A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

There are no words.

That late great author Douglas Adams once said, "I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by."

My colleagues in the special education department were supposed to get me all the IEPs for my students who have one last Friday. I just got another one today, and several were emailed, dated 11:59 pm, on Friday evening.

So, nearly half of the kids in my regular classes have IEPs that allow them to turn in work late.

All their work. All the time.

Some of these kids are seventeen and eighteen years old.

Discuss. I'll be back after I wash my mouth out with soap.

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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Run for the hills! It's PTO fundraiser time!

Well, the school year is barely born, and yet, here comes a darling middle-schooler with loads of fundraising materials for the PTO.

I'll be honest: I asked the kid if she would just take a sawbuck and not sell me anything. When that didn't work, I asked the kid what was something in the catalogue that she would like, and I bought it for her. I mean it's not the poor little tyke's fault that the adults associated with her school would rather see their kids taking time away from more important activities to shill out on the streets. As a taxpayer in this district, I am willing to pay for things outright rather than through the sleight-of-hand of school fundraisers which I believe are not beneficial to children. Besides, I would have just not answered the door, but there is a CRAZY neighbor down the street who curses and threatens people, and I felt I had to warn her not to knock on that person's door.

I am deeply troubled by PTA/PTO fundraisers for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, there is the safety issue of sending a kid out to flog their wares to a variety of strangers. I mean, really. Even if the parents are with their kids, this is just not safe behavior in this day and age. My kids are urged to call their aunts and uncles and grandparents to sell, and most of my relatives do not have money to waste on the stuff that is sold in these campaigns. Which leads me to objection number 2....

Second is the awful, overpriced crap they sell. Be it frozen pizzas, cookie dough, candy, wrapping paper, magazine subscriptions, silver-plated jewelry, educational books, or whatever, this stuff is repugnant from an aesthetic as well as a pecuniary standpoint. Fourteen bucks for eleven ounces of ersatz Reese's peanut butter cups? You have to be kidding. Some of this stuff is so kitschy even my mother, a dewy-eyed collector of big-eyed kittens and little girls in prairie dresses with face-obscuring bonnets if ever there was one, would wrinkle her nose in disgust. I like my friends, and I am not willing to try to guilt them into buying this stuff for my kid, either. I'm not so sure I would sell this stuff to my worst enemies.

Third is the ridiculous goals set and prizes promised. Once again, the prizes are predominantly a collection of crap so cheap they would have been in the rejection pile of the rankest Chinese gewgaw factory, and a kid has to sell a couple of hundred dollars' worth of Pile of Crap #1 to receive a trinket from Pile of Crap #2.

Fourth is the reason why these kids are sent out to sell this schtuff in the first place. It is because the PTA/PTO doesn't charge adequate dues for membership in the first place. Two dollars for an individual membership or five dollars for a family is less than what my parents paid in the early seventies when I first entered school. Now I understand their rationale here. I just vehemently disagree with it.

Fifth is the percentage of these fundraisers that actually stays with the school. The majority of the funds from this fundraiser of course went to the company that shills this crap in the first place. They usually have some red-white-and-blue name like "All-American Fundraising" or "Great American School Promotions" but the last I checked, child labor is not really considered all that desirable, much less patriotic.

The rationale for low PTA/PTO dues (which necessitates these fundraisers to begin with) is that some parents can't afford more. That may be true at many urban schools, and I have all the sympathy in the world for that situation. In that case, fine, charge two bucks, and understand that the ADULTS need to realize that they are going to get what they pay for. But the school districts around me are middle- to upper-middle class. If those kinds of parents can't afford 10 bucks for a PTA/PTO membership, it is primarily due to prioritization of resources within the households in a majority of cases. If a parent can't afford it, really and truly, then he or she is not going to buy a membership whether it is two bucks or ten. Why not GIVE memberships to those truly below the poverty level and then charge other parents 10 bucks? You'd still make money. My guess is that this ridiculously low figure is set where it is simply to inflate the membership numbers to make it seem like the PTA/PTO is more influential than it really is. I'm not happy to think that, but rather resigned to the reality of a sizeable chunk of parents who just aren't that invested in their children's educations. They'll pay a thousand bucks a year for a cell phone but claim to not be able to invest ten bucks in their PTA/PTO. They'll pay fourteen bucks for eleven ounces of peanut butter cups rather than simply invest in their PTA/PTO in some cases, too, which just shows how illogical this all is. It's all about priorities.

