Why am I emailing parents all the time?

I don’t think parents want to know nearly as much as we seem to think they want to know.  Parents claim they want to know everything happening in their child’s school day, and we try to make that happen.  We post our curriculum so parents can see it; we post our weekly lesson plans so parents can see exactly what we are teaching their children.  We post grades in real time so parents can see exactly what is completed and how their children did on it.  Many of my colleagues are constantly sending email updates to their students’ parents.  One of my colleagues even makes this a weekly routine.

And yet, I would bet most (and by most, I mean an extremely high percentage) parents barely even look at any of this.  Maybe it’s cynical of me, but in my experience most parents become interested when their child is doing poorly or something goes wrong.  Do we really believe many parents are carefully reading our class policies when we make them sign it?  Think about it.  A parent with 2 kids in high school would have about 15 different sets of policies to read if we all did this.  My son’s kindergarten teacher kept a blog last year updating parents on what is happening in class.  To be honest, I looked at it maybe 4 times all year.

This is all to say, we bend over backwards to inform parents, but it isn’t really worth all the effort.  Please know that I think the home-school connection is vital; I just don’t think we are going about it the right way.  I don’t have the answer, but I’m trying something new with my summer school students.  I haven’t decided if it works quite yet, though.

Instead of emailing their parents myself, I made my students email their own parents and CC me on it.  The summer session is only 3 weeks long, so on Friday of each week, students have to email their parents telling them what they did this week, any grades they got, and upcoming due dates.   This keeps parents posted, forces communication between the student and his/her parents, makes the practice writing a bit, and saves me the time.

Does it work?  I don’t know yet.  A few students are super resistant to it.  I’m pretty sure one of my students doesn’t actually email his parents-just some sort of dummy account.  Students don’t know how to write appropriate and effective emails either.  In fairness, this is a skill I should probably be teaching them, but summer school doesn’t allow enough time for that really.

I’ll obviously contact parents if I have concerns as the summer session rounds out, but I like the premise of having students send the email instead of me.  I think this is an idea I’ll toy with a bit more during the actual school year.

A reflection on 2016-2017

I’ve been out of school for a couple of weeks now and am currently immersed in teaching summer school.  I’ve had a few nice relaxing weeks away before coming back for summer school, and I feel pretty refreshed.  I took a break from all school related matters including this blog because I think that break is important.  But now that I’ve had that break I want to take a moment to reflect a bit on this past school year.

I’m not going to lie-this was a rough year.  I walked into the school year with a goal of remaining positive and optimistic, but that proved difficult for me.  I came into the year fresh off of a couple of difficult rejections for jobs that I thought I had a really good chance at.  The reality was that I was demoralized to start the year, and as the year progressed I faced more rejection over and over again as I went to interviews, got close to getting the job, only to be told they chose the other guy.

This is of course on top of the regular day to day stress of teaching, which seemed heavier to me this year.  I tried new approaches and didn’t see the results I was hoping for.  I felt I was constantly at odds with my supervisors.  I felt I was spinning my wheels for much of the year with little to show for it.

Needless to say, I needed a win.  The end of the school year gave that to me, and I walked away feeling good.  Still needing a break, but feeling good.

I got that win in the form of T-shirts.  Let me explain.  I have a reputation as a demanding teacher.  I assign quite a bit of work, and have high expectations as to what earns an A.  Naturally this stresses out some of my students.  As one of my senior classes was taking their final, as the end of the period approached, they all stood up, took off their jackets/sweatshirts and revealed the same T-shirt:

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That absolutely made my day!  The fact that the entire class would come together to make matching T-shirts is incredible.

Even better is that the following week on the last day of class for my juniors, in one class, when the bell rang none of my students were there.  Then they came parading in all wearing a shirt that they had designed.  Unfortunately I don’t have a picture, but it was a big picture of my face (yikes!) and it read “Stress. Free. Zone.” underneath as the ongoing joke in the class is that my class is a “stress free zone.”  It is impossible for me to do it justice in such few words.

Two separate classes came together to commemorate our class through T-shirts for the whole class.  I needed a win this year, and I got it right at the end.

 

Warning: Deadlines are closer than they appear

Today is the last day of April break.  Tomorrow starts the down hill slide to graduation and summer break.  This means my juniors have their major essays due in a few weeks, and my seniors are fighting (not hard enough) lustily against senior-itis.  Thinking about the end of the year has me thinking about deadlines and holding students accountable.

There is a general consensus in education circles today that students should not have their grades punished for missing deadlines-that leniency is necessary since it is more important that students complete the work and it doesn’t matter so much when they complete their work.  This has led to much frustration as the theory and practice aren’t aligning nearly as nicely as people would like.  Teachers lament that students believe deadlines don’t mean anything and we aren’t teaching them any sort of accountability.  Isn’t part of our job to teach them responsibility?  Sure, if I don’t turn something into my boss on time, I don’t immediately lose my job, but if I consistently don’t do stuff on time, I do risk losing my job.

