Monday, October 9, 2017

It'll be a cold day in hell, or in my room, but either way...

My office/classroom is freezing.

I usually have more important things to complain about, like students not being able to understand simple sentence structure or to be able to identify cause and effect in a piece of writing.  But those thoughts are fleeing in the face of the Arctic blast that greets me every time I enter my room.

Just so you know, I live near Houston, and in this part of Texas, there’s no autumn.  We don’t have that lovely time of gradually decreasing temperatures and the leaves slowly becoming golden before drifting to the ground.  No, in southeast Texas, it stays hot right up until the end of October (and by hot I mean in the mid-90s) and then suddenly the temperature drops 25-30 degrees when November begins.  There’s no fall unless you count the sudden leaf dump that seems to happen at the beginning of December when the winds start.

So it’s still hot outside, but you wouldn’t know it to step into my room.  I’d say the temperature here is about 68 degrees.  I’m wearing a long-sleeve turtleneck sweater and a jacket with close-toed shoes.  I will be sweating the minute I step outside, but them’s the breaks.

Why is my room so cold?  I have no idea.  Even my principal has commented on the fact that the cold air seems to sit in my room and nowhere else.  He actually showed me that he had the A/C set at 76, and the rest of the school feels fine.  Or maybe he just dislikes me and is screwing with me.

I wish I knew whether it was a punishment from the gods of air conditioning or just a mistake, but by the end of the day, my shoulders hurt from hunching over in response to the frigid air and my hands are about ten degrees cooler than the rest of my body.  One of the students offered to bring in a space heater, because he felt sorry for me. 

I’m trying to find the upside in this situation, which is that either cold air burns calories or that my can of Coke Zero Sugar (!) stays cold now all on its own.  But it’s hard to do when I have to step outside the building to get some relief. 

One student and I spent the other day working through the short story “To Build a Fire.”  The main character keeps commenting to himself how cold it is outside in the Yukon.  The student said, “Ms. Marlowe, that sounds like you in this room."

It does.  But there’s no story that will be written about slowly succumbing to frostbite in a school building. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

I came here to read, not to lead...

My required reading list is getting a little too lengthy.

Teachers always have reading they’re supposed to do.  I’m sure there are other occupations that have the same problem, though what those occupations are simply won’t come to mind right now.  President of the United States?  That sounds about right.

I have a huge stack of books next to my bed that I need to get to in order to be a better teacher.  Some of them are potential textbooks, some of them are instruction manuals for teachers who are working through a certain subject (Grammar of the Greats, anyone?) or just general sort of self-help texts for those of us struggling in an area or hoping to get new teaching techniques to use.  I know I need to read these, so the best thing I can do is start like I’m eating an elephant, and hope I remember/make notes/incorporate what I need to, while not choking as I read over my food.

The other list is the books I should be reading so that I can study them with my classes.  Curriculum lists change every year, so if you think that there are just certain books that will stay on the list and I should make sure I read them, you are dead, DEAD wrong.  That ain’t how it works.

For example, this year I had The Hunger Games on my curriculum list.  I breathed a sigh of relief that I’d already read the entire series before I became overwhelmed with the amount of reading I need to do.  But sometimes I don’t get so lucky.  The year that Bartleby the Scrivener and The Poisonwood Bible showed up had me reading fast and furiously, hoping to stay at least a week ahead of the students.  I don’t want to repeat that year again, or, I should say, I'd prefer not to. 

The fact is, the better read a teacher is, the more he or she can use to help in literature lessons overall with similar storylines, descriptions, and characters.  But the other fact is that there are only so many hours in the day, and reading constantly for knowledge or work gets exhausting.  And when I get exhausted, I just watch animal GIFs, even though I’m not particularly an animal lover.

Some people say, “Try audiobooks!  Then you can listen to them in the car!”  I’ve tried it, and I’ve found that I hate audiobooks, unless they're nonfiction and read in the same voice.  Fiction books where the reader tries to differentiate the voices annoy me.  I’d rather read than be read to.  Plus I can’t skip all the boring description in an audiobook.  That's how I got through Frankenstein so quickly.

I have found a lot of favorites as I plug away at my list.  Death of a Salesman became a fave after I had it done, and re-reading Fahrenheit 451 years after I was a teenager gave me a new appreciation for it.  But some don't improve upon re-reading, or I just never like them at all.  The Scarlet Letter now only makes me despise Reverend Dimmesdale, and 1984 did not make a fan out of me. 

