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.

 

When Parents Choose NOT to Conform and Help Their Children

When I was a classroom teacher there were always parents who could not or would not conform to the basic rudiments of organization and being a back up support to their child. Part of it was the parent lacked education and was disorganized in their own life, part of it was living a complicated life with multiple jobs and then there were the parent(s) who for whatever reason had the resources, where with all and time and refused to conform as if my asking them to play a role in their child’s education was one step too far (they brought them into this world – apparently this was their entire job in their world view).

Not amazingly, the most impoverished children had  parents who tried the hardest as they realized the difference an education would make for their child. These particular parents would have sold a kidney if it would help their child. The kids of these particular parents had the message loud and clear – you must achieve something more than your parents.

It was the middle class, upper middle class and upper class (oh yes, I taught at a private school in Santa Monica, CA) who could not be bothered with the drudgery of following through on assignments, making sure the child sought out help from the teacher, hired a tutor, etc. It was these self-same parents who became nag monsters when their child was doing poorly and they wanted me to fix the problem as apparently it would seem teachers are given magic wands with their diplomas.  These parents could not be bothered to attend Back to School night or contact some one for help navigating the on-line school website portal where student agendas and grades were located.

Now, many years later as a tutor, I continue to confront these same issues with the same cast of characters. When I attempt to impose order on chaos, I am right alongside with this year’s flu vaccine……you want the shot except you might be run down for a day, your arm might hurt, you have to schedule it and so forth so you don’t obtain the shot and get virulently (literally and figuratively) angry when you get the flu.  In today’s world, most teachers post assignments on-line and computers can be checked during the course of the day. Teachers are able to respond to e-mails instead of attempting phone tag. So many things are more efficient and yet the same small group of parents can not get it together.

Whether it is fear and/or arrogance, it does not benefit your child to make the choice of not conforming. It teaches your child (without any words) what one type of lazy behavior may be and allows them to follow suit. Trust me, kids know everything – even when you tell a fib.

As a teacher, I often had anywhere from 30-180 students depending on grade level and subjects taught. Following up on one student took all my time. Uncooperative parents meant I did not ever get to sleep as I had to respond to them.  As a tutor, I typically have 20 students at various ages and abilities over different subject areas. In my case, up to 50% of those students have an identified special need which can be ‘on the spectrum Autism’ to full-blown ADHD with missing executive function skills and lack of impulse control, severe dyslexia, visual or aural processing issues, etc.  If I have 10 of those students a week, this means I must rely on the parents of these children to do what I can not do when I am only there once or twice a week.

When the parents of these and my ‘regular’ children choose not to conform and be helpful, I am limited in what I can do. The school is limited in what it can do. Change is NOT what some one else does to your child, rather it is what you create/instill/demonstrate/work on with your child. You have it all backwards if you believe a tutor or teacher has that much control over outcomes for your singular child. You are the person who needs to support the teacher and tutor in making change occur.

Sometimes parenting is difficult. Life is not fair – ever. You may have to give up your favorite TV show or social activity so you can check your child’s homework and review on-line the assignment. You may need to actively engage in studying, which is not homework; Studying is what good students do above and beyond homework. You may need to go to bed late. You may not be able to over schedule your kid and need to think about what can be cut out for the time being to get things back on track. You might need to review Algebra on Khan Academy so you CAN have a conversation with your child about math.

Whatever it is which needs to be done – please do it! This is YOUR child. Help me help your child to learn, succeed and be a productive member of society. Help me achieve the goal of self efficacy for your child by pulling your part. I want to work WITH you…..not alone.

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.

Introduction of a new acronym: TINO-Teacher in name only.

As a teacher, tutor and student advocate, my plate runs pretty full. You would be well within reason to assume I need to spend the least amount of time with teachers, principals and SPED staff at schools when dealing with students of differing needs. Alas, most of my time is sucked out by teachers pretending (and I mean this is the broadest sense of the word) to have competence in their subject, working with differentiated instruction AND communication with parents and/or myself.  On top of dealing with teachers who should be embarrassed by their inferior skill set (and not wishing to seek help/support), I have to deal with principals and district office personnel who seem to have mastered the Peter Principle so fully, they can not even provide communication.

