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Archive for February, 2012

My wife and I had been saving up our rewards points from airlines, hotels, and credit cards in order to celebrate a 24th wedding anniversary in Las Vegas. We finally did it this past week. As a lifelong “Rat Pack” fan I looked forward to the Landmarks, the Legends, the Lights, and the Luxuries of the Las Vegas Strip. Ironically, however, our most enjoyable venture was a helicopter tour and landing in the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

One of the most impressive feats of Las Vegas Casinos, to me at least as an educator, was their ability to engage people in the casinos without regard to time. There were no clocks. There were no windows. There were no skylights. The only bells going off were on the slot machines. There seemed to be a total engagement in the moment. Time was not a limitation. The goal was to get a person’s complete and total involvement. In that environment, it seemed to work. Time is a major component of any form of competition, with the obvious exception to games of chance. The main goal in casinos is to get one’s complete engagement for the longest time possible. Time is on the side of the Casinos.

Of course education is another area where each participant’s total engagement would greatly improve the ability to achieve the stated purpose. We educators however, do not attack our purpose with the same ferocity as Casino owners. We force students to limit their engagement based on time. Clocks and schedules are the central theme of a school day. The clock determines when engagement will begin and when it will end. The school calendar is mapped out a year in advance. Considering a student’s age as a unit of time, it has an enormous impact on where a student will be placed to learn.

In general terms in New York for example, a secondary teacher has four, ten week quarters. Each week has 5 periods of approximately 43 minutes. Depending on the school the periods could be longer or shorter, and depending on the vacations within a quarter the ten weeks could be shorter. That is the time frame around which most educators plan the year.

Back in the day, giving a lecture and using direct instruction for a 43 minute period was doable. That was the way that many students were educated for years. Anyone over 60 certainly identifies with this model. That was the time when the teacher had to deliver the entire structured curriculum in the time allotted. Each year there seemed to be more and more added to the curriculum without adding time to do it. I remember referring to that as the “Spandex curriculum”.

As teaching became more creative, and project based learning began to expand, as well as group work and collaborative learning, and simulations, little could be done with time to accommodate those activities. Some schools tried flexible scheduling, but that never seemed to have caught on as mainstream concept in education. To make things worse today, we now have to add in all of the required high stakes testing schedules. In addition to the tests themselves, many schools require test preparation time. In some cases as much as a whole month of test preparation is required in each subject.  Even spandex can’t accommodate these additions.

Classroom teachers are not alone in these time accommodations, administrators have had to make adjustments for their time as well. In order to run a school there are many administrative duties required, all of which take time. The more these administrators have to address dealing with their school community, as well as their community at large, the further they are taken away from education. There is no time to be a mentor, a lead educator, or an educational leader. Many admins, not all, survive by serving the bureaucracy. Even now this is being further complicated with a call for more frequent assessments of teachers. The most dedicated administrators will be hard pressed to find the time to adequately address all of the tasks which will be required.

If we are ever to address reform in education, there are a many changes to consider. There are many readjustments to make. There are many myths to be left behind. In order to change the system, we have to consider changing the culture. Addressing time as an issue in education should definitely be a goal for reform. We should never however, just add time in order to continue to do the same stuff for longer periods of time.

Time has always been a hindrance to innovation in education. We cannot expect to fit innovative 21st Century programs for education into an old model time schedule based on the 19th Century. There is nothing more disturbing than to watch a class full of students looking at the clock, so they can get their books ready to leave at five minutes before the bell. If we approach time differently to give educators a better allotment to engage students with better models of instruction, we may be on our way to positive change.

If we recognize the fact that the administrative hierarchy based on a 19th Century model cannot work within the time constraints given to a 21st Century administrator, then let’s change that model as well. Time in education is an issue to be dealt with aggressively, not passively. We need to control time and not let it control us. Casinos have it right!  Controlling time for education is a goal worth pursuing, and on that, I am willing to bet.

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As an educator for the past four decades there is very little in the way of conversation that I haven’t discussed about what it is to be a teacher. In these discussions, over all of these years, there is one position taken by many people which always gives me cause to think less of the person with whom I am having the discussion. It forces me to question their bias on the subject. The statement that sets me off is usually some variation of,”teaching isn’t really a profession”.