So, I’ll continue to slog through my reading list, hoping to have Richard III and Catcher in the Rye finished before they pop up on the list for the semester.  I’m already skipping most of the descriptions.

Monday, September 25, 2017

"Zeroing" in on the problem...

Another instance for me to file away in my "ideas that administration thinks are great but don't work in the real world, yet they force them on teachers anyway" just came up this week at one of the schools I visit - no zeros.

Yes, teacher friends and friends of teachers, the administration at this school said that teachers are no longer allowed to give zeros when students fail to turn in their work.

I was fortunate enough to be at the meeting where this sweeping policy change was announced.  Every face around me was blank, as though no one could comprehend what had just been said.  

A brave soul raised his hand.  "I'm not sure I understand how this is going to work."

"Teachers will no longer put zeros in the grade book," the obviously helpful assistant principal said, as though she hadn't just said that a few seconds ago.

"Right.  And what will they put in instead?"  This teacher was no fool.

"Students will be reminded that they haven't turned in the work and they'll have until the end of the term to turn it in for reduced credit."  The principal nodded approvingly next to her.

I heard angry muttering happening all around me.  I wanted to raise my hand and ask my own questions, but as district personnel who was merely visiting the campus, I figured it was better if I raised my concerns privately, to keep my own ridicule from being obvious.  

The questioner wasn't going down easily.  "What if they don't turn anything in, ever?"  

"This is to give them the opportunity to get the work done," she explained obtusely.

"I understand that, but some students will NOT turn in the work, regardless.  What should we put in the grade book then?"

The assistant principal said, "You should put in 50 percent."

Now the muttering was louder and angrier.  "That doesn't make sense," another teacher said.  "We put in a 50 even if they haven't done their work?  No work equals no grade."

"Plus," the instructional specialist piped up, "that doesn't make it clear if the student is failing because he or she hasn't done the work to earn a grade, or if the student gets low grades because he or she is struggling.  Those issues are now going to be harder to clarify."

Principal clearly hadn't anticipated this.  "Yes, well, we can make decisions on individual students later..." Now he was being drowned out by the increasingly loud NOT-muttering sounds.  

I know why schools do this.  It makes their grade point averages look - well, maybe not good, but better.  They think it's helping the students, but it isn't.  It's piling work on the teachers who now have to try and chase down the students and grade an assignment weeks after it was due, it gives parents a false idea of how the kid is doing in class, plus - what the instructional specialist said.  The assistant principal looked at me for help, but I shook my head.  I didn't want to be dragged into the nightmare they created. 

Parents, a no "zero" policy is just fudging the numbers.  Many schools do it.  And it ain't good for anyone, for all the reasons listed.  But schools that are on the downhill slide will do it to try to redeem themselves in the district's eyes.  

So the school instituted the policy.  You know how teachers got around it?  They entered a "1" in the grade book for a missing assignment.  No alert went to administration, who in turn didn't look closely at it, and grades didn't change.  Don't screw with the teachers, or they'll screw with you. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

I can tell SOMEONE isn't worried.

So I was helping a student today who is struggling through an English class.  The class has a significant test coming up, and the format of the test is an in-class essay.  I've worked with this student off and on and like him; he's not that great of a writer, but he's willing to work hard to try to get there.

I know his teacher fairly well, but I'm not saying that in a positive way.  Knowing what a lazy grader she is, I was surprised to see that she gave the class a relatively detailed rubric for the in-class essay.

"Okay, do you know what the essay topics are that you might cover?" I asked.

Yes, he did.  The teacher had given them a list of possible topics, and mentally I blessed her for not leaving the students entirely in the dark.

"She says it has to be a five-paragraph essay," he said hesitantly.

"So, okay - wait, what?"

"A five-paragraph essay," he repeated.

I looked at him, aghast.  "How long are your classes?"

"Uh, it'll be 45 minutes that day, because of the assembly.  And she says we need 3 pieces of quoted evidence per paragraph."

"Okay," I said.  "Can you use your book?"

He looked relieved.  "I asked that too, but she said no."

So, in 45 minutes, the teacher is expecting the class to crank out a five paragraph essay with 15 pieces of quoted evidence in it?  That's some high expectations, in my opinion; so high, in fact, that I was surprised she didn't already have a nosebleed.

 "Are you supposed to memorize the quotes?" I asked.

He shrugged.  "She says we can't paraphrase.  Then she told us not to worry about it.  I mean, she actually said that if we didn't have it all, we'd get points taken off, but not to worry about it.  She says we don't need a really high grade for this first test."

