June 1st, 2015

Saturn Ring Blues

Parents: a Neglected Resource

A couple years ago, a parent of a senior started e-mailing or calling me every week.  She wanted to know if her son had turned in assignments and what the next week’s work was going to be.  I thought that was obsessive behavior for a senior’s mom, but I answered her questions and sent her the material she asked for.  Later, after the class ended, I talked to her about it.  She said that she loved her son, knew he was capable, but he was a terrible procrastinator.  He would be going to college next year, so she felt this was her last chance to be a parent and to help him develop the work habits he would have to have.

There was a sense of desperation in her voice that I totally understood.

On a related note, I have an ongoing argument about ParentVue with a friend of mine who teaches middle school math. He thinks that teachers posting their gradebook online feeds two evils: student irresponsibility and helicopter parenting.  Since I disagree with him, I have a tough time paraphrasing his point of view.  Basically he thinks that by the time a kid gets to middle school that he should be adult enough to take care of his own grades.  My friend believes that the high stake nature of grades creates responsibility since if the kid fails he will pay the penalty.  Paying the penalty is the lesson.  ParentVue makes it harder for kids to fail so an irresponsible kid won’t learn the important lesson by failing.

See, I told you I wouldn’t be able to make his argument well.  It sounds silly to me to even say it.

At the same time, ParentVue encourages too involved parents to become truly intrusive, where they call all the time, question the teacher’s grading policy, and never give their kids a break.

My friend believes that the quicker we treat kids like adults by making them solely responsible for their grades and divorcing them from their parents, the quicker the kids will become adults.

In theory his arguments make sense.  here’s why I think he’s wrong.
One of the best things to happen to me as a teacher was to become a parent of a school-aged child.  Suddenly, in a very concrete way, I understood that every kid in my class was somebody’s baby.  When students sat in my room taking notes or reading their texts or writing essays, I saw like a ghostly presence the image of their parent or parents behind them, hoping, praying, agonizing over their child’s fate.  Even the kids who were doing well—or maybe most particularly the kids who were doing well—had parents who still wanted to be involved in their student’s academic life.

They want to parent. I think I’m shortsighted if I don’t involve them.

My administrator friend who asked me for “easy wins,” the things we can do to make education better that don’t break the bank, will appreciate this: I believe that the most underutilized force to improve high school are the parents.  We made a stride forward with ParentVue by putting the power of the gradebook in parents’ hands.  It’s only a single step, though.

Somebody asked me once what changes I’d seen in education during my career.  There weren’t many, and most of them were negative, but ParentVue was a positive.  A concerned student or parent could query me if the kid’s grades were going south.  One click on an e-mail link, and we were suddenly in a dialogue.  Parent-teacher conferences were no longer “gotcha” moments where a kid’s bad grades ambushed parents whose kids had kept them in the dark.  ParentVue gave parents a chance to be parental.

Here’s the next step I would like to propose.  In high school, there’s a tacit conspiracy of silence toward parents.  ParentVue exists, and an active parent will take advantage of it, but ParentVue is passive and impersonal, providing only grades without explanations.  No nuance.  The silence comes from the teachers.

A weird feature of high school (and I suspect this is true in middle school too) is that most teachers do not communicate directly with parents.  The change I propose is that they should.

The quickest way to change our students’ learning, especially for struggling students, is to involve the parents.  I know that sounds obvious, but how often does it happen?  I’ll bet (a lot!) that most middle school and high school teachers do not initiate even one personal parent contact a week.

If I were an administrator who wanted the quickest way to both improve student achievement and to raise the school’s reputation in the community, I would require that every teacher phone (not e-mail or text) five parents a week every week of the school year.  The calls wouldn’t have to be to the lowest performing students, although why wouldn’t you call the lowest achieving students’ parents?  They could be randomly chosen.  The call might just be the teacher telling the parent about a highlight from the student’s week.

