Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Back in the saddle again! But something's got to go.

I'm back into one saddle but out of this one.

About a year-and-a-half ago I retired from coaching hockey after 32 years. I had been the co-head coach at Warroad High School for two years when I stepped down. Warroad calls itself Hockeytown, U.S.A., so you can imagine the pressure, but I also take my teaching very seriously, and it got to the point where something had to go. The stress level, the energy involved, and the time commitment simply became too much for me. So at the end of the 2005-06 season I turned in my resignation and announced my retirement from hockey. Well, I just unretired.

Our high school's junior varsity coach moved to Grand Forks at the end of the summer, so that opened up a spot on the hockey coaching staff. I have to admit that I initially made the decision kicking back with my wife on a Friday night enjoying my third Captain Morgan and Coke while she was on her second Chardonnay. Don't worry, though. I continued to think about it for a few days before I finally approached the guys on our coaching staff about it. When I explained my thought process to them, they offered to buy some more Captain Morgan for me if it would help.

The major reason that I'm jumping back into coaching again is that I feel like something is missing when I am just teaching, and that "something" has to do with my relationship with the kids and my school. I've always felt that being able to work with kids in settings in which they all definitely wanted to be there was very healthy. It was good for me, but it was also good for the kids to see me in that setting. I have missed that.

Although it is high school hockey that I am getting back into, it was actually coaching another sport that I'm convinced helped me as a teacher more than anything else that I've ever done. From 1991-99 I ran Warroad's in-house little league baseball program. Each summer during this period, I would work with all of our young baseball players in grades two through six--as many as 150 in a summer. So I would see many of these kids every summer for five years, and then four years later I would have them in my American History classes. I don't know how many times there would be some kid that I heard nothing but horror stories about as they went through middle school, and then I would get him (or her) and have absolutely no problems because of the positive relationship we'd developed earlier during those little league baseball days. I don't think it's a coincidence that I'm so unhappy with my relationship with this year's group of sophomores. They were first graders when I gave up the little league baseball job--the first class of sophomores I've had since 1994-95 that I never had in baseball.

I don't plan to ever get involved in baseball again, but hockey is something that seems to be in my blood. It will be different for me to be working primarily with junior varsity kids, because I worked strictly with varsity players as an assistant and then a head coach for the last thirteen years that I coached. I am a little nervous about the commitment I've made because, as a result of cuts in our school, my teaching load has never been more demanding. But I think I can handle it, and I think it will be fun. There's a little less time and a lot less stress than there was when I was a head coach, and it will be a challenge to work with kids who need so much emphasis on skills, skills, skills.

But adding a commitment as big as coaching hockey means that something has to go. That something is going to have to be my blogging. I've already been posting less because I've been spending so much time at school doing things to get as far ahead as possible before our hockey season begins. The season begins in a week-and-a-half, so it's time to shut her down for at least awhile. But hockey only lasts for seventeen weeks, so as Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, "I'll be back!"

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Blame the teacher

I got an email yesterday from one of our administrators, and after a tough day I was ready to blow a gasket. After a parent of one of our underachieving students stopped in to complain to the administrator, the email was sent to all of the girl's teachers. I don't blame the administrator for sharing his concern with the teachers involved, but I was furious at the parent for trying to blame us for the lousy job that he is doing as a parent and his daughter is doing as a student.

First of all, I always enjoy it when a parent has a complaint about a teacher, and rather than seeing the teacher, the parent goes straight to an administrator. Courageous! In this case the parent complained because of the lack of communication that he had been getting from those darned teachers. He was upset because his lovely daughter is failing four of her classes (that I know of), and he had only been notified of problems by two of us. He also complained because we hadn't been posting our schedules of assignments on the school's web page so he could keep up on what his daughter was supposed to be doing. The implication was that if only we would keep him informed he would make sure that his daughter was keeping up. BALDERDASH!

I happen to be one of the teachers who did contact this parent. I've sent home two progress reports in the first six weeks of school informing the parents that their daughter, despite having plenty of academic ability, was performing miserably. Our school's website has been an on and off proposition, so I don't use that, but I do have an American History email address group for parents of kids in my classes. Each week I send my group the schedule of assignments for the upcoming week. In the first progress report that I sent to Mr. Concerned Parent, I invited him to send me an email so I could add him to my group, and I let him know that this had made a big difference for a number of my students last year. You would think a parent who was so big on communication would jump at that opportunity, but I never heard from him. I also never heard from him after the second lack-of-progress report, and neither of the progress reports resulted in any change in their daughter's complete lack of effort.

