Sunday, October 2, 2011

Teacher Guilt Vs. Mommy Guilt

The name I have chosen for myself is TeacherMomNJ because those are the three things that define me as a person. Teacher, Mother, Jersey Girl (not a Jersey Shore type girl or a Jerseylicious type girl, just a real no nonsense woman with kick butt attitude). I am also a wife, daughter, sister, cousin and friend. Sometimes maintaining the balance in my life can be very difficult.

Many times we are asked what is a good teacher. On many teacher blogs and articles you hear how teachers spend an exorbitant amount of their personal time on the job. Those teachers who go in at 6:30 am and stay until 6:30pm. The ones who create and maintain websites for their classes, who spend hours and hours on preparation and assessment, those who create teacher resources for others to use. It's almost as though the self-sacrifice is a badge of honor and that sacrifice has become expected. Those who don't go that extra 10 miles vs. just the extra mile, are sometimes made to feel guilty.

The same problem occurs for moms. What does it take to be a good mommy? Is it the cleanest house? Is it someone with the most exceptional children who get nothing but good grades in school? Are the best moms the ones who are full time homemakers who dedicate their lives to their kids and families? Frankly I think any parent who has non-homicidal children who know how to be responsible and get along with others isn't doing too bad.

I want to be great at both jobs. What person doesn't want to excel at what they have chosen to do? Unfortunately keeping the balance can be hard, and if I spend more time on one job than the other, I get the guilt pushing in on both sides. (I used to be Catholic, and I am very familiar with guilt.) I have recently been dealing with medical issues that sap all of my energy, so the time and energy I can dedicate to anything is at a premium. Therefore, the guilt I feel for NOT being able to dedicate MORE time and energy to my children at home and my children at work is at an all time high. It begs the question WHY should I feel that way at all?

I spend 8 hours a day at work given my students everything I got. I get in early, work through lunch and prep, then stay a little late to set up for the next day. When I get home I have almost nothing left. Due to my exhaustion and lack of energy, I can't give my own children my best, and there is nothing left over for my husband or even myself.

Why do teachers feel compelled to do this? Teaching is just about the only job where you bring your work home. Where you are EXPECTED to work for free all the extra overtime. Well, I'm done. I've already had to quit my second job in direct sales because the sacrifices of time and energy were too much and I was spread too thin. My 8 hours are all I am willing to put in because my job as mom is just as, if not more important. 10 years as a teacher has taught me my own value as a parent. The kids most likely to slip through the cracks are the ones who don't have enough support from their parents. They may have their love and devotion, but quite often it's time that makes the difference. That isn't just for poor kids. Affluent kids who have workaholic or absentee parents face the same issues. When parents ask me what they can do for their kids, I simply tell them to give them your time, not things that can be bought.  Go places together, read stories, and just talk to them.

I know I do a good job. It has taken 10 years, but I have developed the efficiency to do my job at my job. I am no longer willing to sacrifice my children or my family. I may give a 9th hour here or there, but after 10 years I know there is nothing that can't wait until tomorrow.  My hope is that as I get my medical issues sorted out I will have more energy, but until then, this is all I have to give and I refuse to feel guilty about it.

I guess the moral of the story is, stop giving us more and more work to do. If you couldn't do it in a 7-8 hour day, than I shouldn't be expected to either. I feel that the #1 most important thing I do at work, is the direct instruction of my students. The attention I give directly to THEM! So policy makers, stop giving us more. Compile your own data. My job says to write plans, lead my students, assess and adjust instruction according to those assessments, and to facilitate LEARNING. Anything else you want me to do isn't in my job description. Teachers need to step up and say NO MORE! Stop letting people walk all over you and stop convincing yourself that you are doing it for the kids. Frankly, if you are a good teacher and you try to keep that pace forever, even later when you have a family of your own, you WILL burn out and won't be good to anybody? You need to have a life of your own. You need to keep the balance. Keep your sanity and stay connected to the world so that you can help your students connect to the world.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Yet another reason why I hate High Stakes Testing!!

Today was not a good day...

Never in my ten years of teaching have I ever seen anything like what I am seeing in my new classroom. When I received news of my new placement, everybody said, "You are so lucky. You're going to a good school. They have some of the best test scores in the district."

Well, I am here to tell you test scores don't mean much when the students in your class ARE COMPLETELY LACKING EVEN RUDIMENTARY BASIC SKILLS!!

The first two weeks of school usually involve doing basic assessments. We check their reading, we check their math, we get a feel for where they are and where we need to go. I was shocked by what I found in my current class of second graders. I've taught in the worst neighborhood for the last six years. Now I'm in a better neighborhood. I erroneously thought that my new students would have better basic skills. I can honestly say that I have NEVER had a class, and yes I mean the entire class, so far behind. I taught first grade last year, so I know what they SHOULD be capable of, and they aren't even close, and too often I am looking at a sea of confusion and blank stares.


I keep asking the question. Everyday when I become frustrated trying to teach a new skill, I ask how can it be that these children are so ignorant.

Well, I was told that in an effort to raise scores, the most highly effective teachers were moved to the testing grades. Weaker teachers were moved to the primary grades. In addition, there were a number of long term substitutes, non-certified teachers, also placed in the primary grades.

The Results: Increased test scores in the testing grades, 3, 4, and 8, and primary students with NO BASIC SKILLS. As an example, I only have 5 out of 17 students reading on grade level. 75% of the students could not name all of the months or seasons and most certainly not in order. Few students were able to identify coins let alone give the value of a group of coins. About 1/2 were able to count by 5's, few were able to count by 2's. Writing is very weak and they are making structure and other similar mistakes that one might expect in the beginning of first grade. Many of these skills are learned in K and mastered in grade 1. So because of the over emphasis on test scores as opposed to quality learning, an entire group of children lost their foundation. I see that the second and first grade is stacked this year with amazing teachers, so I think that mistake may be corrected, but I worry that it may be too late. We may need to retain a very large number of children in order to assure their foundational skills are complete, and I predict very low test scores next year if the majority of the students move onto third grade.  It also means that I will probably work harder than I ever have since entering the field of teaching.

