I like this piece by Andrew Couts, who argues that the only point to maintaining a library of physical books is to demonstrate your academic sophistication and snobbery.
Of course, this isn’t entirely true. Especially in schools, it’s important that students see real, physical books in classrooms. Otherwise, reading becomes even more private, where the reading “have-nots” are marginalized.
But once students are reading, there’s no need to keep buying the same physical books, over and over, and waiting for them to get lost or torn or overly used or stuck on shelves.
“My book collection, I realized this weekend, is one of the few things in my home that makes me seem smart. Visitors step into my living room to see shelves and shelves of tomes – Hemingway, McCarthy, Kafka, Tolstoy, Franzen, Sedaris, Bukowski, Fitzgerald – each creased spine revealing more about my interests and intellect. At least, that’s what my subconscious likes to believe. Just as vacation photographs show off where we’ve been, books show where our minds have traveled. They have, in other words, become little more than an elaborate way to brag.
Ed. Note: Peter Myers is a teacher in Portland, Oregon. He began teaching in the Bay Area in 2002 and spent two years in South Africa with African Leadership Academy before returning to his Pacific Northwest roots in 2010. Peter is currently teaching 9th grade Global Studies, as well as 12th grade Health.
When I first started teaching 13 years ago, I wanted to quit almost every single day of the week. I would end my day in my Department Coach’s room, providing a play-by-play of the day’s events, unloading in detail every thought, action, and interaction I had had. It always ended with me saying the same thing to her: “There HAS to be somebody better at this than me! These kids deserve better! I will NOT be here tomorrow!”
Every day I wanted to quit. Every day I wanted more for my kids than I felt I had to offer.
The self-examination process in teaching is brutal. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future estimates that a third of all new teachers leave after three years, and 46 percent don’t make it past five. People don’t enjoy feeling like they suck at their job. As teachers, we KNOW when we’re not cutting it because there is a captive audience of love muffins and/or gremlins that sit six feet in front of us, constantly providing feedback — some solicited, most not — on how we’re doing. (Love muffins and/or gremlins is a post for another time.)
There’s one other profession I’ve been part of that reminds me of teaching: waiting tables. Serving people in the classroom or in a restaurant share many similarities, not least of which is a reflection on one’s competency and capability. When other people get to critique how good or bad you are at your job, it’s nearly impossible not to take it personally. At best, it’s a challenge to strive for improvement, which is why career educators develop the fortitude AND skills to thrive in the classroom.
Teaching is not easy, but it gets easier once you figure out what works and what doesn’t work in the classroom. And what works and what doesn’t work can change day by day, class by class, and even minute by minute, depending on myriad of variables that are not often in your control.
Thirteen years later, I don’t want to quit every day. In fact, I usually tell new teachers that one of the ways I’ve measured my own success as a teacher is how often I’ve wanted to quit over the years. After going from an almost daily quitting rate in year one, years two and three saw a gradual decline from weekly to monthly. When I hit year four, I felt in my element; the craft of teaching was something I not only enjoyed, but was good at. And year four turned out to be—to date—the worst year of my teaching career. (That, too, is a post for another time.) But I weathered the storm that year, thanks to an amazing principal and colleagues, and have continued on my journey.
In my first year of teaching, I shared a quote with my students from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I thought I was sharing it with them for their benefit. Turns out, it was for mine.
It’s not rocket science.
There’s no need to look up test scores or read extensive reports. No rigorous research is necessary. You don’t even need to talk to teachers or observe classrooms.
In my experience, this is all you need to do: Walk into the school and say hello to three random students. If all three say hello back — and do so normally, without shock or a who-are-you look — it’s a good school.
Now that I’m an instructional coach, I get to travel to several schools, including several outside my network, and every day, I say hi (or hi there) to students who don’t know me. I’m just a random white guy to them. It’s fun.
Sometimes, I get a totally neutral non-response — the student is in his own world, oblivious and distracted, with something more important on his mind.
Other times, I get a negative non-response — the student knows I’ve said hi, but doesn’t trust me, or is fearful, or thinks it’s weird that a random adult is trying to make conversation.
But in good schools, students give me the benefit of the doubt. They say hi not just because they’re friendly, respectful young people. They say hi because they feel safe at the school, because they’re happy to be there, and because adults do not threaten them.