They don't, huh?  Wow, this teacher is incredibly helpful, precise and insightful.  I wanted to ask if she showed up fully dressed each day, but thought it was better not to.

You know what's sad?  In my new role, I see a TON of this: Teachers who give out instructions to students that are impossible to follow, or that don't make any common sense.  These same teachers say crap like "don't worry about it" because the teacher hasn't - apparently.

We worked on a skeleton structure, and I wished him luck.  What I really wanted to tell him was to count on a B for his grade.  Knowing her like I do, she won't read past the second paragraph anyway.  So he shouldn't worry about it.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Out of the mouth of madness!

Found a diary entry from my time at Crappy ISD that I thought everyone would find humorous, especially if they've been drinking heavily for the last couple of hours and their expectations are extremely low...

Jan 15

I went to training at the district offices for a spanking, brand-new software program that will solve all of our low achievers' problems.  If we (meaning me and the other hapless teachers who are forced into this) just deploy this system correctly, our students’ scores will go up, their work ethic will improve, and they’ll change into entirely new people.  If we do it incorrectly, we’ll hurt their reading comprehension, scramble their brain cells and have them leave the school as broken, nonfunctioning members of society.

No pressure, obviously. 

I love the idea that new software is the answer we’ve all been looking for.  “It’s so seamless, even an idiot can use it, an idiot like you!” is the implied message when any new system is introduced.  It’s nice that our school system has no faith in us.  I can’t tell if they think we’re just lazy and stupid, or if it’s a reflection on the people at the top, who are lazy and stupid and want something that does their job for them. 

By the way, this training came a day before I had to give my semester finals - in my yearbook class.  Yes, yearbook, where every final is a project that takes hours to grade, pore over and improve before submitting it to the yearbook company.  I went to my assistant principal and begged to get out of it, reminding him of the testing and all I had to do around the school, duty-wise.  He answered that the district was requiring this training.  He seemed to forget that that’s why I contacted HIM, to ask him to use COMMON SENSE and realize that pulling a teacher at a time she needs to be doing end of semester work that is REQUIRED is a BAD IDEA.  

Once again, my expectations were way off.

Did I mention that they decided to use one of my sick days for this training without telling me?

Looking at this entry, I still can't figure out why they were surprised when I turned in my resignation. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Copy that! No, really!

“Can you do me a favor, Mrs. Marlowe?”

I looked up from my desk, where I was sitting and inputting grades during my conference period.  Glenda, a geometry teacher, was standing in the doorway.

“What can I do for you?” I asked pleasantly.

She held out a sheaf of papers.  “Can you make these copies for me?”

Stunned, I stared at the papers, then up at her.  I said the first thing that popped out of my mouth.  “Why can’t you do it?”

“I have a meeting with the principal in about ten minutes.”  She did look a little frantic.

I looked up at the clock.  I only had ten minutes left in my conference period before the students came in for fifth period.  Glenda had never been rude to me, and she did seem a bit out of sorts, but seriously, make copies for her?  I wasn’t an administrative assistant, and I had my own classes to worry about.  Still, it never hurts to build up some goodwill with another teacher.

“Um, I guess, if it’s just a few,” I said, rising slowly.

“Well, see, I need 30 copies of these, and then 35 copies of this one, but it has to be collated…”

“Glenda,” I interrupted, “there’s no way I can get this done before my class starts.”  I knew that the teacher’s lounge was always flooded with copies during fourth period. 

“Yes, but I really need these!”  Now she sounded whiny and slightly angry.

“I understand, but I won’t be able to get back to my class-“ I began, but she interrupted me, clearly upset. 

“Never mind,” she barked.  “I guess I just won’t have them in time.”  She glared at me at stomped off down the hall.

I sat down again, baffled.  What on earth was she mad about?  And why would she ask me to do this with so little time left?  Shaking my head, I saved my gradebook changes and made sure I had everything ready for fifth period.

I was twenty-five minutes into class when a student knocked on my door.  I opened it and said, “Yes?’

It was Bridgett, a senior who was an office assistant.  She looked at the floor as she said, “Mr. Simmons said he needs you to make these copies for Mrs. Asper.”

What?  I stared at her.  “I’m in class,” I stated. 

She shuffled her feet.  “He said she really needs them.”

“He wants a teacher to LEAVE HER CLASS to make copies for another teacher?” I said, enunciating every word clearly. 