The situation makes me angry. Someone along the way failed these kids. Wish me luck. We are all going to need it. To all of you, don't be fooled. Just because a school has "good scores" doesn't mean their kids actually know anything.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Whole New World

A new year, a new school, a new curriculum, a new attitude.

For the last 6 years, I have taught in a primary inclusion class in "the worst school" in a large urban district.  At the end of last year I was forced to transfer out of the building due to low enrollment. I spent the summer in anguish, crazed over the uncertainty of what would happen in the year to come.  I had so many questions: Where would I end up? What grade will I teach? Will the staff accept me? I also had conflicted feelings over leaving my students. I felt as though I was abandoning them. There aren't too many teachers willing to work in that kind of high stress environment and quality teachers are hard to come by.  I do have to say that my former co-workers have been nothing but supportive. They said, "you've been given a golden ticket to get out of here." We used to refer to our building as purgatory. I've referred to it as "Hotel California", you can check in, but you can never check out. I don't think anyone EVER has been able to successfully transfer out. So I learned to look at the situation to "get out of Dodge" and seek a place where "the grass may be greener". (Cliches can be fun)

At the close of the first week, what have  I learned?

There is a huge dichotomy between the more middle class neighborhood within the district, and the "inner city" or gang infested neighborhood where I previously taught that greatly angers me. The kids in the "bad neighborhood" are given a building that is falling down and rightfully should be shut down for OSHA violations (Leaking roof, flooded basement, mold on the walls, broken stairs, rats, you name it). In fact the building in so dark and gloomy it's hard NOT to feel depressed just walking inside. They are given the worst principal, someone who failed at their last two assignments, and fought the placement. They have teachers with very low morale because they feel they are fighting against the world and losing. They are micromanaged, and stripped of all autonomy. The neediest students, who come from the most harrowing of home lives, are given the worst support and weakest opportunities. It perpetuates a culture of failure.

So what makes the difference? I have discovered the secret ingredient. LEADERSHIP!

There is a school down the road from my old building in the same neighborhood servicing similar families, similar students with similar problems, with equally qualified teachers, and the same curriculum. They may not have passed according to the test scores, but they made considerable improvement. What was the difference? LEADERSHIP and a positive atmosphere.

At my new building I see again, similar teachers, and somewhat similar students (they are no more intelligent but they have the home support that my old students generally didn't have). Again what is the difference? LEADERSHIP, high expectations, and a very positive atmosphere!

My new principal runs a tight ship and expects absolute discipline from the students with high expectations for behavior. Teachers are NOT micromanaged and given the autonomy to do their jobs. Yes, they must meet all district mandates for curriculum, and they are now expected to follow the script of the new "canned" reading program, but they can relax in that nobody will be constantly looking over their shoulder. The adults are treated like adults and professionals capable to their work. I used a copy machine for the fist time in 6 years, and it was disconcerting how something so simple could make me so happy. For the first time in a long time I feel like I am being allowed to TEACH. Also, the leadership of the building has created a positive atmosphere where the staff are friendly, helpful, and supportive of each other. I in fact found their friendliness almost disconcerting the first few days. (In my old building there were a few teams that worked well, but in general, misery loved company)

Now when I say leadership, it doesn't necessarily mean only at the building level. Leadership includes the superintendent who assigned a poor leader to a needy building and allocates resources to less needy buildings. It includes a state Education commissioner making bad decisions and politicians, without any education training or understanding, making even worse decisions.

So here's my idea for improving our inner city schools. First, we have to stop treating kids from the "ghetto" like "bastard red-headed step children" as my grandmother would say. Our neediest students need the most support. They need a beautiful building where they can come everyday and feel joy and safe. They need discipline and high expectations. They need the BEST principals and great teachers. They need teachers who feel empowered to make a difference and who have the autonomy to do whatever it takes to make those kids successful as opposed to being micromanaged by someone else's idea of what is best for the kids (especially by those who haven't been in a classroom in a great many years). They need good early childhood education to make up for those deficiencies before they even enter school.  They may need extra tutoring and support. They don't need vouchers or charter schools, or crazy evaluation systems or merit pay for the staff. They just someone to honestly and truly care about what is best for them, all of them. They need good leaders!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Save Our Schools!! Prevent Poverty.

Dr. Ravitch has us fired up and she makes a lot of sense! Here is a link to her speech. One thing that she said that truly resonated with me was, "The problem is not our schools. The problem is poverty." The example is that all of our American schools that have 25% or less students categorized as impoverished, are as well if not better then EVERY other country ranked according to international test scores. There is a divide in this country that can no longer be denied between those with money and those without it. Money can't buy you happiness, but it does afford you choices. Parents with the means to do so can decide where to live and what schools they want for their children, or if they want to pay for private schooling. Parents without means have no choices. They must live where they can afford to live, and are usually relegated to the neighborhood school. THIS IS NOT AN ARGUMENT FOR CHARTER SCHOOLS. My argument is that the suburban school and the inner city school should have access to the same resources and be of a similar quality.

Poverty is a far bigger problem then the union or teacher quality as the corporate reformers would have you believe. I've taught in suburban schools and in inner city schools, and they are separated by a whole lot more than geography.

