Monthly Archives: April 2016

Teaching in the Off Hours

I recently got a text message from my nephew: “Thanks so much for believing in me because I never would have applied if you didn’t tell me I could.”

After a high school career of a 4.0 GPA with numerous AP courses, he attended the local community college, where he also had a 4.0 GPA. As of last summer, he had no plans further than transfer to the local mediocre mid-level state uni, maybe take a year off and work with his dad.

I was unimpressed with these plans, just as I’d been unimpressed with his twin sister’s plans. Said twin had an identical high school and junior college resume, and a stated objective of getting an AA in nursing and then maybe going to an online university in a couple years to get a BA. I threw a small fit with my sister, who balanced my expert input with her husband’s reluctance to pay more than a pittance for college. My sister and husband are wealthy evangelicals, with a high school diploma and trade school AA between them who aren’t so much anti-college as suspicious that the expense is worth it. I don’t disagree these days, but feel that well-heeled parents of high-achieving, hardworking kids who can afford the fees at a top tier public university should buckle the hell down and pony up.

So I educated my sister and niece on the opportunity cost of putting off a nursing BA. Last fall, my niece transferred to a 4-year school, accepted into its well-regarded nursing program. I took my nephew on a field trip to the local mid-tier of the elite university system, including a stop by the transfer admissions office, where he learned he was a near shoo-in for the amazing place of learning he was standing in, and probably eligible for a top tier. His text to me was an announcement he’d been accepted to one of the best public universities in the country.

The cool thing about this story, to me, is that I was able to do my teacher thang for family. Usually, I only get to help students.

Ysenia had a terrible first two years of school only to make one of those miracle turnarounds. Late in May of her senior year, she came to me for advice. She wasn’t a star student, just a good hard worker who’d done really well in the vocational program our school interacted with. Should she take out a loan to go to a for-profit trade school and get out quickly, to start working as a dental technician? Or should she go on a waiting list and wait a year or more for a much cheaper community college? Her family was poor (and, for the most part, here illegally); she wanted to get a salary and help out as soon as possible.

I didn’t know the answer, but spent time researching options and getting her in touch with the right people to advise her. She still hadn’t made up her mind by the time she graduated, and I left the school that year. I still wonder about her, and what the right decision would have been, in light of the Corinthian College meltdown. But what I do know, at least, is that one teen living in poverty who didn’t make the decision unthinkingly, unaware of the downsides, unaided.

Just last week, I met with Javier, who been a top student in both my algebra two and trig classes, at the request of his special ed case manager and his in-school aide, Mr Patel, because they were worried Javier was ignoring reality. Mr. Patel, a retired immigrant PhD, had been caring for Javier’s physical and academic needs since the eighth grade, when Javier’s muscular dystrophy put him in a wheelchair. Javier, who also has a 4.0 GPA and several AP courses to his credit, was making college plans without giving any thought to the physical care he’d need, or arranging for it.

I asked Javier who would take care of him while he was in college. How he would get to college. What support programs, if any, the colleges he was considering had to offer. The answers were all I don’t know, yeah, I need to look into that, and I don’t know. Was it possible, I asked, if he was avoiding the nitty gritty administrative details of his college life. He allowed it wasn’t just possible, but definite.

Like many kids with a severe physical disability, Javier faces life with a preternatural optimism that cranky pessimists like me find somewhat infuriating. This conversation had dimmed his usually cheery face. I felt so frickin’ mean.

But I told him that US law means he gets guaranteed services in high school that are a different matter once he graduates. (Ironically, he’d get the services for longer if he were cognitively incapable of high school level work.)

I gave him specific objectives: file an application for state services, contact the state rehabilitation services for an assessment, get a list of services offered by the local community college and his top state pick. I told him these objectives outweighed his high school homework, which he agreed was getting more focus than it needed out of a desire to avoid thinking about his future.

I heard from both his case manager and Mr. Patel; Javier is making calls, filling out forms, and getting his support in order.

I’m now running a school club that offers free 30 minute test prep after school two days a week, but for years, students have come by after school for practice sessions. I’ve coached kids, read application essays, advised on college selection, provided perspective on parent priorities (alliteration!), and basically operate my own small, free, consulting service to many students of all races and ethnicities who couldn’t otherwise afford it–even after graduation. There are kids in top colleges today who once never had a thought of attending, because I had the opportunity to work with them. There are kids with scholarships and grants thanks to respectable SAT scores achieved working off-the-clock, in my classroom, coming in weekly on their own time and mine. There are also kids who I’ve helped convince their parents that community college is their best plan, and saved themselves considerable debt, kids doing better in high school because I’ve convinced them they have a future, kids who will be going to trades with a high school diploma because I’ve convinced them that they can put in the time and make it pay off. There are kids in the military who entered as officers with more prospects and kids who took the time to work at math to get a better ASVAB score and more career options.

