Why Are Teachers So Afraid?

I am a teacher who was raised by teachers. I have always believed that once you become a teacher, you remain one for life. Though I resigned at the end of last year, I want to be clear that I would have had no problem at all publishing this blog under my name while teaching full-time. I am not afraid to speak my mind now, nor have I ever been.

Anyone who has ever taught with me, has witnessed me speaking up in team meetings, department meetings, and even board meetings, while employed as a teacher.

In my third year of teaching, non-tenured since I had just moved to Brooklyn from Baltimore, I spoke out against the widespread cheating that occurred during standardized tests in my school. Later in my career, I started and circulated a petition against our teacher’s union asking for information on the number of jobs that would be saved if teachers voted in favor of a salary freeze. When I was upset by how terribly our subgroup populations (special education, African-American, Hispanic, and low income) performed on the NJ ASK, I submitted a letter to the principal and superintendent with an attached list of 21 suggestions for improvement.

When my oldest started kindergarten in the same district where I was teaching, my principal (in good faith) cautioned me against speaking at board meetings. He said it was too political. To this, I replied that I was not afraid of politics. That year, I spoke at board meetings about everything from the lack to books in classrooms to the truth about connectivity woes that were not being honestly reported. I was quoted in the local newspaper speaking out against advertising on the side of our district school buses. In the end, my resignation speech was quoted in an Asbury Park Press article about teacher burnout. Here is the link.

My point here is not to wow you with my leadership skills or impress you with my bravery. It is to make the point that passionate, respected teachers who speak their mind rarely get fired for their actions. In fact, though I resigned from my previous district to relocate in search of a district that more closely embraced my ideals, I made more friends than foes. I still talk to the board members that at times I engaged in heated debates with. I still have the support and respect of many colleagues and parents I worked with over the years.

This is not to say that retribution doesn’t happen. In far too many schools it does. But what about the rest? I refuse to believe that the vast majority of teachers are so fearful of their administration that they will not speak up about the negative impact that PARCC and other standardized tests and reforms have had on their students, classroom, and schools. The children have had little to no voice in this whole debacle, and they need their teachers, who know them best, to advocate for them.

Tenure may look different in coming years (or extinct), but it was put in place to allow teachers the freedom to advocate for their students and teach in the way that they felt was best. Tenure protected teachers who taught evolution and tenure will protect teachers who speak out about the harmful effects of ill-conceived tests like the PARCC and the poorly designed Common Core Content Standards (CCCS) that are dominating curriculum and instruction across the nation. Tenure has been criticized for keeping bad teachers in classrooms, but I feel the biggest failure of tenure is that it has failed to empower the good ones. Teachers need to take advantage of it before it is taken away.

And if tenure is not enough to make teachers comfortable speaking out, then why don’t more teachers speak out who could stand to lose their job. Why don’t we hear more advocacy from teachers who have a strong second income or bread-winning spouse? Why don’t we hear more from teachers who are about to retire and have nothing to lose speaking out? Where are the young teachers who don’t have tenure but are still idealistic and fiery and want to speak out to ensure that they are not locked into a career dominated by the power of money instead of the needs of children?

There has been a precedent set. Superintendents like Dr. Joseph V. Rella and Dr. Michael Hynes from Long Island have spoken out openly in the media about the damaging effects of the new standardized tests. A Florida kindergarten teacher named Susan Bowles refused to give the state test to her students and was not fired. An 8th grade science teacher from  Long Island named Beth Dimino did the same and was not fired. In Seattle a few teachers got together and  refused to administer tests and their students were removed from their classes to take the test in the library. Yet, many of those students and their parents in turn refused to take the tests. Those teachers are now facing sanctions (unclear exactly what they are) but are not expected to lose their jobs.

I am not saying that every teacher should outright refuse to give the PARCC test or any test that they don’t believe in, though that would be nice. But I am saying that more teachers need to find their voices and enter into the public debate without fear.

America,” the land of the free and the home of the brave,” needs to take a long hard look at why so few teachers are willing to openly join an intellectual discussion about the validity of Common Core and the testing regimen that came with it.  We need to hear from them what is going on behind the classroom walls, not from politicians.

And if they are truly afraid to speak, then we have another bigger problem that needs to be addressed.

Teachers, we need to hear from more of you.

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Four Gifts I Wish I Could Give Teachers

Growing up in a house with a mother for a kindergarten teacher has its benefits. You never run out of crayons or glue and the holiday presents are second to none.

I will never forget my first year teaching in inner city Baltimore. My students came from families who struggled to survive, yet when the holidays rolled around, I was moved to tears by the gifts that were given to me by nearly every student. Those who couldn’t buy, made me something.

Now that my own children are in school, I love putting together thoughtful gifts to make their teachers understand how much they mean to me. It’s not easy (particularly being the control freak that I am) to entrust my children to the care of others for so many hours of so many days.

But as I looked for the perfect gift, I was struck by the fact that I couldn’t give the teachers what I really wanted to give. What they need is not purchasable, even in today’s world where everything seems to be for sale. So I bought some pretty mugs and things to wrap. But I will send this gift via blog, so at least I can virtually make their world a little better.

1. Immunity 

I am no epidemiologist, but I am going to venture to guess that the number of germs that a teacher comes in contact with in a given day has to be staggering.  There is no escape. The elementary school if full of open mouth, no-cover coughers and the middle school has their share of wipe snot on sleevers, and the high school must have a few that are too cool to wash their hands before and after lunch or even using the bathroom. You get the idea. Not to mention the fact that schools have an awful lot of people crammed into small stuffy places.

The teacher that invented Airborne made a mint, and still is raking in the dough. Trust me every teacher must lament, “Why didn’t I think of that?!” when they read the story of Airborne.

