Sunday, March 27, 2011

Transfers Are Generally "Miss"

In the past four years I've worked in two very different settings where the term "transfer student" has meant extremely different things.  When I taught for a spring on a U.S. military base, transfer students were extremely normal.  There were systems in place to ease the process and it was assumed a number of students in the grade would come and go as their parents were given new orders mid-year.  While the increased work load was a bit exasperating (it takes extra to catch them up, settle them in to your specific classroom, etc.), it was not an extremely stressful, painful process to get them on track in your classroom.

Cue New York City transfer students.

This year I've had two students join my classroom mid-year.  The first was brought to our school through the most common method for mid-year transfers: the safety transfer.  This means either that the student was unsafe at her old school or perhaps that the student herself posed a risk to the students at her old school.  She arrived late in the fall when we were just settling in, but was able to contribute to a major decline in behavior amongst the students in her class- one that has since remained.  While her classmates did not become aggressive like her, they did see her ability to mouth off to each and every teacher as an invitation for them to take more liberties with their own behavior.  Since her transfer she has also been suspended numerous times for aggressive behavior and has attacked at least one of our other female students.  In spite of her initial desire to turn over a new leaf and in spite of our continuing support for her doing so, keeping a level head and listening to adults has simply been too much for her to handle.

The second transfer arrived just last week.  After being switched between a number of suspension sites on Staten Island, this young man, his mother, and his seven brothers moved to the Bronx after a serious home issue arose.  During the week he has been in my class, things have been fairly hit or miss.  On the very first day, he threw markers at another young man-claiming it was an "accident"- which I talked to him about, basically sending the message that he should avoid such "accidents" whenever possible.  Since then he has chosen another young man to bully incessantly and in an increasingly violent manner.  For example, he ejected an umbrella into the back of the young man's head, claiming once again that it was an accident.  I changed the months-old seating chart in that class after that incident, isolating the transfer student slightly at the front of the room (placing truant students on the seating chart around him) and watched him like a hawk, while at the same time making sure I follow through with whatever support I would give any new student.

Now, from what I can tell, there are a couple of ways people in the city tend to view a situation like this.  First is what might be referred to as the "child-centered" approach.  This is the idea that whatever the transfer student went through must have been pretty tough, that he was most likely not learning a lot at his previous suspension sites, and that whatever happens he will learn more at our school than wherever he was before.  All of that is probably true.  There seems to be quite a number of folks in the city, however, who are unwaveringly committed to this point of view- so much so that even if the kid went on a murderous rampage they would still adamantly claim that keeping the kid in our school is what is best for him or her and therefore the best possible scenario.

Another viewpoint might be termed the "children-centered" approach.  Basically, a teacher has thirty plus students in a classroom and has built relationships with all of them throughout the entire year.  It's the teacher's job to find ways to tame the new student and teach them to coexist with the ones who are already kind of nuts, while simultaneously creating balance between the students doing their jobs and those who are not.  On a given day, the learning environment can be extremely delicate, as one or two students going off can destroy everything you've planned and everything your students have worked toward.  When it comes to an extremely disruptive student (especially a new one), the teacher can certainly point out that the disruption, intimidation, and potential violence is enough to derail everything going well in that classroom (which is true).  The extremists on this end isolate the student and go to war with them, letting them know that they aren't welcome and they go overboard when the kid screws up.  From their point of view, they are saving the many by cutting off the troubled few, who destroy the process.

In reality there probably needs to be a balance between the two.  Yes, transfer students in NYC are almost never "hit", but instead whopping "misses".  The fact of the matter is that as a classroom teacher there is not a ton I can do about the situation other than keep the administration and guidance up to date on a student's behavior, go through my normal discipline routine, and call home whenever possible.  While I can grumble all I want about it, feeling extremely angry that a potential threat to my students has been thrust into my classroom, at the end of the day it's best to try to work the kid into the fold and get them used to classroom norms just as I would on the military base and hope that he or she doesn't injure me or my other students.  Hopefully, one day the Department of Education will realize that shuffling students from school to school to school is not the solution to whatever issue is causing their abominable behavior.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

NY Times: U.S. Has to Raise Teachers' Status

The plunging level of respect for classroom teachers in the past few decades seems to me to be one of, if not the, biggest problem we face in American public schools.  There are a number of reasons why this has happened, but regardless, we have to address the issue.  In this New York Times article countries that have higher achievement levels than the United States strongly urge the country to improve the status of teachers.

