Monday, June 30, 2014

New Year's Eve

The fiscal year for my employer resets tomorrow, as it does for many, many other public schools throughout the country. So, we're at a financial New Year. It's also a psychological one as teachers like me turn the corner from our old rosters and old courses toward a new year and a new set of challenges.

So, why do I do this? Why do I teach?

I love the energy of the classroom. I love the rush of being on stage with the answers and the ideas of where we are going. I get great satisfaction from seeing how my students grow. I still enjoy the challenge of crafting the kind of lessons that leads students toward an "ah-ha" moment. I enjoy that this job affords me a summer to recharge my batteries and to spend time with the two children with whom I have to measure my time during the ten months that constitutes my work calendar. And I'm grateful that it's an occupation that allows me the kind of income to support my family, and position my own children so that they will likely have an even fuller, richer life than I have.

So in the New Year I resolve to fight harder to make every line I just wrote even more true.

Good night.

Monday, June 23, 2014

My worst day . . .

. . . here is better than many people's best day there.

That's what an old friend used to say when we marinated in the pessimism of the crummy moments that occur in suburban public school life. I'm reminded of that at the end of a day when I vented a lot to my wife and my dad (who we met for dinner). It's also at the end of the day during which I found out my son said that I complain so much about school that I wouldn't be able to follow his camp's one complaint per day rule.

I'm chagrined.

I need to remember that I had lunch with eleven colleagues and enjoyed all the minutes of it. We like one another, and we generally try to help one another out. It could be much worse. Much worse.

I was granted a day to get my stuff away and check out leisurely. I had the chance to learn from others in a pair of webinars, webinars I got to choose from a menu of options. It could be much worse.

My kids were at a camp that they're so happy at that my son scolded me for being fifteen minutes early.

So, tomorrow, I resolve to rise above the smallness and do great things. If I can get others to do them with me, great. If not, I'll do great things by myself.

I resolve that I will not waste tomorrow.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Year in Review, Part 2

On December 22 I wrote a post extolling the virtues of Canada and in that post I pledged to figure out a way to comment that someone's gitch was showing without getting fired. I partially fulfilled that one: I haven't been fired. That's true despite the fact that my 1st block students' most memorable moment was my retort to a slightly late 11th grader's plea that he was almost on time: "Being almost on time is like being almost pregnant."

On December 26 I confessed to changing political beliefs related to the Affordable Care Act and Same-Sex Marriage by quoting Keynes ("When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"). I hope that I am ending the year more open-minded than I started it. Knowing that I'm open to the charge of being wishy-washy, I resolve that a year from now I'll actually have a coherent political philosophy. Check that, of course I won't. Besides, politicians love to court people in the middle . . . unless one lives in a safe electoral district where my views really aren't courted in any way, shape, or form.

On January 20 I wrote that "Our entitlement perspective on schools leads us to mistake seat time for learning and consistency of quality for excellence." After writing that I taught better. I taught better by throwing away the rule book for a few particular tasks in my classroom. I re-sequenced units of instruction in a way that made sense to me and my students, but defied consistency with other classes. I informally swapped ideas with a friend and colleague, and was perfectly at ease with how we each implemented what seemed to work for our classes. I improvised a review game involving index cards and simple posters . . . and actually had 11th graders paying rapt attention at 2:25 on a sunny Tuesday in June. I relearned that infusing my personality and eccentricity into a class leads to my best instruction.

On January 26 I came a bit too close to offering salty commentary that might be construed as insubordinate. Good thing I write under an oh-so-clever pseudonym.

On March 30 I reflected on a day spent with music education professionals. I remain envious of the professionalism they exude with a conference like that, and I wonder if I would ever have the chutzpah to work with others toward building that for Social Studies educators. If I'm tired of playing small ball as a school system, why am I not swinging for the fences myself?

On tax day I wrote that I finished World War Z. I regret that I haven't found as good of a book as that since finishing it. I'm only 33% through the book I selected next. And I know it's nowhere near as compelling as the book on the Battle of Gettysburg I was reading last year at this time.

On May 18 I referenced a brilliant column about being a loyal hometown fan. The irony that yesterday my neighbor gifted my kids with Red Sox tee-shirts because she has mistaken my Ted Williams hat for me being a Sox fan hasn't been lost on me. How does someone tell a kindly septuagenarian that I'm not a Red Sox fan and cannot be as long as a) the Sox reside in Boston and b) the American League allows for the DH.

And that's it for my first ever year in review. Summer vacation begins for me Wednesday. I will next teach students in September. Happy new year.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Year in Review

In the spirit of Bob Ford, I've decided to reexamine my last year of blogging.

In a post on June 15 I fulminated "How patently irresponsible the great powers have been!" regarding the West's inaction in Syria. I guess I could've said the exact same thing nine months later about Ukraine.

