Teaching For Real

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Merit Pay for Teachers; Will It Work?

What is Merit Pay for teachers, and how will affect students?

Right now there is a national battle being waged over Merit Pay.  What does it really mean?  For those in the public sector, it means that the United States will have more quality teachers which will result in better student progress.  Those who are in the classroom beg to differ.  Many teachers feel that there is no place for bad teachers.  It just makes the job the rest do that much more difficult.  It also allows some of the leaders of the community to draw upon the few who are not capable to hold up as examples which are supposed to represent all those who spend their lives in the pursuit of better outcomes for their students.  

            At the same time, is there anyone else that can be held accountable for the progress of students at a specific school or in a specific classroom?  It is easy to create a policy that tells teachers that they will only receive a portion of their former pay and will only receive any difference at the end of the year only if they prove that the have helped their students pass some kind of standardized test.  What should those teachers tell the power company, the bank that holds their mortgage or their landlord?  You only get paid if my students cooperate and do their best?  How do you hold teachers accountable when they are being reduced, in some situations, to pay that puts them in the position to need and qualify for food stamps for most of the year?  How about those who teach in the toughest schools?  What should be done with the teachers who teach the students who do not feel safe at home or getting to and from school and many times do not have enough food for their growing bodies?

            Everyone says that they want what is better for the students.  Maybe that is true, but the reality is that there must be a balance.  The community must become more responsible for its children.  There should not be fear, unabated hunger and untreated diseases among the children of this great country.  The children must have their basic needs met.  This includes not just the basics, food, clothing and shelter.  It means a sense of safety and an opportunity to grow not just physically, but academically in ways they can be proud of.  The kids come first.  Those who are battling for education should visit a classroom and/or a school once in a while.  These visits should be unannounced, they should not be just photo-ops and there should be an opportunity for the students to ask their leaders whatever they feel is appropriate and necessary.  Although these kids are not voters yet, they will be!

            Another area that must be addressed is the way in which schools run in this country.  Everything runs from the top down.  Any and all problems are shot straight to the teachers.  There is no balance of power.  For example, many school districts are required to show a drop in violence, suspensions and administrative punishments for the students.  Unfortunately, this is not resulting in a drop in incidents, but rather a decline in reporting.   This means that many times, the teacher may refer the child to the administration, but the administrator will not enter the incident that occurred in the computer in order to make the school look “good”.  This creates a difficult situation for the teacher.  The student does not have any record of said behavior, they know this and the behavior obviously escalates until the problem is out of control.  This entire time, the teacher must attempt to teach while this child is in the classroom knowing that he or she will not get in any “real” trouble.  By the end of the year, the entire class has had a reduced learning time because of that student and the administrators receive a bonus for not reporting the student’s behaviors.  This is a solvable conundrum.  The teachers should be able to anonymously rate their administrators in order to help the behavior of students and the learning opportunities of the majority of the students.  This must be anonymous because those in power might decide to give the teacher who disagrees with what may be happening at their school a difficult time.  

            How does this affect merit pay?  Teachers cannot teach if there is one student in the class who insists upon behaving in a way that distracts the other learners for a good part of the time.  They must have supportive administrators.  Ironically, in most cases, it is those same administrators who rate the teacher for merit pay.  Makes you wonder doesn’t it?  Why can’t the teachers’ ratings also add up to the administrators’ pay?

            This system can also create a situation whereby those who do an outstanding job but do not act in a way that is subservient to those same administrators cannot even hope to receive this “Merit Pay” while those who may not do as good a job or provide the same or better results will receive it because of sycophancy, and the ever present cronyism and nepotism that rules in most schools systems.

            In the end, Merit Pay seems like a good idea, kind of the same way that Karl Marx used the first communes, created by the first Christians as a model for his government in The Communist Manifesto.  It just will not work for it shares the same basic flaw as communism, the inability to deal with the human greed for power and money.  These words should not even be included in the discussion about educating children, but those who have the money and the power always want more.


