Saturday, January 10, 2015

A teacher who quit is used to show that teachers stay

We know that too many teachers quit. 
Gabrielle Wooden taught for 2 years and quit and is featured
in an article about how teachers don't quit.

We know that between 40 and 50 percent of teachers in the US quit inside their first 5 years.

In Alberta, we estimate that 1 in 4 teachers quit in their first 4 years.

So when I saw an article titled "Despite Reports to the Contrary, New Teachers Are Staying in Their Jobs Longer", I was more than a little suspicious.

The article featured the picture to the right of Gabrielle Wooden. She taught in Mississippi for a whopping two years before quitting to become an account manager for Insight Global in St. Louis.

Wooden belonged to Teach for America which is an organization that undermines children's basic needs and is an accomplice to the corporate take over and privatization of public education.

This article from the Center for American Progress is yet another example of the shameful spin that corporate spin doctors spew on the public.

We treat teachers so badly they leave. This is true for many reasons. In the US, teachers are paid poorly and treated even worse by having their priceless work reduced to meaningless scores on bad tests. In Alberta, teachers are paid well, but workload is a problem.

That Gabrielle Wooden was used to show how teachers don't quit in an article that readily admits its own narrow focus when she taught for only two years highlights another glaring problem. Education is desperate for professional, honest and genuine journalism.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

3 big ideas about teacher workload

Andrea Sands wrote a great piece in the Edmonton Journal about Alberta teachers who are taking part in a massive workload study. (I've written about teacher workload here).

As a classroom teacher, I have 15 years of experience actually teaching in public schools. I don't just write and talk about teaching -- I'm actually teaching. I don't just have something to say, I'm doing the work and I have something to say about it.

During my interview with Andrea, I tried to emphasize that it is not simply the quantity of my work that is problematic -- the problems I face in my classroom can be best found in the complexity of teaching. Simply put, I am expected to teach too many children who have too many needs.

Let me explain.

This is my 15th year of teaching.

I've mostly taught middle school, but I've also taught some special education.

At home, I am a father where I have a class size of two: Kayley is 7 and Sawyer is 2. While Kayley wants to play a farming board game where we plant, harvest and sell crops for cash that involves adding and multiplying, Sawyer wants to run around and throw the game pieces. You can imagine how different their needs are.

At school, I teach 126 students every day. I have thirty-three grade 6 students that I teach language arts and social studies, and thirty-three grade 8 students that I teach social studies. I see the grade 6s twice a day and the grade 8s once a day. Each class is forty-nine minutes.

At home I get pulled in 2 different directions while at school there are over 30 different students every 49 minutes, 6 times a day.

To be clear, these are not 126 similar children.

Some of these children:
  • are living in poverty
  • are abused and neglected
  • have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
  • are reluctant learners
  • are learning English as a second language
  • are behaviourally challenged
  • suffer from mental health issues
  • come to school a couple times a month, or not at all
  • are academically challenged
  • are immature
  • are not loved
  • are uninspired
And yet some of these children:
  • love school
  • love to read
  • are loved
  • are curious
  • are inspired
  • attend regularly
Too many of my students draw from the first list -- not enough are described by the second. While all of my students are in middle school, some would fit well in elementary and some are ready for high school.

Individually, I feel confident and competent working with children from either list, but when faced with 30+ every class and 126 of them everyday, I am overwhelmed. 

Here are 3 big ideas I would like people to understand about teacher workload:

1. I meet all my students' needs only if some children don't show up. Many Albertans work hard, and some may work more hours in a week than teachers. My issue is not that I average 45 to 50 hours a week. My issue is that I'm expected to teach too many students with too many needs. My expectations for my students are only surpassed by the expectations I have for myself. Everyday I go to work hoping to get to every child only to go home knowing that I can't. Alberta parents should be upset about this as much as Alberta teachers are.

2. My working conditions are my students' learning conditions. Too many people want to frame this teacher workload discussion around how much teachers get paid and how much time they get off. I'm not asking for more pay or time off, although these are important, I am saying that because of the current deteriorating conditions in Alberta schools, quality and quantity of student learning is suffering. When we play politics with education by framing this as a labour debate (instead of an education debate), children lose. 

3. Teachers are so busy teaching they don't have time and effort to learn how to be better teachers. School has looked, tasted, smelled and felt like school for too long. In order for things to improve, things have to change, and sustainable change needs to be led by teachers who are supported through inspiring professional development. I know too many teachers who are so overwhelmed by their teaching assignment that they don't have the time or effort to learn how to change and improve their teaching.

In our cars, we have instruments that tell us when our fuel is low and engine temperature is high. 

In education, we have teachers who have their fingers on the pulse of their classrooms.