They say hi because they trust adults — including white adults — to be on their side, to be helpful, and they’re willing to listen to what adults have to say.
They say hi because adults have high standards and do not let students hide or grumble or skulk.
This say-hi test may seem too simplistic, but I’ve found it works. Within the first 30 seconds of entering a school, I can sense the vibe. How’s the school culture? Is this a place of joy and respect? Are there opportunities for teachers and students to learn together?
If you’re near a school next week, please try out my little test and let me know how it goes!
Ed. note: My claim to fame is that I got to co-teach American Studies with Benjamin Dow in the last century. Since then, Mr. Dow has taught English and social studies in China, Ghana, and Port Townsend, Washington, where he currently teaches Contemporary World Problems. He is published in Teaching Tolerance and recites an annual poem for graduating seniors. This is his first post for TEACHER VOICES.
Six Months. That’s the amount of time our middle school math position has gone unfilled in Port Townsend, Washington.
This year, amid the shift to Common Core and Smarter Balanced Assessments, perhaps the highest stakes year in the history of high-stakes testing, our students in seventh and eighth grade have been in a classroom with a substitute since the first day of school. Sadly, this is a scenario that is beginning to play out with regularity in small rural districts across Washington state.
Now I know, “small rural district” brings to mind pictures of cows and one-store towns that have always had trouble attracting professionals, but that isn’t Port Townsend.
I live in a small, vibrant arts community, with high-quality restaurants, independent movies, and festivals most weekends. Port Townsend sits on a small reach of the Olympic Peninsula surrounded on three sides by beaches with a Victorian-era downtown right on the water. We frequently make those travel magazine “Top Ten Small Towns in America” lists. It’s the kind of place where teachers talk about the “golden handcuffs” of living in an idyllic town that most folks just get to visit on vacation.
Historically, Port Townsend never struggled to attract teachers either. There were years in the 90s when we had more than a hundred applicants for openings in our district.
Those days are long gone. We’ve shifted from hundreds of applicants, to a handful, to literally classrooms still without teachers six weeks into the school year.
Parents are mad, the community’s mad, and for all the sound and fury of the parent meetings at school, there’s little that can be done. We sit at the perfect confluence of two storms that have been battering small districts like ours.
On the one hand, Washington, like many states, has been ratcheting up credentialing requirements for teachers, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) areas.
On the other hand, it doesn’t take a math major to realize that if you’re good at math or science, teaching isn’t a good economic opportunity for you. I’ve been teaching in Washington for close to 10 years and have yet to see the salary schedule for teachers go up once, while the job continues to get harder.
Imagine if Google decided to low-ball new engineers, pay them less than all comparable professionals, then simply ratcheted up the standards on the few employees they could attract. Would anybody expect Google to stay competitive? Of course, in the private sector, this kind of solution would be laughable. In education, it’s the norm.
College students are simply no longer interested. According to Stanford’s Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, by the end of 2012, enrollment in teacher education programs in California had dropped by 66 percent from a decade earlier. Similar trends have played out across the country.
Historically, discrimination against women in the workplace paradoxically buffered education from having to confront the problem of missing education majors earlier. As long as women were largely excluded from other forms of professional work, there were always capable, brilliant folks waiting to enter into the teaching profession. Thankfully, but problematically for teaching, this is no longer the case.
Combine nose-diving enrollment in teacher education programs with a wave of Baby Boomers set to retire, and schools like Port Townsend, which used to be able to pick from among a host of qualified candidates, are struggling to simply find teachers who are correctly certified to fill positions. And our students are struggling too. Like the canary in the coal mine that warned of impending doom for the whole mine, schools like Port Townsend have become the canary in the classroom.
None of this bodes well for the students in our small town. None of this bodes well for the future of our country. The teacher shortages that have started in small rural districts like ours will spread. You simply don’t lose 66 percent of your supply of new teachers in a state like California without a tsunami of unintended consequences for the quality of education provided to students a few years down the road.
But back on the ground, things are both a lot less clear and a lot more concrete. Classes of seventh and eighth graders laying the foundation for their high school math trajectories, who are learning the building blocks of algebra that will support their drives into careers in math and science, are starting their sixth week of school with a substitute.
As a state and as a country, we are failing these students. We have to demand that our legislators make teaching a profession that will attract the best and brightest of the next generation. Legislators have to not just raise standards for teachers, but create the incentives and opportunities that will make people excited about the rewarding challenge that is teaching.