Gifted and Talented Children

Who are we hurting when we destroy gifted programs?


            Years ago, educators began to realize that many gifted students were dropping out of school out of sheer boredom.  We were losing our best chances at a future.  We now know what the result is.  Our system of education fell behind that of the other countries in the industrialized world.  Luckily, those who understood what was happening decided to work towards keeping these kids in school, and having these students learn at an accelerated rate, with depth added to what they were learning, and ethical dilemmas.  The students these programs produced gave us the opportunities to give many more students the creative outlet that helped them become today’s innovators.  It is working.

            So of course, we have to destroy the programs that were developed for these students.  At time passes, the programs for gifted and talented children in the US have been defunded.  Those who hold office have decided to create a society in which power is controlled by the few, and anyone who chooses to think, or is even compelled to think for themselves is slowly beaten down into submission.  Our society has been warned what can happen if this continues. In the 1950’s Ayn Rand published a wonderful book, Anthem that revealed what happens when you form collectives that cannot challenge the status quo, through thought Josef Stalin had brought to the Soviet Union.  In the end, this system brought about the downfall of the Soviet Union.  So why are our leaders attempting to reproduce it here in the United States?  Why are the students who are capable of creating a better future being taught only what is on a test?  Why is it that most standardized tests are created to make the mediocre look like they are more capable than those who can and should create?  Could it be because the uneducated are easier to control? 

            Again we come back to the argument that those who hold office send their children to schools that are not cutting back on these types of programs.  Should those who have sent or continue to send their children to private schools be allowed to make policies that are affecting other peoples’ children? Especially when they are affecting many of those children in a negative way?  Who holds the answers to these questions?

            We should look towards those who have dedicated their lives to the children of our society.  These are individuals who have given much of their adulthood for the betterment of children and the opportunities that this country should be able to provide for them.  These individuals are the teachers who work in the trenches each day.  Teachers are seeing the beginning of the end of our civilization as we know it.  Teachers can see that those in positions of power would love to turn the children of this country into automatons, incapable of making their own decisions, or even knowing what their society needs.  The lives of today’s children, along with those who will come in the future will closely resemble that of Equality 7-2521, the protagonist of the novel who has to choose between living within the strictures of a backwards society controlled by a few or escape, which might bring about his death. 

Do All Children Come from the Same Cookie Cutter Mold?

Why do we try to educate everyone to be the same?

            In the United States we claim to value originality, creativity and ingenuity.  In our schools, the opposite has become true.  When attempting to understand the attempt that American schools are making to teach all children in the same way, I am reminded of Jostien Gaardner’s description of Plato’s dualistic world view in his novel, “Sophie’s World”.  Gaardener uses the idea that we are all cut out from the same cookie mold, but allows for differences which may occur as a result of the making temperatures in different parts of the oven, the cooperation of the dough in the forms, and in some cases, the expertise with which the baker uses the mold. 

            Today, we are faced with a system of education that is attempting to follow the same type of cookie mold process, but with real children.  This is absurd.  Not everyone is made of the same dough.  Some children come to school well prepared to work, with their bellies full and their minds open.  Others come from homes where there is little food and a complete disregard for their learning processes insofar as the parents did not or could not prepare their children for what lies ahead.   Some children come with a predisposition for art, as their parents have taken them to museums and have encouraged them to express themselves in this way.  Others have never even heard the word “museum”.   Some children come to school in a safe vehicle, unafraid of what lies ahead on their way to school while others have fear dominating every step until they arrive in what is supposed to be a safe environment. 

            These differences are, of course, just the tip of the ice-berg.  We sometimes forget that children are individuals with unique abilities and problems.  No child brings the same experiences, needs and abilities as any other child.  In order to teach all children, there are a few simple changes that could and should be made to our expectations and understanding of the process of educating children.  