The report linked in the article is informative and concise.  Another recommendation made is "Invest Resources Closer to Action", which to me means cut out the extreme bureaucracy that exists and use the cash to support teachers and increase their salaries so they are just a bit closer to other "respectable" professions.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Surveying Schedules- Part 2

While keeping up to date on all of the banter about teachers stemming from the debate between governors and teachers' unions, I thought I'd post again about my schedule, as it has changed.  While some politicians have done the politically correct thing in saying they are after the unions, not the teachers, many pundits and news stations have attacked the teachers directly.

For the pundits calling us lazy, please see my schedule for the semester below.

Workday Schedule
  • 5:15 AM Wake up, make coffee, pack lunch, check headlines, create to-do list for the day and run through lesson plans
  • 6:45 AM Depart for school, taking the train from Manhattan to the Bronx
  • 7:20 AM Arrive at school, make copies, prepare classroom for arrival of students, make coffee, pull together supplies for the day, last minute coordination for any meetings that require it, etc.
  • 8:10 AM Students arrive for home room, where we read silently, check up on their grades, practice math skills, do team-building exercises, and take care of miscellaneous logistical tasks
  • 8:55 AM-10:00 AM Planning period, used to do research for my curriculum, plan my German elective lesson, procure supplies, meet with the tech guys or learning specialist, call parents, make copies, do administrative paperwork, meet with parents, etc.
  • 10:00-11:15 AM Teach a modified-block 8th Grade U.S. History section
  • 11:15 AM-12:00 PM Supervisor of the APEX online learning lab or detention duty.
  • 12:00-12:45 PM Meetings with my grade-level team or content team, suspension room duty, and a weekly 1:1 advising appointment.  I also eat during this period.
  • 12:45-3:10 PM Two modified-block sections of 8th Grade U.S. History 
  • 3:10-4:00 PM A period of my German elective
  • 4:00-4:30 PM Put away any supplies of the day, clean up classroom
  • 4:30-5:15 PM Train back to Manhattan
Evenings Sunday-Thursday 
  • 5:15-7:15 PM Dinner, down time
  • 7:15 PM- 11:45 PM Parent outreach, grading, left-over planning, writing, and research

Weekends really vary. Luckily I have a fiancee who helps me manage my social schedule and puts up with my workaholic tendencies.  If she wasn't around I doubt that I'd be able to manage this in anywhere near a healthy way (though my doctor friends say I'm not anyway).  This past weekend I spent somewhere between twelve and fifteen hours grading papers and a few more doing other planning, collaborative work and writing.

The rabble rousing seen by many leaders is extraordinarily misplaced.  The budgets of course must be saved, which will most likely require actions such as paring down of pension plans for us younger teachers, reducing teaching staffs, and tossing young talent to curb.  Whatever actions are taken to save the budget, the national debate surrounding the issue- the claim that teachers are overpaid and lazy- is only going to make fewer people join the field.

As for the pundits who think we're bunch of lazy bums, I invite you to come into my classroom and into my school, where you'll find a staff working to the point of exhaustion, pouring everything they have physically, emotionally, and professionally into teaching our nation's youth.  I'm pretty damned tired in general, but especially so when it comes to your criticism.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Our Gymless Championship Team

If there is one thing that can motivate even our most difficult students, it is usually basketball.  Many of our students on the court are extremely difficult to work with in the classroom.  It strikes me as a basic question of where they're comfortable.  In the classroom it's like they've entered a foreign country- there's some adult speaking what is nearly a foreign language at the front, telling them that math, science, English, and history will get them somewhere.  It 's extremely difficult to see that connection in the community, as there are few that have finished college and those that went and dropped out are doing no better than those that did not go at all.

On the court, however, our boys are comfortable.  In communities where playing street ball well is one of the ways you can set yourself apart from the other boys on the block, many of our boys want nothing more than to have court time and play at a high level.  While I wish it was not the only path in which they see it, it is their American dream:  work hard, play hard, and you'll get somewhere.

And during our league's championship game on Thursday, our boys did just that- especially during the fourth quarter.  

