Monday, April 21, 2014

Is Teaching a Pathway to Misery?


Via Twitter I stumbled upon this article from Education Week which muses over the dissatisfaction teachers feel over their career. Generally speaking, we're undervalued, underpaid, overworked, or so says the article. Also, according to the article, physicians and lawyers have it little better.

Hmmm. 

The article makes a good point at frustration over how we are held accountable for outcomes that are in large part determined by forces outside our control. It's true for teachers, physicians, and lawyers. Another good point: that the profession would probably be enhanced by some sort of rigorous board exam qualifying one for the classroom. 

Perhaps teachers, physicians, and lawyers are dissatisfied because we deal in worlds characterized by uncertainty. In other posts I've quoted an influential mentor who insisted that the mark of a profession like these is having the humility to understand that professionals cannot guarantee outcomes, we simply undertake steps to make desirable outcomes more likely. But the work world of 2014 is driven by the certainty data seems to offer, of increasing transparency into how businesses, political officials, and public institutions operate. It's driven by an insistence to cut costs. We are programmed against believing that certainty is something of an act of arrogance, and we are programmed to operate in an environment in which some inefficiency can actually serve some good. Perhaps we're not miserable because our jobs are harder or less rewarding than these jobs used to be, but because the communities we serve are looking for us to deliver outputs we're unaccustomed to delivering with the precision desired. 

World War Z

Just finished my most recent piece of fiction, Max Brooks' World War Z. It was the second recommendation by a friend, a friend who has drawn up the syllabus for a science fiction elective at his high school. (The other book was Isaac Asimov's I, Robot.) As I began reading World War Z I didn't really understand what the big deal was about zombie science fiction but thought I'd give it a try. Then I came to think "Hmmm, this Brooks guy has a pretty intriguing style" (a faux oral history). Then I found myself engrossed as situations that seemed like clear solutions to the zombie onslaught failed to stem the tide. I read the last fifty or sixty pages in one sitting.

Nearly everyone has took me the film version isn't worth watching.

After a few days' digestion, I'll figure out another piece of fiction to engross me.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Weird time to make a statement

In an attempt to preserve my sanity I resolved that, by gum, I wasn't going to take any work home with me this week. Hmmm. That's right. Every day it'd just be my lunch pail and new toy (the Chromebook) going back and forth.

I guess I should've re-thunk the plan in light of Caroline's dance practice. Here I am, at dance class, with no grading with me (but knowing that a pile awaits me back at school). Heck, even my son is done his homework. What do I do now? Write about random things. Here we go . . .

My son's math assignment struck me as somewhat obnoxious. One task called for him to find four different pencils, measure them, then report on the data. Doesn't the Common Core realize that kids sometimes do homework at dance studios where pencils are a bit hard to come by? I guess the true cost of relevant assignments is obnoxiousness. I guess I didn't have to wait to become a father on a rainy day in April to realize that; my students could have told me that long ago.

Talk about costs: we are finishing a grueling stretch of work and school, the cost of a winter filled with interruptions and storms. There is a three-day weekend coming up. A brief pause in operations before the final push for the school year. I've noticed my enthusiasm for lessons sag, that I've procrastinated in designing my one class's lessons, content to put it off until I have no choice but to come perilously close to winging it. I'm worn down by the one-offs: tests that are missing due to absences, work that is missing due to apathy, assignments and grades that are poor due to lack of focus. Ugh. I really can't tell if the work load is too high right now or if I'm too fatigued to keep up with a flow of work that isn't unusual. I'm fatigued.

I'm having trouble focusing on vacation planning for this summer. I've already reserved three nights at Mackinac Island for August. But now it's time to figure out what to do before and after. I thought we could hit the sights in Detroit on the way home easily, but there might be more to do there than I expected. Michigan itself seems to offer more than I expected and there are some really tough choices: Do we go to the UP or stay on the mitten? Do we keep the trip oriented outdoors or do we see more civilized locations? Do we plunk down in a rental property for a week or make it a road trip? Should we consider camping? I guess these are good choices to have.

I bought a new toy, a Chromebook. My experience with it is mixed but mostly positive. I guess the biggest issue with it is being reinforced right now: the keyboard is a bit too cramped and in a long typing job it's not the most comfortable. But in other respects it's quite excellent: ridiculously light, great battery life, more conversant with my applications for school and the network there than I expected. I love how quickly it boots, restarts, and shuts down. I'm surprised at how good it is for media: easily plays from Play and Netflix through reasonably loud speakers. It's a ridiculously good machine for when you need to quickly hop online and find something out or to do some online business. For $240 this is a pretty helpful tool to have for life as a teacher, for my short-order cooking duties as a father, and for satisfying my curiosity about random elements of life.