            Gone are the days when the teachers who worked with the younger children could share the wealth of beauty that is around each child every day.  Instead, they must teach to a test.  Some children are again, fortunate enough to be exposed to the wonders of their world by doting parents with the ability to take the time to participate in activities with them.  Most children today, especially those who attend the public school systems do not have these opportunities.  This is of course, only exacerbated by the financial decline that our country has faced, and the disproportionate losses in the middle class and the public schools.  

            We must again begin to see that all children are unique.  Some learn to read more quickly than others.  Some are born with musical abilities that boggle the mind.  Although the same mold is used, they are sufficiently different to merit a difference in how they are educated.  I have seen children with the critical thinking ability of a college student while only twelve years old who have been crippled by a learning disability that hampers their ability to decipher the words on a page.  How do we help that child?  Shouldn’t we provide for her?  

            We like to say that we do, but in the end, the only measure of that child becomes a test that she cannot read.  The parents must choose between getting help for her disability, or have her learn at the level she is capable of.  Again, many times the parents are at a loss as to what will help their child most.  The solution could be in the hands of the teachers who work with that child on a regular basis.  Instead of forcing teachers to teach to a test, the whole child must be taken into consideration.  When given the opportunity, most teachers will work to help that student grow as a whole.  They know that they can use the child’s natural abilities to foster a love of learning.  That child will know that she is safe to ask as many questions as are necessary, and that school is not a place to be afraid but rather a place where the world of possibilities opens.  

            In the end, we need to be able to stop teaching children who are in pre-school how to bubble in a test that they will be taking many times upon entering kindergarten, and let them use all their senses to develop a curiosity that will help them learn for the rest of their lives.  We need to make sure that kids that are entering middle school are not asking the teacher “How would you like me to answer that question?” rather than thinking for themselves.    We need to let those who enjoy working with their hands have opportunities to become productive members of society by giving them opportunities for this type of learning.  

Ethics in Education?

What are Ethics, and How Do They Apply to Education?

            Whose ethics can and should be taught in the classroom?  In order teach ethics one must first define it.  Dictonary.com defines ethics as “the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture.  If you look around at the society of the United States to see who the individuals who are held up as the examples our children should attempt to emulate, it becomes obvious that we are driving our country into an ethical or moral collapse.   

            In order to illustrate this point, we need look no further than the popular figure known as Magic Johnson.  Everyone knows that Magic Johnson is a carrier of the AIDS virus, which he acquired while being unfaithful to his wife.  We know that he has lived longer than many others who have been infected with the virus.  By having this condition he brought the conversation about it to the forefront or our national discussion, thereby helping us to understand the disease and humanize its victims.  This is all well and good, but do any of us know the named of the researchers and doctors who have helped him, and now many others to have a longer life and a quality of life that that was unheard of?  This is but a microcosmic example of where our values lie.  The former NBA player with the charismatic personality is more recognizable while the people who work towards helping him lead as normal a life as possible are completely in the shadows.

            This begs the question, what are our national ethics and who are called upon to be held up to a higher standard than most?  Who must be the living breathing examples of moral behavior?  Of course it is the teachers of our society.  Although we as a country like to sensationalize the fall of a few into what society values, we fail to appreciate the lives that most teachers lead in order to serve as an example to the children in their lives.  We must ask ourselves: who do kids spend more time with?  The reality of our world today is that the children in our society spend more time with their teachers than with their parents.  That is why teachers must live up to these standards.

            Children learn by imitating the examples given to them by those around them.  Don’t believe me?  Watch a child attempting to learn language as a toddler.  When those around them provide them with a rich vocabulary, the children learn quickly to express their ideas with eloquence.  If those who surround the toddler speak without care, what the child learns is what they hear.  I have seen toddlers whose first word is considered unacceptable in polite society. Likewise, if a child experiences love, affection, and just as importantly respect, that child will invariably treat others in the same manner.  On the other hand, if the child experiences a lack of love, support and respect, that child is doomed to enter the school system and life ill prepared for what lies ahead.