And it is not a reflection of this current recession. This fundraising gambit has been in place where I reside for the last thirty years at least, in my experience.

In the case of my own children's introduction to this middle-school misadventure in merchandizing, I simply called up the PTA president. I asked her what percentage the PTA got to keep from each dollar raised (which by the way, is also ridiculous. These companies are making money off the backs of our children, and I don't like it one bit. So I just offered to write a check straight to the PTA, as long as it was understood that my kids wouldn't be selling so much as a stick of gum. Then I bought them their own little Spongebob radio as a surprise the next time I caught them doing something nice for someone, and we were done.

In short, joining the PTA/PTO should mean something. It shouldn't mean that our kids are now the equivalent of Fuller Brush Men.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Reprise: New Teacher Advice and Tricks of the Trade

This is a reprint of a post I originally wrote in June of 2006. It's been pretty heavily searched the last few days, so I am reposting it again. We wrote this FIVE YEARS AGO! Jeesh.

I imagine that there are at least a few people out there in the world who have gotten the happy news that they have been hired for the upcoming school year. There are more hopefuls who are currently undergoing that agony known as interviewing as they search for their first teaching contract.

Therefore, I feel that it is my duty as an official Wizened Veteran of the Classroom (I prefer this term to Ancient Hidebound Broad) to share the knowledge I have gained through sweat, toil, and personal peril lo, these many years, as a lion-tamer pedagogue. Several of my edusphere friends have also generously contributed their insight. This post has now become a kind of "Carnival of Classroom Survival," in fact!

First, oh paduan, consider classroom management.

Have only the rules you are willing to consistently enforce, and consistently enforce the rules you have. Have general classroom expectations written up in a succinct style, avoiding "Don't"s, and hand them out the first day of school. Try to keep the expectations to five.

Post the learning goal and agenda for the day on the board every day. Include homework to be assigned and due date.

Never threaten a consequence to a student unless you are actually willing to follow through with it. This is vital in making your life easier for the rest of the year. You must be a person of your word.

Write referrals only after you have attempted lesser consequences, including privately conferencing with the student and calling the student's guardian. If the student is displaying certain kinds of emotional outbursts which seem "over the top" or otherwise unwarranted, you might also consider a non-discipline referral to the counselor, if you have access to them. You will earn the disdain of your administrators if you write up students without following these steps first. Furthermore, some administrators will use your "failure" to attempt to deal with the situation yourself as an excuse to refuse to act upon their part. Linda adds: "Read the student discipline code, and frame any disciplinary referrals in EXACTLY those words. I failed to do this last year, in a new school, and didn't realize that the magic word (level 2 offense) was "disrespectful". When that word was used, the administration acted."

Keep track of each attempt you have made to deal with a difficulty. When the Wizened Veteran was starting out, she began to keep a binder divided by class period, with a sheet for each student she had had to discipline. I have also used a computer, but a binder is more portable. Whether on paper or on computer, this is an easy reference to use, but keep it secure. I did not fill this out in front of the students.

Don't be afraid to call guardians. If you call a guardian and only get an answering machine or voicemail, leave a message for the guardian asking him or her to call in a pleasantly neutral voice and record when you did this. Don't get into the gory details in a message.

