Monday, April 25, 2011

Tenure's dirty little secret

It may be my eleventh year of teaching, but this is probably the first year I've really given tenure a second thought. Sure I've worried about RIFing in the past, but I've always been somewhat safeguarded by the fact I was the only journalism teacher.  However, I have since left my "department of one" and entered into the English department. With the threat of massive budget cuts, the buzz about the potential for pink slips is beginning, which brings me back to my initial topic: tenure.

In one of our discussions, one of the teachers brought up the "last in, first out" policy, which was something I was aware of but never really considered.   (In Time's article Beyond Unions: Five New Rules for Teachers, Andrew J. Rotherham explains it briefly.)  And when we started weighing teachers who could potentially lose their jobs because of budget cuts against those who would be guaranteed to keep theirs, disgruntlement and even a little panic ensued. 

A motivated, hard-working, student-centered teacher could be lost to another that admittedly has "given-up" on students because it's "just not worth the fight" all because the latter has more experience in the district.  It has nothing to do with evaluations, nothing to do with the rigor or relevance of their classroom instruction and everything to do with who has been breathing the longest in that district.  If it sounds crazy, it is and that's precisely why we need a voice of reason (I'm not sure who that is yet) and to use some common sense.  

While I'm not currently an active member of my school's union, I am a union advocate.  In fact, I was on the negotiations team at my previous school, but the playground has become so muddied by manipulation (just as it has been in everything political locally, nationally and even globally) that the union is forced to stand up for "good" and "bad" teachers because those teachers, regardless of their skill level or moral inclinations,  are paying dues and are thus promised legal protection. But when it comes down to it unions are essential in protecting teachers from what can be the tyranny of upper-management, which is eloquently explained by the blog, Don't Get Me Started: Why Have Tenure? 

What ceases to amaze me again and again about the coverage swirling around education, especially unions and educational reform, is the assumption that tenure is this relentless force that can't be tamed when, if fact, it all comes down to the tedious task of creating a paper trail and the lack of follow through from the administrators to do just that.  

The role of any typical high school administrator far exceeds simply overseeing his teachers and school-wide events, and so administrators are often spread too thinly, rendering them ineffective as leaders for the teachers and adversely, the students.  Out of desperation some may simply ask teachers to "sign-off" on their observations knowing an actual observation was never completed while others may drop in for ten minutes, only to write up a "fill-in-the-blank" observation when they get back to the office. As a result, no paper trail is created and another uninspired or maybe even incompetent teacher slips through the cracks.  So, what do we do?  

Administrators need to actually observe their teachers on a regular basis, provide feedback and expect change. If the teacher is offered remediation and change still doesn't take place?  Well, then fire them. Yes, it's that easy. The union will provide legal services because they HAVE to.  They're representing one of its paying members and such services are expected; however, if the union can't prove the teacher has met the district's requirements because the administration has done its legwork honestly and with integrity, the teacher's contract should be and will be terminated.   Teachers are not the enemy, the system is and it needs to be fixed.  

Teachers need to be valued enough by the system to actually be given thoughtful observations that provide an open forum for improvement, not punishment.  Doesn't it seem ridiculous that in education, educators aren't provided the very feedback they're expected to constantly provide to students to insure classroom success? What's good for the goose is good for gander, which is precisely what Time's article,  "Better Teachers: More Questions than Answers" addresses when discussing the importance of observations (even though it seems like common sense to me),  

 "They found that not only did performance (as measured by math achievement of students) increase during the evaluation year, but the gains were sustained in subsequent years. That's a big deal—it means teachers were not just responding to being evaluated but using the feedback to improve their work."

In actuality, tenure's dirty little secret is that it has nothing to do with tenure or even unions.  It has everything to do with a broken system and a broken community of learners, educators and community members. It's time to stop passing the buck and just start making change and rethinking inane policies like the "last in, first out" approach that de-professionalize teaching. Unions are necessary because they create a forum in which conversations like these need to take place, where all parties can have a voice. The promising, the good and the great need to get even better while the bad need to be documented and kicked out of the system. It's as simple as picking up a pencil and paper.  

Let me know what you think!  

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Final Reflection for Social Learning Grad Class

How has social networking made a difference 
in your classroom?
Being able to read and being given the time to read a variety of blogs has probably been most beneficial to my classroom instruction. It's opened up an entirely new perspective when it comes to controversial topics, raw commentary and better yet, I stumbled on communities of like-minded people.  Consequently, I've been able to take the information and use it as a springboard for discussion and I continue to draw from different blogs and videos with hopes of adding even more dimensions to my curriculum.

