Author Archives: Tom White

Thirty-Two Down…

factor_tree_32Wednesday was the last day of my thirty-second year teaching. Besides a flurry of part-time teenage jobs, I’ve never really done anything else and I honestly can’t imagine a different career.

Despite my apparent longevity (or stagnation) I am not the same teacher I was back in 1984. I’ve learned a few things, sometimes the easy way, but mostly the hard way. Here, in no particular order are some of them:

  1. Get good at classroom management. It’s not the most important thing we do, but none of the important things can happen without it.
  2. Relationships matter. Especially your relationships with the principal, the office manager and the custodian.
  3. Don’t pull maps down past the line that says “Don’t pull past this line.”
  4. Don’t lose your school key. It’s a huge mess.
  5. Take your job seriously. It’s about the most important job you can imagine.
  6. Don’t take yourself too seriously. You aren’t as special as your mother said you were.
  7. Stay in shape. That’s good advice in general, but this job definitely has a physical component. I’ve seen teachers let themselves go only to have their careers cut short.
  8. You can’t change people. I’m not talking about students; changing students is actually our job. I’m talking about other people, like colleagues and parents. It might be nice to change some of these people, but you can’t.
  9. This is not a competitive job. Trying to be the best teacher is a waste of time and energy.
  10. The reason we have assessments is to improve instruction. It’s not the other way around.
  11. Don’t go to work when you’re sick. Don’t call in sick when you’re not.
  12. The kids who need the most love are the hardest kids to love. And you should sit them towards the front.
  13. Go to most of the staff parties, but don’t bring your spouse; they won’t enjoy it. And don’t get drunk.
  14. Don’t expect anything productive to happen when you have a sub.
  15. Work hard, but sustainably hard. You’re not being paid to work 70-hour weeks, and doing so will have a negative effect on the 35 hours for which you are being paid. Know when to quit.
  16. Grade papers immediately. Student work does not become more interesting over time.

And finally,

17. Support your union. Those are good people.

It’s been a great thirty-years. That doesn’t mean every minute of every day was bliss, but it does mean that I can look back knowing I’ve done something important with myself. And that’s saying something.

And I’m not even close to being done. In fact, I’m shooting for fifty. So that’s thirty-two down and eighteen to go!

The Homework Debate. Again.

Homework-1By Tom White

It seems like every few years we go through this. Parents and teachers who hate homework tell us how bad it is. And teachers that don’t hate it keep assigning it. Students, of course, mostly don’t like it and mostly do it anyway. Mostly.

So which is it? A waste of time that keeps kids from enjoying their childhood and keeps families from doing Fun Activities together? Or an essential extension of the school day, providing practice and reinforcement of the skills and knowledge students learned during their time at school.

It’s probably both. Or either, depending on what the homework actually consists of. Continue reading

Shopping Mall Schools and Department Store Schools

Cambridgeside-GalleriaBy Tom White

There’s a large shopping mall near my school that functions the way many schools do. Although the stores all share the same parking lot, utility service, and roof, they all operate independently. They employ workers on their own, set their own prices and treat their customers as they see fit.

Likewise, many schools have classrooms that share the same general space, serve the same community and teach to the same standards, but have little else in common. The students have different routines, use different books, and do different projects and assignments.

I also teach near a department store. It operates somewhat like the larger mall, with separate departments that focus on specific products with separate workers who understand those products, yet the entire department store is a cohesive, collaborative unit.

Department store schools have separate classrooms that focus on specific grade levels or subjects, with teachers trained to teach in those specific classrooms, yet the entire school is a cohesive, collaborative unit.

My school is definitely a shopping-mall school. Continue reading

Washington’s Retired Teachers as Substitutes Bill

Last IMG_0670week I had 42 students in my classroom.

The teacher next door called in sick; so did the teacher down the hall. Unfortunately, there were no available substitutes. We solved the dilemma by dividing the students from the two teacher-less classrooms among four other, nearby classrooms.

The result was six classes of students crammed into four classrooms.

The problem, besides the fact that our classrooms were extremely overcrowded and under-furnished, is that teachers within a grade-level team aren’t exactly at the same place in the curriculum. Thus, it wasn’t feasibly for any of us to simply push ahead with what we had planned for the day. I ended up doing an easy-to-prepare craft activity. (See figure A)

The kids loved it but I didn’t. I can’t stand wasted time and there was a lot of it. Basically we had close to 200 students doing busy-work for most of a day. That’s a lot of wasted time.

