Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A Little Story From the World of Teaching

It's the last 24 hours of a glorious 18 day break for us K-12 educational types, a work interlude that has combined the sublime (snow/time at home/time in Pecos) with the ridiculous (me, extent of Gerald Ford funeral activities, me again) to perhaps a greater extent than any Winter Break I can remember.

But thoughts now turn back to the J-O-B, and a little anecdote I can't help but pass on from the hallowed booger/spitball-covered halls of my school. I've hesitated to mention this piquant tale on Babble because the telling requires a bit of informational infrastructure. If that little warning doesn't turn you off completely, go grab another cup of coffee, make sure the boss isn't looking for a while, and I'll inadequately try to piece together for you a little saga I call "the extra 45 minutes".

Every Spring we have "standardized testing". You don't have to be a teacher or student to know that. It's the one bit of news (besides sport teams and the occasional weapon on campus) that comes out of our public schools every year. Well, because the tests are so important (and I can't begin to tell you the measure of ironic mass I use in writing the word "important" here...a black hole of ironic mass, a singularity of ironic mass), school officials are always strategizing the schedule that will result in the best student performance possible.

In the old days, when everyone treated the test like the leprous disease that it has always been, the plan was to just get the damn thing over with. Kids tested all day, every day until the stupid little booklets and #2 pencils could be put away for another year. Sure students were falling asleep by the early afternoons of test days, bored to the point of bleeding from the ears, but at least the faux-informational drudgery only lasted a couple of days this way.

As the loathsome bubble-fests became more important, "experts" and such started to question whether a testing slumber party was the way to go. This gave rise to "studies" which showed that parceling the tests out in shorter bites over several days would lead to higher scores. To be honest, I never really saw these "studies", and I'm half convinced that various Principals and such just made them up, but you gotta admit the logic is there, and besides the scores were really sucking, so what the Hell.

By the way, in an interesting example of federalism K-12 style, districts and the State Public Education Department don't absolutely dictate testing times to individual schools. They have a window of dates when testing must happen, but the specific implementation plan (e. g., what times to test each day) is left up to mom and pop Principal/staff. That would seem to give credence to the "they're just making it up" theory of best testing practices, but it also leads to staff and "school leadership committee" meetings in which admin/staffmembers pontificate about "studies" that purportedly indicate that kids, for example, test best between the hours of 8:45 and 11:27, with an orange juice break at 10:13.

All of these "studies" whether made up or not say that testing during the afternoon is death. Evidently, the human brain (especially in the young) is incapable of doing anything besides playing Halo 2 and reading blogs after lunch. And taking naps, sweet naps. So pretty much all schools test in the morning, orange juice break included, and leave the afternoon free.

And that's where the problem comes in.

What do you do with the kids after lunch on test days? In my limited experience, the following has been tried:

  • Teach the rest of the school day like it's a normal day, but with each class period about 17 minutes long (the result of this is some sort of Chaplin "Modern Times" thing where a bell rings, kids go to class, sit down for a minute, a bell rings and they go to another class, a bell rings...)
  • Teach the rest of the day, but with only half the periods of a normal school day (this tends to create havoc for overall school scheduling, while testing brain-dead students sit through afternoon classes dreaming of playing Halo 2 all the time)
  • Make the afternoons "fun times" in which students get to watch movies, and, in one memorably stupid year, have an extended (like two hours) time on the football field in a tableau so identical to a prison yard that teachers felt they should have been issued machine guns, guard towers and concertina wire.
Given these past experiences, the "Instructional Council" at my school (btw, I apologize for all these parentheses today, but do feel the need to point out that: 1. each school has some sort of committee of admin and selected staff to make decisions over things like this testing time thing, because if it were left up to making them at full staff meetings either, A. nothing would get decided; B. complete anarchy would break out involving crying teachers complaining about "that time Johnny threw the orange juice at Maria during the break and....", C. Springfield would get a monorail; 2. these committees have a bewildering array of names: "Instructional Council", "Leadership Committee", "School Improvement Council", "Lead Team", "Restructuring Council"; somebody needs to do a "study" and find the best name for such a group, and for $100,000 I am willing to conduct a one-person study for this purpose; 3. I am not on our school's "Instructional Council" and would not at this point in my career be on such a body if someone held a gun to my head...remember Jack Nicholson in "Chinatown"...well, for me, committees like this are "Chinatown", and no, I don't want to talk about it)

As I was saying, given these past experiences, the "Instructional Council" at my school had a great idea. So great, I separate the idea into its own paragraph....

Send the kids home and have our Spring Parent/Teacher conferences in the afternoons of three testing days.

This idea kills so many birds with so few stones that worldwide bird populations would be decimated and we could still build a sturdy stone gymnasium. Kids test at the optimal time, "studies" show, are sent home during the useless afternoons, Parent/Teacher conferences don't wreck other school days, conferences don't last all day leading to teacher coma and basically having to put name tags on the parents to tell them apart. This is possibly the greatest single idea ever developed through a school leadership committee, imho, and I'm considering nominating this idea and "council" to the people at Nobel, Fulbright, etc. for an award of some type.

And that's where we finally reach the point of this little story. Several teachers (total number unknown) didn't like the plan. They didn't like it because it involved we teachers extending our work day from the normal 3:05 final bell (and roughly 3:20/3:30 hitting the parking lot) until 4:00 in order that parents would have more time to see us.

They framed the objection as being made without sufficient staff input, but in truth they really just didn't like having to stay until 4:00. I cannot stress how embarrassing it is for me, as a K-12 teacher, to have typed the previous sentence.