            Who does society look towards to continue to support those who have had a wonderful foundation, and provide the scaffolding necessary for those who start behind their peers in this area?  Right again!  It is the teachers in that child’s life.  These are the individuals who play a huge role in the survival of our way of life.  Yet, our national discourse berates teachers, blaming them for all of the problems in our society.  How many times have I heard, “The teachers in (insert your town’s, city’s, parish’s, county’s or state’s name here) are failing their students!  

            Again, what is it we really want teachers to do?  In the end, most parents hope that their children become contented productive members of our society.  In order to achieve this, they must first understand the values in the society and learn to live within the margins of the behaviors expected of them.  Many times it falls upon the teachers to instill these values, not because the parents do not want to provide these values to their children, but because they are many times working two jobs, single parents, or face other obstacles that prevent them from doing that which in the past fell to them.  As a result, shouldn’t we as a society value these individuals, who attend universities, and then for as little pay as the governments in their areas can get away with paying them dedicate their lives to helping all the children within a society?  What ethics are we showing them if we tell our children that their teachers are “failures?”  Are we as a society dooming our children to live within a society with out any moral standards

The Pantheon of School Boards Imitate Life?

The Pantheon of School Boards Imitating Life?

            As I watch the school board meetings where I live and teach, as well as the broadcast of the politicians at my state capitol, I am reminded of a movie I saw as a child.  In this movie, the Ancient Greek Gods played with clay figures that represented the humans below their mountain.  These individuals sit high upon pedestals making decisions with little thought to the consequences of their actions, insofar as how they will affect those they are manipulating.  The only goal of those in office is to get re-elected as many times as is necessary to land a job as a lobbyist when they leave office, or so sit high upon the dais looking down on those that hired them.

            Don’t we have it a bit backwards?  If the taxpayers are the voters, and they hire these individuals to do a job, shouldn’t they be the ones to speak their minds at these meetings and tell them what should be done?  In my ignorance, I thought that the only time the government was allowed to keep secrets from the people who hire them to do their jobs was in matters of national security.  Yet, our school boards and our politicians sit high upon their pedestals, school auditorium stages or wherever else they can look down upon their employers and make rules that will many times hurt the children they are entrusted to educate and taxpayers they are supposed to be protecting, using numbers and letters to hide the true intent of that which they are discussing.

            There are two ingredients necessary for the foundation of a democracy to hold strong.  These are education and the freedom of information that we are supposed to have.  Instead, many of the leaders we have in office today choose to keep their actions secret while making sure that the students in the schools are taught to ask the teacher “what do you want me to answer?” so that they can pass a test mandated by those same individuals who choose to hide behind their office.  This is all done with the “best” of intentions making sure that students who attend public schools today learn that they should not think for themselves, thereby assuring the future of those in the privileged class (those in office who send their kids to private schools).  This becomes a self perpetuating cycle the powerful vs. the powerless.  Ironically, our country was founded on the idea that all people should have a say in their government, and public schools were founded so that the individuals who did have a say in their government would have an educated well thought out opinion when going to the polls.  Our founders knew that power, when held in the hands of a few would destroy the powerless.  

            How can we solve this problem? The first step is clear. Educate! Educate! Educate!  Instead of setting kids up to pass a test that requires them to regurgitate useless facts give them opportunities to solve problems using the creativity that Americans used to be known for!  Give teachers their classrooms back so that they can create the learning environments that helped spur on these solutions!  Hold teachers accountable, but the taxpayer/voter/employer must also hold those who make policy decisions, from those at the national and state levels, to those at the school levels accountable too!  If they don’t or can’t do the job, fire them!

            How else can we work toward solving these problems?  Maybe we should go back to the days when the fourth estate (the media) was held accountable by the people who were watching, listening or reading. Gone are the days when a newscaster reported the news.  Now we have “pundits” who are horrified at what someone is wearing, how low they may have bowed (even if the person they are attempting to communicate with is a foot shorter than themselves).  Why are we asking for birth certificates that were provided years ago?  Why is the media working so hard to entertain rather than inform?  The answer is again, keep people from thinking, and they will believe anything you tell them.  Why do so many people vote for “reality” (and know every detail) shows but have no idea what is going on in their community, country or world?  Keep ‘em entertained and they will not notice that we are eroding their rights!  

