Essential Teacher and the One Best System

At our faculty meeting this afternoon, we spent some time trying to break down what are the essential characteristics for teachers in this small urban, multi-cultural environment. For most of those around me, with whom I could turn and talk, skill at curriculum was not an over-arching factor. Most of the teachers around me mentioned qualities such as “diligence”, “empathy”, “creativity”…. in fact, the list started to sound like the seven virtues.

What is important for a teacher to be effective? Can that quality be distilled and replicated? I wonder about that. People who have heard me get on my soapbox know it aggravates the heck out of me that in current educational discourse, there is an assumption that our students are widgets – all the same raw material to be turned into a finished product without fail.

Sorry. I teach living breathing humans whose day-to-day experiences are as varied as the number of children crossing the classroom threshold daily.  And while I want to make our classroom an environment bursting with thought and learning, sometimes all I can provide for a child is safety – a place away from the buffeting of daily traumas.

Is anyone measuring how successful that was?

Diagnosing what children need, for me that is an essential quality. While my vocation is not usually life or death (or is it?),  I think is essential for a teacher to be able to diagnose what a student needs, academically and emotionally,  and provide for those needs. That’s what I aspire to do and to varying degrees, there is some success to be celebrated here.

Recent surveys decry the drop in teacher satisfaction with their careers; headlines lament that many teachers leave this career within five years. People burn out from the constant bashing that we teachers don’t do enough, that our “products” are defective.

Can educational effectiveness be condensed so that it can be replicated over and over? Is there one best system? I believe I know how I would answer; how about you?

Madness of Another Kind….

There are no brackets. There are only anxious and tense teachers and students. Stressed to the maximum. And the cracks are starting to show.

We are in the middle of our test marathons. Last week it was MEPA – Massachusetts English Proficiency Assessent, given to 15 out of my 22 children to assess their growth in English. This week – today actually – we start the Reading MCAS. Fifteen out of my 22 students will have endured two high-stakes and grueling tests within the space of 2 weeks.

Walls are covered or stripped of anything that could remotely be thought of as a study aide. Last year I had to rip desk tags from tops of desks because the tags had the audacity to show the cursive alphabet. I’ve covered birthday charts, removed math words, and even turned the labeled genre baskets in our classroom library around. No cheating.

This year we have a new feature to testing that will not prove anything except that 9 year olds are not adept at checking their test booklets. We teachers have always been sworn to not look at the questions/test materials on the MCAS – please explain how I proctor students to ensure they do not go on to another section of the test that is off-limits when I can’t look at the test <sigh>.

Students – those very same 9 year olds – must check their own test booklets to ensure they haven’t forgotten to fill in a bubble answer. This is new and worrisome. If you’ve ever met a 9 year old, you know they are not usually meticulous about details. If they turn 2 pages of a test booklet at a time and skip 6 answers, for them, that is an “oops” moment. And it is frequent. It is making me very tense because my students need every answer they can muster and to punish them for normal kid-stuff seems mean. And maybe meant to up the ante in proving teachers don’t know what they are doing.

I feel like there is so much more my kids could know of third grade curriculum before being tested. And there is, of course. It is mid-March; school does not end for 90 days – one-quarter of a school year later. What could possibly be the motive for testing children on end-of-year skills 3/4 of the way through their learning cycle? Seriously?

The cracks are showing. Kids are acting out. Teachers are not smiling. No one is happy.

Welcome to March Madness – public school style.

Genealogy Connections

I was sucked in almost the very minute we – Adrien and I – went to a talk at the New England Genealogy and History Society’s Library on Newbury Street in Boston. For a while, I would go in to Boston almost weekly and, while Adrien poured over the Drouin Index for his French Canadian ancestors, I would rummage through fragile directories and volumes for my Puglisi, Duym, and Flournoy relatives.

One puzzle piece that had remained missing was that of my maternal grandfather’s father, Richard Wilson Flournoy. Not much was known about him; there are some family artifacts: his train conductors’ scarf, a wallet with a small scratch pad, a time table, a formal portrait. It was known that he died in a train accident when my grandfather was about a year old.

Periodically, Googling an ancestor’s name yields a result. This week I tried that with Richard’s father, Peter Creed Flournoy. About two entries down, was Richard’s name attached to a cemetery database in Albany, New York.

Richard Wilson Flournoy, was born on March 4, 1859 in Linneus, MO. His father was a Civil War colonel on that “other” side, so when the War ended, the family moved to Arkansas. Eventually, they were able to move back to Missouri and, in 1882 he married my great-grandmother, Minnie Palmer. After living in Bennington, Kansas, Richard went ahead to Albany where he worked on the Hudson River Railroad. We have a letter Richard wrote to Minnie, who was still in the midwest, telling her he would be sending for her and their daughter Carrie soon. In 1889, my grandfather, Palmer, was born in Albany.

And that’s where things had come to a stop. This week, through the cemetery listing, we learned that Richard’s death came on March 19, 1891 caused by gangrene of  the arm. The family story that Richard was in a terrible train accident has been finally confirmed. We also now know that Richard was buried, not in Missouri with his Flournoy relatives, but in Menand Cemetery in Albany.

As usual, new genealogical information brings more questions. Is there an account of the accident that eventually took my relative’s life?  My great-grandmother Minnie retained a lawyer to get some compensation for the loss of her husband – a bold move by a woman in 1891.  Why?

Questions and more questions. And the hunt continues.


Michelle Rhee and Students First

In the past week I’ve received two unsolicited email messages “signed” by Michelle Rhee on behalf of some group called “Students First”.  You know Michelle Rhee of “Waiting for superman…”, former chancellor of the DC schools. Queen of soundbites.

