The Vilification of a Once Respected Profession

Is there anyone else who is sick of being told they are a money-sucking, taxpayer-draining leech?  The amount of misinformation that pops up in comments on newspaper websites, in the press in general, in conversation is head-shaking to me.

After reading Joanna Weiss’s op-ed column in today’s Globe, I decided it would be worth sending to a friend of mine via email. What caught my eye before the transaction could be completed was that – even at 8:17 in the morning – 66 people had already commented on her column. That 66 people were so moved to comment before I’ve had my second cup of Sunday morning coffee fascinated me. And so, I began reading what the general public reaction might be.

About halfway down the list there it was: a disgruntled parent (or so the poster claims) questioning why taxpayers should pay the high salaries of public employees when — and this is paraphrased so be sure to check it out for your own reaction — he/she KNOWS her son’s middle school Spanish teacher who works just 25 hours a week for $68,000 a year before benefits.

People, the 25-hour work week for teachers is just so much BS. I may work 25 hours ON TOP of what I am committed to in the classroom. I get paid what I get paid to work 180 days out of the year. This past week I’ve been on school break – those 5 days DO NOT count toward 180 – go check your school’s academic calendar, it will show you the facts. I work what I work because that’s what my students deserve and that is what it takes to write plans, to evaluate assessments, to remediate. I am not stupid, dumb, or lazy. I also pay taxes and I belong to a union.

I am not seeking more money – although I could make use of more. I am not seeking to pay less than my share of pension, which BTW is 11 percent of my weekly check. And before another myth gets tossed about, that 11 percent is INVESTED by the Commonwealth. The taxpayers DO NOT fund the other 89 percent of my pension. I contribute to my health insurance to the tune of nearly $400 each month. I haven’t had a COLA or other raise in over 3 years…. just like many people in the private sector.

When I began teaching, I worked in a Parochial school. My class size was 30 students. For primary grades, 30 students is a lot – particularly in this era when socio-economic needs are far above and beyond what those of us who went to school in the 60s can imagine.  In general, my school obligations required me to give up at least one or more weekend days starting in March and ending with the last day of school. Not voluntarily — these were events at which teachers were commanded to be present. And for this I made less than $20,000 a year (MEd. plus 10 years experience aside). The greatest benefit of a Union for me was the improvement of working conditions.

Why this perception of public employees and teachers in particular? Well, for one thing, everyone has been in school and thinks they can teach. For those of you who think it’s so easy, please come and spend the day – or the week if you want. My opinion though is that a second, more sinister move is afoot. People such as the Koch brothers and their agenda manipulate the public. I fear that their mission won’t be completed until it’s too late for ordinary citizens to push back. Is this country’s destiny truly to be a haven for the “haves” ?

I came into education as a career changer. I changed because I felt strongly that education is the great equalizer. It is the means by which those who were not born into money and success can work hard and achieve their dream. Teachers – and other public sector employees – provide those opportunities; they keep our communities safe and clean. They provide service for everyone, not just for those who could otherwise afford such services. And we deserve more than continual vilification.

Teaching Report Writing

Too often, I find the curriculum focus in writing is disconnected and segmented from the rest of the curriculum. Perhaps that is a hazard of attempting to cram in so many genres of writing – all urgently needed – into one school year. Is it any wonder that, from time to time, a genre of writing such as functional letter writing is quickly forgotten after it seemed to be “mastered”. Yes, I do get the ridiculousness of that last statement.

This year, my grade level team has taken a second or could that be a third, look at our Writing Calendars – what we call a curriculum map. With the Common Core looming in our very near future, it seemed wise to do so. We’ve filled some gaps in our writing curriculum and revised when we teach particular writing genres. We’ve also moved away from more strictly adhered to requirements: our previous report writing focused on writing biographies of famous citizens of the Commonwealth.

This year, when the report project came up, I decided that I would tie it to the previously taught letter writing format and also use the reports as a jigsaw study of Massachusetts and Lowell, both of which are part of our Social Studies curriculum in Grade 3. Each student has been assigned a topic, will be expected to research and provide information about the topic, and will share that information in a classroom/student published book.  As an example, students will discover and explain what each of the three branches of Massachusetts government do, or will find out about some of the cultural and natural resources available to us in Lowell. To my thinking, this is a greater bang-for-the-buck than the biography reports. It has taken some effort for me to convince students that they live in the CITY of Lowell in the STATE of Massachusetts (no, not the state of Lawrence or Boston).

The first step toward researching each topic was for students to write a business format letter to the agency that may be able to provide information about their topic. I have possibly spent about 4 hours gathering mailing addresses for each of the 25 topics that were generated.

Writing those letters, I have to admit was painful. Despite writing friendly letters weekly in Readers’ Response notebooks, when I conferenced with the students after they drafted their business letters, the basic letter format was hardly recognizable.  Added to the friendly letter format was the inside address, the generalized greeting used in a business letter, and the more formal language of requesting information. Some of the students’ letters were very sincere and at times amusing, particularly the promises to do a good job of reporting if only the student could please be sent some information.