            In the end, the pedestals will be so high that it must all come crashing down.  Even Dr. Seuss taught that!  (Yertle the Turtle anyone?)  It will only end when we take back our system of education and open our eyes to what is happening in the media.  Without those, the country we live in is not the one we think we live in.

If we value independence, if we are disturbed by the growing conformity of knowledge, of values, of attitudes, which our present system induces, then we may wish to set up conditions of learning which make for uniqueness, for self-direction, and for self-initiated learning. Carl Rogers

—Carl Rogers

What is not working in teaching today?

What Is Really Wrong with Public Education?

            Many people outside of the field enjoy diagnosing what is wrong with our system of public education.  If those who have proved their worth in increments through years and years of work, training and trial and error were consulted, the “problems” they list would be quite different than those that the individuals in the “ivory towers of education” seem to think.

            It is not just about funding, although there are many who say it is, but about how the money is being spent.  People who spend very little if any time in the classroom decide which books to buy, which programs to fund and run, and what everyone should be paid.  They also decide what to build, including large inefficient buildings to house those not in the classrooms, and these buildings are many times built on some of the most expensive real-estate in the area.  They then have to spend money lobbying their states for adequate funding because the state can see or believe to see where the money is being misspent.  Why not ask the people in the trenches what they need?  That type of logic, of course does not come in to play.

            In addition, many in the press and those in political office like to blame “bad teachers” for the lack of progress in schools.  The absurdity of this statement is obvious to those who choose to stay in the classroom.  The people who are in administrative positions fall into a few categories.

            The first is made up of those who know someone within their own power structure.  It is as the old cliché quickly points out, “it is not what you know, but who you know” that rules this group.  These individuals spend the least amount of time possible in the classroom before moving into administrative positions.  In Florida, an individual only needs to have three years of experience in the classroom before becoming an administrator.  In most cases, because they know the “right” people, these individuals don’t even spend one entire year with a full classroom load because they receive “special assignments” that allow them to earn money, receive benefits and of course obtain the tenure necessary for their eventual promotion.

            Another category of Administrators is those who have taught classes in which there has historically been little or no accountability.  This has allowed them the time to pursue the graduate degrees necessary in order to obtain a position of power.  Many of these graduate degrees come from what are known as “diploma factories” which have Saturday discussions classes and which do not require a thesis.  These people are then judging which teachers are effective in the areas that are held accountable for their work through student scores and ever more complex evaluation processes.  How does a former Physical Education teacher decide if someone is doing an adequate or exemplary job teaching the intricacies of the characters, plots and historical references in the works of Shakespeare?

            Then of course there are those who cannot handle the classroom or the kids, or in many cases don’t really like either one.  They want the benefits that come from working in a school system but forget that the reason that it exists is the children.  These might be the most difficult to deal with for those who choose to stay in the classroom because these individuals  cannot fathom why in the world anyone would CHOOSE to spend the day with students and in the classroom.  These individuals do not understand creativity and reprimand teachers who are using project-based, creative, cooperative groups or any other of the more “unconventional” teaching/learning methods.

            Yes, these are the individuals who decide if a teacher is any good in a classroom.  These are the individuals who, when held accountable, point to the teachers who were not permitted to teach creatively, who were not provided with the necessary materials, and who were not supported by that same administrator.  Yes, these are the individuals who dole out extra monies from the taxpayers as “rewards” to their buddies. 

            How can this situation be rectified?  If the people who are “running things” are so deeply entrenched in their positions of power and have reached levels of “the Peter Principle” heretofore unknown, is there any chance of saving the public school system?  Of course there is.  Just ask the right people what should be done.  You know them as teachers!