I’ll leave the blow-by-blow rebuttal of her craptastic plans for “improving” education (just send me $10 – are you kidding me?) for another post. Just suffice it to say I disagree vehemently with her hypothesis that everything wrong with public education today stems from professional educators, and more specifically professional educators who have been teaching for quite a while.

The first mail message was sent to my school/work address and thanked me for participation in the 6-word essay contest. Sorry, not me.  So the question is, since I have absolutely no interest in “joining with” Michelle Rhee to save our best teachers from those old experienced ones – like me? – how in the heck did she get my address. Please tell me that the Commonwealth did not sell teacher email addresses to this organization.

The second email with the subject heading “Working For Reform In Westford” was a real jolt. Now if I haven’t opted in to this organization’s email messages, I surely have not given out my HOME town. And frankly, working for reform in Westford — my hometown is an affluent suburb and routinely performs well on the state testing criteria – is a kind of puzzlement. Ms. Rhee, what exactly are you planning to “reform”, or should I say more accurately  what consulting services do you hope to sell?

What bothered me about this? Well, it is pretty creepy to get targeted email that you did not solicit. This is not exactly in the same league as browsing on a website for fashion and getting a bunch of pop ups on the side of a search page. How absolutely bush league this effort is – not exactly the accepted practice of most service marketing!

Michelle Rhee is a opportunist and she is selling something. She is not the answer to education’s ills. I’ll be keeping my ten dollars. Right in my wallet.

The Economics of Teaching

It’s tax time and time for the annual review, in our house at least, of where we spent our monies last year.  I usually provide our accountant with a spreadsheet of anything that we can clearly deduct which includes the amount of money I spend on school. Some years that is a painful profess.

I have to admit that I probably only capture about 75 percent of what I spend on my classroom and kids. There are many times when I shop at Staples or Michael’s and buy something for our household and slip in a few bucks worth of something I can’t live without — just try to live without sticky notes, no-can-do.

Totaling up that number for a year – books for the classroom, folders, pencils, pens – can be quite an eye-opener!

Which got me to thinking. School budgets get slashed every year. Every year we are asked to do less with more. And every year there is some new program or initiative that is under-funded (or unfunded). Our new science program is an example: this past week as my grade level team has been planning for the next part of one unit, we discovered a list of supplies needed – which includes a couple of different plants for each pair of children – and the majority of items on the list were starred as “provided by the teacher.” Now there’s a nice little assumption: teacher will buy those supplies for a class of 25! I give the science program points for both honesty and chutzpah.

What if, instead of listening to those uninformed loudmouths who blather on about how much “those teachers are costing us” or who comb through the budget slashing this, that and the other line item, teachers actually started reporting what they personally spent to run a classroom? And what if, we consolidated those amounts by school district at budget time so that the public got a clue about how much those “greedy” teachers GIVE to their municipality ?

I’m not talking about extra coursework, professional development, or dues to professional organizations. I’m talking supplies that the Districts don’t have to purchase because teachers take the money out of their own wallets.

If the IRS allows a $250 deduction and there were 1000 teachers in a district dipping in to their own money, that would be $250,000. I’m looking at real numbers that top the $250, sometimes I’ve spent close to $2,000 on classroom materials. That number then starts to look pretty impressive.

Wouldn’t that be an interesting number to know on a district-by-district basis? Most likely there wouldn’t be any shift in thinking for bigmouths who complain about how expensive education is, but it would be satisfying to know that it might enlighten some who think of education as a drain on the municipal budget.

Thank you Dr. Seuss

Sometimes, though not that often lately, we have fun.

Adrien reading

Lots of schools mark Dr. Seuss’ birthday with Read Across America celebrations.  Even though it was low key, we did too!

Our special visitor and guest reader was my husband, Adrien. We dug up a book that loosely connects to his career as a photographer, Snowflake Bentley. Bentley was an avid photographer of snowflakes and his collection of glass negatives and resulting prints is still fascinating. Adrien always brings his camera when he visits, and the kids enjoy hamming it up for the professional photographer. Before he left, he was asked several times if he would

go with us on our spring field trip to the Boott Mills.

Sometimes our influence on children is so subtle that it nearly goes unnoticed.
But today, in the midst of all the fun, I knew Adrien had knocked it out of the park when I looked around my room. There were all of my kiddos who normally need to be cajoled into wearing their glasses – wearing their spectacles mid-nose. Just like their “Mr. Bisson”.

So thank you Dr. Seuss. Thank you for giving us a fabulous excuse to have a bit of fun today. And to Adrien…. thank you for voluntarily being a role model for my kids. Now how about that field trip date?

Toxic Stress…. duh!

It caught my eye immediately as I was scanning yesterday’s Globe: Dr. Jack Shonkoff’s interview. Dr. Shonkoff is the Director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

So what is toxic stress and why be concerned.  Well, as I’ve recently learned, there impact of cortisol, the brain’s response to stress, cannot be underrated. Cortisol is not necessarily bad — but it has a negative impact when over-produced in response to stress.  Children (and adults) who are under constant stress have overproduction of cortisol as the body learns to get used to the “new normal” of constantly being under seige. What I do understand about cortisol is that is impacts fat “preservation” and insulin levels. Those lumpy middles on adults and kids may have more to do with continuous stress than anyone ever thought.

The question is, now that we have a hypothesis, what can be done?

Children – and their families – who live with the everyday traumas of poverty need help. We are quick to blame, to point out the (obvious) socio-economics that make crawling out of the hole of poverty nearly impossible. Our society, our government, should make providing healthcare and family support services to those who need it a priority.

To read more, or to learn the facts, click here.