As you know, being a high school English teacher at Lynwood has been my life for years and years and years now. And truly, I love it.
Which is why I am taking a leave of absence from my classroom. Simply put, the demands of my professional life have outstripped the ability for me to meet all of these demands in an excellent, balanced, sane manner… and push has come to shove.
For the past years – ever since I was named California’s Teacher of the Year 2007 – my life has pretty much been a stay up til midnight, wake at 5:00 a.m. and work-8-hours-on-a-Saturday type of experience. All while criss-crossing the country year round speaking at conferences and doing Professional Development for schools when I can squeeze it in. Naively, I guess I thought the load would eventually lighten.
It hasn’t. In fact, it keeps growing.
Shockingly, I do not seem to be able to sustain this pace and, when I think about it (and my family), I realize that I don’t need to have a stroke/heart attack/breakdown to grasp the idea that I am burning the candle way too hard – and have been for quite a long time now.
Yet, there are other factors as well.
Clearly, we are suffering from a crisis of demoralization in education today and it my strongest belief that teachers need to be better supported with higher quality tools, strategies and materials that have been proven to work.
Teachers teaching teachers is a solution that makes sense to me. And the need for teachers to have available more PD and better PD is, to me, a glaring national need.
As mentioned, for years I have been speaking at conferences, providing PD for school districts and so on, flying all over the country working to share best practices and provide real solutions to fellow educators as they seek to improve their classroom craft. And each time I have done so, I have bounced back to Lynwood High (often on late night flights) to wake up bright and early to teach at a full-time pace.
To say the challenge has been exhausting would be an understatement. Keeping up with such a powerhouse schedule, all while writing books year round (I have 4 new titles that will be out in the next 24 months) as I strive to remain a dedicated dad and husband has rendered my life out of balance. Yet oddly enough, it’s paid dividends for Lynwood High.
Big ones, in fact.
A little backstory: Two years my school principal asked me to reduce my teaching load to 4 classes and then use the other time in my day to do some T.O.S.A. work for him. (Teacher on Special Assignment.) I turned him down. Why? Because hey, I gotta work here and, as every good camper knows, well… you don’t poop where you eat (i.e. you don’t staff develop where you staff).
But he nagged at me and tugged at me and cajoled me into buying into the greater good of doing PD for our own ELA staff at Lynwood High, taking a greater leadership role on campus, and so on.
So last year I said I’d give it a go. I taught 4 periods and accepted the TOSA challenge. My assignment: share my best practices with our 9th Grade ELA staff and have it pay off in terms of data. That’s right… we needed higher test scores.
Now, it’s no secret how much I detest the current bubble test mania that has swept the nation in a lunatic fashion. (We are digressing into a, “If they do not test it, why should we teach it” world. So dumb!) I find the bubble tests to be poor assessments of both our student aptitudes as well as inferior instruments for determining how well a teacher is actually performing at their job – and I have said so a zillion times over. Standardized bubble tests don’t hold a candle to portfolio-based growth model assessments that incorporate a dimension of Project-Based Learning.
But our school was placed on California’s 100 Worst Performing Schools … by the powers-that-be in Sacramento in 2009. And NCLB had demoted us to such ugly depths (I think it was to level negative 14,123) that essentially, they were threatening us with firing everyone on staff, closing the school, having the state take us over and every other draconian measure you could imagine.
Would I help? Would I teach our teachers? Not full time, mind you. Not even close. I would still teach 4 full-time classes of freshman English. (I’ve taught all grade levels of high school but getting more kids off to a better start at our site has been my thing as of late.)
Between the guilt, the appealing to a higher calling, the fact that I believed I could actually help a great deal if I was given the liberty to meet the challenge on my own terms in my own way without any district or administrative interference (indeed, I sometimes suffer from delusions of grandeur), I accepted the TOSA assignment for a year.
And yes, I got blowback like mad from some “peers”. In the Math and History Department. (Go figure. ELA was totally receptive, but some folks in Math and History brought me to the doorstep of getting mired in the nonsense of nearly filing grievances. Just ugly stuff. Amazing how petty people can be.)
Well, we just got our test scores back for the CST (California State Test, the core element which enables the powers that be to bring the sledge-hammer down on our heads).