High school teachers all have gigabytes of memory archives of similar stories. This isn’t a Huggy Happy Teacher Tales Edition, though. I actually have a point, one related to my time in the tech halls of corporate America.

The best, happiest time in my tech life was my five years at a major financial company, a time that made an appearance in this autobiographical essay of a few years back, specifically this bit. I loved that job. I ran a whole bunch of applications for every aspect of change, problems, and service that IT (information technology) supported. None of my apps were business critical or even known to business, making my job laughably uninimportant.

I tried, my first year or so, to get into a more glamorous line of work supporting the line of business systems, either operations or apps, and came close a couple times. But ultimately, I stayed and offered apps that provided essential, timely data to enabled business critical staff to support equally important systems or justify their budget, or an increase in budget. Over time, I became a known quantity–almost, dare I say, respected. While at first my job was the butt of good-humored jokes (which I took in kind), I ultimately became a bit of an institution. When a department needed to improve their services, they’d always send a friendly naysayer who’d come in dramatically waving his arms (“I can’t believe I’m doing this”) and ask if I could build or modify an app.

For the last two years, I ran my own little empire. I took on my own projects, had my own little service request form. I’d build new reports, add fields to collect new data. I was part of the corporate ecosystem. Project managers pulled me into meetings and new initiatives so I could plan changes to their service apps as they changed their business apps.

And then I left. Never regretted it. I never got paid enough, and after my divorce, money and time at home became a premium. I became a consultant, worked less and got paid more for the next decade, before the dot-com crash.

It was never as much fun. I often got paid $15-20K for jobs that never happened; people just hired me to talk them through meetings then decided not to move forward. Or I put hours and hours in on a project that lost its funding even though I got paid nicely. This is quite normal in that line of work; it was only my longevity in my last job that allowed me to build a suite that got used and trusted–and then expanded. But consulting work is quantified and measured; it’s a budget item. Everything must get approved, politics and leadership change, plans change, you know how it is.

So I suddenly realized last week when talking to Javier that finally, I had my old job back. When I was a tutor, I could talk to the kids whose parents or well-meaning philanthropists paid for me, or for Kaplan classes. That was satisfying–much more satisfying than any tech job. But now, my salary covers all sorts of services that would never survive a budget or line item query: ad hoc test prep, counseling advice, adult supervision, sometimes just a place to sit and chat. Many kids just stop by and find me and sit, talking about their parents, their plans, their hopes, troubles at school. While I’m sure many teachers just listen, my support is usually a tad more active. I’ve been paid to give opinions most of my adult life. Why stop now?

Rick Hess talks a lot about cagebusting teachers, and how teachers can influence policy and practice. I like Rick Hess; he’s usually right in his assessments if often wrong in his prescriptions. But he’s a guy who left teaching after two years, frustrated at the bureaucracy, feeling he couldn’t make a difference. And as a policy wonk, Hess particularly pushes the dramatic, bold teacher-driven initiatives–leaving teaching to work at the district level, heading up a grant-funded after-school tutoring program.

Me, I like becoming part of the community–part of the eco-system. I don’t need to be an invasive species. I’m not interested in getting grants or extending my power. I want and have my own locus of control. I am….unconvinced….that charter schools as a whole will ever be able to build a sustaining ecosystem. They have way too much turnover. Most of them are obsessively interested in either a) good test scores or b) progressive ideology. Teachers are more constrained, in my view, by one of these goals—and then, turnover prevents slow growth. I could be wrong.

I’ve mentioned many times on Twitter that this has been a simply awful year for education reformers. So let me say again: you can never change teaching until you understand it, and understand the people who enter the profession long term.

So start by understanding that teaching goes on in the off hours. Many–I’d never say all–teachers find some way of offering extra value for their salary. They provide ad hoc services that would cost a small fortune if ever quantified and salaried and required, but because they’re just baked in, never cost an additional penny.

Think of it as your tax dollars at work.