We ignore our car's instruments and teachers at our own peril. It should be no surprise that those who are comfortable with the way things are become angered by those who wish to influence change. Labelling these gauges as whiny allows us to criticize, distort or dismiss inconvenient information in favour of our existing beliefs while ensuring that things get worse for our children.

Friday, November 21, 2014

6 reasons to reject ClassDojo

“I like it because you get rewarded for your good behavior — like a dog does when it gets a treat.”
-Grade 3 student on why he likes ClassDojo

Recently an article in The New York Times took a closer look at an App called ClassDojo.

While some see ClassDojo as a revolutionary new way to teach and manage a classroom, I see it as more of the same primitive behaviourist practices that should be abandoned. The philosophy and pedagogy behind ClassDojo is nothing new. Carrots, sticks, rewards, punishments, bribes and threats have been around for a long time. ClassDojo simply takes adult imposed manipulation and tracks it with mindless efficiency.

ClassDojo reminds me of Gerald Bracey who said:
"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all."
Bracey was speaking of standardized testing, but I think the spirit of his words can be applied more generally:
Poor Pedagogy + Technology = Accelerated Malpractice
Here are 6 reasons to reject ClassDojo:
  • ClassDojo gets character education wrong. Children's psychiatrist Ross Greene reminds us that when a situation demands a child's lagging skills, we get unsolved problems. Because we know that misbehaviour is a symptom of much more complex and interesting problems, we need to see these unsolved problems as teachable moments. ClassDojo reduces children to punitive measures where the misbehaviour is seen as nothing more than an inconvenience to the teacher that needs to be snuffed out. ClassDojo judges and labels students by ranking and sorting them and distracts even well-intentioned adults from providing children with the feedback and the guidance they need to learn.
  • ClassDojo gets motivation wrong. There are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic & extrinsic. The problem here is that we need to stop asking ‘How motivated are my students?’ and start asking ‘How are my students motivated?’. Motivation is not a single entity that you either have a lot or little of. There are two kinds: intrinsic and extrinsic. If you are intrinsically motivated then you are doing something for its own sake; if you are extrinsically motivated, you are driven to do something, or not do something, based on a reward or punishment that may be waiting for you. But that is not even the interesting part—the real catch here is that these two kinds of motivation tend to be inversely related. When you grow students' extrinsic motivation by bribing them (or threatening them), you run the risk of growing their extrinsic motivation while their intrinsic love for what you want them to learn shrivels. Rewards can only ever gain short-term compliance from students when what we really desire is their authentic engagement.
  • The public nature of ClassDojo is inappropriate. Making this kind of information for all to see is nothing more than a way of publicly naming and shaming children. I know very few adults who would put up with this kind of treatment at their workplace, so then why would we ever subject children to this? A doctor would never post their patients' health records publicly, and an accountant would not post their clients' tax records publicly. A lawyer would not post their clients' billing information publicly, nor would a teacher post their students' Individual Program Plans for all to see. So why would a teacher ever think that it would be appropriate to share ClassDojo publicly? To do so would be unprofessional and malpractice.
  • ClassDojo can only ever be experienced as coercive and manipulative. Like Alfie Kohn says, rewards and punishments are not opposites -- rather they are two sides of the same coin, and they don't buy us very much other than short-term compliance. ClassDojo is by definition a way to do things to kids when we should be working with them. And for those who use ClassDojo only for the positives and the rewards, remember that with-holding a reward or removing a privilege can only ever be experienced as a punishment. The best teachers understand what Jerome Bruner meant when he said, "Children should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment, but as information."
  • ClassDojo prepares children to be ruled by others. School already places a premium on blind obedience and mindless compliance, and an App like ClassDojo that implicitly and explicitly makes following the rules the primary goal of school prepares children to be ruled by others. When we allow operant conditioning to infect the classroom, we see children less as active, free thinkers and more as passive, conditional objects. Under these conditions, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) is less likely to be a problem than Compliant Acquiescent Disorder (CAD). It's important to remember that mindless compliance is responsible for far more of the atrocities against human kind than needless disobedience.
In Japan, a dojo is considered a special place that is well cared for by its users, so it is customary that shoes be left at the door. Similarly, I propose that schools be considered a special place that should be well cared for physically and pedagogically, so it should be customary that before entering schools Apps like ClassDojo be left where they belong -- at the door.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

In the real world, we wouldn't judge a teacher by their students' test scores

My family has farmed for over 100 years in the Red Deer, Alberta, area. I'm the first teacher in my farming family, and I'm in my 15th year of teaching.

Here's a post I wrote about the effects of poverty on learning with a farming metaphor.

Teachers who are proud of their high scores and ashamed of their poor scores are a part of the problem. Here's my article on Telling Time with a Broken Clock: the trouble with standardized tests.
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