But right now, neither Washington is doing that. Right now the people of Port Townsend and our children are waiting, without a teacher, for a change.
Motoko Rich is my favorite education reporter. In “As Apprentices in Classroom, Teachers Learn What Works,” Ms. Rich writes about best practices in preparing new teachers for work in urban public schools.
Instead of flinging new teachers out to classrooms and letting them survive through grit and luck, Aspire Public Schools helps newbies gain confidence and skills in classroom management over a one-year residency program, focused on a much longer apprenticeship than what’s usual in teacher preparation programs.
There are some critics, of course — those who say that charter school organizations like Aspire are mechanizing teaching and teacher practices. But classroom management is by far the most important skill to master. As someone who sometimes struggled with promoting a smooth and easy classroom environment, I likely would have benefited from this program.
Please check out this article and let me know what you think!
The idea is that teachers, like doctors in medical residencies, need to practice repeatedly with experienced supervisors before they can be responsible for classes on their own. At Aspire, mentors believe that the most important thing that novice teachers need to master is the seemingly unexciting — but actually quite complex — task of managing a classroom full of children. Once internalized, the thinking goes, such skills make all the difference between calm and bedlam, and can free teachers to focus on student learning.
Ed. note: Trevor Gardner teaches English and social studies at Envision Academy in Oakland. He also serves as an instructional coach and is a member of the school’s leadership team. Trevor has written for a number of educational journals, including the esteemed Phi Delta Kappan, in which his piece on restorative justice, “Make Students Part of the Solution, Not the Problem,” appears in the October 2014 edition. This is his first post for TEACHER VOICES.
It’s the same conversation every September, repeated dozens of times in the first few weeks of school. In the hallway on the way to class. In the teachers kitchen waiting for your leftover Thai food to heat up. On the walk to the parking lot after school. It begins with the routine question, “How’s your year going?”
Then the inevitable calculation, the mosaic of words, emotions, challenges, and complexities that form the day-to-day reality of teaching in an urban public school.
Such a struggle. Challenging but inspiring. Just wish we had more support. Barely keeping from drowning. Really love the kids but… All of these words have come out of my mouth at some point in the past few years, sometimes in the same breath. And I have heard them repeated multiple times by my fellow teachers, trying to find the right way to characterize the Sisyphean work we do for a living.
But this year, I have found myself in an unusual predicament, one that has me feeling guilty every time I am asked about my year. The question is unleashed, and the solicitor is almost always confounded by the tone and enthusiasm of my response: “I LOVE teaching! My students are amazing!! I am having so much fun!!!”
Now, let me explain. I do love teaching. I am a lifelong teacher and I see it as a gift and a privilege to play such an important role in the lives of so many incredible young people. AND it is by far the most difficult thing I have every done – and one of the most challenging careers I can imagine taking on. Being a good teacher is hard work. For most of my career, I have found myself teetering on the edge of I cannot do this anymore.
Fortunately, equal parts inspiration and empowerment (both my own and that of my students) have kept me in the game.
But, like I said, this year feels different. Yes, the hard work and long hours are inescapable. But joy is the dominant emotion. I am literally LOVING teaching – like I imagine a video game tester (does that job really exist?) or a professional soccer player might love his job. I am having fun every day.
What is unique about this year? you ask. I wish I had a reproducible formula to share with teachers everywhere – but I am still trying to figure it out myself. Here are a few of the factors I have been able to identify so far:
I have been looping for four years with the same group of youngStars (another full post coming soon on that topic). This happened more by coincidence than by design, but it has been an extraordinary journey. Knowing them, teaching them, and learning from the same students since 9th grade created a special bond among us. When I refer to them as “my” kids, I truly mean it.
After fifteen years of teaching English, history and Humanities to high school students in the Bay (8 of them at Envision), maybe I have finally hit my stride. Malcolm Gladwell has hypothesized it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything. Well, 15 years is closer to 20,000 hours of teaching – but maybe I’m just a slow learner.
Is teaching seniors just that much different? I have taught 9th grade for 12 of my 15 years in the classroom, and this is only my second time teaching seniors in my career. Maturity. Determination. Ability to walk to the garbage can without knocking someone else’s pen off of their desk (some are still working on this one). Yes, it’s a luxury, I know. Thanks 9th grade teachers.