For the above mentioned reason, teacher tenure needs to be resolved.  Don’t get me wrong. I have many teacher colleagues and principal friends who are the top 2% of all, unfortunately, I can name them on my fingers and toes – the rest have retired.  Tenure has become code for the most egregious and intractable behaviors towards students I have ever seen.

I am not anti-union. I am  absolutely against any teacher who goes into the profession to NOT interact with parents and students, most especially those who qualify under the phrase ‘Children of a lesser God (and not only due to deafness)’.

Please find what I had to spend today doing. This is after more than 10 hours of IEP work last school year (the first six hours done in one and two-hour sessions) with a marathon four-hour session which was supposedly to get this all on track.

At the end of the day, we need to start calling these folks what they are: TINO’s.  There is no other explanation.

On Thu, Nov 7, 2013 at 9:34 AM, <Natalie.Berkowitz wrote:

Dear SPED DIRECTOR NAME  and PRINCIPAL NAME,     In addition, superintendent of district was sent e-mail.

I feel compelled to express my disappointment and dismay at how this school year unfolded for STUDENT NAME and, my speculative guess would be, other SPED students at this school and probably within the district.

SPED DIRECTOR NAME made it  clear to me when the marathon four-hour IEP was completed last year with both of you, the  2012-2013  school year experience would not be self-perpetuating. It is unclear what happened or who dropped the ball. It is evident with STUDENT NAME leaving  to attend a private school the ball was dropped multiple times with multiple people.

I can start with the e-mail I sent to both of you the first week of school in Sept. 2013- which was never responded to in any way. I had reasonable concerns about STUDENT NAME transition this year and apparently my concerns were well founded.

According to PARENT NAME, STUDENT NAME mother, teachers were too ‘consumed’ with work, most especially the math teacher. I repeatedly worked with PARENT NAME to ask for various things to happen so STUDENT NAME could have better success. Prying a copy of teacher or other top student notes for STUDENT NAME was all-consuming.

The math teacher hand wrote her assignments and tests – the WORST possible situation for STUDENT NAME. Not only were they handwritten, the quality would have been better if I gave 12 monkeys a laptop.  If nothing else, the layout of the assignments and tests could be organized. I am unclear where MATH TEACHER NAME obtained her credential and how she manages to work with students of varying needs. She is unwavering in her unwillingness to change and do  anything to benefit students. There is a free version of math typing software  (equation editor) which could be used.

MATH TEACHER NAME excuse of decimals and fractions being the most difficult section of the math book does not excuse doing all which is possible to assist students with alternate needs. Amazingly, when I wrote out the problems in DARK large writing, STUDENT NAME was able to do the work. It is not ‘teacher prerogative’ to write-up assignments and tests if there are students with IEP’s and specific needs.  MATH TEACHER NAME would benefit from a refresher course on what tenure provides.

Due to no adults (STUDENT NAME math help class and regular pre-Algebra class) doing even a mediocre job of follow through, STUDENT NAME had completed work incorrectly on a number of occasions and it then had to be re-done. It reinforced the wrong concepts when she was allowed to do work and not have it checked. Again, it would have been very easy for a teacher circulating the room to note this or give STUDENT NAME a couple answers on a note card so she could stop if the work was wrong. How/why STUDENT NAME never cried when work had to be redone is beyond me. It is testament to her good attitude in spite of a system hell-bent on letting her down.

When PARENT NAME told me about the delayed test scores, I was horrified. As a teacher, I know/knew which students would benefit the most from immediate  feedback as their learning disabilities required extra time and effort. Not making STUDENT NAME a ‘priority’ is ridiculous. There was a parent and tutor on board. I can not believe 15 years of teaching experience has not provided MATH TEACHER NAME with better decision-making skills.

As a credentialed math teacher, my students were taught how to do math as if it actually mattered and did not write on the assignment sheet or test. It was definitely more time-consuming to grade and look at work. It benefitted the students, not my hours of  work in the day. I am unclear why MATH TEACHER NAME could not see STUDENT NAME did her best work on graph paper (sent with her from home) and to make sure this is what STUDENT NAME used and stipulate this is what would be accepted. Likewise, in all this time, why was PARENT NAME not contacted so something could have been done.