Life in a suburban school:
1. Parents who introduce themselves, who ask "how can I help", who make sure homework gets done, and who attend meetings and accept phone calls.
2.  Principals who spent more years in the classroom than as administrators, who support you professionally and could offer advice and constructive criticism when needed, who respected you as a professional.
3. Students who come to school ready to learn, who have the pre-requisite skills needed to perform in the classroom, who have the supplies needed to do their work, who show ALL school staff the respect they deserve, and who have been taught to value their own work.
4. Supplies are distributed as needed, teachers have access to photo copies, a laminator, and maybe even an Ellison machine, they are given new books and materials on a regular basis but are not pigeon wholed into using ONLY those materials given.
5. Instruction IS NOT DICTATED!! We are encouraged to meet the needs of our students as individuals using whatever means and materials necessary to get the job done. (Unfortunately as more and more suburban schools fail to reach NCLB benchmarks, this one is changing. More suburban teachers ARE being dictated to with enforced pacing Guides and scripted programs making curricula "teacher proof")

Life in an inner city school:
1. Parents come in 2 categories: The "poor excuse for a parent" who you've NEVER met, who never answers a call, letter or request for meeting, and who NEVER sign a report card.  Also, there are parents who are involved in drugs, gangs, or are incarcerated. They show up at the school high or drunk, they curse you out in front of their child and have TAUGHT their child to disrespect all authority and to hate everything about school. The parents who abuse, neglect and ignore their child or leave their child to raise themselves. Luckily these parents are a minority. Most parents DO want the best for the child; however, they don't have the money to buy basic supplies on minimum wage salaries, they don't have the time to make sure homework is done because they are working 2 or three jobs to keep a roof over their child's head and food in their belly. Perhaps they can't help with homework because they don't speak English or they never finished school themselves and don't understand the work. These are the parents who do the very best to make time for their children and will cry on your shoulder when you do meet with them.
2. Students who arrive in Kindergarten already 2 years behind their counterparts. That's right folks, the "Achievement gap" is measurable at the age of 3. These students and their teachers are constantly playing a game of "catch up" where even the top third grader may be 1-2 years behind same age counterparts. Students who are abused, neglected, homeless, unhealthy, under-developed, second language learners, who are raising their younger siblings, taking care of an array of adult responsibilities (Where is there time for homework and studying), who are disabled due to prenatal drug/alcoholic use, malnutrition, poor prenatal care, etc. Students who are behaviorally challenged (who wouldn't be with that kind of stress in their lives?). The ones who constantly start fights, abuse the other students, curse out teachers and other school staff, the ones who throw desks and other furniture, who bring weapons to school, who already have lost hope and have no value for education. (When my children's teachers complain, I invite them to spend a day in my school. Did I mention I teach grades 1-2?)
3. Principals who may have only spent 3-7 years in a classroom. Principals who are more concerned about what they look like on paper than the actual education of the children. Principals who REFUSE to discipline any child for poor behavior (bullying, leaving the classroom, refusal to do ANY work, disrespect, swearing, talking back, fighting, PHYSICAL ASSAULT ON STAFF!) Principals who REFUSE to leave their offices yet insist on micromanaging every aspect of the day.
4. Supplies include 30+ year-old science books, 10-year-old language arts programs (so old the company no longer makes consumable practice books for it), out-dated, out-modded math programs that do nothing to teach basic skills. No access to photo copies or laminators. No access to regular office supplies (Don't run out of anything because you will not be given more and you will not be given what you ask for)
5. INSTRUCTION: Scripted programs (do not deviate or you will be reprimanded and written up. Free-thinkers do get fired regardless of tenure if administrators hammer at it long enough and make them look as bad on paper as possible) Enforced pacing guides (NO SKIPPING OR JUMPING AROUND), everyone must be teaching the same lesson, on the same day, in the same way. NO supplementing the programs with "none approved materials". Only district approved materials are allowed. (We are forced to be sneaky and break "rules" so that we as classroom teachers can ensure that our children are actually learning. They say "Differentiate and use Response to Intervention techniques," but they force us to teach a one-size fits all curriculum and reprimand you if you deviate.

I see a lot of differences within my own district because even big cities have "nice" areas. A school uptown has brand new facilities, new materials, advanced technology and are given more money. Schools in the "ghetto" are left to molder and crumble (Our roof leaks, the basement floods, stairs are broken, mold is on our cafeteria walls), we are denied supplies, requests for help are denied. Sure under NCLB our students could transfer to one of the "nice" schools uptown or one of local charters, but they won't take our kids, and if they do, they kick them out before Thanksgiving.

So YES, poverty is a problem, but our attitude toward the impoverished is even worse. The lack of equity between the truly poor and others becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The "ghetto" kids do need more money, only because the just need more. They do need longer days filled with rich curriculum that can show them not only the basics of reading and math, but the world in which they live. They need good nutrition to keep their brains working. They need less stress in their young lives so that they CAN focus on their work. They need basic supplies and rich materials. They need access to technology. They need a fair chance to succeed and have equally bright futures, but most of all, they need HOPE, that a future is even possible. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Some thoughts on Pensions and Benefits

I'm sure by now just about everyone has heard about the "landmark pension and benefits bill passed with bi-partisan support in New Jersey." I've had a few days to mourn the loss, assess the situation, while maintaining some anger over the injustice of it all. As a special education teacher, I have been taught, "What is equal is not what is just." They say this to us to remind us to treat every student as an individual with their own set of expectations. Everyone lives within their own set of circumstances, and we need to work in, with and around them.

The new debate has opened as chasm between private and public. Here were some comments I recently read after an article on the how these new bills will effect the workers and economy of the state

Licorice2258 says:
Employees that are paid by the taxpayers are no different than employees of the private sector and should not be treated differently. No one seems to get upset when companies decide they want a bigger bottom line and decide to outsource jobs to other states or countries which leaves many unemployed. Or when revenue is down and raises are ignored for a couple years while the cost of benefits rise. While this is going on upper management is living like there isn't a problem at all.
Sorry to have sympathy for employees of the state while they are crying like babies who need a diaper change. You all are probably the only people who can afford to live in this state along side our politicians. And the ones who live out of state - you are ripping us off since you don't spend your money here.