The math scores at Lynwood High flat-lined, for the most part. (Actually, in some categories, the lion’s shares of the math scores were up 1%). Science was up a bit in Biology, but down in Chemistry. World History had 0% growth but U.S. History showed some solid gains.
English Language Arts “blew the roof off of it” (to quote my principal).
I was charged specifically with providing TOSA services to 9th grade teachers. (If I recall, there were 14 other educators in the room at the start. We’re a Title I, Urban High School with well over 4,000 kids on campus.)
Now, I don’t know how much you may know about the way state test scores work, but essentially there are 5 categories: Advanced, Proficient, Basic, Below Basic, and Far Below Basic.
The 9th grade ELA scores for 2010 at Lynwood High…
· Doubled the amount of students who scored in the Advanced category, a 100% increase from the year prior.
· Increased the Proficient category by gains of 82.4% from the year prior.
· Reduced the amount of students scoring in the Below Basic and Far Below Basic categories by approximately 25%.
As my principal says, “The numbers don’t lie.”
And this was done in a school besieged by budget cuts, administrative turnover, and immense district turmoil. (Don’t ask. Just google it if you really want to know, but I warn you… close your eyes. Some ugly, ugly stuff went down in our district last year. And of course, it’s always the kids and the good teachers who end up being the collateral damage.)
Essentially, the ELA scores look like a clear anomaly on the school performance data charts.
And when the gains of all of English are taken into account (9th, 10th and 11th grade; the rest of the department started coming into my room at about the halfway point of the year based on the good word of mouth other teachers passed along as to what was going on in the 9th grade meetings) it looks as if the English Department of Lynwood High has practically carried our entire school from being on the 100 Worst Performing Schools in California list to a list that says we made it to safe harbor because we met our AYP and API growth. (Those scores won’t be official til next week and we might miss some sub-groups so who’s to say… but we bounced, and high.)
Now, was it me who did all the work? Of course not! This is our department’s triumph. But what I did do was clear out all the administrators from putting their fingers in our ELA pie and I went about sharing best practices and providing all the other teachers with lessons plans, pacing plans, PBL projects, curricular goals and real materials that, well provided a win/win scenario for the kids (they actually found meaning and engagement in the work) and the teachers (they actually found excitement and rigor and the path to authentic student achievement in the lesson plans).
Indeed, the Lynwood teachers in the ELA Dept did the work. What they needed was
1) the tools 2) the PD as to how best to use the tools 3) the support to implement the tools and 4) the inspiration and belief that we could actually accomplish our aims.
All of this is a long-winded way of me saying, I am not sure right now how to best spend my professional energies. But perhaps, I can help other teachers and other schools get better results without resorting to mindless drill-n-kill worksheets that worship at the altar of the bubble tests as if these inferior assessments are the end-all, be-all raison d’etre for the existence of schools in America.
And not one time did I crack open the textbook. Scores of six pound, deflavorized doorstops went unused on this journey. (Alas, we can’t get the ridiculous amount of money we spent for these things back. And wow, could we use that HUGE amount of cash now. Have you any idea what we must have spent on those things?) We used real books and primary source documents the whole time.
And so, the time has come for a change. But the thing is, people ascending to tackle new challenges in our field is actually quite commonplace for many, many educators.
Some people go into administration and become principals. Others go on to become district coaches. Still others go straight to the loony bin, by-passing all the intermediaries. (Clearly, an option for many of us worth considering.)
Me, I have arrived at the determination that I might just very well be better able to serve the needs of our schools, teachers and students from a different position.
Becoming a fierce advocate for Professional Development is where I am going to start. I mean when I see teachers being kicked around like half-smashed piñatas at an 8 year old’s birthday party by the media, I often think to myself, “I wonder if those teachers were ever properly prepared to succeed in the increasingly-more demanding world of being a modern day educator?”
Let’s be honest, our graduate programs and colleges and universities are doing the best they can (saddled as they are with bureaucracy) but are they really preparing teaching graduates in a soup-to-nuts fashion to excellently meet the demands and rigor of being a real school teacher for the rest of our careers?
Of course not. Because they can’t. It is preposterous even think they could. Teaching is a profession where one must perpetually evolve. Learning the craft does not stop with professional certification yet these days, with district budget problems and cutbacks, PD has been relegated to slightness at best, unavailability at worst.
And so much of it just stinks! Can I tell you how much worthless PD I have been mandated to sit through over the course of my career? It’s why I got into providing PD in the first place… because I thought people deserved better than what so many of these charlatans were providing.