Before calling, find out what the name of the student's guardian is, and what relationship that person has to the student. Don't assume that they share a last name or that they are necessarily the mother or father. Loads of kids are being raised by grandparents, aunts, and even older siblings. In fact, as mister teacher relates, don't make assumptions based on appearance about guardians upon meeting them, either. Everyone used to think that my mother was my grandmother, for instance, because she was older than the other parents. Another teacher adds, "Not all teachers have to worry about this, but in addition to finding out who lives at home, etc, I have to find out what language they speak so I can have an interpreter ready if the need be." This is also something which is a consideration more often than you might think. Of course, I once had a kid whose parents spoke Russian, so there wasn't much help there. For that problem, I have two words for you: Babel Fish. You can type text in and get a pretty reasonable translation back in all kinds of languages. I have used it with great success.

Aprilmay also has an excellent suggestion: "Find the adult who has the most influence on the child when you need to deal with serious issues. It can take some work, but oftentimes a "Nana" or favorite auntie can work wonders when it comes to motivation!" I have had hardened thugs who quaked in the face of a harsh word from Gramma.

Start your conversation by expressing your faith in the student to resolve the issue. Try, "Hello Mrs. Pzzlethwt? I am Junior Pzzlethwt's math teacher at Extraordinary High School. How are you today?"

Then, remember, a gentle word turns away wrath, as this lovely lady once demonstrated. Euphemisms are your friend! "Junior has some exceptional verbal skills, and I was hoping you could help me in persuading him to use them at the correct time." (This means Junior never shuts up.) Always remark that you know Junior has the potential to do better, and thank the guardian for their help in advance.

Don't ever get into a contest of wills with a parent or a student. They don't have to agree with you-- as in, your attitude should calmly be, "You don't have to agree with me, but this is what will happen..." And sorry to say, guardians get to be rude to you with few consequences, but you will be nailed if you are rude to them.

Script the basic gist of what is said during the phone call, and keep that in your binder, along with time and date of call. I once pulled this out when a parent insisted I call her from the principal's office, and very mildly read back to her her own words which she was denying. She had been insisting that I had never contacted her about her darling's difficulty. When she saw that I had a record of every conversation, complete with time and duration of call, she gave up. As our friend nyc educator points out, this also helps cover one's posterior with one's administrators.

Emails, if you have the means, are even better, but still be diplomatic in your wording, because, remember, emails can be forwarded a million times over without your knowledge. And keep a copy of the email you sent-- I printed them out and saved them in the binder.

Start the class on time. Do not cheat the students who are on time in the name of stragglers who stumble in tardy.

Model good behavior. I personally say please and thank you to my students. I somehow have difficulty hearing students who do not extend the same courtesy to me. It's a very strange form of deafness.

Try to get the students on your side when it comes to classroom management. It is actually much more effective if a student knows that his peers will not tolerate his goofing off or disrupting class.

Graycie has another good point: "Walk out amongst 'em. Sometimes just standing next to a kid and smiling without breaking the flow of what you are saying to the whole class will stop her dead in her tracks." Slowly move around the room, if your instruction permits it. It will keep all the students on their toes, encourage participation, and keep heads from drooping.

Mr. Lawrence makes an excellent suggestion to which I personally adhere. Consider placing your desk at the backs of your students. This enables you to see what is going on unobtrusively. Students will realize this and they will stay on task with much less prompting. Our district has laptop computers that the students can use. With my desk behind the students, I can view screens easily to see what exactly they're looking at on the 'net- whether they're actually doing research or if they're trying to IM their friends or access Facebook.

Keep the students engaged until the bell rings. Remember, you-- NOT the bell-- dismiss the class. Otherwise, each day the students will knock off a bit earlier. If you need to, introduce a small quiz at this point rather than at the beginning of class.

Mike in Texas reminds us, "Trust, but verify." When a child claims that she has done the technicolor yawn, tossed his cookies, ralphed, whatever-- make sure she has. Oh, and watch for the finger-down-the-throat trick before a quiz or test.