 Some responses were excellent:

NJDMS says:"Employees that are paid by the taxpayers are no different than employees of the private sector and should not be treated differently."
You are 100% right! And that is public sector employees' opinion as well.
You also say that no one seems to get upset when private sector "revenue is down and raises are ignored for a couple years while the cost of benefits rise."
The key word there is that raises are ignored for a COUPLE of years while the cost of benefits rise. That is also public employees' point as well. Nobody has written any laws that say bankers' will no longer get raises ever again just because times are currently tough. Laws have been written now that will restrict raises for public employees FOREVER. Public employees will now watch the cost of their pension and health benefits rise permanently, while their raises are now permanently capped in the ballpark of 2%....which is lower than cost of living increase.
The point is, a lot of teachers and public workers in general wouldn't mind making short term sacrifices like what private sector workers make. Perhaps Christie could have required all teachers to take a pay freeze in their next 3-year contract (not permanently), but then drop or re-evaluate the cuts for the following 3-year contract based on the economy at that time. Or maybe if there was an exit clause, such as raises will increase when stocks rise a certain amount or unemployment drops a certain amount, or make SOME KIND of benchmark that will end these cuts at SOME POINT. But no. These changes were made to be permanent. At least if you're a might not get a raise for a few years because times are tough. But, guess what. When the company starts doing well again, raises and perks come back. That is now NOT the case with teachers and other public workers. There is no way out and up for them now....regardless of what happens with the economy.

So, if you're saying that, "Employees that are paid by the taxpayers are no different than employees of the private sector and should not be treated differently," then let's do it! Let's write some laws that say private sector workers will now permanently watch their take home pay get lower lower and lower, because we're going to write laws that restrict their raises to very small % increases, while we also increase their health care payments and retirement fund payments to a much larger %. And while we're at it, they can no longer have 401Ks matched by their employers. They will have pensions, and the government can either choose to contribute to it, choose not to contribute to it, or simply gamble their retirement money away as they please. When their raises get smaller and smaller, permanently NOT accounting for the increases in cost of living, while the money that is taken from their pay checks gets bigger and bigger, that's when it will be fair. So, let's do it! Let's write these laws so that private and public workers won't be treated differently, just as you have suggested! I'm all for it!

Another response I liked was by RememberHistory:

OK..let's counterpoint, one by one...
1. Public employees have a pension because they bargained for one; private sector employees don't because they allowed management take it away. Twenty years ago, most corporations did indeed offer a pension; in fact many still do, a dirty little secret that doesn't seem to get publicized much. Now, here's the problem: let's say the Governor wants to end pensions forever and instead set up 401K's like private firms. Unfortunately, that can't be done because he, like his predecessors, refused to make the necessary and contractually obligated payments that would have kept it healthy and fully funded. Not only that, past Governors TOOK money out of it (imagine your employer taking money out of your 401K without asking), making the situation worse.
2. I agree with your assessment - 1.5 is not enough; the current legislation corrects that and brings the contribution more into line over a four year period. Why so long? Because the private sector had a ten year phase in period where contributions began at 5% and steadily grew to the current level, all done while the economy was a bit more robust.
3. Public sector employees can indeed get healthcare coverage AFTER 25 years of service...again, that was contractually bargained for, in some cases years ago, in lieu of salary increases. The private sector used to offer the same thing; my father received health benefits from his employer after retiring until the were cancelled with little or no notice. One other note: public employees receive full health benefits after 25 years of service until they are eligible for Medicare...then they go on that.
4. Your statement is correct; public employee salaries and benefits are indeed derived from taxes. Does this mean they and the work they perform are any less important or meaningful? Does that mean they should automatically make less because the source of revenue is tax based? Remember, in the alleged "real world" out there, compensation is dictated by supply and demand...what kind of employees do you hope to attract with a lower, less attractive salary? The best? The brightest? Or merely the adequate? Does your firm deliberately hire lesser qualified personnel for positions merely to save dollars, or do they attempt to meet market demands based on experience, qualifications, and education. How do they retain good people and keep them from leaving? Again, market forces at work. Do you honestly think good teachers are going to stay in the educational field watching their real compensation diminish year after year? Would you?
5. You make an excellent point about the 99% who aren't Wall Street why not acknowledge that much of the rhetoric being thrown around here focuses on the small minority of boat checks, double dippers, and 100K police officers. Do you really believe that represents the VAST majority of public sector workers? If so, then I think you're all Wall Street bankers. 

I think these comments show the kinds of statements being made on both sides. Here's my two cents. If you want to treat me like a private sector worker, then pay me like a private sector worker. Professionals in the private sector with equivalent education and experience are making considerably more a year than their public sector counterparts, especially teachers. See here for details.

"U.S. census data shows that annual pay for teachers has fallen drastically over the past 60 years when compared to the annual pay of other workers with college degrees. According to a recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average national starting salary for a teacher is around $30,377. But the study showed that other college graduates entering professions that require similar training and responsibilities start at much higher salaries. For example, public accountants start at $44,668; computer programmers start at an average of $43,635; and registered nurses start at about $45,570. The average earnings of workers with at least four years of college are now more than 50% higher than the average earnings of a teacher. And in addition to starting salaries being lower, inflation has grown faster than the increases in teachers’ salaries each year. Over the past year, inflation increased 3.1%, while teachers’ salaries increased by only 2.3%."  

Here's a little anecdote for you, and it is 100% true. One of my cousin's and I graduated the same year. I with my masters in education, her with a BA in Marketing. I started at $43,500 a year. She started at $52, 000 a year. After working in my field for 9 years and earning an additional certificate, I now make $51,000 a year and she, after earning her MBA last year, is making $85,000, with full family benefits a matched 401K, and 3 weeks vacation. (so the benefits are matched fairly well). She has had ups and downs in her career. She's been laid off by big business twice in her career. My job has been more stable and I have some security with tenure. 

I've never begrudged her her success. I guess society just values marketing and people who MAKE money more than someone like myself. Though like Taylor Mali  says, I know I make a difference. Like so many teachers I say to myself, "I have the summer 'off' and I have excellent benefits. The top of the pay scale is somewhere out there off in the distance. I may not have it now, but I have a future, so it all comes out in the wash. I am content with my lot in life. 'It's not a lot, but it's my life'".

First let me explain a little something about the top of the pay scale. You don't get there until after 15-20 years of service. You also don't get that "golden fleece" pension with post-retirement benefits until after 25 years (30 under the new law) and you basically can't collect at all until after 10 years, and then it's only a small % of your last 3 year's salary with NO BENEFITS. (Unlike those in "Public service", those pesky politicians, who get full pension AND benefits after 1 TERM!!!) My kids will be in college by then. Why is it so far away? It's set up like that on purpose. " Nearly 50% of all new teachers leave the profession within five years." Therefore, they keep the bottom of the pay scale low, and those who hang in there and become the best of the best, will eventually be rewarded. Why pay somebody a high wage if they aren't going to stick it out and stay? Teachers have never been motivated by money, and those who are don't stick around long. (Which is why merit pay will never work, but that's a whole other conversation.)