Like many states, Washington has a teacher shortage. And the leading edge of that shortage is the substitute pool. Those substitutes who have been looking for full-time employment now have it, and the remaining subs are usually booked days in advance.

The underlying problem is that there just aren’t as many people going into education as there used to be. The reasons behind this problem are legion. But it essentially boils down to the fact that teaching just isn’t the attractive career choice it once was.

I’m not exactly sure how we solve that problem in the long-term, but it’ll probably involve money.

But in the meantime, we’ve got a crisis on our hands. Like it or not, teachers can’t always be in their classrooms. They get sick, their spouses get sick, their kids get sick, their parents get sick, they have meetings, they have professional development and sometimes they just take the day off. Most teachers average about ten days out of the classroom each year, and right now the substitute pool just isn’t deep enough.

One way to solve the problem is to make it easier for retired teachers to work as substitutes. Many schools – like mine – have a recently retired teacher who’s not quite ready to hang it up entirely and becomes the “house sub.” We have Colleen. Colleen knows the faculty, knows the kids and knows the routine. She’s the perfect sub.

The problem is, Colleen can’t work as many days as we want her. That’s because there’s a policy restricting the amount of time retired teachers can work without compromising their pension benefits.

The good news is that there’s a bill in Olympia to address this. HB 1737 will let the Colleens in our state work as a substitute for up to 630 hours per school year without losing their pension.

Will it solve the problem? No. But it’ll help. It’ll let us use recently retired teachers as substitutes until we get through the current substitute crisis.

And it’ll keep me from having 42 students in my classroom.

Washington State’s Cursive Bill

roachSenator Pam Roach introduced a bill last week in Olympia that would require schools to teach cursive writing. According to her, reading and writing in cursive is “part of being an American.” I don’t know about that, but as a third and fourth grade teacher with over thirty years’ experience, I do know a lot about cursive writing.

And what I know tells me that this bill is doomed. At least I hope it is. Continue reading

There’s Always Hope

esperanzaBy Tom White

I was sitting around the other morning thinking about former students. And when I do that, my thoughts invariably turn to Vincent. Because Vincent was memorable.

Eighteen years ago, on the first day of third grade, when I had my class “write something about themselves,” he just sat there. So I took him outside to see what was wrong. “You can write about something else; anything you want,” I offered, “just write something.” He turned to me and screamed, “I can’t write!” and threw his pencil farther than I would have thought possible.

That pretty much set the tone for what was to be a long year.

Vincent was tough and angry. He acted out. He threw things: pencils, books, foul language, a chair. He refused to work. He refused to be quiet. He refused to sit down. But what made him legendary was the passion with which he did and didn’t do those things. To get an idea of how hostile Vincent was, picture your most challenging student ever and multiply that image by the number of years you’ve been teaching. That was Vincent.

So I was sitting around, wondering (and fearing) what he was up to. With time on my hands, I Googled him and looked him up on Facebook and before long I found him. And after exchanging a few texts we agreed to meet for a few beers.

And he told me his story.

Although he couldn’t articulate it at the time, Vincent knew he was smart, but he also knew he couldn’t do what the other kids could do. He had to move around and talk in order to process information. Sitting still, listening and reading, didn’t work for him. He described school as a plunge into a dark cylinder; the more he tried to engage on his terms, the more we forced him to engage on our terms and the angrier he got. And the angrier he got, the more trouble he got into and the farther he plunged into that darkness.

In other words, we failed him.

But he wouldn’t let me tell him that. He takes full responsibility for his behavior; then and now. He remembers feeling terrible for acting out. Day after day. And now he feels embarrassed, and worries that some of us quit our jobs after a year with him.

That surprised me. Because the familiar narrative when it comes to kids like Vincent is that they’re angry about something; they take it out on the world and they hold the world responsible for the consequences.

This narrative also has one of us turning Vincent around. Setting him straight. But none of us did that for him. There was no Annie Sullivan; no Jaime Escalante. Not that we didn’t try. I remember countless conversations, trying to figure him out. I remember trying to connect with him, going to his Little League games. Nothing.

It was Vincent who turned Vincent around, along with a junkie house painter that he worked with after stumbling through high school. This guy apparently scared him straight; talked him into going to community college, holding himself up as the eventual alternative.