In a post on July 6 I reflected on an impromptu Canada Day during which (with friends) I "enjoyed Canadian macrobrew and Canadian whiskey." Also that "I re-learned the ugly consequences of mixing beer and liquor and resolve that I will not again follow a beer with a whiskey with a beer, or at least I won't until next Canada Day." (Canada Day is only eleven days away. Just sayin'.) Though I've stayed committed to the dictum against mixing beer and liquor I am now seeking a solution to enjoying local microbrews on work nights. I'm glad I have the summer to study this problem.

In a post on July 7 I rambled at length about the cause of the Civil War, concluding the post by saying that "For history nerds like this [sic], discussing the central questions of that era lead us to write, and write, and write." After a year of not teaching history, I've lost some of my ramble. However, I have found that teaching economics makes me much less compelling at social functions. Apparently, people meeting with me over drinks or food would rather discuss the Civil War than bond yields. Go figure. Good thing I'm returning to history teaching next year.

On July 14 I wrote about our decision to install central air conditioning. Though I certainly don't regret that decision, I regret that the temperature failed to get above 85 degrees for the rest of that summer.

In a post on August 6 I reflected on the loss of a friend, Steve Frederick by writing that

Directors like Steve or Buzz Jones (at my college) lead and create institutions that don't have to exist. Lansdale and Gettysburg would be just fine without those ensembles. But the communities are so much richer when such groups exist, and such groups only exist when leaders compel people to volunteer to be part of something bigger than the everyday.

I'm sad that I lost another such friend and inspiration this past month. And with Ron LaMar, too, I feel my words are all the more true and pertinent.

In a post from August 16 I discussed some adventures with Sherry finding good food. I'm glad to report that my adventures continued over the course of the past year, leading me to such greats as the Hog Dog in Richmond and The Oasis in Lansdale.

On September 22 I commented on how if the NFL was a stock I'd sell it. I applauded myself for having the virtues of being above football. A playoff run by the Eagles and a fascinating postseason made me realize I'm simply a mere mortal. Live sports remains the greatest prohibition against cord cutting.

On November 3 I reacted to a stay-at-home dad's advice to spend more and save less. Credit card statements might testify that I've adhered to that man's advice more than is prudent.

On November 27 I complained about a long stretch of unbroken school year in the fall. If only I had known what devastation the winter would take to my summer (which still hasn't arrive) I would've kept my mouth shut. The fall had nothing on this spring.

On December 8 I commented on the silliness of new model by which teachers are being evaluated in Pennsylvania. It remains silly.

Oh, no. Battery life is ending and I'm not done. Well I guess I'm done this post. Perhaps part 2 of my year in review will be tomorrow.

The School Year Ends

Well, sort of. There are three more days for which I need to report. But the teaching part of 2013-15 is over. Commencement took place today. I saw a quirky, nice, and ultimately likable group of students graduate today. My only regret with them was that I felt that I came to really know only a small group of them due to my schedule of classes the past two years. I knew the class of 2013 much better, and I feel a bit odd that today's class felt more unfamiliar than last year's crew did.

I spent half of my teaching time this year with a different group of students. These were co-taught academic classes, which means that the class was academic (or college prep) but with a larger-than-normal group of students who struggle at school: students who read behind grade level, students with less-than-normal motivation to come to school, students who struggle to complete work on time. Though the experience made me better understand the program of which I'm a leader, I don't know if it was necessarily the best experience for the students. I've become a specialist with AP students. I've come to know what motivates them, I've come to anticipate their questions, and I've really calibrated my instruction and problem-solving to their general aptitude. I need to embrace that role, because I am capable of doing a lot of good with those kids. I can help them grow more profoundly than I can the co-taught population.

It's a bit humbling to admit that I'm not very suitable to a particular group of students. Much of it is perception, too. I'm sure that things I ask of my students that really aren't that hard seem harder because it's me (a guy reputed to be that AP guy) assigning the task.

Philosophically, I have some issues teaching a group of students in a class where the stated goal is college preparation but knowing that many of the students in that class don't wish to go to college and probably are best suited for an alternative to college. It seems appropriate to calibrate instruction for students likely to go to college vs. unlikely to go, and I wish my school still had a program or level for those kids looking for something other than college after high school.

The 2013-14 year saw some pretty good teaching from me. I made a good attempt at integrating new types of assignments and new routines into what I was doing. Also, I feel good about the friendships I'm cultivating. It's good to do that cultivating for I lost a few friends this year: one to cancer, and another who left to pursue an awesome career opportunity.

I think what I'm happiest to report, however, is my growth as a first among equals. Two years ago I accepted a role as coordinator, which is a role that's more about influence than direction and tone-setting rather than controlling. I'm happy in seeing the subtle shift in mood in my department as I sense my colleagues embracing a more collaborative and problem-solving approach.

I got too hot-headed about some problems that might be beyond my control: a debilitating culture of absence among many of my students and the watering down of expectations for the academic level students.