Plus, I gotta wonder if a fire is really being lit under anybody’s butt to change the course of this clearly foundering educational ship right now. I mean look at the circumstances under which my peers at Lynwood are expected to function this year. It’s just nuts!
And I don’t even think it’s the School Board’s fault because the economic shenanigans of Wall Street (can you say sub-prime?) was the fuse that lit this keg of dynamite in the first place. When you have no money, you have no money but still, at what point does a job become untenable?
Plus, Lynwood is not alone. Go to Baltimore, Oakland, Philadelphia, Houston, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta (can I stop typing now?) and you will see story after story after story of the same thing.
The teachers are the good guys, the ones standing our ground giving our best. And yet, we are being blamed for all the ills of today’s classrooms.
Today’s teachers need a deep and frequent drink of Professional Development to meet the demands of a changed world and evolving schools. Yet, if we are able to even eek out a few sips of quality PD over the course of a school year, it’s almost as if we are the lucky ones.
This must change.
The truth is we all wear many, many hats as a classroom teacher these days. (Perhaps even too many… but that’s the job, right?) From academic taskmaster to surrogate parent, from rigorous instructor to compassionate counselor, from behavior management specialist to test preparation maestro, we teach hard skills such as the content area standards and soft skills such as the critical nature of being a young person of high character and resiliency. We manage attendance, staff meetings, parents, bullying, tolerance, hormones, homework, federal mandates, district requirements, administrative memos and papers, papers, papers.
All for a salary that, for many of us, requires there to be a second income in the household.
Yet still, we love our work (when we remember why we took the job in the first place).
Nothing beats our highs and nothings crushes like our lows. We are not cubicle people; we are living, breathing dynamic souls starving for sustenance to sustain our spirits.
Of course, I might not be able to make manifest my highest aspirations for our profession but you know what… I am gonna freakin’ try!
Thus begins the next step for me.
BTW, the downside, I must admit, is scary. After all, when you decide to take a stand for something, people inevitably take their shots at you – it’s like the American way. But the upside will be great for our profession if I can actually make the impact to which I aspire.
We need more PD. We need better classroom tools. We need someone with no political aspirations (I ain’t runnin’ for nuthin’! And that’s official!) to call the Lemons in our profession Lemons. (Why folks are defending weak teachers who game the system when it just hurts all of us is beyond me. And as a teacher, I know that when these folks are “sheltered” it ends up falling on people like me to do more to carry their water – as if I already don’t have a difficult enough job.)
But most teachers – and I mean MOST – are not Lemons. We are professionals who need an empathetic, intelligent and helping hand because we are being ridiculously swamped. We deserve more assistance, we need more support and we have to craft a situation whereby we can obtain these essentials without the buffoonery of bean counters standing in the way of us really reaching today’s real kids.
To be totally honest, I am not sure how I even got into this position of potential influence in the first place. And I certainly never intended to write a manifesto when I sat down to type this up today. But somebody who is not beholden to any political agenda has to start speaking up for what makes common sense.
I mean, sheesh, when I think about the stances some people are taking in the arena of public education, I just have to scratch my head and say, “Uh, hello… like WTF?!”
(Not that I have any strong opinions about the quality that kids and teachers deserve or anything.)
God’s speed to us all this year. The next stage for me now begins and I thank you in advance for your good wishes.
One last note: Clearly, I am incredibly lucky to even get this opportunity… and my writing career is what’s going to be paying the bills for me this year. (Did I mention this was an unpaid Leave of Absence?) So indeed, I am extremely fortunate to even have this opportunity in the first place. With new books of fiction coming out, new BookJams being released and people emailing me to come do speeches for their conferences or PD for their districts at a clip that exceeds anything I ever expected, well, like I said… I am certainly the humble beneficiary of good providence. My aim is to (borrowing a line from Google which I am not even so sure is totally true) “do good”.
Doing high-quality, valuable work for teachers, kids, literacy and schools is my aim and I have a sense that once I regain some personal balance in my life, I might be able to have a greater positive impact outside my classroom at Lynwood High… as opposed to in it.
(But damn, I am going to miss the kids this year.)
It’s been said that we are the change we are hoping to see. Well, I’m tossing my hat into that ring.
Hey, you only live once, right?