Most parents would appreciate the information and the human contact.  Kids would be held more accountable.  Phone calls could help to initiate an active, coordinated conspiracy of adults working in concert to help the kids.

Five phone calls a week.  It’s not a radical suggestion.  It’s an easy win.

Saturn Ring Blues

Authority: Parting Thoughts on Retirement (a long post that does come to a point)

I’ve told this story before about the staff at FMHS in 1981.  What a fractious, contrary, opinionated lot they were.  Quick to defend what they believed in.  Full of their ability to make a difference.  Convinced that their position as professionals lent their voices extra weight.  Every policy suggestion was debated.  Changes went before teacher committees.  Teachers heavily influenced the school.  Passionate voices rang out during faculty meetings. 

It was chaotic, messy and glorious.

That’s the way the superintendent of the district and the school board wanted it too.  Individual schools were encouraged to behave autonomously, to come up with solutions that best fit their community’s needs and their teaching strengths.  Experimentation and innovation were supported.  It was through that philosophy that the three traditional high schools in the district each came up with their own bell schedule, from the school that adopted an eight-period day on a traditional 18-week semester with forty-five minute classes; to the one that decided extended class periods would be better, so they ran a four-period day where the classes were ninety minutes long and a semester lasted nine weeks.  FMHS, suffering from overcrowding, had to transition to a full-year schedule.  A teacher committee investigated dozens of schedules (there were some wild ones) for the staff to decide between.  We ended up with a five-period day, seventy-minute long classes, and four 12-week long “mesters.”  Kids and teachers attended three of the four sessions.

When the district built a facility to take our 9th graders and the overflow of 8th graders from the middle schools, we were able to go back to a traditional calendar, but the Fruita teachers liked the 12-week schedule so much that we kept it.

One of the superintendents in those early years always said, “Keep the main thing the main thing.”  The main thing, of course, was the students.

Then things changed.  Many teachers mark the change with No Child Left Behind, but I think it started earlier for us with the new gym.  FMHS was built originally for 600 students.  Over time, our population grew to 1,800.  We could add new classrooms, but the gym was too small, so the district decided that we needed a new one, as did the other schools.  We were told that we could have a lot of input into the design.  You can imagine how excited the P.E. department was about this!  They investigated gyms from all over the country before recommending the one that they thought best fit our needs.  It even would cost less to build than the district had budgeted.

The gym committee worked for almost an entire year to find the design.  It was a ton of time and effort, but at the end, the district decided that all the gyms should be the same so that none of the schools would be “jealous” of the other school’s gym.  We didn’t get the building we wanted. It wasn’t even a design the committee considered.  All the schools were going to get exactly the same gym.

I don’t know if jealousy was really the explanation.  It could have just been a budgeting concern.  The point is, though, that the teachers’ input was disregarded.  Folks who were in the know said that the powers-that-be knew months earlier that they were going to ignore the committee, but they let it continue to work. 

That’s disheartening.

Later, we heard about No Child Left Behind.  I remember the meeting where the teacher who had gone to the presentations about the upcoming changes presented what she’d learned to the staff.  She said, “This is real. It’s not going to go away.”

I don’t think the staff believed her.  Educational fads come and go.  I’d already taught through several of them.  But she wasn’t wrong.  No Child Left Behind came, and it grew more pervasive every year.  Instead of talking about our strengths, our innovations, and our independence, we heard more and more that our school was being run from the outside.  No more committees to decide independently what was best for us and our kids.  Curriculum changed to fit the mandates.  Instruction time that used to be spent on subject-related material shifted into test preparation.  Department meetings were devoted to strategies for keeping our test scores high.

At the same time, the district began a move away from autonomy.  Suddenly what was valued was consistency.  The old idea that each high school could shape itself to best fit its community was shunted aside.  The high schools in the district had to be on the same bell schedule, offer the same classes, and within those classes to be teaching the same things, hitting the same benchmarks on the same schedule.  No discussion.  In fact, the district aggressively named the new standards as "Non-Negotiables."