We trailed nearly the entire game.  Only once or twice in the first three quarters did we peak over their score by a point, but soon went back by five or six.  We played a team that we'd beaten before on our 10-0 run to the final game, but they were on fire today.  Their passing was crisp and better than most high school teams I've seen.  They had three or four strong players on the court that moved the ball better than our team and they had plenty of energy.  While I'd seen them play before, it was clear that they were controlling the game and our team was struggling to keep up. 

The gym we were playing in was small and deafening thanks to the other team's support and cheerleading squad.  Because of that I couldn't be sure what our coach was saying to our team during the time out just before the fourth quarter (one teacher mentioned she was terrified just watching the pep talk!), but the massive Irishman ripped into them, picked them back up, brushed them off, and sent them back out onto the court ready to take control of the game.

Which they did.

During that fourth quarter they erupted, moving the ball better, finally connecting on passes missed the rest of the game and hitting their shots.  They took it extremely seriously, showing concentration the likes of which I have NEVER seen from students at our school.  By the time we went to foul shots, everyone on our side line had bitten to the ends of their fingernails, but erupted as our star player sank shot after shot, opening the lead and securing the team's perfect season: 10-0 and League Champions.

At the sound of the buzzer our sideline went nuts- as much as it could.  Because we do not have a gym and have to play in an auxiliary gym at another school, our students were not allowed to attend this game.  There was simply not enough room for the home school's students and our students on the small sideline across the court from the teams.  It boiled down to a safety issue.  The other school had about forty students in attendance and brought along real cheerleaders- something I've never seen in New York.  The size of the gym and the number of people already crammed in brought the decibel level well above healthy levels, bringing me back to the many pep rallies and the games I attended in my own high school in the Midwest.

Given the number of people who attended from our school, we did make a respectable amount of noise, but with just fifteen teachers (a full third), no students and no parents in attendance, it is difficult to use the momentum of the win- the feeling of school spirit and vitality that stems from clenching a league championship- to bolster school spirit and strengthen the community.

And this is a large part of our school spirit and community-building dilemma.  In schools, cities and towns where schools are simply not built without gyms and a sports fields, the usefulness of those facilities in promoting both the academic achievement of many young men and women as well as an overall sense of community at the school and in the area surrounding is taken for granted.  Those communities have a gathering place- somewhere in which a large cross-section of the community can come together for a single purpose, whether  it's graduation, a basketball game or an arts fair.  As much as we would love to inspire students to come to school solely through creative and engaging academics, the students that can break a community and the learning process down through misbehavior and bad attitudes first need an incentive to want to come to school other than the sweet immigration paper they're required to complete or the science project or the risque book an English uses to push limits and teach academic concepts.  Having a gym would provide the space for many such incentives and it would give us the space to strengthen our community.

And so we'll continue trying to convince people to build us one...

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Jon Stewart and Teachers

Jon Stewart's March 3, 2011 show compares professional news anchors' comments on Wall Street CEOs to their comments about teachers (and their unions).  Regardless of how you feel politically, it's extremely difficult not to acknowledge the complete disconnect in reason here. 

On the show, Diane Ravitch also talks about her book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System", in which, according to the interview, she describes poverty as the largest factor driving down test scores.   

As a teacher in the poorest congressional district in the United States of America, the interview caught my attention as well.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Scare Tactics- Clash of the Titans

On Sunday a list of layoffs was published in the New York Times.  According to the Department of Education, if the union doesn't budge on seniority rules or if the state doesn't throw a bunch of money our way the following will happen:

  • 6% of the teachers in the city- 4,675 teachers- will lose their jobs.
  • 80% of schools in the city will be affected 
  • 1,500 additional jobs will be lost to attrition
  • An average of 8% of teachers in affected schools will lose their jobs
  • 20,000 teachers will be excluded from the possibility of being laid off- Special Ed, ESL, and Speech teachers.
The data published also stated what will happen in each school.  Unfortunately for me, I looked at it and was wringing my hands the rest of the day.

According to the city, twenty percent of our staff are on the chopping block (including me).  Social studies teachers are, of course, up there on the list of teachers to lay off- second only to early childhood education (to be fair, a ton more of them are up against the ax).

Now, I do not much appreciate this gesture from the city.  I also am not inclined to run to the union for help, however.  If they fail to negotiate this thing with the city to substantially decrease or prevent layoffs- if I lose my job- it will be the union's rules that kick me to the curb.

Hopefully it turns out to be just a gesture.  

Stay tuned for continued coverage of people on the ground during the clash of the titans...