Monday, December 31, 2007

Great Teachers

Walking through Barnes and Noble today, I came across Todd Whitaker's book What Great Teachers Do Differently. A title like that will always catch my eye. I am bent on becoming a great teacher, and yet, this year has been my least successful. Manhy of the strategies I have used in the past, with great effect, do not work. So, I thought, maybe I had been lucky the past four years.
Because I still practice the active reading skill of underling important ideas or ideas that I connect with, I will provide my first notes from the book (Chapters 1-4):

1. "Education is extremely complex, and so is classroom teaching."
--What bothers me most about education theory is that so much of it prattles on in simplistic terms. At Starbucks, there is little complexity. The cashier must politely take an order, write the appropriate terms on the cup, and handle money correctly. The barista needs to mix the coffee with the necessary ingredients and in a timely manner. Not much else is required.
In the classroom, the teacher must juggle 25 personalities at the same time while performing the administration's expectations, the district's expectations, the state's expecatations, and the federal government's expectations. In many places, we must do this with little funding, little internal motivation from the students, and little external motivation from the pay.

2. "Without great teachers, the school lacks the keystone of greatness."
--I could not agree more. I firmly believe that a successful school atmosphere is created by its teachers. But I cannot move away from the notion that for as important as great teachers are, the students must bring at least a modicum of desire to learn.

3. "It is never about programs; it is always about people....It is people, not programs, that determine the quality of a school."
--Don't get me wrong, I don't think I am a great teacher; but I have had success in the past. One such example is when I taught READ 180 to low performing readers. Many disliked the canned program, but my little experience as a reading teacher caused me to fall in love with the program. I made it work and quickly became a "model" classroom. Other teachers using the same program were not having the success I was having. Why? A number of reason, but the one I believe is that I fit the program and the program fit me. That is why it worked in my classroom. I needed it and I believed it could work.

4. "Great teachers focus on expecations."
--My wife teaches fourth grade in the same low performing district that I teach in. She shared the following story:
I've been teaching the kids how to write a five paragraph essay. We've focused on writing one paragraph first, followed by a second that connects, and so on. My third graders [she taught at a private school outside of Seattle for six years] could learn this in a week, but these kids are struggling. When I asked the other fourth grade teacher if she knew of a good way to help these students, she said, "Oh, they can't do that."
We were both amazed at the idea that a colleague had such low expecations for her students. Now, don't get me wrong, there comes a time when we must be realistic. I have seniors in this district who cannot write a solid five paragraph essay. Sure, I believe they can learn how, the question is how do I convince them, after 12 years of low expectations, that it is important?

5. In describing great teachers..." They expect good behavior--and generally that's what they get."
--In the past, I would skip the word generally. When asked in my interview for my current school, how would I handle a behavior problem, I answered as honestly as I could; which was, I haven't really had to deal with many behavioral problems. My expecatations were clear from the start and I developed a healthy relationship with my students. The result, I had never referred a student to the office for anything other than major school infractions.
How could I have known that one of my students this year would call security on himself and then sprint out of the room. He had been disrupting the class, so I asked if maybe he would prefer to sit in I.S.S. today. He has asked me before to allow him to go to I.S.S. to work because he was having a bad day. And every time he did this, he actually did work. So, I thought it might be one of those days. But he freaked out, cussing me up and down and creating a scene. When I informed him that I wasn't going to play his game, and that I wasn't going to be his "out," he picked up my phone and called security. Out my door he went saying, "They can't catch me, I'm the gingerbread man."

Friday, December 28, 2007

Charter School Proposal

Dear Investors,
Thank you for taking the time to read through this Charter School Proposal. With so many education reformists imploring educators to make learning relevant and interesting to our students, it became obvious that we are finally ready to teach students things that matter.

Our Philosophy
Most of what happens in public education is worthless book learning that has little relevance in the real world. In order for us to keep society moving into the direction of self-satisfaction that the Hollywood elite display, we must change how schools operate. No longer should we focus on pointless knowledge like Algebra, Biology, Writing and Reading, or History.
Our students today have no interest in these rather dull subjects. Instead, they are media and technology savvy, and thus our focus must shift.

Our Courses
Gaming--The gaming courses will focus around teaching students how to game with vicious abandon while carefully analyzing the quality of graphics. Because students can think critically about how to properly escape the police in games like Grand Theft Auto, they learn that we have a civic responsibility to protest when we disagree with authority. It is their right, and thus should be excercised.
Additionally, student can participate in the highly active Nintendo Wii gaming systyem, allowing them to learn the skills of Bowling, Tennis, Baseball, and Golf. This exercise regimen should adequately entertain our students while training their bodies for a healthy lifestyle.