These are all very legitimate arguments, but punishing students’ grades is not the answer.  In reflecting on my practice when listening to other teachers, it occurred to me that I don’t have nearly as many issues with students taking advantage of me regarding deadlines.  Part of that is that I teach some A level classes, which are students who are generally responsible and motivated by grades.  But I also have a reputation for being a bit of a hard ass; my students-in pretty much all my classes-will tell you that my workload and expectations put them under a great deal of stress.  And yet, very few issues regarding deadlines.

To that end, I’m going to throw out some different strategies I use for managing student deadlines:

  1.  provide sliding deadlines.  I sometimes provide a range for a due date: essays are due Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.  You choose.  When I do this, even my most habitual malingerers give me an essay by Friday.
  2. indicate a time when the essay is due and provide a justification.  Somethings are due at the start of class since we will be using them in class.  Some things are due by the end of the day (2:30 to be precise)
  3. let the class decide on a  due date.  I give them a time frame (1 week), lay out what we are doing in class each day that they may have to prepare for, and then the class decides as a whole when they want the thing due.  I find providing this control for them really helps.
  4. let them decide individually.  I generally only due this for my smallest classes, but sometimes when I hand by essay drafts, I ask each kid when conferencing: when can you get me the final draft?  They’re generally pretty reasonable and then they can pace themselves accordingly.  Is it more work to keep track of each kid’s individual due date?  Not really-I just keep a little log going for each day.
  5. remind them that they can turn stuff in early.  I find this helps them pace themselves better and avoid procrastinating.
  6. sometimes I keep a countdown on the board for major assignments.  This keeps it a little fresher in their heads.
  7. move pre-established due dates.  It demonstrates flexibility and kindness on my part.  I often have essays due on Fridays, but then change it to Monday when I realize there is no way I will start grading them over the weekend.
  8. work with kids individually on their time management and deadlines.  This should be a no brainer, but it bears repeating.  If I notice a kid is way behind in major project, I’ll usually sit down with him and set new due dates and goals for him to get caught up.  Letting him sink further into a hole helps no one.

I’m sure there are plenty more great ideas out there.  This is just a quick list to get started.  God speed to all teachers as we head toward the end of the school year.

A teacher’s ego

A piece of advice I give to new teachers every year is to be willing to say “I don’t know” and “I’m sorry.”  This is advice that bears repeating over and over again.  Perhaps it’s human nature, but these are hard things for us to admit.  As teachers we worry about saying that we don’t know for fear that we will look like we don’t know what we are talking about.  Saying “I’m sorry” of course implies that I was wrong.  Neither of these is appealing if I’m trying to come across as an authority to teach and guide students.

But the power of these phrases lies in their ability to build trust and relationships.  When we say “I don’t  know” or “I’m sorry” to our students we are making ourselves more vulnerable.  We are opening ourselves up to them.  We are proving to them that we are real people who make mistakes and can admit it.  This builds trust, and actually increases our effectiveness as teachers.  Our own ego that makes this hard is hurting us quite a bit.

I personally have always had trouble admitting when I am wrong, but I’ve been forced to do it over the years.  Recently I taught my juniors about pronoun antecedent agreement.  The lesson was thrown together a bit too hastily and my examples weren’t nearly as clear as they should have been.  Half way through the lesson I had to stop and apologize for how unclear I was being.  I wanted to just plow on.  I wanted to blame them for not trying to understand.  The reality was I did a poor job planning this and, as a result, a poor job explaining it.  It was hard to stop and say that I’ve messed up, but it was necessary.  Obviously at this point in the year, I have already established trust and relationships with my students, but to maintain those relationships, I had to do this.  I tried to do it seamlessly; most of them probably didn’t even realize how hard it was to stop and admit my mistakes.

Learning happens when relationships happen.  Relationships happen when trust occurs.  To achieve that we must put aside our egos and say “I don’t” and “I’m sorry.”

Stress

I haven’t posted in quite some time.  I, like everyone else, have been quite busy lately what with the term ending soon and all my many obligations.  Last week in particular was a rather draining week for me.  The grading is piling up, and I haven’t slept well in the past couple of weeks, and last week I had two committee meetings that I chair.  All this is a way to say, I’ve been feeling stress recently.

On Thursday, I teach night school, and as usual I went up around 5:30 to the teacher’s room to heat up my lunch when I saw one of my coworkers still going strong.  I always see him on Thursdays still working.  He tells me that it is unusual that he goes home before 6 or so.  Now he is young teacher with no kids in his first year.  Seeing him made me think of just how stressful it is to be a good teacher and what schools do to try to mitigate teacher stress.

We all know burnout is a major problem among teachers.  We also know teachers have many demands put on us.  We’ve all known 12+ hour days and sometimes we heroically announce that the only time we see the sun is through our classroom window as if that is something to be proud of.  We also know that this sort of work/life balance is unsustainable.