I put together a list of questions and recommendations for PARENT NAME as I knew she was frustrated with the school. PARENT NAME submitted them to MATH TEACHER NAME.   The two which stand out most glaringly is how MATH TEACHER NAME works half a day and yet has 150 students and could not be bothered to find another math teacher, etc. at SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA MIDDLE SCHOOL NAME to give morning and/or afternoon support to STUDENT NAME as needed.

The second issue was not seeing ‘highlighter pen’ on IEP.  I clearly remember wanting this on IEP last year as I have worked with teachers such as MATH TEACHER NAME. It was NOT put on IEP.  MATH TEACHER NAME should know using a highlighter is COMMON SENSE, not a modification. I have used highlighters with regular ed students to help them track negatives and decimals. It is not proscribed as SPED.

As I asked last year, do teachers in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA SCHOOL DISTRICT have such bad union agreements  they only perform ‘work to rule’?  I ask this as I have never in all my life had teachers tell students they may get help at break, lunch or during class but not before or after school, where STUDENT NAME could have benefitted from a small group in an un-rushed setting. The only time I have witnessed this is when there were contract negotiations and some teachers were being a bit too hard-headed.

I also asked for PARENT NAME to be given a copy of problem answers so she (and myself) could check STUDENT NAME work. Teacher response: I will speak to somebody about having an answer key.  I also do not see this accommodation on her IEP.    Why would it be wrong to give a parent an e-mail with the answers?   The parent and tutor wished to help the student, not sell it on the black market.

In addition, MATH TEACHER NAME indicated it was difficult for her to contact all the parents of students receiving D’s and F’s on an exam.  Frankly, this indicates a re-teaching situation as the teacher did not manage to succeed in getting enough students ‘on board’. This should never have been a punishment to STUDENT NAME by not contacting PARENT NAME so something could be done immediately and I could have given extra time to the situation.

To be clear, last year I was frustrated. This year I am inconsolable at how things unfolded.  Hopefully the last 10 weeks and all of last year will not be a complete wash and STUDENT NAME will get the support she deserves.  I urge you to find out why your teachers have so much animosity to parents and tutors. Please discern  if these teachers might benefit from some refresher work on interacting with special needs students, their parents and tutors who have been on board.  It would be a complete disgrace if all students were treated in this poor manner in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA SCHOOL DISTRICT.

Respectfully,

Natalie Berkowitz

Nothing is created or destroyed. Things are transformed. Study your chemistry and zen.

Success is what an individual achieves. Progress is what happens when the world is raised up!

 

Parent response to same group of people after I submitted my letter with parent permission:

I want to begin with well said Natalie. Sometime you can be straight to the point and come off as harsh to some (What the IEP team thought of you last year).. However I now see why. If I would have sit back like most of the parents do and think that these teachers and principle knows best and our children are in good hands STUDENT NAME  would be left behind at this school.

I want all to understand that I have TRIED and put A LOT of trust in the school and especially PRINCIPAL NAME. I really wanted this year to get better. I do not have the time to be a single mother, a full time professional and a “principle” of the special ed dept. I have however tried to keep in contact and email all. But I get NO response back. TEACHER NAME said after our meeting face to face in his office this week he would get back to me by the end of the day… he did not. He told me that he himself has worked with special ed for a long time… Come to find out thru SPED DIRECTOR NAME that was not accurate… I ask where is the written progress report (last years excuse was system was down.. I wonder what this years excuse is) that is supposed to come home from the teachers stapled to the regular progress report… Ast. principle had no clue and has never seen that as a requirement in all his years. This shows that there is a huge disconnect. I really have no idea how to do this. I feel Very bad for those “special students” that get pushed aside, or parents did what I did and believed in the team. Then come to find out nothing actually gets followed.

I can not force teachers to be there for students. I can not change everyone’s teaching. You can not instill “caring” for students… that is something teachers should have internally.

I do not blame MATH TEACHER NAME for everything but her emails about she has 150 students – she does not have the time to reach out to me because there are too many. And that she does not see all of STUDENT NAME accommodations. It seems like another teacher with excuses. I am in AWH and very sad.

SPED DIRECTOR NAME- I know you tried. I appreciate everything you did for us last year. However once you walk away from the school, it seems to me everyone just returns back to old habits.