Hollywood--The Hollywood courses will focus on the importance of wealth and its real life applications. Students will learn that with wealth comes little responsibility to act like a commoner. Other important values will be learned. Students will see from music videos that women are necessary for decorating all poles while the males of society gather around and "make it rain." One could easily teach a corrallary lesson on the importance of rain to our environment.
But even better, students will learn to discard those important critical thinking skills in order to follow the masses. Marching to the beat of advertising and movie themes is a necessary skill for the 21st Century.

Living--The Living courses will center around how to live life in a selfish but fun way. Forget teaching students that hard work and responsibility are important. We believe that students ought to learn how participate in Drinking games, Club Hopping, Posting Fake Facebook Pages, and participating in Wanton Sexual Freedom.
Everyone knows that Drinking is necessary for entertainment; Club Hopping is the best way to meet a spouse; Fake Facebook Pages can harm those you don't like while making you laugh at the Parody you've created; and Sexual Freedom brings about internal happiness.

Assessment is the foundation for learning. Our students will be assessed regularly by means of observation. Our teachers will not assess. We all know that teachers are subjective in their grading, so we will have a developed staff of Paparrazzi to track and follow our students' progress. Then, we will post the pictures on-line and have our Columnists write feedback. The general public will assess the students through formal opinion polls.

Again, thank you for taking the time to consider our proposal. We hope to talk to you soon about starting the Real World Charter School.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Another Reason to not Teach

Apparently the Three Rivers School District doesn't teach students the meaning of the word parody.
"Three teenagers have sued school officials over lengthy suspensions they received for setting up a Facebook page that identifies a teacher as a pedophile."
The lawyer defending these morons, Marc Mezibov, said, "'They're not saying it's true, they're saying it's just parody.'" He is just as much of an uneducated fool.
The word parody has to do with humor and satire of serious literature. Now, I certainly have not read every major work printed, but I can't think of what novel these boys were connecting to.
Just imagine what would happen to the teacher if he set up fake myspace or facebook pages to "parody" his students in the manner these boys did to him? Do you think he would be reprimanded? Do you think he might lose his job? Probably the latter.
And we wonder why it is so difficult to get people into our profession. Low pay; mandatory additional schooling (which we pay for); students who try to ruin our careers.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Year in Review

Back in January of this year, my wife and I began planning our eventual move to Connecticut. We had hopes of how the year would unfold, and dreams of where we would be at this point. Like so many good ideas, real life often gets in the way. But, here at the end of the year, I must return to that notion that my family is blessed.

Here are some of the major events for Mr. McNamar:
May--House goes up for sale; interview with CT school--don't get the job.
June--My wife and daughter move to Connecticut; house hasn't sold; I submit my letter of resignation at previous school.
July--(late July) I load a truck and begin driving to Connecticut; house hasn't sold.
August--arrive in Connecticut; put house on rental market--doesn't rent; interview twice with well-respected Catholic high school--don't get the job; hired at low performing high school.
September--begin work at low performing school; house hasn't rented.
October--Sign lease to rent house here in CT; house in Seattle hasn't rented; my confidence as a competent teacher wanes.
November--Seattle house rents; low performing school saps my energy.
December--Pass the Praxis II: more money for me!

In the October events, you read that my confidence was waning. To bolster my self-confidence, I'd like to share a few thoughts of some former students. Actually, it really isn't to only bolster my self-confidence; it is mostly to show that for all the negative press that the current generation of students receives, there are some amazing individuals who are selfless and honorable.
"So after all thank you for caring about your students...about me. It has been an honor being in your class."
"Tell all of your students that college is a wonderful place to be. There is SO much more out there and stopping at a high school education is very foolish. I wouldn't trade this opportunity for anything. Thanks again for getting me prepared to be here!! "
"You're an incredible teacher."
"And I know that at least for one, you wont be just an English teacher, you'll be their counselor, their mentor, their friend. Im sorry that I wont be in that classroom. But I'll carry the life lessons you taught me on until the day I die. "
" I just thought I'd drop you a line saying that you were an awesome teacher and that I hope everything's going well for you now"

So, there they are, people; the next generation. I love 'em.

And to end, here is what I found in my e-mail in-box from a promising student here at my low performing school:
Mr. McNamar,

I hope you have very wonderful holidays. A very Merry Christams and a joyful and healthy new year surrounded by the people that you love the most. Those are my best wishes from my family to yours!