The class of 2015 at Envision Academy is a special group of students. If I hadn’t already exceeded by word limit, I would write a brief description of what makes every one of them shine. I’ll just say that the way they take care of each other and hold each other up is a model for what community should look like in our society.
This is how teaching is supposed to feel. There is an energy around the content of the class that makes me excited to create the lessons, then come in and teach them every day. I feel like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society sharing the secrets of life and literature with so many eager pupils. Right now we are reading The Kite Runner and learning literary theory, and often the most significant challenge during class is giving space to all the voices who want to participate in discussions and reading. What a beautiful dilemma to have!
OK, I realize that several of these factors are actually beyond our control as classroom teachers, so maybe what I’m saying is that having a joyous year teaching is just the luck of the draw. No, perhaps it’s about the gold at the end of a lengthy rainbow. Actually, I think I’m just a very thankful educator sharing what too few of us experience on a normal basis – the genuine joy of teaching.
Unfortunately, I see this all too often.
What’s sad is that there are tons of great books here. But they’re in disarray, strewn about, all in crazy directions. Not good.
I understand why this happens: The teacher is likely overwhelmed, working too hard, running around all day, shushing students, making copies during passing period, and trying to survive.
Of course, this inference may be untrue. But from the looks of this library, my gut says that this teacher is pretty stressed out. And it’s likely that the students aren’t doing a whole lot of reading.
Maybe I should do a TV show called “Classroom Library Makeover,” where I go around and save classroom libraries like these. My first tip for this one: Sign up a student librarian to keep the shelves in check. It’ll take just one day for the books to be beautifully displayed again.
Numbers. I love numbers. They mean so much. They can mean good luck, dates of birthdays, years of anniversaries, and how many spoonfuls of sugar you need in order to make the best chocolate chip cookies ever. So to all those number-loving educators, I, a Humanities teacher, salute you!
Numbers come up a lot in my U.S. History and Reading Lab classes. They teach us so much! Question: When was the Declaration of Independence signed? Answer: 1776! (a number!) Question: What resolved the debate over the representation of slaves in the House of Representatives? Answer: 3/5th Compromise (another number! a fraction at that!)
In Reading Lab, a new class we’re piloting with our ninth graders this year, numbers are coming up all the time. Some insight: I use numbers to track my students’ pages on their independent reading books each day. My students use numbers to find quotes for their metacognition journals. We use numbers to set goals for reading and to chunk our reading.
But perhaps the best number of all so far has been the number of books students are finishing. That’s right. My Reading Lab-ers are voraciously reading and FINISHING their books. It’s honestly incredible!
After FIVE days of class (five, another great number: high fives! Five Guys Burgers! Five Spice Girls!), THREE of my students had already finished their books! THREE out of FIFTEEN in ONE week! The next week, there were another THREE, and the following week, FOUR more! By week six, ELEVEN out of FIFTEEN (that’s 11/15 for all you fraction lovers!) had finished a book. Some students have even finished more than ONE book!
I know that you’re thinking: But we’re only in week SEVEN! And your students are in a reading intervention class! I thought they don’t even like reading! How the heck is this happening?!? Well guys, I don’t have a scientific explanation just yet, but I have spent some time pondering this incredible phenomenon. Here’s what I’ve come up with as to why my Reading Lab-ers are finishing books with Usain Bolt speed:
(FYI, these are in no particular order as I am not here to make numbers feel above/below each other. Hahahahaha — get it? I crack myself up.)
1. Our kids have access to AWESOME BOOKS!!! SO SO SO MANY AWESOME BOOKS!
If I do say so myself, my classroom library is amazing! We’re talking Beyonce dance moves amazing. This has everything to do with the books on the shelves and very little to do with me (although I love to take credit). With the help of my literacy coach (I’m talking about you, Mark!), DonorsChoose.com, and our charter network’s commitment to books, my classroom library is rich in variety of genre and level. And…the books are so new and so so pretty! Sure, we know that in most instances, looks don’t matter, but whoever said not to judge a book by it’s cover hasn’t worked with a group of struggling teenage readers.