For example, we were shown a video by Will Richardson that mentioned a Mississippi school that is piloting a program in which teachers are being coached from the back of the room or in an entirely different location while wearing ear buds. Besides making me even more distressed about the state of education than I already was, the video and article made me ponder our basic freedoms, our rights and the responsibility of maintaining those rights -- not to mention the willingness of teachers, community members, administrators to become life-size bobble heads and actually agree to participate in such madness. So, I put it out there for my students to discuss while making connections to the assigned reading. The conversations were amazing and the epiphanies had by many of my students gave me hope.

What plans do you have to continue developing your online personal learning network (PLN)? How do you see an online education community changing education?

I plan on rewriting most of my English 10 units this summer to create a more solution-based approach to learning. I want to create summative assessments that revolve around case studies that stem from social and political issues highlighted in our assigned readings. For example, After reading The Grapes of Wrath, I would love to actually have my students research current jobless rates, distribution of wealth, etc. and research why it's happening while paralleling it to the social/economic status and times that were illustrated in the book. 

While my ideas are still in their infancy, I would also love for them to focus on one key parallel and research a solution for the problem their discovery uncovered. But one requirement would have to be for them to actually go to the bank, or business or whatever and test their theories. Wouldn't it be wonderful for them to be able to feel the power of being an active problem-solver? Again, this is just a thought bubble right now and it needs a lot of work. 

An online community is imperative so my students and I can get a global perspective. Once they see their world compared to others', I'm pretty sure they're going to change their perceptions. For example, wouldn't it be interesting to have a European interpretation of the American Dream? Skype could and will make it happen. That is of course if our internet works at school. It's always a crap shoot, but a little perspective goes a long way. We've just got to keep the conversation going.

Monday, April 11, 2011

How social media can make history: A blur of green, pink, white and brown

"I sometimes think drivers don't know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly," she said. "If you showed a driver a green blur. Oh yes! He'd say, that's grass! A pink blur! That's a rose garden! White blurs are houses. 
Brown blurs are cows" (8).  
--Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451

It has been an interesting juxtaposition, attending my graduate "Social Learning" class while teaching Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and dealing with the contradiction the two create.  On one end, we celebrate the technological advances offered by social media and the internet, the speed and ease of being able to connect with thousands, even millions of people globally, resulting in the proverbial "flattening" of the world.  We welcome opportunities to share our thoughts, like I've done in this very blog, while hopefully stirring hearts and minds into making change when it comes to anything from a local food drive to fundraising for Japanese earthquake and tsunami survivors. So many opportunities for change, for learning and for reflection.

On the other end, Bradbury leads his reader through a path of intellectual destruction, a place where speed is the necessity and where characters become extensions of technology rather than technology being an extension of the people.  He speaks about a world, much like the one Clay Shirky is talking about in his video "How Social Media can make History." A world in which governments shut down things like Twitter, Facebook and Google to prevent their own citizens from communicating with people because the rate of communication and lack of control frightens the powers that rely so heavily on regulation. As a result, the very medium used to exercise their freedoms is manipulated to bastardize it. 

With the freedoms associated with social media so comes the responsibilities and the consequences Bradbury prophetically warns us about in his novel. The more "progress" made technologically, the more likely communities might become overstimulated (constant barrage of world news, reality television, online gaming, computer-based learning rather than face-to-face instruction), overwhelmed and apathetic because they can't cope with the amount and types of information being delivered from every direction.  I have students who never turn off their phones, who sleep by them and wake up to answer texts and calls throughout the entire night.  So the question isn't whether or not social media can make history. It's more a matter of when does it become our history and how will we manage it so it will remain a useful tool and not become a weapon or an excuse to "Cha-Cha" the answers rather than come up with an original idea?

I embrace technology and I love social media and its potential, but I'm terrified that its very existence will dismantle the critical thinking skills that have evolved through real-time, real-life, face-to-face conversations unless we teach the limited nature of these freedoms and the art of balancing so much information. Otherwise, we will find ourselves living amongst millions of people online without really knowing anyone,  and life will become a blur of green, pink, white and brown. Just remember, stay ahead of the social media monster and remember to tame it rather than be tamed by it.