I work very hard to keep up with STUDENT NAME. I know she has tried and she could be a lot more successful if a teacher had the time or followed her IEP. Such as pulling her out for testing… I found out that STUDENT NAME gets pulled out for test and put into a huge room with other students not even taking test… how is this RIGHT? Why PRINCIPAL NAME do you not know what is going on with these children? Why has STUDENT NAME not even seen her aid. Why on 10/30/13 did I send an email to TEACHER NAME and PRINCIPAL NAME begging for a parent meeting and have yet to hear a response.

The state and the district gives funds to HELP! But when a parent reaches out NO one is there… so as you guys forget or are too busy to respond I feel your letting my STUDENT NAME suffer… which means you do not care… I really do not understand where the funding goes if no one helps.

I can not save any of the other students. And I did NOT want to change STUDENT NAME school but I am so overwhelmed with the lack of cooperation.

This email will not help STUDENT NAME but I am hoping that someone can make sure her friends are not having to go thru what STUDENT NAME is going through.

I want to be clear SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA MIDDLE SCHOOL NAME does have some great teachers. TEACHER NAME and TEACHER NAME, and TEACHER NAME all have been great and I appreciate those. STUDENT NAME loves TEACHER NAME class as well, however she never seems to have time to help me figure out this IEP mess.

I am sure last year this is what teachers wanted, for me to take STUDENT  NAME away. Its always easier to have the student leave then fix the problems.

I wish everyone the best,

PARENT NAME

The Price of Tutor A and Tutor B

The more I tutor, the more I confirm some of my worst fears regarding educational practices.

Each time I have a student with a teacher who tries to teach a cute ‘story’ method for doing an actual math procedure I wish to just puke.  The most recent technique I have been ‘learned in’ is the cake method or cupcake method as new terminology for being able to discern factors and use the factors to obtain a product….as in doing multiplication.  I have already been ‘learned in’ the ‘flip it over, flip it over’ song for the word reciprocal as in, “I am dividing one fraction by another and need to use the multiplication sign AND the reciprocal of the fraction”.

It is not clear to me which is worse – the teachers not being comfortable enough with math and the appropriate vocabulary to use in describing a math process, the inability to explain a process via analogy and then use the appropriate verbiage or the idea of teachers dumbing it down.  No matter how you look at the situation, it is unfair to our students.

In light of STEM (M is for math!) and the common core standards rolling out in at least 40 states, it is going to be increasingly important for teachers to step it up. I do not know if this means teachers going back to school to be ‘learned’ in the ways of math or what it will take, I just know it is wrong to short change our students.

In addition to using made up words and phrases to teach math, many teachers do not expect habits of mind from students so they can go to algebra and progress further. Students should have syntax by Grade 6 – this means you solve a problem/equation down the left side of the page and not across.  It means things such as writing neatly, not skipping steps and doing the ‘scratch math’ on the far right side of the page so the actual work of math looks neat, tidy and can be ‘read’.

I had a student upset and angry with me for NOT writing out the equation from the word problem in algebra. I asked the student to pick out the three most important words in the word problem and we would assign the variable and construct how to do the problem.  This was upsetting as the ‘tutor’ at the library read the word problem to them and gave them the equation.  The student was being ‘cheated’ by the tutor as the tutor clearly already knew how to do the math – the student needed to learn. Skipping the ‘thinking’ process for the student did not make them better understand math and it did not make the tutor a better tutor since the student just had to solve the equation.

As a tutor, I have to explain what I do and why my rates are what they are versus the tutor at the library or other tutor who will charge far less.  Tutor B can charge less as they are not actually teaching math.  In fact, sometimes I think teachers are not even teaching math and so tutors don’t feel obligated to do more themselves.

We should not teach misconceptions in science and we should not try to shortcut the thinking process in math. These mistakes, along with multiple choice tests do not benefit our students.  School reform has many trees to clear from the forest of my disbelief.  It would be different if I had this situation once in awhile……I have seen it across the bay area of  N. California and now in S. California. I saw it in New York. Places I have not seen this messiness: Namibia, Kenya, Sweden.  I know this messiness does not happen in many places as the students excel at math.  We need to meet the competition and  in our training, there can be no short cuts.