I hope the recipients of these requests find them amusing enough to send a brochure back. Next week, we’ll begin using text and Internet resources for research.

The Elephant in the Classroom

Things are not always dire or bleak, but looking for a positive after yesterday’s Parent Teacher conferences is fairly challenging. I have 22 students. Ten parents made appointments for a conference period yesterday; the conferences were held between 3 and 5 pm as an alternative to the 6 to 8 pm conferences held in the Fall.

Of those 10 parents, one canceled her appointment the day before. Of the other nine, 4 kept the appointment and 5 choose not to attend without the courtesy of a cancellation message. One parent was confused by the sign up method and came without an appointment — which as it turns out, was not a problem. Another parent was having day surgery during the day — we conferenced on the telephone Sunday afternoon.

I know that times have changed. People are busy. But common courtesy has not taken a header has it? I cannot imagine myself just not showing up when I had a conference appointment with my own child’s teacher. Both my husband and I have had recent reminiscences about our own elementary days — and our parents who would together attend conferences. Different times for certain. Since when do people just not show up to keep an appointment they made with a teaching professional? Notices on bright-colored paper, reminders in class, phone calls. Wouldn’t that have triggered something?

The parents I did see — the ones who made appointments and kept them — they are the positives in all of this. They are the ones who take a sincere interest in what their student is learning, how they can help. They came with questions, with requests, and I am gladly finding answers and responding to them.

But for those who just blew me off I want to ask, what was that about? Clearly, parents are disconnected here. So what can be done to engage them? It is a conversation that needs to take place – now.

Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academy touts their success as a charter school amid the turmoil and needs of an inner city school system. I’ve read that their success is certainly influenced by the involvement of these students’ parents in the educational process. So how do they get parents to the table?  How do they get parents to participate in the monthly workshops, the parent nights? How do they deal with the elephant that is in our classrooms? Is it the extraordinary funding that the school uses to provide incentives? Or is there some other school culture that is engaging parents?

I would dearly love to know the answer.

Hello, Noah

I realize that this reference to a classic Bill Cosby routine makes me one big, giant fossil, but I can’t resist making a connection after this week.

Six foot fence near back door.

First of all, is should we all be building arks here in New England? Around my house we have 7 foot snowbanks created after the nonstop deluge of snow “events” which began in mid-January.  There seems to be no end in sight. Today, forecasters are calling for rain and possibly a finish of snow.  Once this stuff begins to melt, we’ll be floating.

I thought of this routine again yesterday when we were having our Morning Meeting.  One of my students, who has pretty much perfect attendance, did not come to school Thursday — we had snow cancellations on Tuesday and Wednesday. As he is a bus student, when he didn’t come to school Thursday, I didn’t think it was too remarkable.  The school buses that day were late – some by hours – city streets are clogged with snow and no place to put it.

However, this student expressed surprise that we had school on Thursday. He claimed to have gotten the robo call from the school-wide information system canceling school. This led to quite a discussion from my students; some get the calls and others do not, usually because they have no working phone number or because the phone number that was shared earlier has been changed (and changed, and changed).

But what really made me laugh was the insistence of one of my students that God called her house to cancel school. In actuality, our Assistant Superintendent for Business initiates the call.

And while he does have a deep voice, I’m sure he’s located in Lowell not in some more heavenly environ.


Snow Days # 6 and #7

I may have been born in Buffalo, but I hate snow. Hate it and despise it. Since January 3 when we resumed school after the holiday break, we have had 7 snow days. On January 3, our end of school date was June 10. As of this morning, it is June 21.

I don’t fault the Superintendent one bit for calling this many snow days. The City of Lowell has been pushed to the edge this winter. Streets are narrowed by the banks of snow, sidewalks are only a suggestion; it is extremely hazardous for kids who walk to school. And in this City where some children cross the neighborhoods to attend school (10 plus year old court ordered desegregation), I would never want to be a bus driver responsible for safely depositing students at school and home.

Many of my students are ill-prepared for winter weather despite coats distributed through the generosity of local businesses. My mother makes mittens — kids vie for a pair of “Grandma Sarah’s” hand-knit mittens in my class — I give away scarves. We do what we can to keep these children dressed appropriately for New England winter. It is a never-ending battle. Most of my students don’t seem to have boots. A few years ago, I had to convince one student that wearing flip-flops and socks was not a good idea in January and February.

Some of the suburban schools around Lowell call school delays or early dismissals. Lowell has tried the school delays but it resulted in lots of kiddos left standing at bus stops, having gone out at their usual pick up time. There was some speculation that parents didn’t understand the mechanics of a delay (or dismissal), but my theory is that it has more to do with the economics of blue collar, hourly workers. People have to be at work at a certain time whether school is delayed or not. They could be fired. And so the kids have to fend for themselves. I wonder what happens on a snow day? My guess is that many are left home alone.

So far, this has been a very difficult winter. The learning time has been chopped up by the never-ending onslaught of storms. Area town and city budgets are pushed to the edge of disaster.

Please make it stop.