The person at that point of the discussion would usually talk about the hours in the day and the weeks in the year that teachers work as if that had something to do with what a professional is. Ultimately, it always ends up with some comment about the idea that teachers belong to a UNION so they can’t be professionals.

I found two different definitions of Profession and neither mentions a disqualification of status because of time spent working or any union affiliation:

A calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation…

A vocation requiring knowledge of some department of learning or science: the profession of teaching…

I have always taught in New York. There are many different requirements for teacher certification throughout the fifty states, but the common link is a higher education degree. That requires at least four years of college. Many states require a Master’s degree, which involves an additional two years of education. Teachers are required to be content experts as well as education experts all of which entails specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation to enter this vocation requiring knowledge of some department of learning or science. I would say that teaching meets all the requirements to be considered a profession.

It is the very lack of respect for teaching as a profession that forced teachers into considering unionizing in the first place. We are not far from the days of the Schoolmarm, when the work ethic and morals of teachers had a different standard than everyone else. Teaching was often viewed as a part-time job suited well for women because of the limited hours and an academic calendar. I remember back in the 50’s and 60’ teachers were forced to work second jobs in the summers to support their families. If one’s value to society was based on compensation, teachers had very little. People referred to it as a calling as if because of that calling a salary was of little consequence. Teachers, after all, were civil servants. That implied that they were servants to the people, and a servant is not a professional.

It was that very attitude that forced many teachers to organize. The result was not only a better job and working conditions for teachers, but, as a result, it created a better learning environment for students. The real effect of teacher’s union contracts By Matthew DiCarlo via Valerie Strauss Which was further supported by Teacher Unions Boost Student Achievement According to a New Study in the Harvard Educational Review . Essentially, it stated that states with teachers unions provide a better education for their students.

Of course the other more vocal argument these days is the “BAD TEACHER” cry. That is the label most often used in targeting teachers today. My contact with most teachers spanning 40 years as an educator leads me to believe that the vast majority of teachers are caring concerned and dedicated individuals who have answered a calling. Most are parents as well. They are not bad people or “Bad Teachers”. The profession however needs its professionals to constantly update their knowledge and maintain relevance. Schools need at the very least support this, and in the best case provide it. Professional development however is low on the priority list of schools in need of reform.

The public’s negative attitude toward my profession is further exemplified in its judgment of all teachers based on the actions of a few. It is always a headline story when some teacher does something really stupid. It is stupid to openly blog a rant about one’s own students or, any kids or their parents for that matter. Teachers who have done this are not in the majority. Those are stupid and thoughtless acts of individuals. They probably represent the smallest fraction of a percentage of teachers, yet as a result of the actions of this fraction, we now have places considering legislation banning teachers (only teachers) from having contact with students through social media.

There was a case in Los Angeles recently where two teachers were accused of child molestation. That is a heinous crime and the fact that two people in the same building may have committed it at the same time is astounding. Both of those individuals deserve to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The district however decided to take it one step further and eliminate the entire faculty of that school before those individuals even went to trial. Again, this is a community that judges an entire profession based on the stupid or illegal actions of a very few.

Teachers are also probably one of the only professional groups to have their salaries printed in local newspapers at the whim of people looking for political gain. Maybe in the interest of transparency, every community member should have their salary posted in the local paper. I am sure that would have great support. That is only one of the indignities resulting in the fish bowl existence teachers must put up with from communities that lack respect for the profession of teaching.

I am a professional in the profession of education. I have worth; a great deal of worth. I am an expert in an area that required me to obtain and document years of education. I have proven my worth in my job every day as a professional teacher. Do not judge me by the actions of a very few. Do not label me a “Bad Teacher” because districts are not supporting fellow professionals with professional development. Many of my colleagues are civil servants, but they are serving a calling. They are not your personal servants. They are professionals in the Profession of Education.

