Wednesday, April 16, 2014

I Make Widgets. I Teach

Almost twenty years ago, a mom called me at home at night to discuss her son. Astonished at how she got my number, I handled the conversation politely and chalked it up to one of those experiences I'd talk about for a while. And I did talk about it, and I still remember it. But not because of that phone call, but because of the subsequent dozen phone calls I would continue to receive from her at my home.

This was before email, smart phones, et al.

Even when I suggested calling during the school day, or coming in for a meeting, or stop calling me at home altogether, it didn't work for her. Calling me at home worked best for her. A special education colleague interceded on my behalf and the calls eventually slowed and then stopped.

That is what educators know as unbillable hours.

We can have a lot of unbillable hours in education.

I got to thinking about what the minimum 21st century expectations of a teacher has evolved into--and was that series of phone calls a harbinger of today?

We use GMail at school with the students and staff--and I find myself responding to student emails on a daily basis. (What did kids do twenty years ago? Was this there where the moms called the school? or did those kids have many questions that went by unaddressed?)

List A or the Unbillable Hours Model
Be available, even from home, via email or phone for parents and students
Engage in opportunities outside the school day in your subject area
Attend some school or community events on weekends
Spend personal money on classroom supplies and books
Guide students deeper than and beyond the curriculum with ideas learned outside of your building
Travel to professional conferences and workshops
Prepare presentations for conferences or manuscripts for education journals
Actively keep up to date on the research in your subject area and teaching in general
Know and model a positive use of digital tools
Use social media to connect with educators around the globe

List B or the Billable Hours Model
Be available for parents and students during a daily, consistent band of school hours
Engage in opportunities during the school day in your subject area with your colleagues
Attend school events aligned with the work day
Display classroom materials purchased by the district
Immerse students in the curriculum and materials supplied by the district
Suggest professional development the district should bring into school for the teachers
Browse professional journals when they are available in your building
Be aware of digital tools
Collaborate with colleagues during established curricular meeting dates and times

Most teachers I know are a blend of the two lists. I wrote each list with the intention that neither is inherently good nor bad, but to reflect on one of the shifts in education: time.

More often than not, teachers feel forced to dig their heels into the billable hours model--only give them what they pay for. The shame of it is that is an incredibly inhibiting mindset. And it is a paradigm forced onto educators.

Teachers are no longer trusted with time. Micromanagement of a teacher's time often leads to teachers juggling responsibilities, doing two things at once, or neglecting something on the back burner. Forced to prioritize, someone and something is often left undone. So, the idealism of List A may rub some educators wrong. In other words, if teachers operate with an unbillable hours mentality, then at some point, the unbillable becomes the expectation and becomes a part of what the public gets for the pre-established bill.

But neither the time nor the bill payment increase...teachers just get more items to prepare for the buffet.

Even though the general public might nod and say that List A (unbillable hours) is what they expect, teachers are confused by and often soured by what is expected in the time provided. We have been trained to ask "what meeting do we have today" whenever a window of time cracks open without kids--it must be scheduled, it has to be scheduled, it is scheduled.

And so we go where we are told.

Yet, with time planned for us, we still carry the weight of forms, quizzes, papers, plans from meeting to meeting even though grading or planning lessons during meetings is becoming frowned upon. So, the planning, assessing, and forms get moved elsewhere.

Elsewhere usually means home or several hours after the school day in a classroom. Some teachers arrive an hour before school "off the clock" in order to fulfill the planning and assessing obligation. And if you listen closely enough, you just might hear some teachers question others, "Why do you do that? They don't pay us enough. That is your time."

People once came to teaching because they loved learning and sharing the experience of learning. Now educators divide the day into my time and their (school's) time. It is a primary source of guilt and pressure among teachers across the country.

Right or wrong, our country is creating a generation of educators who compartmentalize everything about teaching--including themselves inside their closed classrooms. Because when you compartmentalize you can measure things better.

And now, we have forced teachers to evaluate how their time is best spent. Sometimes that can be a good question to reflect upon, but what has unwittingly happened is that teachers have evolved into an either/or profession and not an and/with profession.