I must laugh at myself and my tendency to leap before I look. I was so excited about the arrival of spring I couldn't wait to reserve camp site #2 at Hickory Run for the weekend of April 25-27. Now it looks like I'll have to cancel my trip. Since reserving the site, I've become aware of conflicts involving dance, my son's triathlon, church, my daughter's school's church, and the imminent arrival of a niece. Reminds me of the old Tim Keller rule: if you want to do something with other adults you better plan it six weeks out. Any time in the next six weeks, there's stuff to do.

There has definitely been less school work to do this year what with the end of AP U.S. History as part of my schedule. I miss it terribly, though, and plan on returning next year. I'll probably leave the co-taught world behind, acknowledging that my skills don't lend themselves as well to that teaching as they do to motivating the AP student toward excellence in that arena. That's where I need to specialize.

On the bright side, today's dance lesson gave me a chance to relax and my son a chance to read a book which inspired us to find this video.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Day Misspent

I like thinking of this Friday as a day misspent. It was misspent wonderfully. Nearly everything that normally characterizes a weekday didn't characterize Friday. With my band I performed in Hershey at the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association conference in Hershey.

I didn't teach. In fact, I spent most of the day quiet, devouring a good book rather than doing a lot of talking. Given my job and role as a father of two rather talkative kids, that made for a very different way to spend a day. That I was reading fiction so much was even a departure: usually it's news that I'm devouring.

Rather than drive myself out to Hershey, I rode with fellow members of the band on a coach bus. I spend enough time alone driving.

I spent a day as an amateur in the midst of professionals. The PMEA conference is geared toward musicians who make a life out of music: teaching, performing, composing, selling and repairing instruments. I didn't have nearly the talent to truly peruse the B.A.C. wares (but I was probably good for the PBone exhibit from Zeswitz).

I spent the day doing something more economic than normal (car pooling) but also something fairly uneconomic (playing an unpaid gig with a not-for-profit ensemble).

Winter is long. March seems even longer. It's a time of year filled with routine for me, and the routine can be grueling relative to other parts of the year (or at least as grueling as it can be in affluent suburban public education). It was wonderful to simply break from that routine for a day. I'm ready now for April.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Educational Turning Point Moments

This has been a winter of transition for me in teaching. By my accounting, it's the third such transition in my career. It seems that every five or six years, I encounter a new perspective that prompts me to not just question my approach but to dramatically and quickly change it.

In 2004, the change came as the result of a workshop led by Joseph Ginotti, a University of Pennsylvania professor who exposed me to the idea of Focus Correction Areas in the assessment of student work. It was a liberating notion, and it led to an overnight change in how I assessed student writing. I wish I had more ability to work with the Penn Literacy Network.

Around 2010 my district hired Kelly Gallagher to visit Central Bucks, and he energized me to re-consider the purpose of teaching news in the classroom. He made it clear that talking current events wasn't a waste of time, but instead a crucial piece of helping students master your content.

And then this winter a friend introduced me to the concept of anchor assignments, which I'm an earnest novice in using in my classroom. But the suggestion came just at the time that I was hitting a ceiling of effectiveness. As the fall semester of 2013-14 was ending, it was becoming more obvious that I was talking too much, and that if I talked less and listened more I might just teach more stuff.

It's been a bit interesting to watch the culture shift in my classroom. Perhaps the neatest change I'm seeing is in what my students are starting to do when they feel like they're temporarily done with a particular task or activity. I'm seeing more initiative on their part. I'm also seeing how tough it is to transform a culture in which the kids really do come to class expecting "the show" and how they are resistant when the aren't getting the 60-minute-long lecture occasionally punctuated by the off-topic sidebars that, frankly, kids enjoy.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Where Do I Begin with Ukraine?

The news recently has been filled with news stories that make a great case for the relevance of my job. Certainly a lot of teachable moments. And I've found myself drawn to the news, ingesting as much as I can about the events in Ukraine. To say the least, it's unsettling.

Russia's conquest of the Crimea was shadowy and completed so swiftly that Ukraine didn't know what hit them. I guess Russia has made clear to the people of Ukraine what price there would be for alignment with the West: it'll cost them Crimea. The only thing that's unclear is whether or not Crimea is the whole sum or just a down payment on the eastern half of the country.

This sad American has a few perspectives to offer:

1) We, the United States, probably lack the means and resolve to actually engage in armed combat in this episode. That fact leaves me ambivalent. The patriot in my cringes that we seem toothless in the face of aggression. The objective observer in me realizes that the cost to the U.S. of intervening at this point in time is too high for what we would likely gain. Tom Friedman (from the New York Times) offered a helpful perspective, however, in an op-ed penned earlier this week. Friedman claims that there are two models of nation-building: nations that try to elevate the individual vs. those that seek to elevate the state. Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea exemplify the latter. We exemplify the former. One can hope that, over the long run, we can make the emphatic point that the statist model is anachronistic in a changing world. Sadly, millions upon millions will languish through decades of a degraded life in a corrupt quasi-Soviet environment until government triumphing the individual proves itself. However . . .