The strung-out painter was the catalyst, but it was Vincent who enrolled in classes and got straight A’s for two years. And it was Vincent who got accepted into ten different universities, including Stanford and UW. And it was Vincent who received a full ride to Purdue, where he graduated two years later. And it was all Vincent who landed a great job at a major tech firm, where he’s been promoted several times.

Most of us are pretty realistic. We know that every Quinton Tarantino movie has a villain and every Warren Zevon song has a hero. And we know those characters are based on real people; people who plowed through the public education system, leaving terrified teachers in their wake. And we know what usually happens to those people.

But sometimes there’s a happy ending, and I was privileged to spend an evening with one.

Vincent is relaxed, funny and centered. He’s completely different from the feral nightmare I knew 18 years ago. I couldn’t be happier for Vincent, his wife and their two-week old son; a kid who has no idea how lucky he is.

And for me, the message is as simple as it was powerful: there’s always hope.

 

Nation’s Teachers (Under) React to ESSA

By Tom510_1leopard

For thirteen long years the country endured a law that very few supported. A law that spawned malaise, demoralization and corruption. A law that everyone knew wasn’t working and had to be changed. And when it finally died, a nation rejoiced.

I’m referring, of course, of Prohibition. If I was referring to No Child Left Behind, the last word of that paragraph would have been “yawned.”

Why is it that last week’s re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) which is now called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) barely caused a stir? Even in faculty rooms?! The law was passed on Wednesday, signed on Thursday, and not a word was spoken at my school until Friday, when our principal spent about two minutes explaining how our school was no long “failing.” And even then, no one in the room could correctly name the new law.

Why the indifference?

Is it because teachers are too busy to even know about this news? Could be. Teachers do work hard, and the work is such that we don’t really have a chance to tune in to the news during the day. And when we get home, our evenings are pretty much filled with taking care of our own families and planning for the next day.

Or is it because teachers are too cynical to really care? After thirteen years under NCLB, it’s hard to take federal education policy seriously. After all, we were basically given a legislative mandate to make every child hit grade level; an arbitrarily imagined level that roughly corresponds to “average.” Which essentially means that we had twelve years to make sure that every kid in the country is at or above average. It was hard to take that seriously.

I think it’s both of those and then some. Consider this: On Wednesday, while the law was being passed, I spent the morning getting fourth graders to apply close reading strategies to complex word problems; helping them translate text into situation equations, which could then be solved. With a labelled answer. I spent the afternoon getting those same fourth graders to summarize realistic fiction by mentioning the setting, main characters and major plot points. And in between I was finalizing the final roster for our first “Homework Club” where a handful of local high school honor students work with the lowest 5% of our student population in my classroom after school.

There is an ironic disconnect between federal education policy and what’s happening in schools. Ironic, because most of us are already doing – and have been doing – exactly what federal policy is trying to get us to do: teaching quality lessons and providing remediation for those students who need it.

ESSA is a big deal. And it’s a huge improvement over what it replaced. A huge improvement, in that it represents a transfer of control from the federal to the state level.

 

But because of the damage done to the relationship between the Department of Education and classroom teachers, it might be awhile before teachers bother to notice.

ESSA and Teacher Evaluation

1276-essaBy Tom White

There’s a kid in my class who I’ll call Lee because that’s not his name. Lee comes to me from a household that can generously be described as “disorganized.” He consistently arrives hungry, tired and edgy. His study habits are non-existent and he lacks every social skill you can imagine. Nevertheless, I like Lee and I enjoy the challenge of working with him. He’s the first student I think about in the morning and the last one I worry about at night.

But there’s one thing about Lee that I can’t stand: he puts absolutely no effort into any assessment. He knows that tests are completely independent activities; I won’t help him or interfere with his lack of motivation. So he writes random answers without thinking and finishes as his classmates are just getting started.

It’s frustrating.

As you might imagine, Lee’s SBA results from last year were as low as possible. And unless something unexpected happens, I’m predicting more of the same this year.

Last week Mark wrote a brilliant post summarizing the reauthorization of ESEA. No Child Left Behind is no more; in its place we have the “Every Child Succeeds Act,” or ESSA.

Thank God. Because one of the changes concerns the use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluation. To be clear, NCLB didn’t require their use per se, but the Obama Administration granted waivers from the impossible mandates of NCLB to those states that cooperated with their education agenda. And a big part of that agenda was evaluating teachers based partly on their students standardized test scores. Washington State alone refused to do so and paid dearly. We didn’t get the waiver. Consequently, most of our schools are labeled “failing,” including mine.