I did a better job balancing work and home, though the past month or so saw me slide into some old habits.

Ultimately I end the 2013-14 campaign confident that I have found the right position and school for me. I hope that one year from now I feel the same way.

Monday, June 16, 2014

But We Had Hoped

A sad day comes to an end. Late yesterday I received news that an old friend, Ron LaMar, died. There is a very nice tribute from today's Doylestown newspaper here. The photograph, in how it captures the Ron we all knew, struck me in how quickly it saddened me. Being reminded of his terrible, terrible muffin joke even saddened me. 

It's rare that one finds a man who is so profoundly talented at making kids feel special. I was often left in awe of what he could do with the students in his groups. 

I'm thinking a lot about some words Pastor Dane offered a few weeks ago in a sermon based on the text where Jesus appears on the road to Emmaus. His followers utter powerfully sad words: "But we had hoped." Pastor Dane calls to our attention the reassurance of that passage, that to counter those sad words we can say "But Christ walks with us." 

I'm stuck thinking, though, in terms of "But I had hoped." I had hoped he could beat this. I had hoped he could return to school. I had hoped I'd get another chance to emcee one of his jazz festivals and see what his students could do. 

Ron was devoted to much that was worthwhile: his wife and family, Jesus, music, his students, his school, his peers. 

This is the second time in one year I'm saying goodbye to a director who I have had the good fortune to know. Like Steve Frederick, I didn't get to know Ron as most have come to know him, as a kid moving through his program. Ron was a peer. I don't think Ron knew how much he was modeling for me what a husband and father does. Ron and I admired what one another did for our building. And I admired him for how he could get kids to realize that they were capable of doing so much more than they realized they could do. Steve I admired for how he got people to realize they were part of something bigger than just themselves. Directors like Ron and Steve cultivate so much that is beautiful and worthwhile in others. 

Pastor Dane would remind me to say "But Christ walks with us." Christ walked with Ron. Ron ministered, employing talents (he was ridiculously talented) to reach kids and make them realize they could be giants. Christ is walking with his family now. Christ is walking with his friends, like me, who are saddened today. I hope I can emulate what he did in employing his talents to bring out the best in others. 

God bless you, Ron. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

You Get What You Pay For

Since this story was posted on the trains are running again. I guess that's a good thing for the greater good of our region because it will result in less congestion and safer travel to work Monday. So, I guess the federal government decided it needed to send these workers back to work after a one-day strike, and it looks like the protocol now means that any other work stoppage is averted for about half a year. I think it's worth noting, though, that these workers have been without a contract for nearly half a decade.

Half a decade of status quo? If I understand labor law correctly, the workers haven't been able to receive pay raises in that time. That's a long time to go without any increase in compensation.

I cannot look at this objectively. I work for an employer who has declared that the labor force and management are at an impasse, though we still have a few weeks remaining on our contract. He has warned parents to prepare for a strike, though there was still more than a month before the expiration of our current contract. Why? Because we disagreed that the employer's offer of a four-year contract with scant pay raises was a fair reward for our labor.

I live in an adjacent district. The teachers in that district received an even stingier offer to continue employment. Those teachers, also, declined the offer to sign that contract.

We're missing sight of the forest because we're fixated over trees. The political consensus seems to be focused entirely on reducing costs. Not just reducing them, but driving them into the ground. What is cost to one person is income to at least someone else. And our fixation on cost for labor is stalemating our economy. Meanwhile, we seem to have no problem with the cost of Social Security benefits or of Medicare expenses.

One gets what one pays for. When one consistently looks for the cheaper alternative, one eventually gets products that break down. I guess the public and quasi-public labor force of southeastern Pennsylvania is about to break down.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Weekend as an Elementary School Parent

My son's school hosted a function Thursday night in which 2nd grade students exhibited books they had written in their classes. What a neat idea! A small group of dedicated parents took the kids' hand written books, typed them, then bound the printed-out pages. Somewhere along the line students illustrated their books. Every book was bound and printed the same way. The covers differed from one another only in color. Though obviously these parent volunteers worked hard, I enjoyed how the event was about the kids and only the kids. There were no ostentatious displays. There was no one-up-manship in terms of covers. Every student had their work product out there for the public to look at.

Two days later his school district had its third annual elementary school triathlon. Second graders had to swim one width of the pool, bike one mile, and run one half-mile. It took my son about 18 minutes to complete the three events. I got to help in the transition area (which won't be possible in 3rd grade). I was impressed at the army of volunteer staff, elementary teachers (mostly from the physical education department), on hand and the smooth logistics of the day. Altogether 1,100 students participated and all receive the honor of having their name displayed in their home gymnasium. Though this was a much larger undertaking than the authors' tea I attended Thursday it was still student-centered. The accomplishment of finishing the Iron Knights triathlon was all the kids'. And I was impressed at the monumental effort those teachers undertook to make those kids feel like kings that day.