We're talking about 4:00 P.M. here. I talked to my friends/wife with "real jobs" about the 4:00 thing and they, without exception, started laughing to the point of crying and stomach pain. Yet, at my school this glorious plan has caused the following:

  • Our union reps have had to put a little memo in our in-school mail boxes that there were "concerns" about the plan.
  • A union staff vote was to be held about the plan; this vote would have to be 75% in favor of the plan for it to be allowed to continue.
  • This voting business was required because having teachers stay until 4:00 three days in a row violated our collective bargaining agreement as to discretionary time that principals can use to have staff meetings, etc..
  • Regarding the extended time thing it actually gets more complicated than that, and involves the fact that our principal NEVER asks us to stay anywhere close to the amount she could under the agreement, thank God/Goddess/Flying Spaghetti Monster.
  • Our Union President, Ellen Bernstein, was contacted and talked to several union members over lunch. We thought this meeting would be about the brouhaha, but instead Ellen just wanted us to fill out little questionnaires about any concerns over time issues we had. In other words, I wasted a lunch sitting in the gym on one of those butt-crunchingly hard rafters filling out a questionnaire.
  • We got another little memo in our in-school mail boxes saying that the vote was being postponed.
  • We had a pre-school staff meeting the Thursday before Winter Break specifically to give our principal a chance to defend the testing schedule plan. Thus, we had an extension by roughly 30 minutes of our "duty day" in order to talk about why some people thought it was awful that we had a 45 minute extension of our "duty day". Personally, I thought the meeting was a profoundly eloquent "*&^% You" statement on the part of our principal to those unnamed staffers who objected to the idea.
The upshot is that, as of this writing, we will continue to have Parent/Teacher conferences until 4:00 on the three days in question. Teachers will be required to stay until 4:00 for two of those days, as that is the allowed discretionary extra time given to principals for a month. Teachers will be asked to stay until 4:00 on the third day, but this will be absolutely voluntary. No, I am not making this up. Yes, I wish I were making this up.

And tomorrow, we who ply our trade in the fake world that is K-12 education, go back to work. Having had jobs in the "real world" for years, I have enough perspective to know that workplaces are screwed up all over. I've not only seen "The Office"...I've worked in that office. Still, I'd have to say the bizarre construct that is K-12 teaching offers unique elements that lead to situations you just can't get in the "real world". This little story is one of those situations. Speaking of perspective, I remember a time 17 days ago, when in thinking about this little situation, I wanted to smash something with bitter rage at all the bitter rageful burn-out teachers it he world who would object to such a plan. Now, 17 days later, I just can't stop laughing. It's hard to type I'm laughing so hard. In a way, it's hard to stop typing I'm laughing so hard.

I hope everyone had a good break. I hope we're all laughing now when at various points along the break we were rageful, or crying, or both. I hope we all remember the break when it's the middle of the middle of the semester, and we're passing out those test booklets. And working until 4:00, remembering to smile while we think about those unnamed colleagues simmering with indignant rage down the hallowed booger/spitball-covered halls.

Addendum 1/3/07, 9:32 a.m.: The New York Times has started a new series on Middle School Hell, and "studies" on how to make it better for all involved. Part one is too New York-centric, but conveys enough angst and hopelessness to make me think I work at a Superfund site armed only with a spaghetti strainer. Trust me, it's at least a tiny bit more fun that the article suggests, at least some of the time. Or maybe I'm too deep in the delusion at this point.

Collect the whole NYTimes series and you might be homeschooling your middle school kids, your friend's middle school kids and any 13 year olds you see walking down the street.


Natalie said...

Nah-ah... APS has cancelled school for tomorrow. Make that 19 (NINETEEN!) days or approximately 64% of one month out of school. As a parent of one of those spitball-booger-tossers, I'm about to lose my mind. Say it ain't so.
Now, what I'd really like to know is (actually there's more but I'm trying to stay on subject; parenthetically speaking)why aren't there more teachers who think like you? I'm with ya on the craziness of 45 minutes and the burn-outs. I've worked retail for over 20 years and I know burn-out when I see it and I can't, for the life of me, figure out why the naysayers won't just make a frickin' decision about their lives and move on to something they are passionate about.
The red tape business has got to just irk you... and the politics within the district office is enough to make me wince. Having moved here from Chicago, I've been appalled, astounded, and downright concerned about some of the hooey that goes on over the whole "No Child Left Behind" BS.
I could go on and on... as I'm sure you could...
I don't envy your position but I can sure appreciate your point of view.
I'm pissed the kids will be home for another day but for you... (yes, just for you) I hope you take tomorrow and use it to the fullest!
Eh, what the hell... it was only a half day, anyway.

Natalie said...

PS... never apologize for parenthetic thoughts... our subconcious needs a way to express.

Natalie said...

I came back, read your addendum, and signed up for the NY Times. Way to go! lol
Interesting article, indeed.
I see that there is a new posting (first one since June 2006) on Marty Chavez's blog. It seems he's leaning toward New York's school reform as a possible model for APS.
I just finished going completely through the Chicago school reform information, including all of the new polices and procedures, and, man, it's a lot of red tape.
However, it does allow for more training and latitude for principals (ie; leadership progress within each school) and stronger accountability in the school system. I'm leaning toward it but don't know if ol' Marty can pull it off.
New York's reform is even more laborous and the results are, as seen in this last article about middle school, for example, mixed at best.
What do you think?

ched macquigg said...

The teacher shortage is due not to the failure of colleges of education to supply new teachers, but from our failure to retain experienced teachers. We need to focus on the burn out, at least part of which is caused by the disrespect heaped on teachers by those who make decisions about teachers professional lives without including teachers in the decision making process.
I would blame the system before I would blame teachers.