And seriously, if a student feels ill, goes to the restroom, and doesn't come back in four or five minutes, send a trustworthy kid of the same gender to go check on her. She may have passed out in there, or she may be scamming and roaming the halls. In either case, you want to know.

Darren adds: "'Without' is a powerful word. When giving instructions, simultaneously tell students what you want them to do (using concrete terms) and what you don't want them to do. 'Please open your textbooks to page 73 without talking.' Telling students to "be quiet" doesn't work; telling them what to do (take out your textbooks) and what not to do (without talking) does. Give it a try!"

Now, let us consider supplies.

Part of your job as a teacher is to reinforce a burgeoning sense of personal responsibility in your young charges.

If you keep pencils or pens on your desk, they will disappear. If you can afford this, fine. However, a word of warning. If you consistently give out pencils or paper or whatever, expect your students to regularly come to class without them, knowing that you will remove this responsibility from their shoulders. Your choice. I use very bizarre novelty pens for myself, and anyone trying to cadge one of these would be busted immediately.

Same thing with textbooks. If you give out textbooks to those who do not bring theirs, soon no one will bring their texts to class. If you want to distribute ten of them every class period and lose five minutes of teaching time, that's your choice, but plan accordingly. Make sure you take them up at the end of the period (another five minutes lost there) or you will be missing a whole slew of books by the third week of school. And while you're managing this distribution, what are the other students doing?

I like keeping a little box of golf pencils in my desk for those who cannot master their writing utensil management skills. Students tend not to want to borrow these more than once. You can also keep a cup of used pencils you have found in the hallway for distribution. I personally also like to have my dog or a convenient toddler to put chew marks on them so they won't be so appealing to those who seem need some assistance from St. Anthony of Padua in this regard.

On the other hand, be on the lookout for a student who cannot afford supplies. I often claim to have "found" spirals or pencils for these students lying around unclaimed in my classroom, and privately let them know what a favor they would be doing me if they could possibly put them to use instead of forcing me to harm the environment by discarding them. These items are often found for sale in bulk at the end of July through the first few days of September. You can often buy spirals for a dime-- those that are sold this way are called "loss-leaders" because the supply stores take a beating on them to get you into the store. I buy about thirty for myself each year, and those I don't use, I donate to a needy school affiliated with my house of worship.

Q's personal legend has a neat system: "I also have a station in the room for stuff the kids can use: stapler, hand sanitizer, hole punch, kleenex, etc. And, (you will laugh), I made large magic marker outlines of these things on the table. It looks funny, but the kids always return it to its 'home,' and I don't have to keep saying, 'Where is my stapler?!'"

And, since teachers are often klutzy because we are rushed, and kids are just klutzy in general, I suggest you keep the following things on hand in your desk in a little box (one of my students made one for me): Shout wipes, plug-in air fresheners, odor neutralizer spray, antiperspirant, a needle and some thread, safety pins, peppermints, lotion, astringent, cotton pads (like the ones used by the nurse), latex gloves, bandaids, and a flashlight with working batteries. I once had the power go out for TWO HOURS in a room with no windows. And we were instructed to keep the kids in the room while they tried to fix it. Fun.

Now, let's deal with presentation and attitude.

Boy Scout motto? Be prepared. Teacher motto? OVERPLAN. Always have more activities on hand than you can possibly use in a class period.

Have a sense of humor. Be willing to laugh gently at yourself. Self-deprecation goes a long way to establishing a sense of rapport with your students.