For example, a question I encounter through conferences, workshops, and online connections is, When will I have time for my own kids after assessing and planning if I want to explore anything else that might make me a better teacher--the teacher I always wanted to be?
  • Do I spend time on either my own reading and writing in my subject area or on my grading, forms, planning, or on my family?
  • Do I spend time on either learning about digital tools and social media or on my grading, forms, planning, or on my family?
  • Do I spend time on either reading the academic journals and the research or on my grading, forms, planning, or on my family?
  • Do I spend time on either volunteering and be an active part of the school community or on my grading, forms, planning, or on my family?
  • Do I spend time on either joining and participating in professional networks or on my grading, forms, planning, or on my family?
Either/or, either/or either/or...and we see what gets lost in the translation. The foundation of education shudders beneath the current weight of transforming it into a business. The foundation is weakening. Teachers are being leveraged into widget makers and not experts of their field who love their subject matter.

And since we know from any business model, time is money...where is the money?

One does not have to read much to know the money is dumped into testing and measurement. Teachers have become hyper-accountable to curriculum, scores, and preparing kids for the next grade.

We have been minimized into widget makers.

List C or What Can Be Done to Heal Education
  • Encourage and fund teachers seeking our workshops and conferences outside of their building and outside of the school day. Encourage it. Encourage it. Encourage it.
  • Encourage and fund teachers who learned something new outside of the building to share it with colleagues and try it in their classrooms. Encourage it. Encourage it. Encourage it.
  • Invest in sharing the decision of the distribution of time with teachers; you will find that they will actually spend more of their time on you if you don't micromanage every minute.
  • Embrace and celebrate the different experiences kids can have in different classrooms; shoehorning teachers into delivering the same experience as their colleagues minimizes teachers and students and elevates the business or factory model of school. One size does not fit all. No one is giving us concentrated, fresh-froze, standardized kids.
The unbillable vs. billable model is very real in education. It is being thrust upon us and then it is being used against us. Today, someone, somewhere, is bean counting the minutes of the teacher day according to salary without taking into account all that is lost when we force teachers to adopt this mindset.

We confuse time and muddle the expectations of the 21st century educator.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Who Kids See as Mentors

Class began today with a short conversation about mentors: what we thought they were, who could be a mentor, how to find a mentor, why we need mentors, etc. My 8th graders were accurate when it came to the formal mentor-mentee relationship.

Yet, it wasn't the formal mentor I wanted them to think about. I challenged them to find the informal mentors in their lives. The people, of any age, who we admire...who do things we would like to know more about...who possess a quality that we would like to see in ourselves. Find the people who do not set out to be your mentor, but because of what they say, or what they do, you notice them. And you take a cue from them.

The unexpected mentor.

Drafting with my first period class, my notebook entry focused on one student who mentored me. After drafting and sharing it, I used the notebook entry as an example for the rest of my classes--freeing me to move around the room.

An excerpt from my entry:
...I admire when kids say hello to one another, or say hello to me, or goodbye, or thank you. A few specific students say those things to me every day--no exaggeration. I've heard again and again that in order to gain respect, one must first give respect. And I look at those students as people who will never have to worry about respect. It is a part of who they are. Respect is their exemplar. The don't pretend to not see other kids in the hall; they don't pretend not to see me between classes. I admire their willingness to be the first to say hello or when they are loud when they say thank you. 
Many years ago, a high school student (Becky) wrote an essay about saying good morning and hello. Her teacher shared it with me, and I don't think Becky ever knew that I read it, or kept it. 
For several years it was framed in my classroom. In the letter, Becky wrote that our saying good morning and hello to one another mattered because so few people said hello to her--and she noticed it as a fourteen year-old. She let herself dwell on it. And she started to feel invisible in our school. She wrote that our hellos made her feel like that I saw her. I saw her: Becky. Not I saw her: generic 8th grade girl. 
Credit: Stacy Moore
I think about Becky's letter from time to time and pull it out to read it. When I do, I find myself thinking about eyes. And I am asking myself, right now as I write, who in this 8th grade class is starting to feel invisible. Or, and bless you if this is true, who uses their eyes to truly see others for who they are.
I kept track of what mattered to my kids today--the things they say they admired in others, the qualities in people that they wish they could infuse in themselves a bit more. Overwhelming numbers wrote about people who give their time.

What struck me as I listened to my kids share is that they used the language "and they get nothing out of it." Meaning the identified mentor gets nothing out of it. In each example, they meant money. People weren't paid for their time and they noticed it.

Writing about and talking about the informal (or unexpected) mentors in our lives was worthwhile exercise today and something I anticipate returning to, now that I planted the seed of noticing the things about people that we admire.