Since I was one of the teachers who did contact this parent, I assume that he wasn't complaining about me, but I resent what this clown was trying to do. Because two of the teachers didn't contact him, his daughter's total lack of effort somehow becomes the teachers' fault. If for no other reason than to protect themselves, I think they should have contacted the guy, but if my contacting him made no difference whatsoever in his daughter's performance in my class, why would the other teachers contacting him have made any difference in theirs. For whatever reason, this guy has a daughter who just doesn't give a rip.

Any time I think about the amount of time I have to spend each weekend making sure parents of non-performing kids are notified, especially considering the meager response that I get for doing it, I get angry. The parents of this kind of student who respond or take any meaningful action are definitely a minority, but you can bet that if the teacher misses somebody--and that is so easy to do--that we will hear about it. At the end of our administrator's letter, he told us that the parent requested that we begin printing out progress reports each week and leaving them for him in the high school office. Oh goody! One more thing that I get to do!! Add that one to the list!

If you are wondering why it is easy to miss somebody, here's why. I have six different classes and about 150 kids. I send out progress reports to parents of any kid getting a low C- or worse at the end of the second and sixth weeks. Then, whenever a kid falls into failing territory after that, I send those parents deficiency slips. During the last three weeks of the marking periods, I also send out reports to any student who falls into C- or D territory. In addition to that, I have to send out groups of progress reports to three different special education teachers for the kids in their caseloads every week. Finally, I have to submit a list of failing kids to the office so they can be put on our scholastic ineligibility list for extra-curricular activities, and I know there will be hell to pay if I didn't inform the parents of every one of those kids that they were in failing territory.

I think informing parents as early as possible is a good idea, but this is something that has been completely turned around. Maybe I'm forgetting, but I don't remember warnings being given to students' parents when I was going to school. Report cards were just that: "report" cards. That's when teachers informed parents how their kids were doing, and if a student got an F, it was the student's fault. Parents wouldn't have dreamed of trying to pass the blame onto the teacher because they hadn't been warned. But now, that is exactly what happens. Contacting parents early used to be something extra that teachers did to be helpful, but now it's gotten to the point where some administrators say, "If you haven't warned the parent, you can't give an F to the student." It doesn't matter if the kid failed because he didn't bother to make up a test that he was conveniently absent for, and it doesn't matter if he failed the class because he went into the tank for the last two weeks of the marking period.

I am as conscientious as I can be in trying to keep parents informed when their kids aren't doing well, but I resent having to fear that I'll be the fall-guy if I miss somebody. I'm also embarrassed by the fact that some teachers feel like they've got to pass some kids who don't deserve it due to the fact that there are parents will try to crucify them because they "would have taken care of it if only they had known." And finally, I resent the amount of time I've got to spend worrying about those kinds of parents. The bottom line is this: if a student performs miserably in a class, whether or when the teacher gave a warning should be a minor concern. The student should fail and the student is the one who should be held responsible for that failure. And if parents want to find anyone else to blame, they should begin by looking in the mirror.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Bill Cosby: An expert who gets it!

Bill Cosby was on Meet the Press this morning along with Dr. Alvin Poussaint talking about their book, Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors. Because Cosby is a celebrity who speaks out on social issues, he is treated by the media as an expert. But there is something different about Cosby; he gets it! You can go here to read excerpts from the book.

I understand why Cosby and Poussaint directed their message to the black community, but man, could a lot of people of all races in America use listening to this same kind of message. For example, does anyone doubt that there are white children out there who would prefer to see themselves as victims rather than pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Here is a short excerpt that could certainly go for all of us:

In 1950, we (the authors) still feared our parents and respected them. We know that for a fact because we were both in our early teens that year and were both testing our limits. We and the others in our generation weren’t saints. We’ll be the first to admit that. We were filled with piss and vinegar like many teenage boys—white, black, and otherwise. If we saw something we wanted and didn’t have any money—and trust us, few of us ever had money—we thought about taking it, sure. But something called “parenting,” something that had wormed its way into our heads from the time we were still in the womb, said to us, If you get caught stealing it, you’re going to embarrass your mother. The voice didn’t say, You’re going to get your butt kicked. We knew that and expected that from experience. No, that inner voice said, You’re going to embarrass your mother. You’re going to embarrass your family. As we became older and grew more interested in girls, our hormones raged just as boys’ hormones rage today. The Internet may be new. Cell phones may be new. But sex, we don’t need to tell you, has been around since Adam and Eve. So has shame. We knew that if one of us got a girl pregnant, not only would she have to go visit that famous “aunt in South Carolina,” but young Romeo would have to go too, not to South Carolina maybe, but somewhere. It would be too embarrassing for Romeo’s family for him to just sit around in the neighborhood with a fat Cheshire cat smile on his face. And there was something else we understood: that girl likely had a daddy in the home. And he’d be prepared to wipe that grin off Romeo’s face permanently. This was what parenting was about. It wasn’t always pretty, but it could be pretty effective. Parenting works best when both a mother and a father participate.