2) . . . I'm finding myself angrier at the intransigence of politicians in our nation's capital for engaging in the grid-locked, short-term, stunted thinking when it comes to our nation's problems. If we're to show the people of Ukraine, Russia, China, Iran, etc. that a way of life triumphing and elevating the individual then let's make some progress on the dilemmas of democracy. Compromise, dammit, on immigration, the minimum wage, and entitlement reform. The slavish obedience of Democrats and Republicans to their bases isn't much better than the kleptocrats' dependence on their oligarchical heads of business in Ukraine and Russia. Futher, it's preventing us from enjoying the kind of prosperity that will defy any veneer of respectability the Putins of the world can erect.

3) The United States and the West lost Crimea for Ukraine years ago. We've been hasty to beat a retreat from Afghanistan. We couldn't wait to extract ourselves from Iraq. We were wishy-washy on Syria. This president and his peers in Western Europe have proceeded with timidity and naivete in many, many episodes since the middle of the last decade.

4) I heard that President Obama was on the phone with President Putin for an hour and a half earlier this week. I'm trying to imagine what Putin was insisting on that could've kept the conversation going that long. And I've tried to force myself to understand his world view. It's funny, we in the U.S. felt some measure of pride and relief in bringing El Chapo to justice in Mexico. However, might not Putin view our logistical and surveillance support of the Mexican Marines in that operation as an example of imperialistic meddling? And isn't the U.S. a smug little power, what with two borders defined by two vast oceans, another shared with a vastly poorer state, and the fourth shared by the world's greatest, kindest neighbor, Canada? Russia's whole existence is defined by ill-defined frontiers. To the east is the vastness of Siberia. To the south is what the Bush administration called the Arc of Instability. To the west is a set of borders as fluid as any others in the western world: Russia shares borders with five states that didn't even exist twenty-five years ago, and it was through the lands of those states that Russia was invaded twice in the last century. Putin's is a world view carved from insecurity, vulnerability, and uncertainty that is generations in the making.

Now it's time for me to pray that our leaders in Washington will consider ways to set the long-run so it's less likely the Putins of the world will see opportunity where we see promise. Have we made mistakes in the last ten or fifteen years that laid the seeds for Ukraine's tragedy? Yes. It's easy to blame our policymakers, but we live in a republic. Power stems from the people, not from the kleptocrats. I hope we can give more thought to the messages we send about what matters to our policymakers, so it's likely we can be an anchor for the next Ukraine rather than just a vague, distant dream.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Job Lock

Two boring stories really caught my attention this week. First, there was a report about a miserly practice by AOL (and, apparently, by many other firms) regarding 401k plans. Second, the kerfuffle that emerged over the possible impact of the Affordable Care Act on joblessness in the U.S. illustrates an example of how what's politically wise isn't the same as what is economically wise.

Let me address the latter of these topics: Despite its shortcomings, the ACA (or any health coverage reform) could win me over if it made labor markets more flexible. There are people who settle for miserable jobs because they're afraid leaving that job means leaving guaranteed medical coverage. Severing employment and health coverage could do us quite a bit of good, though it's a very tough institutional practice for this country to get over. The White House's retort to the CBO report, that the ACA might diminish job lock, and therefore might actually increase unemployment and underemployment makes economic sense. I could see these reforms allowing more Americans to work part-time and afford the lifestyle they want, or even to put up with short-term periods of unemployment and afford the lifestyle they want. I'm mangling my thoughts on this topic, and if I'm mangling it, how could politicians spin it?

The 401k lump sum match practice that is becoming more common has me really bothered. It's obvious to me how it cuts costs for a company, how it penalizes workers for leaving mid-year, and how it penalizes workers who stay throughout the year (in foresaken compounding interest). I could get behind a law requiring companies to make 401k matches on a monthly or quarterly basis, despite my misgivings about regulating business practices. That's how counter-productive I find the lump sum 401k match practice to be.

Ironically, I signed on to a career that is characterized by job lock. Public school teachers usually get locked in place after a half dozen years with one employer. I've been employed by the same district for more than 15 years: I'm prohibitively expensive for another district to hire. If I'm going to find a new job, it will be up or out, not over to another teaching gig somewhere else. I've accepted the golden handcuffs because it's the rigidity of my profession is part of a set of tradeoffs that allows me to do a job I love but still satisfactorily support my family.

People in the private sector didn't sign up for that deal.

The participants in our private sector labor force benefit from a market that offers fluidity. Workers benefit from a system that allows them to be free to look at other jobs. Employers benefit from a system that disincentivizes unhappy workers from sticking around due to job lock. This lump sum practice might just be an example of employers cutting their noses to spite their face.