Wednesday, May 27, 2009


My blogging colleague, Dennis Fermoyle at From the Trenches, is retiring from blogging. Here's hoping he comes out of retirement like Brett Favre.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Status Quo

This year I will finish my sixth year of teaching which puts me into a state of uncertainty. On the one hand, I am no longer a new teacher, yet many believe that after year six a teacher doesn't make much more progress. It becomes more about refinement as opposed to learning. This begs the question, if after year six I am not going to refine more than I am going to learn, do I need to be evaluated once a year.
The status quo teachers in a failing district do not. They believe that, having earned tenure, they are free to refine "on their own" as I have been told. The tenured teacher should not have to endure the hassle of a yearly observation, instead focusing on some professional growth plan in which she checks in twice a year with the administration.
I refuse to be a status quo teacher, and I hope my colleagues will vocally refuse the status quo as well. We are bombarded on many sides by new initiatives, many of which are repackaged and renamed, we are regularly reminded of our failure to teach, and we are often subjected to pointless and poorly designed professional development.
Yet, while we sit back and complain about the "other side," as a group we continue to support failed union policies which do not support and promote the absolute best in the classroom. Instead, tenured teachers want less oversight on them but more oversight on the non-tenured. Tenured teachers believe they are "accomplished" as some teacher evaluation plans call them. If a teacher union wants credibility at the table of education reform and policy, it must refuse to continue the status quo approach.

Friday, May 22, 2009


1 90 degree day followed by an 80+ degree day added to a tiny, one window facing the sun, on the windless courtyard, of the second floor of an old brick building equals Mr. McNamar being more ready for a three day weekend than I ever have been.
Seriously, if I had heard "Mister, it's hot; why do we have to do work today?" begin to come out of a student's mouth just one more time, the students would have seen a real live teacher breakdown. I would have been seen running through the halls, bouncing off of lockers, while pulling relentlessy at my hair. Unfortunately, our students pull that off everyday--minus the hair-pulling: unless there's a fight.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Habla Espanol?

I wish I made more money. Then I 'd be able to afford a top-notch, highly intensive course in Spanish. In a district in which over 50% of our students speak Spanish, we teachers should be given professional development that teaches us academic and conversational Spanish.
My Spanish speaking skills used to be much better, thanks to Senora Mosely and the dozens of Spanish speaking line-cooks from my restaurant days. Today, I can carry a very basic conversation, maybe kindergarten level or less. Proficiency would have made a difference today in a parent-teacher conference.
I've made it my mission from now on to not be afraid to attempt communicating with our Spanish speaking student. If our many bilingual students who feel insecure about their English proficiency (often hiding behind the language barrier), observe me trying, and often failing, to communicate with them, perhaps they will begin to feel more confident that we don't judge them because of their inability to speak English perfectly.
A group of ELL students have recently decided I'm acceptable to talk with. This group, who are in my study hall, would often ignore me or yell at me in Spanish if I tried to get them to sit down or quiet down. But once I started communicating in Spanish, they've begun to ask me questions and even say hello in the hallway.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

"Epic" Food Fight

One student described the Jackson High School food fight as "epic," which brings to mind such literary masterpieces as The Illiad and The Odyssey. The near consequence was losing the prom, which would have been an epic overreaction. Luckily for the students, prom will go on.

I agree with the Principal, Terry Chesire, that Jackson students ought to spend some quality time away from the pristine campus in order to feed the many that go hungry within the boundaries of Everett Public Schools.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

No Whining

I told a student today that I couldn't hear her. I saw her mouth moving, but my ears weren't picking up what she was saying. She looked confused until I told her that my ears only hear adult voices and can't hear whining.
Later, I was reminded that we teachers are often guilty of whining. "They make us go to four meetings a month. We only got a 2% raise. I don't have enough time to plan, to grade, to teach. They only care about the test scores."
We're a pretty whiny bunch sometimes.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