Here is where I stand. Pension deductions are currently $147 per pay check for a total of about $3000 a year. Now, will be over $3800 a year or $200 per check ($50 not a big deal really). Now benefits were just over $800 a year. Now they are estimated at $3200 a year or $160 per pay check after full phase in. Total loss is $210 per check or $420 per month. It's a 8.2% annual pay cut. Can you afford that? Here's the problem. What is 8.2% for me can be over  10% for someone on the lower end of the pay scale because they are being asked to pay the same amount into their benefits. $3200 for someone making $40,000 is 8% just for benefits and another 2% for pension, so their pay cut will actually be about 10%. So the poor get more poor.  

Now here's the problem, our pay increases are capped at 2% a year (Not that I've ever gotten more than that in 9 years of service or while folks I know were getting 6% raises in the good times. "I'm not bitter," the bitter woman said) Yes people are suffering. Yes times are hard for everybody. No, I do not have a problem paying a little more. Times will get better, but while other industries will change or improve so that one day people can once again receive their 6% raises, my hopes and dreams (home ownership, sending my kids to college so they don't have $75,000 in loans to pay back) have been legislated away. There is no more hope at the end of the tunnel where the top of the pay scale looms in the distance. Inflation goes up an average of 3% a year. My pay will be cut the next four years at 6% (I'll still get my 2% raises), I will stand behind the 8 ball forever it seems. If the politicians have a say, my retirement will be gone too. Like so many other of my colleagues, as soon as I am no longer able to support my family, around the time we are in danger of loosing our rented home, I will leave the teaching profession.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Oh the agony...of Testing

I am really beginning to think that these standardized are a form of child abuse. If anybody were to see what my students and myself had to endure the last two days, they would beg for an end to these ridiculous tests. I wish I had video tape of what occurred as I worry my descriptions will not do justice to what transpired.

I am the main special education teacher for the first grade in my building; therefore, it is my responsibility to be examiner and deliver the test with the allowed modifications for all of the classified children in the grade level. This year, there were five such classified students.  Their IEP's say I tested two students with OHI (other health impaired or ADD/ADHD) and two who are SLD (Specific learning disabled/dyslexic) In reality I had one child who is autistic, one who is cognitively impaired with the functionality of a four-year-old, a student who is BD (behaviorally disturbed) with ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), 1 that is SLD and 1 that is OHI. (The reason for the discrepancy is a factor of our school psychologist being so desperate to get kids in need on the IEP track that they will put any classification on the IEP just to pacify the parents so the child can begin receiving services that would be denied otherwise. Too many parents are in denial and won't sign an IEP that says "Cognitively impaired", "Autistic" or "Behaviorally Disturbed", nor will they seek independent evaluations)

So here we are, closed in a vacant classroom with large round tables together with the help of a teacher assistant, very experienced with special needs children and who has the patience of a saint, as proctor.

Keep in mind that this is a norm-referenced, standardized test complete with little bubbles. Luckily the bubbles are under or next to the answers instead of on an old-fashioned scan-tron answer sheet. These tests are being completed by students with fine-motor problems (Any answer outside the bubble will be marked wrong.)

Accommodation/Modifications allowed by law: Student tested in small group in a separate room with a known examiner and given preferential seating. Students will be given extra time, and can have directions read aloud, repeated and paraphrased. Questions may be read aloud. NOT READING PASSAGES OR ANSWER SELECTIONS MAY BE READ ALOUD. NO EXTRA HELP MAY BE GIVEN. NO MANIPULATIVES, OR VISUAL AIDES CAN BE USED.

Day 1: One child is out today because he was suspended after telling another student he would shoot them. Two students are able to work mostly independently. The other two are significantly below grade level and are accustomed to having a higher degree of accommodation/modification. Child #1 came into school screaming and crying, and refused to enter the classroom. Then he refused to enter the testing room. It took three adults, without getting physical, to coax him into the room. After bribing him with pretzels, he sat and willingly took the first half of the test, mostly standing because he doesn't have the wherewithal to sit for extended periods of time.

Child #2 needs to be constantly re-focused. "Please select an answer for #1." Look at #2. Not at me. Look at #2. Listen to the question. Fill in your bubble. Fill in your bubble please. Did you fill in your bubble yet? Are you listening? Look at #3. Look here. Eyes here on #3. Listen to the question. Fill in your answer." This went on for every question of the test. For some questions it would take him five-seven minutes to select an answer. The other students, especially those who have trouble sitting for too long, started getting jittery.  They began turning around in their chairs, standing up,  and talking to each other. They now need to be redirected and re-focused. "Everyone, eyes on your own papers. Please sit nicely. Stop playing with that. Sit nice. OK we're moving on now. Show me you're ready. Everyone, put your finger on the next question."

Oh no, now I have to read a story out loud, I really hope they are listening. (They weren't listening. I really wish I was allowed to read it twice.) Now the student who can't sit is up, running around the room, and playing hide-and-seek. (I did say he had the approximate mental age of four.) It's a game now. He runs over, selects an answer, runs back to hide. We just just go with it. Anything to get this test over with. Now we go into cheerleader mode to keep the others engaged. We're almost at the finish line. OH NO! Roadblock. They have to answer a question in writing. Child #1 and child #2 have VERY weak fine-motor skills. In fact child #1 can't write his own name properly (recently classified). Child #2 takes 20 minutes to write his one sentence answer.

Loosing children #3 and #4 again. I go into high energy mode. "OK guys, let's do this. Are you ready? I said Are you READY!!" After every question I run around the room and give each student a high five and read the questions in my best game-show host voice. Even Child #2 who was taking 5 minutes per question gets into it and starts going faster and staying focused. It's the last section. Here we go, and.... done. Thank you God it's over. Children escorted back to their rooms, and test booklets handed in to test coordinator.