 

And then it happened……people were surprised.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/16/i-am-adam-lanzas-mother-mental-illness-conversation_n_2311009.html

http://drugtopics.modernmedicine.com/drugtopics/Modern+Medicine+Now/A-tragic-lesson-in-risk-management/ArticleStandard/Article/detail/799851

As a teacher, I am allowed much less latitude in my day to day existence then the average person who is not a teacher – (no actual education experience yet has a college degree, may be a parent, after school provider service, baby sitter, etc).  This lack of latitude is not a problem, rather it presents a unique dilemma.  Society expects me (with my nifty CA State Teaching Credential) to act differently and generally better so I have little wiggle room if something goes wrong. As a science teacher, I can tell you, up front and honestly, ‘Things go wrong’ and so I do all I can for reasonable risk assessment in an attempt to avoid the ‘something going wrong’  starting small and becoming HUGE.   Adam Lanza went wrong. Come to think of it, so did NECC (New England Compounding Center).

When I have had to deal with work colleagues, administrators, parents, etc., about avoiding problems,  the  mantra I most often hear is, ‘Well we have been doing it this way for ______ (pick your amount of time) and have not had a problem’.  The second most often heard mantra is, ‘We have a license, degree, certificate…..’.  My favorite mantra: ‘Kids don’t come with operating instructions’.

I want to roll my eyes as mantra one means we can’t/won’t/are afraid to change. Mantra two indicates abdication. My favorite mantra translates into lack of use of common sense and/or asking for help.

When something goes wrong, these mantras never hold up with talking to parents, police, doctors, etc. These mantras do have the capacity to help some one feel better about the lapses and excuse ineptitude, which is why we have lawyers and insurance.  These mantras allow people to feel okay about not being a functioning member of their family, work colleagues,  group of friends and community.

We are a society so separated from reality we expect others to take responsibility for everything from poor parenting to bad grades to bad behavior. When something bad happens, we console ourselves with the concept we ‘did the best we could’ and immediately start looking where to point blame.

I have to ask – did you really do the best you could? Were you afraid in some way and so you chose to take the easier path?

Were you putting some self interest in front of your job/relationship with another person(I can’t deal with lunatic parent B so I will just give the kid a C and call it a day – even though the kid has some serious learning and behavior problems; I have to have enrollment numbers up so I will accept whatever kids come to my program;  I was afraid to address parent Q their child has behavior X consistently and it is not benefitting their age/play mates; Just this once I can let it slide – it will keep everything calm and so on) and did not step it up?

Anything in science ‘lab’ can become dangerous under the wrong circumstances so we practice, practice, practice-we practice how to use particular tools correctly, who gets to pick up broken glass (ME and any other adult only), how to stop, drop and roll (we light candles and peanuts for experiments some times), how to walk around a puddle. We talk about why, at the end of the day, it is quite important I return children to their parents in the same or better (they learn something and maybe grow a gyri on the brain!) condition and I have told them I really never wish to have to call a parent from the ER.

I am strict. My students need to demonstrate they know how to WALK with scissors pointed downward….and this is at all age levels. We learn how to position a butter knife (blunt edge) since with enough force, even a butter knife is dangerous.  I have explained that while I would do anything I could to keep them alive, I don’t feel like doing open heart surgery today so they must walk with scissors AND they must walk and HOLD scissors a particular way.  Knives and tools requiring use of ‘force’ must be pushed away from body for proper use. Fortunately for me I have not had to do heart surgery – I have had to deal with ripped clothing, scissors falling just shy of puncturing a toe as child wore sandals, scissors being used in wrong direction (don’t ask me how the child was able to do this to try and unplug the glue bottle) and kid getting cut on hand, etc.

In the case of Nancy Lanza, the story unfolded all too sadly after the fact. Apparently she practiced my favorite mantra  and the most often heard mantra about having a license (for anything, as if this makes you invisible from harm, most especially  a license for a gun).   Not only did Mrs. Lanza practice one of the mantras, her so called friends aided, abetted and abided in the mantras.  After Friday 14 December 2012 people began to blame the NRA (yet, Mrs. Lanza had a license). People were able to construct a bit of a story about Mrs. Lanza – she was generous with money yet never managed to talk about one son.  Mrs. Lanza does not seem to have any ‘close’ friends or they sure are not talking.  People confused Mrs. Lanza as a teacher.  People knew Adam was different (interestingly, kids can always tell when some one is  different even though they may not have words for the ‘different’) and yet apparently his different was ‘normal’ – AND THEN IT WAS NOT.