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Teaching Oddness #4: Student Teachers

Student teaching is definitely an oddness, but it’s an oddness with an old history. In the early days of public education, prospective teachers were given a smattering of content in a “normal school”, and then sent out under the tutelage of a more senior teacher to learn the ropes. Then, as now, the actual mechanics of a student teaching experience had a ridiculously broad implementation range, from getting a few weeks learning how to take attendance to a legitimate practicum with an experienced teacher giving advice and feedback.

Here’s what anyone can tell you about student teaching, the stuff that’s so obvious even the hacks at NCTQ can figure out: Cooperating, or mentoring, teachers are hard to find. Undergraduate ed school programs, in particular, are desperate for any warm bodies to shepherd teachers through the practicum.

My own (excellent) ed school provided an entire 12 months of student teaching, first in a summer school program and then a full school year in a classroom. We all had total responsibility for at least one class for a semester. This school had a relatively small program, turning out fewer than a hundred teachers a year. And their search for cooperating teachers was….intense. Generally, the priority was for teachers committed to group work and complex instruction, progressive teachers. But even with the school’s considerable prestige, finding sufficient cooperating teachers by September often meant unseemly begging and attitudes common to businessmen in bars at 2 am.

And that’s a well-regarded ed school. At online schools, the students themselves are required to find cooperating teachers. My current cooperating teacher gig began because I got an email, funneled through the district and the department chair, asking for a teacher with more than three years math teaching experience. Why this district? Because that’s where my student teacher lives. Why my school? Because it’s Title I. They were pleased to learn I was squishy and went to a great ed school, but there were no other takers.

(BTW, I’ve mentioned the need for “warm bodies” before, in other contexts. Quality control expectations of public education shrivel away in the blazing inferno of the billion suns generated by “we are legally required to have a warm body present for X activity”. Grasp this fact, and much becomes clear.)

Researchers don’t often bother with student teaching; this Goldhaber work on student teaching vs. employment locations is interesting, but doesn’t give any insight into the practice. Much of what I find is qualitative research on student teacher experience (everyone I know says their student teacher experience was the most important part of their training). But no one has really written meaningfully on the challenges I found with my first student teacher.

Arthur is my age, which means he’s a second-career teacher starting seven years in age later than I did. He’s retired early, financially comfortable (he takes me out to lunch in his Mercedes!), and relatively unconcerned about getting a full-time job, although he’d certainly like to. He’s Chinese, but a long-time immigrant, having moved here in the 70s. His language is a bit tough to follow sometimes, which I have issues with, but he’s dedicated to working with at-risk kids.

Arthur has largely taken over my geometry class. I was initially happy to turn over the job to Arthur and just watch from afar. My job is to be as disconnected from the classroom as possible, consulting with him on curriculum and objectives before and after, but to let him operate independently, sinking or swimming without interference, in the main. I did this well at first. Then I realized that the impact of having a student teacher was going to be an issue in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

In one sense, my geometry class is tailor-made for him: relatively small, just 21 kids, 8 speds, 1 ELL (Chinese). In another sense it’s a tough class for any student teacher. The ability distribution isn’t a normal curve, but rather clumped: (1) too bright for the class, (2) ready for the class and motivated, (3) ready for the class and unmotivated, (4) unmotivated to the point that readiness is irrelevant. A histogram shows groups 1 & 2 combined is n=8, group 3 also n=8, and group 4 is n=5. Much better to have a bigger group 2 to balance out group 3 and drown out group 4. This is why I like big classes. This small class is an extraordinary management challenge.

And so, I find myself wondering constantly about when or where to jump in or pile on. Not obviously, not in the “stepping in because Arthur can’t cope” manner, so that the kids would notice. But this would be a hard class for anyone to teach. What to do when he doesn’t wrap it up in a way that will hit it home, get the kids to see what they’ve been doing, give them a mental link to access the next day? What to do when I can see the kids aren’t attending, that he’s explaining too much? Meanwhile, both Arthur and I can both see that a couple of the unmotivated are just itching for a chance to cause trouble, say that they’d be doing great if it wasn’t for the dumb new student teacher.

Which brings up another issue, one that I’m also quite conscious of: how do parents feel about their kids being subjected to a trainee? Then I think about TFA trainees, who don’t have an experienced teacher in the room, and I feel better. Back at ed school I knew cases of parental complaints about a classmate taking over that led to….difficulties. From the parent’s point of view, the training teacher as damaging their child’s learning experience. From everyone else’s point of view, the student was using the newbie teacher as a scapegoat, and that was indeed usually the case. But my school doesn’t often train student teachers, and I don’t want to have that complaint aired.