“Well, see, he, um…” she looked around at my now very interested class who was quiet as they looked at her.  “Never mind, I’ll tell him you’re busy.”  She turned and closed the door behind her. 

The room was still quiet as I turned back to the class.  Then Jeremy piped up, “That was weird, right, Ms. Marlowe?”

“Sure was,” I muttered. 

The day went by normally, but when school was over, and I was packing up to go home, Nick, the US History teacher, stopped by my room.

“So guess what?” he asked.

“I hate it when people start conversations that way,” I grumbled, and he laughed.

“You’re right, and you’ll never guess this one,” he said.  Nick went on to explain that he was in the grade-level chair meeting with Glenda, the principal and two other teachers when she complained that she couldn’t get her prep work done because Ms. Marlowe wouldn’t make copies like she was supposed to.  Apparently, Mr. Simmons agreed because he sent Bridgett with the papers for me to do my “job.”

“Who decided that my job was to make copies?” I asked, aghast.

Nick shrugged.  “I think it’s because you’re the journalism and newspaper teacher and your room is right next to the teacher’s lounge.”

“But we have an office assistant to do that!”

He raised an eyebrow.  “As we told him.  Glenda went off about you, and Charity and I asked her why she was asking a teacher to make copies for her, particularly during her class.  When Bridgett came back, Mr. Simmons said he would talk to you about it later.  So I came by to see if he did.  Did he?”

I shook my head.  “Not yet.”

He never did, and Glenda glared at me the rest of the year but never came to my room again.  I still wonder about this incident – the bizarre assumptions of an apparently disorganized teacher, the idiocy of a principal who believes what he’s told without regard to common sense, and the availability of the office assistant who actually could have made the copies.  I decided that the next time I needed to make a bunch of copies, I’m going to drop them on Glenda’s desk with a note and a smiley face. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Double the trouble! For me...

I live near Houston, so I'm stuck in the house, watching the rising floodwaters and praying it doesn't come near my house.  This is causing me to reflect on a lot of things.  And you know what occurred to me?  How much I hate "double contact rules."

Double contact rules are put in place by schools. The rules are designed to make sure that parents of struggling students are contacted so that they know their child is struggling or failing, or in danger of failing. 

Both TCS and CISD had double contact rules.  The parent or parents of each failing child were supposed to be contacted each term so that the parents are aware of it.  The person who had to communicate with them was me, the teacher.

I hated the rules.  First of all, they were arbitrary and unnecessary.  Both districts I taught in had an online system where parents could log in and see their child's grade and assignments.  All of the teachers I worked with updated the system regularly.  But even though a parent could log in every day and see the daily grade fluctuations, I was still supposed to call him or her and let them know, in case they were "unaware" or "didn't have Internet access."

No internet access?  Everyone who has a smartphone has internet access.  If a parent chooses not to check his or her child's grade, that's on the parent. When we, the teachers, would point this out to the administration, the answer that came back was invariably, "Well, parents have come to us and say they didn't know their child was failing."

I have an answer for that, which is the parent is lying, or doesn't care.  These same parents never show up for parent-teacher conferences, or contact the teacher when the progress reports or report cards come out.  If they don't know, it's because they are choosing not to know. 

Anyone with a functioning brain also knows not to take at face value everything a teenager tells him or her.  For example, if your kid never has homework and says the teachers didn't give him any, your kid is lying.  There is ALWAYS homework at some point.  If you never ask about it, you are a negligent parent.  If your kid says that the grades in the system are wrong or the teacher hasn't entered the grades, your kid is still lying.  

Sorry, parent, it's on you.  If you show up at the end of the year because Junior is about to be held back or sent to summer school and complain that you had no idea, where were you during the school year?  

CISD insisted that we had to call each parent.  I ignored that.  First of all, phone numbers change all the time, so even if I do try to call, if I can't reach the parent, what proof do I have that I called?  If I had a working email address for a parent, I emailed.  It leaves a paper trail.  Plus, I've known parents who claim I never called them, even after I finally tracked them down and had a long phone or face-to-face conversation with them. 

I think the double contact rules are just another way to add to the teacher workload and make teachers responsible for the parenting, not parents.  That doesn't work and it's not fair to either the teacher or the student.  How about if, instead of pushing the responsibility onto the teacher, when the parent complains about Junior failing his class, the administration looks up how many times he or she checked the grade online, called the teacher, or came in for parent-teacher conferences?  THAT'S a rule I could get behind.