Some one was afraid to use the tool of truth and sincerity.

The methodology of CAREFULNESS rules what I do.  I have substantially more to lose for a ‘mistake’, no matter how well intentioned I was in avoiding the mistake.  My choices are public (they occur in a classroom for all to see and hear), my choices are constantly what parents talk about.  My choices supposedly have more impact on a child then anything their parents could/should do…….

The higher standard is sometimes frightening and often frustrating. I can lose my credential in the blink of an eye if a child is hurt  or some stranger abducts a child under my care (even if the child stated they ‘knew’ the person since a child’s knowing is distinctly different from an adult knowing) even if I told two kids to go to the bathroom together, I am expected to have eyes on the back of my head and a third eye at all times. The  same  behavior is  not  required/expected of a parent – something going ‘south’ would be called an accident.   Adam Lanza’s behavior was apparently an accident since no one seemed to see it coming and yet it seems all the signs were there and the signs were pretty blinding neon, most especially having an interest in guns and sharing guns with a child as a demonstration of responsibility.

Since my livelihood depends on how well I can inculcate the use of particular  tools, I am careful to note the following:

Bleach – great for sanitizing. Five drops in a gallon of water is good stuff when there is no clean water. A child drinking bleach left below the kitchen sink is deadly.  Scissors – awesome for arts and crafts. Kitchen scissors can be used to cut chicken bones.  Falling on scissors can cause blindness, puncture wounds, death. Pencil – great for writing on paper and drawing. Flung across the room, can cause blindness. http://www.cnn.com/video/?hpt=hp_c3#/video/us/2013/01/25/dnt-pencil-spears-tot-in-the-eye.whdh   Rubber band – wonderful for making a model airplane propeller turn. Horrific is shot to the face. Minimally painful if it hits a tender part of the body. Needle – great tool for sewing on a button, getting glue stuck in neck of glue bottle, making a tiny hole to demonstrate starlight in a black piece of paper. Completely dangerous on many levels up to and including carrying germs so we should not even use it to pretend we have magnetic skin.  Magnets – wonderful for holding things to refrigerator. Great for an MRI which can help in doing a medical diagnosis. Terribly bad when swallowed by children and the magnets bind in the gut.

The above are just the minimum of issues I deal with as a teacher.  Add on taking students on a field trip where the generally accepted standard is 6-10 children per adult (and many times the adults act like children).  Add on being distracted for one second by a child who does not understand the word NO  is indeed  A COMPLETE SENTENCE when stated by an adult and you start to get a tiny view of my world.

When children act out, I am clear in communicating with parents and administrators regarding what happened as I just watched my life pass before my eyes and that of the children I am in charge of.   I do not have a ‘free pass’ – ever.  I am not unempathetic, I am honest, sincere and don’t let acting out pass for the ‘next time’.  This is known as the practice of behaviorism – catching it when it happens, addressing it and moving forward instead of letting the behavior go and become a routine.

This methodical approach applies to not only  all tools above  but  the speaking tool in human relationships with family and friends.

In the same way I  would state  guns are a tool (air BB pellet guns at summer camp for target practice, hunting, use on big game drives in Africa), and require extraordinary care in use, I would state honesty and telling the truth to parents, friends and family is so important when something is ‘amiss’.

Tools and truth  are a safety issue  – improper use of a tool can have some unintended consequences and outcomes.  Improper use of truth (protecting some one from feeling hurt, their self esteem tapped, etc.)  does not help people seek help/services/support  before something unforeseen happens.  We need to treat our relationships the same way we would demonstrate respect for a tool – practice telling some one something is wrong and share how to get help; report a problem to the police (the converse of this is not ‘snitching’ and we all know how this works in neighborhoods with gangs), follow up and practice again; check things out every now and again to make sure things are in good operating condition – especially your relationships.  Don’t let being politically correct stop you from being ACTUALLY CORRECT.   If you have that ‘feeling’ inside of something being amiss, talk to your friend, their family members, etc. Report what you think is amiss- your internal gut is more accurate then you realize (Gary Zukov, The Seat of The Soul).