2. I KNOW my classroom library like Indiana Jones knows how to rock cargo.
My first year with a classroom library was wonderful, but I had never read most of the books in it, nor had I beared witness to the effects each book had on its readership. As my library continues to grow, the more familiar I am with the heavy hitters. (For example: Perfect Chemistry will win every time! The Bluford series is a gem for confidence-boosting! You liked Dope Sick? I think you’d love Tyrell!). My librarian skills have really picked up and I am developing a niche for being a book-student matchmaker. My Grandma would be so proud!
I also spent a lot of time reorganizing my library this summer so that I can navigate my shelves with the grace and stamina of Michael Jordan. Just call me #23. (There I go with the numbers again). Something as simple as knowing where the books are has made the book-student matching process far more effective! I can quickly direct a student to the “Fight The Man!” bins on the left, the “Back in the Day” bins in the middle, and the “Ulysses” bins on the top shelf. (Okay fine, we’re not quite there yet, but we’ll get there!)
3. The students are reading their books in a lot of their classes. A LOT.
They’re reading in English. They’re reading in Advisory. They’re reading in Math. They’re reading in Biology. My reading Lab-ers are getting so much time to read their books at school, thanks to the incredible commitment of the ninth grade team!! When asked about reading at home, most of my students said that no, they didn’t read at home and never really had. At this point in the school year, whether or not my kiddos are reading their books at home is still unclear, but what is clear is that structured and routinized reading is happening in multiple classes.
Having their independent book with them is as essential as their pens, binders, and enthusiasm. Words cannot express what a joy it is to walk in the hallways during my prep, eat my snack (that’s what preps are for right?), and peek into ninth grade classrooms and see them reading. You can just FEEL the pages turning!
4. Reading is part of ninth grade culture!
It’s alive! It’s alive! (And, unlike Frankenstein, it’s far from terrifying. In fact, it’s arguably the most beautiful thing ever.) It’s alive in the hallways (student book reviews!), in signs on teachers’ front doors (Ms. Y is currently reading…), in passing conversation (“Have you read A Child Called It yet?”), when work is done early (“Done with your quiz? Open up yo’ book!”), in a grade-wide competition (Which advisory can read the most books?), and of course, on the ‘ole faithful bulletin boards. Finishing books is a thing! It’s a real thing that lives and breathes alongside the ninth grade experience. INCREDIBLE!
5. We spend time previewing the books!
Call me crazy (not maybe), but I love previews! They get me pumped! Similarly, this year we spent two full days surveying and previewing the books. I may or may not have done some pretty fantastic book pitches, and I made sure to play the “EVERYONE-who’s-ever-read-this book-has-LOVED-it” card to really hone in on that peer pressure. A gallery walk of the books gave our growing readers a chance to familiarize themselves with the steps and value of the selection process. Every student but one selected a book they liked on their first go around. How’s that for numbers?
6. We celebrate finishing a book like we just won tickets to a Prince concert!
Never underestimate the power of a round of applause accompanied by a photo. Just last week, a student finished a book, and the class’s applause was super weak. He demanded we do it again. Heck yeah, Sergio: Get yours! Quantifying reading can be tricky, but I think that the number of finished books can provide some priceless insight on so many factors:
– Are students actually reading during SSR? (You bet!)
– Do you have enjoyable books in your library? (No doubt!)
– Are students reading outside of your class allotted SSR? (For real!)
– Do you need more copies of a certain book? (YES! ALWAYS!)
– Do student book requests work? (Why yes! They most certainly do!!)
– How are your students feeling about reading in general? (They get it. And if they don’t, they want to and are on their way.)
I guess what I’ve been trying to say in so many words is that: Numbers are awesome. Finishing books is awesome. My Reading Lab-ers are awesome. Beyonce’s dance moves are awesome. Classroom libraries are awesome. When it comes to numbers and letters, the Jackson Five (there’s five again!) is awesome. They were really onto something when they sang: “A,B,C, easy as 1,2,3.”
See what I did there?
I worked at Leadership High School in San Francisco for 12 years as an English teacher, social studies teacher, and adviser. It’s a great place.
Please check out “Royal.” It’s high quality — and went mildly viral a couple weeks ago when it was picked up by Colorlines.
LHS is also where every single ninth grader is receiving a Kindle this year. Librarian Michele Godwin, English teacher Kathleen Large, and instructional coach Anne Nyffeler have built a strong culture of reading, and the ninth grade advisers are enthusiastic and dedicated advocates of reading. Can’t wait to see where we go!