Day #2: Child #5 returns from his suspension. He's a ball of emotions. He enters the classroom quietly and goes to hide in the corner behind my desk. I great him enthusiastically. "Hey buddy. How are you? We missed you yesterday." He takes off his coat, sits at his desk, hides behind his book bag, and starts to cry. I do my best to encourage and console him, but this does not bode well for what is already a difficult testing situation. I tell him that he will be with me all day and away from anybody who has bothered him. He willingly goes with us to the testing room, is allowed to choose his own seat, but refused to take off his heavy coat. Fine, I go get the test booklets from testing coordinator. When I re-enter the room I get three complaints that he was calling people names. Oh, boy. He gets angry and tries to leave the room. Everybody else gets settled and is ready for the test. We get him settled too. He starts by himself and tries to do the parts he missed yesterday. Illegal and the questions are in the teacher manual, so he can't go back. He gets angrier when reprimanded and told to stop. We do the first half of the test no problems. Everyone is doing well, even children #1 and #2. Child #5 gets to a question he doesn't understand. He throws his pencil and yells, "I'm not taking this stupid test. I want to go back to my room. I don't want to be here with them." and he tries to leave the room. Can't allow that to happen. If he leaves we have to fill out an irregularity report, void his test, and it could have ramifications for the other students. Hall monitor is asked to get a security guard and the testing coordinator while we block the door, never touching the child, just preventing him from leaving. We are able to calm him down, and he sits. He enjoys a pretzel. He does three more questions, and starts another tantrum trying to run out of the room again. We tell him we will call his mother. He starts screaming, crying, knocking his chair over. Test is halted, booklets are collected until he can be calmed by school guidance counselor. He puts his head down crying quietly for 15 minutes. Then testing resumes.

Everyone is doing well. Proctor stays with Child #1 and keeps him by his seat doing his best. I keep by Child #2 in the center of the room  where I can see everyone, keeping him on task and focused. Child #5 is even on task, and #3 and #4 aren't giving me any problems. They just need the occasional encouragement or high five. Oh NO, it's the writing section. Child #1 writes some letters on the lines, but child #2 takes 25 minutes to answer his question. I'm really proud of him because he used the words from the story and wrote a wonderful sentence. (The other students are reading quietly or building with math linking cubes after their booklets are collected waiting for him to finish.)

One more section to go. Very difficult to get everyone back on task after a nearly half hour break. High energy time. Running around giving high fives after every question, and... we're done. (Can I go home now?)

In the end, this test will tell me very little about these students. It will tell me that they are below grade level and have reading weaknesses. Now tell me something I don't already know. Why must these students and their teacher be tortured for incomplete, often inaccurate, data that I can get from other assessments performed in the classroom in a relaxed environment giving me results I can actually use and which can help inform future instruction? Oh that's right. Teachers need to be accountable. I can't be trusted to do my job effectively as the trained professional that I am, so we all must suffer.

Tomorrow is math, child #5's weakest subject. I wonder how that will go.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Mommy, Why do People Hate Teachers?

What do you say when your child comes home from school and says, "Mommy, why do people hate teachers?"

Lately I have been trying to be a voice for my profession. At the same time, I have been trying to be an advocate for both my students and my own children. I know that every decision that effects me, effects them. As a person, I have felt the attacks on teachers and our union very personally. I have gotten into debates and arguments with both friends and family always finding myself in a defensive position. Even when emotions ran high, I always conducted myself with decorum and respect. In a few instances I have had to sever ties with people, and that hurts most of all. My argument is, "You cannot insult my profession and in the same breath say, 'but not you. I wasn't talking about you.'" If you insult my profession, you are insulting me personally, because as a teacher, my profession is a main identifier of who I am at my core. Needless to say, while these arguments have raged on, I have managed to keep them out of my home...until now.

When I picked up my first grader from school today, at five o'clock because I work late on Fridays, he told me a gut-wrenching tale of what happened today. Here is our conversation:

"Mom, you won't believe what happened today. [Jimmy] got in trouble because he was running around the room, and when [the teacher] told him to sit down, he said, 'My dad says I don't have to listen to you. He said teachers are stupid, lazy, and greedy, and I don't have to listen to you.'" (from the mouths of babes)

"What did your teacher say?" (His school's teacher of the year, and someone I greatly respect.)

"She said, 'It's very sad that your father thinks that.' He got sent to the office. Mom, why did he say that? Why do people hate teachers?"

(Now what? How do I respond? How do you explain anger and hate to a child?)

"Well, I don't think people really hate teachers. You know how sometimes when you don't feel good, or if your in a cranky mood, you may pick a fight with your brother?"

"I guess."

"How about when Mommy has a rough day, and I end up yelling at you guys even when I don't really mean to."

"Ok." (He's smarter than your average bear.)

"Well people are really upset right now. There are a lot of people who lost their jobs, or maybe even lost their homes, and they're angry. They don't really know who to blame, or whose fault it is that they are angry, and others are telling them it's the teachers' fault."

"But how is it your fault that they don't have a job or a house?"

"Well, Honey, it's really not my fault. There are a lot of people who made some bad decisions that hurt everyone, but they still don't know who to blame or how to make everything right again."

"But that's not fair. If it's not your fault, then they shouldn't blame you." (Told you he was smart)

"No it's not fair, but some people think it's not fair that teachers still have their jobs and that they still have insurance so they can see the doctor when they don't have those things. They don't seem to understand that teachers and others like the police officers and fire-fighters, give up a lot so that they can have insurance to see the doctor. A lot of the people who are angry at teachers don't have insurance, or they have to pay a lot of money for it, and it's hard for them to see doctors and dentists."

"Why don't they have insurance?" (Oh boy, this is getting complicated)

"Well, if they work for a store like Daddy's, their boss may not be able to afford to give them insurance, or it's too expensive for them to accept. If they work for a big company, like your aunt's, then their boss may make them pay too much money for it. Insurance can be very expensive, and not everybody can afford it. I guess in a way they are jealous of what we have and don't think it's fair."