I have never seen cops at a shooting range practice without goggles and ear mufflers.  I am not condoning guns although I support the idea that if you have a gun, you should at a minimum know how to use it and store it appropriately.   This is what leads me to state that guns in and of themselves are not inherently dangerous, rather the people using them are dangerous.

People without care or thought or an understanding of risk management have difficulty imagining the horror of  everyday items in the house.  Liza Long noted this in her piece above. People with  problems of mental and behavioral health issues are not inherently dangerous – rather the people who have mental/behavioral  problems tend to have a proclivity to be dangerous for a variety of reasons.  Not saying something to the person or their adult care taker  due to the impoliteness factor is dangerous. You have a tool (your brain) to think through information, analyze the information and share if something is not making sense.

When you get down to it, a teacher should not be different from anyone else.  A teacher should be respected for noting when something is amiss in equal proportion to when they note something is awesome and wonderful. A teacher should be appreciated for honesty when it comes to children.  Generally this is not the case as there is no nice way to tell the truth about something being amiss.  If this were the actual case, some one somewhere in a small place called Newtown, CT would have rung a warning bell about Nancy Lanza, her relationship with guns and her son who was different and perhaps should not (in retrospect) have been shown how to shoot guns.   Some one at the college where Adam attended or a friend of Nancy’s who had kids themselves should have noted something was incongruous and at a minimum, contacted the police as a ‘heads up’ and let the police follow up.  It seems both Nancy and Adam had a unique relationship with schools.

The danger is not the ‘tool’ – the danger is in not knowing how to use a tool – any tool, not practicing enough and expecting a better outcome than if you actually made the  attempt to  thoughtful and careful about all tools, including the SPEAKING UP tool.   Speak up instead of being surprised.

Why ‘grading’ the teacher is not only wrong, but ineffective. Part II of II Blogs

Gawande, Atul, Personal Best, The New Yorker 3 October 2011  p. 44, 46-50, 51-52

This is Part II of two blogs begun March 2012 which addressed Dr. Gawande (New Yorker Magazine Article). He has a  quest for ‘coaching’ to continue developing  into his Personal Best.  I felt it necessary to analyze the article written by Dr. Gawande in order to address a professional sense of self-reflection, that of a professional surgeon.  Dr. Gawande so thoroughly addressed his personal role in medicine AND all the other potential factors  of medicine that I was compelled to use this as an example.   Dr. Gawande admitted the fault of being human and demonstrated humility in  not being  God.  He noted that the human condition is imperfect yet there is a way to learn and continually improve ourselves over time,  most often with self-reflection and insight from others as it is difficult to view ourselves while being ourselves.

Only by carefully observing other professionals outside the field  of education can we begin to develop a consciousness of  professionalism, what it means to good, better, best, great and so forth and look for tools to apply to the teaching profession.  Focusing only on education assumes the worst case scenario – teachers are distinctly different in the world of humans, but instead of being viewed as deities, in America, they are viewed as pure evil by many, often including their own administrators and the government at state and federal levels.

When we see what others do, we get past the misanthropic view of one group of people (non- teachers)  regarding teachers and notice more of  the similarities between teachers and other professionals.  Once back from the brink of insanity,  we can address the multitude factors which effect the outcomes of education, which are not strictly the result of teacher quality.  Many outcomes in education have everything to do with poverty, parental involvement and  self motivation/will.

If we were to blame only surgeons and doctors for ALL medical outcomes, no one would have surgery any more. It is both a science and an art.  There is not ‘perfection’, rather there are gradations of success based on a whole slew of issues above and beyond the doctor/surgeon.  We may seek perfection –  this involves coaching and improving professional practice.  It is NOT the golden bullet to prevent all problems.  Doctors can not account for your DNA, what you choose to eat, how you choose to take care of yourself.  Doctors have to work with what is presented to them and hope that with their best ministrations, they obtain a positive outcome as they take an oath to do no harm.  In the case of doctors, we need to look from within regarding outcomes of surgery,  because we came to the doctor damaged.