Schools try to offer various solutions to teacher stress and burn out.  I’ve seen many schools offer various stress management workshops; some schools have yoga, meditation, or exercise clubs for their faculty all (at least partially) sold on the idea that they help reduce stress.  I applaud these efforts, and I hope schools continue offering them, but I fear they are only short term solutions-solutions that look good, but don’t really solve the problem.

The reality is that we, as educators, have to be willing to walk away from work or just say no.  While we have many pressures put on us, many of our obligations and stress are self inflicted and we need to give ourselves permission to let go of these.  So many of us are perfectionists or over achievers by nature that we kill ourselves unnecessarily.  Rarely does that test need to be graded and handed back the next day.  For example we are a google school, so naturally many teachers use google classroom.  We are required to post our assignments in our grade book so students have access to it.  We are not required to use google classroom, but many people do, so they feel obligated to post their assignments there as well thus duplicating their work.  This is a small example, but my point is that sometimes we build more work for ourselves.

We relax by watching netflix, but we feel guilty not grading at the same time.  So what do we do?  We grade while we relax, which is of course not very relaxing (and probably not very efficient grading either).  We know this isn’t healthy.  We know this isn’t sustainable.  And yet we do it to ourselves all the time.

We need to give ourselves permission to de-stress and school leaders need to make it known that that is acceptable and should be encouraged.

It’s a sad day for education

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Today Betsy “watch out for bears”Devos was confirmed by the slimmest of margins as Sec. of Education.  As a teacher, this upsets me greatly.  This isn’t about republicans vs. democrats; this isn’t about her support of Charter and private schools; this is about so much more.

Her absolute lack of competence is staggering.  Forget the fact that she has no experience in education and her lone qualifying attribute seems to be that she has donated lots of money.  I keep getting told I need more leadership experience for an Assistant Principal job, but evidently that same experience isn’t needed to run the nation’s public schools.  Astounding.

Her inability to answer questions during her hearing is something like I’ve never seen before.  If she actually did any preparation for these hearings, she did a terrible job.  What an awful message that entire hearing sends to our nation’s students.

It disheartens me that someone so clearly unqualified could be nominated, nonetheless confirmed, for such a position.  This is a true insult to educators everywhere.

The reality is that she now has a fair amount of power to change public education.  Will she?  Who knows, but the thought is scary.  A much bigger threat in actuality is each state’s secretary of education (which is even scarier as a NH resident–Edelblut is nuts!)  I’m confident that I will see proposals that I don’t like coming from the education department, and I will vocally oppose those, but I can only hope I don’t see massive changes that affect my day to day teaching.

In many ways, teachers see themselves as powerless in the system.  We are but mere cogs in the greater machine.  But we are very important cogs, and we need to use our collective voices.  We lost this fight, but as educators we must continue to speak out against changes we don’t approve of-from the local school level all the way to the national level.

And more importantly, we must continue to do good work in our classrooms.  We must work harder to ensure that our students are critical thinkers.  Our curricula just became more important almost across the board.  We mustn’t just lie down and accept this; we must become even better teachers.  The time is now.

Election season and education

Those who know me know that I fancy myself a bit of a political junkie.  I check polls obsessively leading up to the election comparing them to previous elections and demographics.  I haven’t updated this blog recently in large part because of the election.  Poll watching took over much of my time leading up to the election, and, quite frankly, deep despair took over after the election.

You see, I’m a democrat through and through and am an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter.  Usually, after an election, I pour over exit polling and demographics and the like.  Of course, like many people I was taken by surprise (to say the least) by the results of this election.  I had shared with my students my predictions (for the first time in 4 elections, I was wrong), and had to face them the next day on only 15 minutes of sleep.  A few days after the election, we got an email from  the administration informing us that there have been parent complaints that teachers are fighting with students about the election results and that while it is acceptable to discuss the election, we should not “share our views or opinions” with our students.

In my classes we talk about politics (directly or indirectly) a fair amount, and I make an attempt to remain generally impartial. My senior course is titled Argument and Persuasion.  In this class, students write argumentative essays on a variety of social and political issues.  I don’t want to make my feelings too well known as I don’t want students thinking they have to agree with me in their arguments.  My junior course is American literature.  In this class, we routinely discuss the changing nature of American culture and the social and political upheaval of our nation.  I attempt to remain somewhat impartial to allow them to make their own informed opinions on American culture and American society.

But the directive from administration got me thinking: should we as educators really be avoiding sharing our views and opinions on political matters?  Obviously, we shouldn’t be forcing our views on our students, nor should we be suggesting that our political views are the only appropriate ones.  In building relationships with our students, we must be honest with them.  Why always hide this part of our identity from them?  Aren’t we doing them (and ourselves) a bit of a disservice by suggesting they can’t handle a genuine political discussion?

While I don’t generally share my overtly political views, I do share my opinions with them about the world in a lot of ways.  For the most part the literature pushes the conversations this way.  I tell them every year that they need to fight for what they believe is right.  I urge them to choose love even when hate is such a tempting option.  I suppose these shouldn’t be seen as political opinions, but in our culture today, they are.