"Well that's stupid.  Why don't they just make it so everyone can the insurance? You always make [us] share when we fight over something."

"Hey, you know how I feel about that word."

"I didn't call a person stupid Mom." (Well he's got me there. That's what I get for raising a logical child)

"That would be great baby. You are absolutely right. They should make it so everybody can have good insurance.  Unfortunately as the cost goes up, less people can afford it.   A lot of people don't think it's fair, and they want us to pay more or lose it all together. They think that because Mommy works for the state, that I don't deserve what I am paid or the insurance.  You see, people like Mommy and Daddy have to pay taxes. Those taxes pay for schools, the police, the fire fighters, they pay for roads, and parks, and all kinds of things. Unfortunately schools are a big part of the taxes they pay and they have been told that it's the teachers' and schools' fault that their taxes are so high."

"But you and Daddy pay taxes too. Are your taxes too high?"

"Oh I don't know. I do understand that by paying them, you get to go to a great school. That's good enough for me."

"Well it's a really dumb reason to hate someone.  Don't you tell them it's not fair?'

 "We try too, but nobody wants to listen.  What happens when you guys don't listen to Mommy?" (he looks sheepish)

"If no one listens the first time, we say it again, and again and again and each time we say it a little louder. Then we end up yelling hoping someone will hear us. That's kinda what's happening now.  Everyone's yelling and getting more angry, and nobody is listening."

"Well I don't hate my teacher."

"That's good to know."

"Yeah, she always does fun stuff with us. I know you're a good teacher too. You're always doing fun stuff with your class and buying them prizes." (This is where I got a little misty.)

"Love you Mom."

"Love you too, Baby."

Like most good parents every decision I make is based on how it will effect my children. Now I see the decisions and actions of others effecting my family. No, it's not "just politics." These are people's lives. This is my life.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Decision to Become a Teacher

I have been asking myself this a lot lately, why did I become a teacher, and more importantly, why do I stay? My story starts in the third grade. I went to three different schools that year. My family was in turmoil, but school, any school, was a constant. I was always the quiet kid who liked to play "school" teaching my stuffed animals my spelling words, or giving my cousin "homework", but the decision to BE a teacher was made in the third grade. This did not sit well with my father, who to this day thinks I should have been an architect. I thought being in school was great. I loved learning new things and sharing it with others.

It was the kind of off the cuff decision kids make like "I want to be a police man." You actually don't hear too many kids walking around saying, "I want to be a banker." They may say "millionaire"or "rock star", but in the classrooms where I've worked teachers, police officers and firefighters are always the favored professions among kids. I had wonderful teachers throughout my school career; Ms. Winkleman who taught me to read, Ms. Heartman who expected more of me, Ms. Farrel who treated me like a person and asked about my family, Ms. Schliefer who treated me like a friend and mentored me, and they were all from different schools, different districts and vastly different communities. For me the idea of being a teacher became an actual career goal in the 8th grade.  We have a saying in the teaching profession that "all it takes is one person who cares to save a child." Kathy saved me. My career is an homage to Ms. Kathleen Donovan, 7th-8th grade Language Arts, Private Nicholas Minue Elementary School Carteret, NJ. All of us have our cute stickers and bumper stickers that say 2 teach is to 2 touch lives 4 ever, and she touched mine.

I was a very awkward child. I was too tall, I had really bad acne topped off with a REALLY bad haircut, hand-me down clothes and a decent amount of social awkwardness. I may have as well walked around with a target on my chest for bullies far and near. I was abused mercilessly by older kids at my school, so much so where my mother had to contact administration and have an entire group of children suspended. It was a happy day when my class, who were more inclined to ignore me than abuse me, became the tough 7th and 8th graders.

It was also around this time that the ugly duckling began to become the swan. The acne cleared up, I started seeing my own beautician and buying my own clothes thanks to babysitting money, but I couldn't see it in the mirror. Kathy reached out. She made me stop and see how wonderful I am and how beautiful I had become as well as the beauty of the written word.  She also saw me as intelligent and thought my writing was quite good. I found strength in my pen and in her encouragement. She found organizations who published student work and had me write a collection of short stories. When I won awards for high achievement in writing from the state, she made it a point to recognize the accomplishment in a way that earned me the respect of my classmates for the first time. All of a sudden everybody wanted to be my partner and have me edit their work. For the first time in my life I felt pride in myself, my abilities and my accomplishments. I was a straight A student from the third grade on, but there was never any pride in it, it was just how things were. School was easy for me, the learning part anyway. She inspired me to want to write as a profession, something I had never even considered, but even more she inspired me teach others how to write. As I helped edit my classmates' work I realized, "Hey, I'm pretty good at teaching people this stuff." I asked her 100 questions about where she went to school, why did she become a teacher, what do I need study, what should I do to become a teacher like you? I made the decision that if I can impact just one student the way she impacted me, my career will have been worth it.

We'll talk about the reality of that decision later. For now I just want to take a minute to thank Ms. Donovan, and all of the other teachers who helped me become the person I am along the way.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Women's Health Issues Under Attack!

Today, as I sit here with my sick child by my side sleeping peacefully, I wonder what kind of world he will inherit as an adult.  I am mad! I am mad not as a mother or a teacher, but as a WOMAN! Why aren't more of you mad? The new federal budget has seriously cut funding to Planned Parenthood and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). This after trying to change the definition of rape so that they could cut funding to abortions, and even have tried to end a woman's ability to get an abortion even when her life is in danger.

The GOP, and other supporters of this budget and legislation, are attacking women's rights from an ideology stand point, not a fiscal or legal one.  It is as if religious law is taking over our land originally founded on the idea of the separation of church and state. This is an effort to take a woman's right to choose, but it will hurt society overall in so many ways. Planned Parenthood, which is operating at a profit so it can't possible be a drain on the federal budget, provides so much more to America's women than a means to ending unwanted pregnancies. They provide birth control to those who never want to be faced with having to make the decision between giving birth and having an abortion. Their goal is to PREVENT unwanted pregnancies.  In fact you can walk in and they will just hand you more condoms than you can ever possibly need. They also provide primary health care to women. There is a huge segment of the population who are STILL without health care.  They charge on a sliding scale so any woman can be serviced and cared for, screened for cancer and treated for maladies. They educate young women on how to care for their bodies, educate them as to how their bodies work, and how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. They provide testing for sexually transmitted diseases. They even provide prenatal care to women who would have none otherwise. WIC in turn makes it possible for women who do have babies, provide proper nutrition and health care for them.