For someone like me, someone who remembered when our staff fought for everything, it was depressing.  What happened to the staff was best embodied by an administrator who faced questions about why we were giving in so easily to No Child Left Behind by saying, “It is what it is.”

“It is what it is” has a kind of Zen-like simplicity to it, doesn’t it?  At first I thought it sounded wise.  It admitted that discussion at our level didn’t matter.  It told us that teacher’s opinions, the ones that used to shape the school had become irrelevant.  But after a while, the “It is what it is” mantra made me furious because it started to sound more like, “Shut the hell up.”

And that is where I’m going with my final thoughts.  Education in this country has changed.  The change is not the superintendent, the school board, or the building administrator’s fault.  It truly did come from the outside.  Even the principal who always said, “It is what it is,” was right.  It just hurt to hear it.

But I don’t think “It is what it is” should be a teacher’s guiding thought.  What “is” doesn’t have to stay that way.  I think we have to remember that despite the outside forces, the real work in education happens inside the classroom between the teacher and the students.  What “is” is what the teachers make of it. The professional teacher’s opinion of what is best for students does matter, and we should speak our mind.

I’m not going to leave you with the old saw, “Question Authority,” though.  The problem is that we are too far from Authority to question it.  The principal has no freedom to change the mandates, neither does the school board or the superintendent.  Even the state is powerless.  Who can we question (there is an answer to that—go to education advocacy sites on the web if you want to see how)?

What I’ll leave you with is this.  I think our obligation is to not question Authority but to speak truth to it.  Speak truth to Authority.  Always do it.  If you’re classes are too big, tell authority.  If school policies are taking away from your time to teach, your time to prepare, or your time to reflect, speak truth to Authority.  Be a squeaky wheel. Advocate for what you believe is best for kids.  Always do it.

Here’s the problem with a docile faculty.  If everyone lives by the “It is what it is” philosophy, in no time at all Authority will assume that what is going on is fine.  I worked for an administrator like that once who was so powerful, so intimidating, that the administrator scared people into not speaking the truth.  After a while, the administrator would say, “It must be a good policy.  I haven’t heard any objections.”

For the principal of Fruita in 1981, trying to lead must have been like herding cats.  Everyone felt the right to speak truth to authority, often times with contradictory truths.  It was also a faculty that pulled together, that innovated its way to solutions, and that prided itself for its professionalism and independence.

We work in perilous times.  Teachers are assaulted on all sides.  Maybe you like what is happening in education.  Maybe you are a teacher that can roll with the punches, and none of this bothers you.  If that’s the case, teach on.  Do the best you can despite the environment (after all, teachers have been doing this for decades).  If you don’t like something, though, if you think it’s wrong for kids, then talk about it.  Speak truth to Authority.  Don’t put yourself in the position where someone else can say later, “Everything must have been okay.  There were no complaints.”

I know that I always wanted to do what was best for my students.  I also wanted to keep my job, so I tried to voice my opinion respectfully.  I learned to make my thoughts known, and then to back off.  I wasn’t talking to the people who could make a direct change in the conditions.  After I talked to them, though, they could pass that opinion on.  My unrest was not unvoiced.  I did what I could.

As far as my own behavior goes, here is where I ended up.  First, of course, was this speak truth to Authority idea.  The second, and one that gave me comfort when I felt stuck between a rock and a hard place, was this: no teacher ever became great by following all the rules.

Oh, and here’s a P.S.  Wouldn’t it be fantastic if for an entire year of faculty meetings, the principal could announce, “Here’s what we’ve done to make your job easier.  Here’s what is going on to support you in your efforts.  Here’s a list of things we’ve taken off your plate so that you can focus more on your classrooms and your kids”?

Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Good luck FMHS teachers and School District #51.  I know that you are doing the best you can for kids.  I know you care deeply, think deeply, and that you’re impacting our students.