When we grade a teacher, we wish to push results and outcomes on people whom have the least control over what goes on in a child’s life. Teachers have only 40/168 hours, including sleep. Take out sleep (which is substantially important) and you have 40/118 hours assuming kids sleep a 10 hour night. In both cases, 40 hours is very little and yet so much is expected.   Teachers, like doctors, have to work with what is presented to them and hope that with their best ministrations will produce positive outcomes in nine months of the school year of eight-hour school days.  Let me be clear – most kids do not sleep even eight hours a nigh.t Not all school days are actually eight hours so the numbers I present are skewed by things such as testing, minimum days, staying up late at night for a variety of reasons and a multitude of other issues (lockdowns, snow days, illness, etc.).  Grading a teacher on amount of time of ‘influence’ alone is inadequate.

In order to explore  various ideas within education reform, I also sought out different pieces of writing from others who address the ideation of grading teachers.   It is not enough to say something is a  bad or good idea, rather one needs to support different views and perceptions so the discussion can center on what is best for children, not what is best for our sense of power over things we lack control.

As Dr. Gawande indicates, coaching is costly and rarely something schools can afford. It is awkward – in the hospital and in the classroom.  Obtaining coaching can be (and often is viewed outside sports and singing) seen as an admission of failure instead of the converse – an admission of willing to improve.  When coaching is used as punishment in education, it automatically infers substandard performance.  To change the perception of coaching in education will be no different or easier than the exact experience Dr. Gawande addresses at the end of his written piece.   Demonizing teachers does not improve their quality – it does slowly wear them down and destroy them which could not be good for students.

I am done picking at the bone of grading teachers with  a public which hates  teachers, who think denigrating and demeaning teachers (public humiliation/bullying/ exposing student success or failure on our backs) is reform.   This bone is from a  recently dead animal which was left rotting on the street, run over by a car and bits of it are smashed into the concrete. The piece of bone left has tendons and muscle hanging from it, smells of horrible decay and clearly would be of no use to the mammal it came from so we need to start over and not be so willing to kill.  Bloodsport does not ever portend to good.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/04/opinion/sunday/confessions-of-a-bad-teacher.html

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203458604577263603261494594.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

http://scholasticadministrator.typepad.com/thisweekineducation/2012/03/more-wk-value-added-.html#more

http://schoolsofthought.blogs.cnn.com/2012/03/06/my-view-when-did-teacher-bashing-become-the-new-national-pastime/?hpt=hp_bn1

So, to use a quote:

New Yorker Magazine cartoon (5 Dec 2011) by Victoria Roberts: “There’s an elephant in the room and no zookeeper.”

Let’s try to find a better course of action because grading teachers is not working the way we assumed it would.  Here is a smattering of examples of alternative perspectives.  What would be awesome is if the people who hired teachers had as much interest in teacher success as their own rise to power.

Almost all men can stand adversity, but if you want to judge a man’s true character, give him power.   (I have been unable to find the source in order to attribute this quote – if you know it, please comment!)

http://www.inc.com/jeff-haden/the-8-qualities-of-remarkable-employees.html?

http://scholasticadministrator.typepad.com/thisweekineducation/2012/03/thompson-how-is-teaching-different-from-all-other-professions.html

http://scholasticadministrator.typepad.com/thisweekineducation/2012/03/thompson-address-behavior-first.html

http://www.kqed.org/a/radiospecials/R201203292000

https://whereiskatima.wordpress.com/2009/06/28/zagat-type-ratings-at-schools-all-for-it/

When society begins supporting ways for teachers to improve their personal best, obtaining the caliber of teachers  wished for will be in reach.  Brigham and Women’s Hospital in MA and Harvard University are fortunate to have such a self reflective staff member AND some one so willing to share their personal experiences in order to help others.  By supporting Dr. Gawande and his willingness to strive for better, these institutions and patients benefit greatly all the way around.

We would do far more to improve education by creating a positive environment for teachers.   It is our choice – surgically destroy education with reforms that have little to nothing in offering actual  improvement or healing what happens in the classroom by owning our locus of control and assisting teachers in achieving their personal best.