specific point across. It is a matter of pride I write my own essays, blogs, papers, etc. I expect the same from students. I will work tirelessly with them to edit, discuss, refine, etc. and at the end of the day, it is theirs. Knowledge can not be bestowed with a magic wand, one must earn it with hard and diligent work. Being as I know a fair enough amount about English and literature for a science major, it is not often I find myself challenged by another teacher for writing a students ‘literary analysis’ paper. In other words, pretty much anyone would never mistake me for an English major or writer.

What  recently happened was not pretty nor was it appropriate. A  teacher  questioned a student I tutor  regarding academic integrity over a literary analysis on ‘Of Mice and Men’ (based upon all manner of selfish reasons to wish the student ill will and no intention of actually being an honors level English teacher).  Said teacher made it clear to student and parents of student I ‘wrote’ the paper as I do not have boundaries for tutoring. This teacher has the foul attitude of letting students know they will not earn an A one moment earlier than she has determined, no matter how well they write as she is the arbiter of all.  Her reputation not only precedes her, it is ill-gotten gains based on her own limited background which does not include anything resembling the hard work of a PhD.  This teacher torments students in Grade 9 Honors English as she is allowed to – she has tenure.  To make matters exceedingly worse than her arrogance and the administrators who support this heresy, is the price of privilege.  This teacher is part of a uniquely interesting school district.

The school district was formed via a community which could not obtain an annexation so they ‘voted’ themselves their own school district – long before charter schools were even a dream. The district operates in much the same fashion as a charter school and is considered a select district. Over the years the number of school age children in the population dropped so they allowed for inter-district transfers. The transfer is meant to keep out anyone who is not white, first and foremost (I looked at the recent data on ethnicity and it is not representative of anyplace else in CA). The second part of this is to force parents and students to be compliant with the whims of the district or their inter-district transfer is somehow magically ‘terminated’ the next year.

Since parents want their children in this school district by inter-district  transfer, they are often willing to accept a degree of  shady behavior and professional ineptitude   by teachers and administrators.  This is where the toll of bad behavior on behalf of the adults who educate children is sometimes greater than the actual price of privilege to attend the district. The exactitude of how the  behavior is meted out is also mainly directed at the inter-district transfers as they are expendable. The English teacher above was motivated as much by her own unhappiness as by the fact of ‘eliminating any challenges to her authority or that of the administration’.

What is truly sad is the student  who was punished in this whole situation. The student is quite intelligent. The student was so frustrated they did not wish to put in their full effort and once they did, viola, it became a nightmare of Stephen King proportion. I know – I was blamed for causing the misconduct. The student was ultimately vindicated, as was I since I would not edit the students most recent paper in order for the teacher to see the waywardness of her claims.

It is not an easy balancing act and I commend the parents who are able to make it work. This includes the parents of SPED students (I tutor one of them) in the district who have had to tolerate teacher(s) not clear on how IEP’s/ 504’s work. The lack of clarity is not due to lack of education, it is due to lack of initiative on behalf of the teacher. No one seems to stand up to these people and they are bullies. They are better bullies than the kids on the playground as they can hide behind the guise of being adults.