Under ESSA, individual states regain the authority to figure out how to evaluate teachers. Here in Washington, we use TPEP, which does include a “Student Growth” component, but teachers and administrators are directed to figure out the most appropriate assessments from which to gauge that growth. And since those administrators work in the same buildings as the teachers they evaluate, they’re aware of the children behind those test scores, which is important, especially with children like Lee.

That’s as it should be. I like working with students like Lee. And I have no problem having someone watch how I work with him and evaluate my performance based on that observation. Better yet, watch me and tell me how I can do it better. But using his standardized test scores to evaluate my work is utterly unfair.

So I welcome ESSA. As Mark pointed out, it’s a vast improvement over NCLB, as well as the waiver system that exempted most states from the ridiculousness of NCLB. Especially in the area of teacher evaluation.

Balancing Teaching and Leading

By Tom White

I’ve never had an existential crises. Frankly, I’ve never had the time for it. But this past year has caused me to do a lot of thinking about my role as a teacher leader and how it aligns with – and conflicts with – my role as a teacher.

Teacher leadership, according to my personal definition, is when a practicing teacher goes beyond working with his students and does something to affect change in the broader context of education. Teacher leadership is incredibly important; policy and executive decisions are being made all the time and everywhere by various stakeholders, many of whom have never taught and most of whom aren’t currently teaching. It’s imperative that current, practicing teachers are at the table when these decision are made.

But there’s an inherent problem built into teacher leadership: time. Actually two problems: time and energy. Most decisions are discussed and made during the workday, and those days are usually not in July. Teachers are expected to be elsewhere during those times, and if they’re aren’t elsewhere it’s because they wrote elaborate plans for someone who’s far less qualified so that their classroom culture doesn’t completely collapse while they’re gone.

For me, that has always been a major barrier for teacher leadership. I’ve always tried to take on no more than I can handle.  But I’ve also tried to take on no less than I can handle; because I firmly believe in the value of having a practicing teacher working with other stakeholders on important work.

But then this year happened. Continue reading

Charter Schools are Unconstitutional

AR_Const_1878_p001By Tom White

It’s been quite a week in the world of Washington Education policy. We’ve got teacher strikes going on in Pasco and Whidbey Island, with another one looming in Seattle. Meanwhile, the State Supreme just ruled that Charter Schools are unconstitutional, three years after voters approved them, one year after the first one opened, and two weeks after eight new ones opened across the state.

The timing obviously could have been more convenient, at least for the families who are attending those charter schools. On the other hand, the court may have timed it just right, picking Labor Day weekend to send a subtle message to charter school supporters.

I have never worked in a charter school, nor will I. However, about five years ago I was part of a group that spent a week looking very closely at a handful of charter schools in and around The Bronx. I was the only teacher in the group, and as we toured each school, the others marveled at how “high-performing” everything seemed to be. And they were. Kids were working hard, adults were working really hard and test scores were great.

But there was also a sense that things were fraying around the edges. Teachers were working from 7 AM until 5 or 6 PM, and were on-call for homework assistance until 9 or 10 PM. Sick leave consisted of having your colleagues cover your classes. They worked most Saturdays, in addition to a three-week “Boot Camp” in the summer. I asked one teacher if she was planning to have a family while working in her school and she just laughed; “I don’t even have time to take care of a cat!” Worst of all, there was absolutely no job security. It was entirely up to the principal whether you returned next year.

The time and effort that these teachers put in was simply unsustainable. Consequently, the turnover rate was around fifty percent per year. In other words, these charter schools were a union waiting to happen.

But that’s the whole point of charter schools.  They’re supposed to be public schools that operate outside the jurisdiction of school districts. Which really means outside the constraints of teacher unions, since most school districts would be more than happy to have their teachers putting in the same time and energy as charter school teachers.

The State Supreme Court ruled that charter schools are unconstitutional because they aren’t “common schools.” They take public funds, yet aren’t run by elected officials. The Court obviously realizes that if they were run by elected officials (the local school board) they would become district schools and subject to the collective bargaining agreement between the district and its corresponding education association.

In other words, charter schools, which essentially operate by exploiting the talent and effort of their teachers, are not constitutional.

I’m not sure what happens next. But if I had a kid in one of those schools, I’d be studying my options.