With just over a month remaining in the school year, a growing sense of depression and frustration is developing behind the closed doors of our classrooms. In my after-school socializing, more of my colleagues are expressing frustrations in various degrees and on various topics.
I don't care where you teach, sometimes it gets rough.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Attendance and Evaluations

When I worked for Doubletree Hotels to pay for college, my annual performance review assessed my performance on many criteria, including attendance. The recent National Council on Teacher Quality examination of Hartford Public schools explores numerous facets of the system. One in particular stood out to me. As my colleagues and I work to rewrite our Teacher Evaluation Plan, a difference of opinion has developed regarding attendance. The current contract allots 15 days for illness and 5 days for personal reasons.
One group is asking for our new evaluation plan to include attendance in the criteria used to evaluate teachers. The NCTQ had this to say about Hartford:

"Make teacher attendance a mandatory component of teacher evaluations. Teacher attendance and tardiness are allowed to factor into teacher evaluations, but Hartford should make this an official part of the evaluation instrument" (7).

Our union represantation believes no need exists for such a provision. In an effort to hear from teachers, I pose the question to my great collection of colleagues and readers. Should attendance be a part of evaluating teachers? (Notice I said "a part.")

Monday, May 04, 2009

Confront the Brutal Facts

In chapter four of Good to Great, Collins explores companies which "...confronted the brutal facts of reality head-on and completely changed its entire system in response..."(67). In confronting these realities, the "entire management team would lay itself open to searing questions and challenges from salespeople who dealt directly with customers"(72). Back in November of this school year I wrote a "Whaddya Wanna Bet?" post giving 3-1 odds that "when Central Offices ask for your input and the input of the community, they don't really care to hear it?"
Um, well I guess I might have to pay up. However, I am awaiting the data wall to prove that they listen. Truthfully though, I must give credit to my current Central Office for at least wanting to hear from the community and staff. I believe we are headed in the direction of confronting the brutal facts. The question is, will we be able to change the entire system if needed?
Collins provides four basic practices when confronting the truth:
1. Lead with questions, not answers: too often, Central Offices in general lead with answers. This program will solve this problem. Do these fads and results will happen. Unfortunately, teachers have become jaded and are unable to trust Central Offices, even when their intentions are noble.
2. Engage in dialogue and debate, not coercion: I think that when confronting major challenges, schools ought to have far more informal discussions. Allow the staff to work through the realities by engaging them in discussions on an informal but regular basis. Show that it is okay to debate, even argue. I think of a major disagreement I recently had with a colleague. She's still wrong in my mind, but I hang out with her almost every day. Disagreement on issues does not mean we have to be antagonists.
3. Conduct autopsies without blame: teachers often bear the brunt of the blame when schools fail. Them or the kids. Ultimately, we are all responsible for the failure, and we must figure out how to solve those mistakes.
4. Build a "red flag" mechanism: Data Driven Decision Making is one way schools are attempting alert possible problems. But truthfully, there has to be much more. Kids need a way to alert teachers of existing or developing issues. Teachers need a way to alert administrators of potential pitfalls or shifts in success.

In the end, we need to lay bare our failing schools. We need to examine them and make changes when necessary. We need to allow teachers to speak honestly and openly--and teach our students to do the same.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