And then, there’s the problem of my curriculum. Specifically, much of it is in my head. I’m not an easy teacher to learn from; my skills lie in explanation and seemingly random curriculum development. I can’t give Arthur a textbook and tell him to check out chapter 6 to pick some lessons to run. He can’t anticipate what I’m going to do; half the time I’ve just decided it the night before.

As he’s taken over more of the planning, we’ve found a routine. I’ve told him what topics I want him to cover. He researches and develops a lesson. I offer suggestions and changes. Mostly, EXPLAIN LESS. Either give them foolproof tasks to do, or do it together with explicit instructions. But no lecture, here’s a worksheet, go. Not just because I don’t like it, but because (and he sees this readily) the class can’t handle it and sits around doing nothing.

In addition to curriculum development, he’s getting a solid course in teaching delivery. My own advice to him often sounds like stage direction: “Work the room. Own it. Make your presence bigger.” and he has really done well in that regard, becoming more expansive and performance-oriented, while not distorting his natural style. I just closed up a lesson for him a couple days ago, and he said he’d finally started to grasp what I meant about punching the finish, closing with a big picture, not a repeated explanation. So there’s that.

Since I’m not a planner, to put it mildly, I sought out a new teacher I’d previously mentored (the second one in that essay), and asked what he did to plan. His method struck me as very sensible, so I sent Arthur to him for some consultation. This was a resounding success, so now Arthur has another resource.

Do other teachers have this problem? Or do they hand over curriculum, either pre-developed or in textbook form, and just let the student teacher prepare in advance? Maybe I should just tell Arthur teach from the book. But he doesn’t want to, and his ed school is actually quite happy that he’s working with a curriculum developer. Besides, Arthur does pretty well. He’s made improvements to my switch and stay game that were so sensible I instantly adopted them. He picks good model problems.

Anyway. I leave the room at times when I see things are going well to give him full authority. Other times, as mentioned, I “close up” for the lesson, to illustrate key issues or transition to the next day’s work, with him turning it over to me. I film him other times, which forces me to shut up.

These issues are never really discussed, and maybe they don’t have to be. Why should parents be alarmed at having a student teacher, when they might have a TFA candidate with no training, or a bad first year? For the most part, I subdue my classroom control freak tendencies, and Arthur runs the room. I’ll keep getting better at it. And he sez that he’s learning a lot, so there’s that.

Another really, really important thing for student teachers to understand about their apprenticeship: student teaching has an incredibly wide range of acceptable outcomes, provided the cooperating teacher doesn’t complain or in some way declare the student teacher unacceptable. If the CT rejects the student teacher, it’s game over. Even if the CT is a jerk. Even if the CT is wrong. Even if the ed school agrees that the CT is a total jerk entirely in the wrong.

Timing is everything in student teaching. An approved stint has to happen in that semester, in that quarter, in that pre-determined time period. If it doesn’t happen then, consider the impact the equivalent of the damage a Mack truck does to a bunny rabbit. The student teacher has to pay for another quarter, has to find another teacher, and oh, by the way, usually has to delay graduation. There’s really no equivalent in anything other than maybe med school with no appeals system. Student teaching is required–ironic, in a world where schools pay a premium to hire TFA.

Student teaching is one of the few genuine apprenticeships left in the modern workforce. Even before unpaid internships got a bad name, we all know they weren’t really about learning the job. But even the worst student teaching gig with an obnoxious cooperating teacher and unwilling students gives the candidates some small sense of the job. Without question, some gigs are better than others. But life twas ever thus.

My advice to teaching candidates is keep your head down, don’t complain, recognize your near complete powerlessness and if you sense any weirdness early on, do your best to find someone else before you’ve lost too much time. Because most cooperating teachers, like me, can’t imagine rejecting a student teacher for anything other than outright cruelty. We know it’s a rite of passage. We want to help.

Yes, it is an oddness.

Why would I approve a student teacher in almost case? I remember my own (excellent) cooperating teacher saying that the really important thing was that the kids loved me and thinking yeah, fine, but so what? And now here I am, watching a fifty-something Chinese immigrant pay a metric ton of money for the right to get up every morning, put in 4 hours a day at an unpaid practicum, and explain geometry to generally uninterested and unmotivated adolescents and you have to know what I’m thinking, right? I’ve actually said this, to others: “Arthur’s doing okay, making progress, but the really important thing is that the kids like him.” Now that I’m a teacher, watching someone learn the job, the empathy and connection needed for this job stand out starkly.

Most everything else, you’ll learn. Or quit, leaving little damage behind.