Invented By A Teacher

There may be no job more challenging to the immune system than teaching. Imagine a room full of unhappy kids. But one inventive teacher took it upon herself to find a solution that would support her immune system. She worked in collaboration with nutrition experts and herbalists to formulate a remarkable immune support supplement. Her ingenuity eventually led to Airborne® products and what started as a one-off solution is now the go-to brand for immune support across the country

http://www.airbornehealth.com/our-story

So since I can’t give you a million dollar company, teachers, I would love to at least give you immunity. So that you can save a few more of your 10 sick days a year that you try so hard to save a few to accrue. So that you can one day retire and hope to get paid for some percentage of them. And so that you don’t have to over medicate and teach because you used all of your sick days for your kids or maternity leaves. And can avoid trying to teach with no voice and a pounding headache.

2. Paid Maternity Leave

I know many have seen the article that compares paid maternity leave time  around the word, but if you haven’t click on the link below.

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/06/good-job-america-a-map-of-maternity-leave-policies-around-the-world/373117/

As a mom of 4 children, I have seen both sides. After my first two babies I went back rather quickly (4 months and 5 months) because I did not have tenure. A non tenured teacher can only take 4-6 weeks of disability and 12 weeks of FMLA leave. I was lucky because mine were summer babies, I got an extra month or two. But with my third and 4th I took an extended leave. At first I didn’t thin I would want to stay home longer than 6 months, but I took a whole year and a half. It was such a magical time for me. I lost my father that year and the break gave me time to heal. I homeschooled my kids for preschool and started my first blog www.ucanpreschool.wordpress.com.  That time with my children is immortalized in my writing and photos, and I still often look back on those posts.

I do realize that some women have to return to work much sooner, but, teachers, I think it would be a great gift. It’s hard to give a classroom full of children and a bag full of paperwork and lesson plans your full attention if you are trying to pump milk between classes or just simply missing your little one.

Staying home isn’t for everyone, but most of the teacher moms and dads I know, would have loved to be home for longer with their babies.  It shouldn’t be a choice based on finances.

3. A Yearly Professional Development Retreat

When I worked in a charter school in Newark, they had a tradition of going to a bed and breakfast every winter to help teachers bond and recharge their batteries during the darkest, coldest, most challenging part of the school year. We did do some lesson planning and curriculum work, but mostly we played games, had debates, and broke bread together.

The state of NJ gives teachers and students two days off in November for the NJEA convention, which in all fairness I have never attended. The drive to Atlantic City was just too much for me to leave the kids home so long. But, I am sure that teachers have fun there too, and don’t just sit in workshops.

But professional development in my last district had completely gotten away from any activity that developed anyone professionally or otherwise. It became about the latest state mandate, standardized test, or data analysis and collection. The focus needs to go back to education and helping teachers to develop more engaging best practices and also to learn strategies to help them cope with the stress of teaching in today’s climate.

4. Time

The demands on teachers has been steadily increasing over the years to the point where teachers have to prioritize constantly. It is impossible for the average teacher to complete 100% of what is expected of them 100% of the time and still teach with any sort or passion. Teachers are tired. And when the leader gets tired, things start to fall apart.

At the end of every week that I taught, on Friday, I would pack up a bag of work to do. By Monday, I had either worked like a dog all weekend to finish as much of the work that I could or I would be left staring guiltily at a full bag of work that I never touched. At the end of every school year that I taught, in June, I would bring home boxes of books that I intended to read, plans I intended to make, complicated lesson or projects that I intended to create over the long summer months. The next thing I knew there would be a week left of summer and my intentions were buried under a mountain of beach sand.

Time is a gift I know that no teacher would return. But it is a gift that is increasingly taken away by assessments, paperwork, and endless meetings.

So teachers, there you have it.

Four gifts that I wish I could give to you. Enjoy your much deserved break and know that there are many out there who truly appreciate you.

10 Things My Father Taught Me About Teaching

This is my dad.

dad swing

The picture shows how I choose to remember him most…smiling. That smile lit up the lives of thousands of children that passed through his gym over the nearly 40 years that he taught physical education and coached many teams. At his wake, the room overflowed with people of all ages. Many I knew, but so many I had never met or even heard about, yet my father’s death moved every single one of them to tears.

Here is just some of what I learned from him about being a teacher.

1. You can’t fool kids. If you don’t care or don’t like them, they will know right away.

2. There’s nothing wrong with getting down on the floor to play a game of duck, duck goose with a bunch of kindergarteners. (Not even if you are a 65 year old, 6 foot 3 inch tall black man.)

3. Not everyone is going to work as hard or care as much as you do. But you shouldn’t let that slow you down.

4. Murphy’s always working, so you might as well not sweat the small stuff.

*Murphy’s Law: Whatever can go wrong will go wrong.

5. Always have fun, but set the bar of expectations high.

6. A custodian is not any less of a person than a principal. Treat everyone with respect.

7. Have zero tolerance for bullying or any sort of put downs in your classroom.

8. Never be afraid to speak your mind at faculty meetings, board meetings, union meetings, or anywhere.

9. If you have a good idea, work hard to make it a reality no matter who or what stands in your way.

10. Don’t be in a hurry to retire.

When my dad kept teaching past retirement age, colleagues constantly asked him when he was going to retire. He used to hate that. He loved his job. Once he retired, he said no one would call him Mr. Washington anymore, he would just be Mike.

Well, there he was wrong. He never was just Mike, or “just” anything….and he never will be.

Teaching is not a job that ends at the end of the day or at the end of the school year. It is a job that keeps working long after the teacher is gone and the students have moved on and grown up.