Between examing the role that Good to Great can have in our schools, I continue to explore what I need to learn about teaching Latino students. In three previous posts, here, and here, I responded to a professional development session in which our staff's effort with Latino students was summarily reproached for its subtly racist undertones. The presentation, though interweaved with some truths, was more for provocation than actual usefulness. I'm tempted to dwell on its need for provocation and not move to the intereweaved truths--I'll refrain for now.
Last year, in my first year at this particular school, I discovered a book, Puerto Rican Students in U.S. Schools, edited by Sonia Nieto. The Daily Grind should fund the purchase of this text, but for now, google books will have to suffice. The truth is that our Latino students do face challenges in finding success within our US schools--we who teach these students should be more educated on those challenges. Yet I can't help but admit that many students of various racial makeup have challenges. Which is why I agree completely with one of Nieto's conclusions about the need for caring teachers--of all the foundational skills needed to succeed with all students, carino, might be the most important.
Nieto concludes, "Care is demonstrated most powerfully through high expectations and rigorous standards, and in teachers' beliefs that students are worthy and capable" (31). The current charter school movement is tapping into the power of carino as a means to improving student learning. We have much to discover about high expectations and rigorous standards.
Sometimes I think teachers of our Latino students, in an effort to care about them, allow themselves to lower their standards and focus too heavily on how the "feel" and less on whether or not they are learning.
She adds that other effective examples of carino include, "...developing strong interpersonal relationships with students and their families, learning about and from them, respecting and affirming their language and culture, and building on these to support learning" (31). At this point, I begin to feel uncertain about what she is proposing. Or, at least start asking far more questions, which would be the better way to describe my uneasiness.
Shouldn't we expect "strong interpersonal relationships" between our teachers and every student? What does "affirming their language and culture" mean?
For instance, in Sweating the Small Stuff, author David Whitman writes that the new paternalistic schools "Street slang, the use of the ‘n-word,’ and cursing are typically not only barred in the classroom but in the hallways and lunch room as well” (38). I know that by "language" Nieto more than likely means Spanish, but what if their "language" is both Spanish and street-slang English? Culture is the learned patterns of behavior, and street-slang falls into that definition.
However, in the end, I agree with Nieto regarding what she more than likely really means. Schools which serve Latino students should be working to create great students. Whitman, in his book, describes Cristo Rey Jesuit High School goal “... to have graduates be bilingual and bi-literate” (139). Not only does this respect their culture, it serves the greater purpose of educating our students to high standards. Now that's real carino.

Good to Great: School Edition II

In the first post discussing the connections between Jim Collins' book Good to Great and schools, we examined the principle of getting the right people on board before casting and pursuing a path towards excellence.
Certainly quality leadership serves to promote an environment ripe for success. I chose to cover leadership, as discussed by Collins, second because even when leadership in a school lacks ability, if the right people are in the classroom, the school can still succeed. It is much like teaching a group of honors students. A low quality teacher does not have a detrimental effect on those who already possess great skills. However, in order for schools to be great, they do need the "Level 5 Executive."
Collins describes one Level 5 Executive, Darwin Smith--who rebuilt the old paper company Kimberly-Clark, as "an individual who blends extreme personal humility with intense professional will" (21). He quotes Smith as saying, "I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job" (20).
While I have great outsider respect for what leaders like Chancellor Rhee are attempting in long-failing systems like Washington D.C., I have to wonder whether these leaders are more concerned with personal ambition or developing a long-lasting success plan.
Leadership and the right people are the foundation of lasting success in schools. With a Level 5 Executive at the helm (in both the Central Office and at the building level), the right people feel a sense of security and purpose. Without the right people, the Level 5 Executive will feel the need to "manage" people instead of guiding them (56). At the building level, the need to manage people serves to lessen the culture of success needed for all purposeful reform. And if the right people must endure leaders who jump from one initiative to another or are clearly out to make a name for themselves, the culture of success is again undermined.
Unfortunately in public education, the ability to find Level 5 Executives can prove troublesome. First, many within the establishment believe that the best principals or superintendents must come from within the field of education. Second, those in the field of education who have the potential for Level 5 leadership are often discouraged by a pervasive "us vs. them" mentality. Not wanting to be "one of them" means those potential leaders remain in the classroom--which isn't always bad. This also plays out in the manner in which other teachers view other teachers who take on leadership opportunities within the building. If a colleague is perceived to be a mouthpiece for the administration (even if that leader is effective), other peers quickly begin having lunchroom conversations about their friend.
However, if we are going to turn around failing schools, we absolutely must have independent and creative thinking Level 5 Executives.