Happy Holidays, From Mr. McNamar and his family.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Hartford's Reform

In an attempt to fix a failing inner-city school district, Hartford, CT has begun to make serious changes in its approach to education. The most serious question we can ask is to what extent will these reforms truly affect students' academic outcomes.
The Hartford Courant reports that:
  • The trend in high school reform throughout the nation is to break up large, comprehensive high schools into small academies so teachers can get to know students well and collaborate on individuals.
  • But teachers — even those excited about reform — are upset about his plan to make them reapply for their jobs.
  • District officials are under pressure to improve achievement, but they say it's tricky to find a pace that affords a comfort level to parents, teachers and students.
  • The idea of distinct academies doesn't appeal to everyone.

First, I applaud Hartford Public Schools for their efforts at reform. Some struggling school districts remain content to flounder well below the rest of the world in order to satisfy long-standing practices and teachers unwilling to admit that their school is a failure.

Yet, I can't stop from wondering when education reform will truly make a difference. From programs like Direct Instruction to small academies, every theorists out their claims success on a whole scale level. Unfortunately, I don't believe them all; much like I don't believe the baseball players who admit to steroid use "One time, so I could recover from an injury."

Like fixing the baseball scandal, education reform will not truly work unless honest happens at all levels. In some low performing schools, teachers admit to culpability. In others, districts admit to poor prioritization. But nowhere do we find parents taking any part in accepting blame. Instead, they point fingers at the government, the district, the school, the teachers and everyone else but themselves.

If we want our low performing schools to perform, we must be willing to call out the parents. Schools do not perform poorly. Students do. Schools are not responsible for monitoring homework. Schools are not responsible for keeping a child's bedtime.

Parents have the responsibility to read to their children when the child is young. Parents have the responsibility to teach their children social etiqutte. Parents have the responsibility to not choose their own selfish desires above the needs of their children. And when the public, the government, and everyone else concerned about education begin to address the initial cause of student failure, then I will listen to school reform theory.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Winter Storm Alexander

I took this picture tonight at 7:00 p.m. Our current snow total is just over a foot. The suits made a good call this morning and cancelled school in "anticipation for precipitation" (thanks Rhianna and Jay-Z). We are wondering if school will get cancelled, have a delay, or go on as usual tomorrow.
If we were still in Seattle, the answer would be clear: no school. Here in the Northeast, it could go either way depending on when the snow stops.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Self Assurance Theme

I believe I can fly; I believe I can touch the sky. You have lucked out in that you cannot hear my singing. Today, I will discuss the final of my Top Five strengths as indicated by Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath. If you have not read something like this in a while or ever, I suggest picking up a copy at Barnes and Noble--or your favorite book store. My final theme is Self Assurace.

Self-Confidence--simply put, I believe in my strengths. The Self-Assured person knows "...that you are able--able to take risks, able to meet new challenges, able to stake claims, and most important, able to deliver."
Some might consider this arrogance, and certainly one could make that claim about me. Right now I feel like Randy Moss before he got to New England. He believed he was great and told people he was great. But for much of his career, he floundered in because he wasn't into the team he played for. That's me right now. I know I am a good teacher. I know I can deliver; but at the moment, my list of reasons to not deliver is up to 32 (and that doesn't include student behavior).

Unique--One other aspect to the Self-Assured is their unique perspective. No one can tell me what to think because I "...have the authority to form conclusions, make decisions, and act." Like my other themes, this power does not intimidate me; in fact, it liberates me and feels natural.

Ideas for Action: (suggestions for the Self-Assured)

1. Let your self-confidence show. It can be contagious and will help the people around you grow.

Personal Response: This idea can complicate matters more than it can help. Many teachers have self-confidence issues; so when another teacher comes along oozing confidence, the less confident can often turn their vitriol against that individual. But I believe in who I am, and I want others to have the same confidence.
For instance, this morining I had to meet with one of our school counselors regarding a student. This was the first time meeting her and she seemed to be a seasoned veteran. So, I told her I thought she was very good at what she does. It turned out that she has only been a counselor for two years. Her confidence masked her lack of experience.

2. You don't have a great need for direction and support from others. This could make you particularly effective in situations that require independent thinking and action. Recognize and actively contribute the value of your Self-Assurance talents when confidence and self-control are crucial.

In today's education world, the independent teacher just doesn't have much of a place. So how does a self-assured teacher operate in a system that now looks to evaluate its work force with very specific criteria that are not set up by the work force? To this, I don't have an answer, but I am afraid that this talent may get stifled.

Self-Assurance is as much a blessing as it is a curse. People like to bring the confident down to their level, especially where I am at now. The less confident embrace theory and philosophy over action and reality. If "it is what it is" as I hear regularly, then why do we bother? I don't have all the answers, but I do have some. Provide the resources and let the self-assured operate.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Barack Obama on Education

Monday, December 03, 2007

Command Theme

Ever since I can remember, the Jeep brand has remained my vehicle of choice. For nine years, I drove a Jeep Wrangler. I sold my baby when we moved this summer, and now we just have the Jeep Cherokee. But, someday, when my paychecks increase, we will purchase a Jeep Commander.