 

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A personal observation: Back when I began my early education, the year was 1952. I don’t believe Pre-K even existed back then, so I started my education in Kindergarten. There is no doubt in my mind that in my early education I was exposed to educators who were students of a 19th Century education. Those teachers were teaching content to kids using methods they had learned in the 1800’s. Content back then was more solid and more trustworthy. Things did not change. Encyclopedias, the source of information back then, were very dependable. Encyclopedias were infrequently updated by today’s standards. I think the update cycle was about every six years. Yearbook editions filled in the gaps each year and they usually came out the year after the date of the title. It took at least a year to print, so content was dated on the first day any encyclopedia was opened, so relevance was never an issue. Even the news cycle was slow-paced. Newspapers and magazines had to wait at least 24 hours before they could address any change or present anything new.

The pace for 19th Century educators preparing kids for the 20th Century was much slower. It was easy to address change because teachers had time to absorb change and mull it over before they had to present it. Change had the luxury of being able to be pondered before acceptance. There was no rush. . As long as things in the system worked, we continued to do the same things over and over.

The concept of changing things came when the Russians put up Sputnik. For those who were not around then,that was the first satellite in space. That was when Americans began to ask, “How did this happen?” That was when Americans needed to play catch-up to be relevant. Before Sputnik, we were content with teaching from behind. We were fine with our education system. The system served us well until there was a competition. That is when that American competitive spirit kicked into gear and we were in the “Space Race” with the Russians.

It was time to move out the 19th Century ways, and race to the 20th Century, even though we were over 50 years into it. We ramped things up, and even relevance was not enough; we needed to go beyond relevance to innovation. A mere satellite was not enough, we needed a solid win with a moon landing. The benefits were enormous with Velcro, Tang, and Dried Ice Cream, as well as the NASA space program. Education was now in the 20th Century and we were never going back.

Once the Space Race was over, and we declared ourselves the winners, things began to slow down again. Educators settled in. Innovation was replaced by relevance, but that soon was overtaken by complacency. As long as things in the system worked, we continued to do the same things over and over. Technology, however, had again reared its ugly head. It comes not in the form of a basketball-shaped object hurtling through space, but in the form of digital information and content that dwarfs the total collection of ALL previously printed tomes of knowledge combined. As they were in the late 50’s, educators, the complacent content providers, are again  caught with their pants down.

Again, we needed to call upon the competitive spirit of Americans in order to shake off the shackles of complacency. We needed another Space Race. We need some real competition to get educators beyond relevance and into innovation once again. If there is no real competition, we can make one up. We can use education itself as the motivator. We can put educators competing with other educators from around the world to see who will be at the top. That will drive the call to shake off the ways of the 20th Century and teach for the 21st Century even though we are more than a decade into it.

This “Race to the Top” and teaching for the 21st Century are only slogans. They are designed to be reminiscent of “The Race for Space” and “Teaching for the 20th Century”.  That harkens to a time when educators were able to change things up, but it was a different era. We don’t compare modes of transportation from the 20th century to those capabilities of transportation today. A DC 6 airplane cannot be compared to a 747 Jetliner. Why would we expect motivations of the 50’s and 60’s to work today? Slogans and contrived competitions are poor substitutes for relevant professional development.

We can’t expect to teach kids for the 21st century today, because we are over a decade too late. We can’t expect to teach kids for the 21st century with educators in an education system steeped in methods of the 20th Century. We can’t expect to teach kids for the 21st Century with a majority of an educational infrastructure built between 1850 and 1950.

We can expect positive change, if we address these very real issues. We don’t need to teach for the future, we need to concentrate on today, and that requires relevance. Relevance requires continuous development for everyone. Before we can expect innovation, we all have to be on board with relevance. That will require a commitment to professional development. We can’t expect students to be relevant when their teachers are not. We can’t expect skills to be relevant, if the tools for those skills are not. Our culture strives for relevance at every turn except in education. Businesses pay top dollar to be and stay relevant. Relevance is the key to what we have called a modern society.

There is no way for educators who are among the most educated people in our society to stay relevant without continuously learning. It cannot be expected to happen on its own. Learning is not a passive endeavor. Teachers must be professionally developed continually over the course of their careers. It must be part of their work week. It requires a commitment on the part of the schools to provide it, and the teachers to do it. People need to be not only professionally developed, but supported in their efforts to be relevant, in order to move on to innovation. Let’s not teach for a century, but rather teach for now, and the ability to continually learn and adapt. We need our people, adults and children to be able to deal with any century moving forward.

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