Keep a folder on your desk in case you ever need a sub. I label it "SUB FOLDER" in really large, bright letters. Include in it your classroom expectations, UPDATED seating charts, complete with pronunciation guides if needed, and an emergency lesson for each class in case you get hit by a runaway oxcart on the way to work and have no chance to send in real lesson plans. Make it simple, but interesting. Mr. Lawrence, who works as a substitute, echoes this advice. You cannot expect the students to read quietly for two hours for a sub. (There are all kinds of books in the bookstore or classroom supply stores that have suggestions for cute little activities, if your brain is befuddled.) I usually include at least one activity which must be turned in by the end of class to keep the students occupied. Once again, OVERPLAN, leaving the sub the option of granting the students a reprieve on a deadline or on an assignment if they behave superbly. Carrots and sticks, people, is better when you've need more carrot rather than more stick. In the classroom expectations, you would be wise to spell out your policies on quizzes and tests, such as "All quizzes are to be done individually by the students, not as group work or in 'Jeopardy' format." I have had subs who have allowed students to use their books on unit tests or to do them as a group. No kidding.

Always err toward joking rather than bitching with your coworkers. You make a first impression only once, but you can ruin your reputation over and over.

Spangles, one of our colleagues, notes, "Eat lunch with your colleagues. It builds bonds, lets you form a friendly relationship, and gets you out of the classroom for at least a few minutes. You might give it up later, but it's a worth a start. I was a young new teacher and I formed a strong bond with my older, wiser team members because I ate lunch with them each and every day. It made it easier to laugh at myself and my students." Excellent advice. Your colleagues are your lifeline.

However, unless you have the metabolism of a three-year-old, avoid cafeteria food and bring your lunch. Cafeteria food includes a percentage of fat and amount of calories geared toward growing young bodies. If you don't want a widening older body, stay away from the ersatz nachos and mystery meat chili and the turkey burgers. But don't skip lunch.

Do not get angry, and strive not to take things personally. If the kids know they can provoke you, they will try to do it at every opportunity. Remember the scene in Finding Nemo when Bruce gets a whiff of Dory's blood? Avoid tempting your students in this fashion. I personally get quieter when students are crossing the line. Work on developing a "look" which strikes wrongdoers dumb. Works wonders.

Our colleague Tree_Story adds: "Your best friends can be the custodians and front office secretary. Be courteous and always say thank you and they can make your year soooo much nicer." Happychyck includes the building or district tech person in this golden circle of demigods, and rightly so.

Graycie reminds us: "Never be afraid to say, 'I don't know. How can we find out?'" Then have the students actually find the answer. The goal of teaching students is to enable them to get along without a teacher. Don't just abandon questions they've asked to which you do not know the answer-- these are the questions which have sparked their interest, and a good teacher wants to fan that spark into an inferno.

And finally, consider health maintenance.

Wear comfortable shoes with some support. Teachers have some of the worst back problems of all professions because we spend so much time on our feet. Avoid heels. You will rarely sit down.

Keep yourself hydrated.

You've heard of GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out)? Remember WIWO (Water In, Water Out). Yes, since what goes in must come out, also try to avoid the common teacher pitfall of not going to the can until 4 pm. You will get kidney and bladder problems, and with your insurance, you can't afford that.

Offer students a couple of points of extra credit to bring in two good boxes of tissue at the start of the school year if your school does not provide the good stuff. You'll thank me during flu season.

Have two trash cans in your room: one for student use, and one for you. You'll see why this is health related in a second.

Have two boxes of tissue out at any one time. One box should be hidden away for you, and the used tissues go into your personal trash can, which I stash behind my desk. The other box is for the students, and should be placed away from your desk or where you stand most often in the room. The student trash can goes under this box of tissue, and away from you. You will avoid a LOT of colds this way. Trust me. With your insurance, you can't afford that either, not to mention that it takes FOUR hours to write lesson plans for a seven hour day.

Keep disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer in your desk. Wipe down the surfaces of your desk regularly, including phone, particularly if Mary Typhus, who is hacking up a storm, has just used your phone to talk to her mom. Clean the student desks and the doorknob every once in a while, as well.

Finally, if you are really sick, don't go to school. You will make yourself worse, and end up using the princely number of sick days you have been allotted in one mad swoop.

Well, those are some of my sure-fire, handy dandy tips. If anyone has any others, I'd be glad to add them on with credit given.

Now, go get 'em, Tiger.

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