Some mothers can do it on their own, but they need help. A house without a father is a challenge. A neighborhood without fathers is a catastrophe, and that’s just about what we have today. Can we fix this? Can we change it? We don’t have a choice. We have to take our neighborhoods back. We have to go in there and do it ourselves. We saw what happened in New Orleans when people waited for the government to help. “Governments” are things. Governments don’t care. People care, and no people care like parents do—well, except maybe grandparents and other caregivers, and thank God for them.

I only saw the interview this morning so I haven't read the book, but if I'm interpreting things correctly, Cosby and Poussaint are saying that kids (students) must take responsibility for their own actions, and even more than that, parents must take responsibility for parenting. I'm not trying to sluff off the responsibility that schools have to do a better job on anybody else, but I can't help but wonder: What if parents took the responsibility that Cosby urges them to take? What if one kid made fun of another for studying, and had his words shoved right down his throat? As Herman's Hermits once said, "What a wonderful world it would be!"

Monday, October 01, 2007

Kids these days!

This post should fit in very nicely after my last one in which I identified with crotchety old teachers.

For most of the nineteen years that I've taught here in Warroad, Minnesota, I've had all of the sophomores for American History. I've always liked that situation because I end up knowing all of the kids in the high school from grades 10-12, except for the few who move into our district for their junior or senior years. I really like walking through the hallways and being able to know just about everyone. This also gives me a very good feel for all of the classes that come through our school. To be frank, so far, the feeling that I have for this year's group of sophomores isn't very good. My basic class this year is wonderful, but one of my regular classes is the worst I've had during my entire career. Here are some observations and thoughts that I have regarding the kids I've got this year. Some of them are particular to this group of kids and our school but some of them are more general.

1. The most frustrating and maddening thing is the lack of seriousness that these kids have regarding their education. Now, I know that I am 56, and most of my kids are 15 going on 16, and I understand that there are things in their lives that excite them more than George Washington or the Declaration of Independence. (To tell the truth, there are things that excite me more than those things, too.) But every year, I expect a certain amount of seriousness and attention, and every year I am at least somewhat disappointed. This year I have been disappointed more than usual. I know that school is a social situation, and I don't have any problem with that, but for many of our teenagers it is little more than that. The sophomore year is such an important year in the lives of these young people, because education is a matter of keeping doors open. When a student is a sophomore there is still time to recover from past failures, but it's going to be very difficult to recover if they don't make an effort this year. It is so hard to get many kids to understand or care about that. They really have trouble seeing past next Friday night. By the way, I don't think this is a problem that is particular to my school or this group of kids. I think this is something high school teachers are seeing around the nation.

2. The defiant attitudes of some of the kids I've got this year is shocking to me. I have never dealt with so many kids who do the opposite of what they are directed to do, even when I am looking right at them. There have been times in a couple of my classes this year when I've felt like the little Dutch boy. As soon as I deal with a disruption in one corner of the room, another disruption pops up in another part. If I was going to kick out all the kids who deserved it, I'd have about a third of one of my classes sitting in the Principal's office every other day. I don't think he'd like that.

3. Size matters. Up until a couple of years ago, my class sizes were rarely over twenty-five. (I know there are a lot of teachers around the nation who would kill to have that situation, but I had it for most of my career.) Due to cuts our school has made, having thirty or more kids in a class has become normal. Getting and keeping the attention of kids, effectively dealing with disruptions, and just walking around the room are all considerably more difficult for me than they used to be.

4. Cuts matter. The larger class sizes all of the teachers in our school are dealing with are a result of cuts, but that's not the only effect. Some of the lack of seriousness and behavioral things I'm seeing are societal, but some of it is a result of our school system not being as good as it used to be. Those kids who behave so poorly are coming into my classroom assuming that their behavior will be tolerated. Obviously, they've learned that. Over the last few years, a number of younger teachers have been cut, and at least a couple of them were excellent--teachers who set high standards for performance and behavior. They made my job a lot easier when their kids came up to their sophomore year and walked into my classroom. We've also had a lot of teachers get bumped into subjects that they hadn't taught before, and weren't really comfortable with. And then, as I already mentioned, we're all dealing with larger classes which are harder to manage.

5. It will get better. Part of my problems, so far, stem from it being early in the year. As the year goes on, some kids will improve as they get used to my performance and behavior standards, and there will be some others who will drift off to our alternative learning center. Included in the latter group will be at least a couple of kids with the worst behavior problems, and a couple of other kids who do nothing in class. I have a good idea which kids will end up leaving, and it would save everyone a lot of grief if I could make that decision for them right now. If only!