Now that I am a mother, I know that if faced with the decision, I could never personally choose abortion, but I would NEVER deny someone else that choice.  I know many who have and have had to live with the demons of their decision. All of the what ifs and could have beens, the general regret, but they knew it was the right decision at the time for them. I know others who gave their babies up in adoption and have had to live with exactly the same regrets.  Still others kept their babies. Some ended up in abusive relationships with men they never loved in the first place subjecting their children to a life surrounded by hate and regret. Then there are the brave single mothers who somehow do it all. Some struggle while others do a phenomenal job. Wouldn't it just be easier to avoid the situation all together through effective education and planning?

Planned Parenthood provided me with medical care and birth control as a struggling uninsured, college student. See I was already married by then, so by whatever moral or religious law you follow I was "allowed" to have sex. Planned Parenthood made it possible for me to finish school, get my degree and start me career and PLAN my family. Growing up fairly poor made my husband and I want "to do things right" and make sure we could provide the best life possible for our children. "Family planning"was a big factor in that. Now that we feel our family is complete, "family planning" still plays a major factor in our lives. More than that, they cared for me and made it possible for me to be taken care of medically when I found a breast lump at the age of 21. I will always be eternally grateful to the organization.

Here is the harsh reality. Cutting these programs may lead to more abortions, not less. Let's face it, teenagers have been having premarital sex since the dawn of time, and I seriously doubt that the young adults who have put off marriage and serious relationships until they are entrenched in their careers, will lead celibate lives. Without access to birth control and sexual education, that many parents feel reluctant to give their children, there will be a rise in unwanted pregnancies. More babies having babies with NO means to care for them and without the much needed prenatal care to ensure the health of the babies at birth and in their infancy. There will be more children born with physical and mental disabilities, the biggest expenses to school budgets, do to improper prenatal and infant care. What about the children themselves? Many times mothers, some meaning to and most who don't, push their regret onto their children letting them know they weren't planned and never wanted. This type of psychological abuse can be as damaging as a fist or a belt.  (This is NOT a generalization, but it does happen.) Moreover, as a teacher we see these children everyday in our classroom. It is proven fact the biggest factor in the success of children is their family life and socioeconomic level. More poor children being born to poor mothers  who cannot or will provide the best foundation for their children before coming to school. As a society, we will see these children as a drain on tax dollars and resources, but my concern is the children themselves. What hope will they have in the world? Add that to what will surely lead to a rise in sexually transmitted diseases, and what hope do we have as a society?

My proposal is for women to come together. Unite against these travesties against our gender and protect our nation's future starting with a national call to all representatives. Here is the number to the switchboard 877-762-8762. Ask for you representatives by name or they can connect you by zip code. Call today! Call Now!  I just did.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Who am I? Why am I doing this?

Why am I writing this Blog?

I am a teacher. I am also a parent of two small children entering the school system. My eldest is in first grade. My youngest is Preschool. The issues in today's world regarding education effect me both as a professional and as a parent. I must make my voice heard both for the sake of my students and the sake of the my own. My purpose is to be a voice of both teachers and parents. We need more voices because ours are being silenced in the debate. I hope to start an honest discourse sharing information and ideas, and maybe starting a few lively debates. I also, want to give the public a glimpse into the life of an ordinary everyday teacher. Perhaps some will realize teachers don't really have it all that easy, and the grass is rarely greener.

Who am I?

I am the daughter of a single, working-class mother and an absentee, alcoholic father. We didn't have much, but we never went without. I grew up in Middlesex county, New Jersey in some of the semi-urban areas. I say I am from the county because we moved quite a bit. For some strange reason people find it amazing, even people in my own family, that I was able to make something of myself. I have a successful marriage, two AMAZING children, and I've had my masters degree for the last 10 years, thanks to some very hard work and $50,000 in student loans. My loan officer cringed when I told him what field I was going into he said, "You'll never earn it back." I honestly didn't believe him. Alas, he was right.

At the age of 17, I started my career as a teacher's assistant in one of the more posh daycare center chains. Average tuition was $1,000 per month, per child. Now it's $1,200. I figured if I wanted to be a teacher, no better way to go about it than to teach, work with children, get in on the ground floor. I made minimum wage for five years at this school. I can honestly say that most of what I know about children, planning, and classroom management, I learned at that preschool. If you manage 12 toddlers, you can mange ANYBODY. I've always received rave reviews, even from supervisors who didn't like all that much, for my classroom management hanks to those little tikes.

I completed an accelerated program and earned my BA in History with a concentration on American History, and a Masters degree in early childhood/elementary education in five years. The program I attended, the only program I even applied to, required a BA in a content area versus other universities that consider education to be your content area. It also required 5 semesters of field work versus other universities that only require 2. I completed my student-teaching internship at a suburban school in a real "melting pot" community. It was a title 1 school including a number of "economically challenged" students, poor kids, and a number of well-to-do children. There were children from every ethnic background. I loved the diversity of my classes. I taught there for two more years. (Why I am no longer there is another long story for another time.)

Currently, I teach in a primary school in one of the biggest urban districts in New Jersey. (Another long story about how I came to be here). 98% of the students in our building qualify for free lunch and breakfast. Only 2% of our student population is Caucasian while the other 98% are predominantly African-American, some Hispanic, or a combination of both. We have a very large special education population, and a small English Language Learner population. Most of our students who qualify as ELL attend an in-district bi-lingual school. Very different environment from where I was trained and started my career, and full of very different experiences. I'll be sharing some of those experiences here.

So now that you know who I am, I hope you will follow me and read along. It should be an interesting journey for all of us.