I tell you this to introduce the fourth of my Themes as discovered through Tom Rath's StrengthsFinder 2.0. This is my Command Theme.

Discomfort? I'm quite comfortable--this statement lets everyone know that those with the Command Theme "feel no discomfort with imposing...views on others."

Yeah, I can't deny that I have a firm command of what I believe in. This belief is actually more akin to conviction. Thoughtful consideration for every major belief marks my approach to values. Once I've established what I believe in, I "feel restless" until I have "aligned others" with me.

Confrontation--I can't imagine ever running from a confrontation. This reminds me of the car ride home this afternoon. My wife teaches fourth grade in the same district I teach in. At her previous school, a private academy, she could give recess detentions to students who misbehaved or had not completed assignments. Her new administration informed her that Connecticut State Law prevents keeping students from recess; that is until today. We had a 90 minute delay which resulted in the students not having recess.

"I'd go ask them about that," was my response. She would prefer to not "make waves." No way. Not me. If I see something that goes against my resolutions, I challenge them. I hate having people unaware of what I am thinking or feeling.

Intimidation--A student once told me that I intimidated her. She said that because I wear my heart on my sleeve, it made her feel like I was inflexible. One area this reveals itself is when I push students to take risks. Because I have always been a bit of a risk taker, it seems natural to me that I encourage risk taking in my students. I don't mean risky behavior, but stepping beyond what they are comfortable thinking about. For some, this has drawn them towards me. For others, they've run--and fast!

Ideas For Action: (Suggestions for the Commander)

1. You will always be ready to confront. Practice the words, the tone, and the techniqes that will turn your ability to confront into real persuasiveness.

Personal Response: If I could achieve any of these "Ideas for Action" in a moment's time, this would be my choice. My wife will tell you that my tone often pushes her, and others away. The conviction with which I speak often does not reflect a willingness to discuss--which means that I can't persuade.

2. Your Command talents might compell you to wrestle for the reins of power because you love being in the driver's seat. But remember that even when you are not formally in charge, your presence can be an unseen yet powerfully felt force.

Personal Response: Again, this particular action needs development. I get antsy when the reins are not in my hand. I have to learn to let others control, and in that giving up of control, actually have greater influence. As a teacher, this couldn't be more true.


Most talents are often also a source of our greatest weaknesses. My Command Theme often has detrimental effects in my career. I've often felt that those "above" me have been intimidated by my candid approach to life, but I've also felt that I've stepped over the boundaries of my position. My success will always rest in my ability to rein in my Command Theme. Though it is not my most dominant, it has the one theme that could derail my career.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Adaptability Theme

I am now discovering my third theme, which is Adaptability. Like my previous post on my Communicator Theme, I haven't felt successful at adapting to my new school. This reality has brought me to a better understanding of my top five themes. While all five of these talents simmer below the surface, I must choose to foster and develop them.

The Future-- is not set in stone. The Adaptability Theme means living in the present.

As a teacher, the Adaptability Theme best presents itself in my awareness of the teachable moment. Sure, I can have objectives and goals, but for when the mood strikes, I don't "...resent sudden requests or unforseen detours." Instead, I "...expect them."
I recall my days before teaching, when I was bartending for Red Robin. I thrived when the unpredictable happened. Maybe my cocktail server went home because of slow sales, only to have the bar full moments later. I was in my element.
I don't believe in fate. I believe that I have control over where I will go, and though I want to get somewhere specific, that could change based on the events of tomorrow. That doesn't frighten me. Instead, it makes me feel oddly secure.

Ideas for Action: (suggestions for the Adaptor)
1. Cultivate your reputation as a calm and reassuring person when others become upset by daily events.

Personal Response: Earlier this year, a fellow teacher had a terrible experience late in the day. Her students were cruel and out of control. Without hesitating, I stepped in front of the class and slowly brought them out of their frenzied state. I remember the rush I felt standing in front of those students just before I began to talk. I craved the opportunity to adapt. Strange.

2. Avoid roles that demand structure and predictability. These roles will quickly frustrate you, make you feel inadequate, and stifle your independence.

Personal Response: This idea cannot apply to me any better. I hate predictability and too much structure. I love a framework, but not an detailed plan of action. The only problem, today's teacher is rapidly losing independence.

My Adaptability Theme, though not my top theme, is the one I consider my most important. When others tense at sudden changes and unpredictable happenings, I run to them. This ability provides me with opportunities to stand out, something I enjoy.
But I must be aware that structure is essential in its place. I cannot allow my need for controlled chaos bore me. Because when I am bored with my job, I am not very good about staying focused. As a teacher, that would be devastating to my students.