Are you one of the good guys

I’ve been kind of elevated to team leader in 7th grade. I am the teacher with the most experience, though I would argue not the best teacher. However, my experience and my experiences as a connected educator do give me some insights that I think my colleagues appreciate.

The Matrix of Leadership

The Matrix of Leadership

As a consequence of my new power rush, when I’m walking the halls I feel the need to act like what most of us think an administrator should act like. You know what I mean. “Hey you where’s your pass?” “Stop running.” “No, shouting!” (Yes, the last one is usually yelled and I do see the irony).

man shouting I have a problem with authority

Last year these kids were like herding cats. Always going to the bathroom and hanging out during class, sneaking from one bathroom to the other when security came around, then to the nurse’s office, etc…. I didn’t really like subbing for the admin in the 6th grade hall last year. It was exhausting.

I noticed  when accosting these students in the hall that they immediately got defensive and turned away. Then I realized that it was my actions that were causing this behavior.

I was assuming they were not supposed to be in the halls. I was assuming they were in the wrong. But it was my own suggestion that created this.

See, I don’t believe in limiting bathroom passes. I believe in making the classroom a place that students want to be. I believe in reducing the amount of teacher lecture so that if they have to step out for a minute or two they aren’t missing a lesson, they are shortening the amount of time they have to do the work of learning. All of the teachers in my hall treat students the same way.

Right now through the 4 periods I teach I have about 20 kids going to the bathroom and most of those in just two periods. Way too many, but what is the root cause? Is it teenage restlessness or boredom, or taking advantage of me? Could be a combination of all three. The thing is, they aren’t breaking the bathroom and as long as I am not fighting the stream (pun intended) of people going to the bathroom, it will soon stop.

Now as for accosting students in the hall. I’ve stopped. Instead of a curt, “Where is your pass?” I try a more friendly hello. Students respond better, and the couple of extra seconds allows me time to see that most of the time they are actually carrying a pass. Those that aren’t, they usually run and I let security chase them.

I can write a referral if they are doing anything seriously wrong. It’s a lot easier on me and better in the long run, because there is more of a paper trail, the life’s blood of the school discipline system.

School Supplies

I hate school supplies. What happened to, ‘bring pencils, folders, and notebooks for each class’? Sure a trapper keeper or 5 subject notebooks might be nice for some kids, but is it required? Is it required that every single student in your class get exactly the same thing?

What about student choice?

I get the idea we want all students ready for school with the supplies necessary to succeed. And there are definitely better and worse ways to get organized. Do we have to do it for the kids?

 

There might also be some inequity as Bobby shows off the gold-plated trapper keeper thingie, and Carl has nothing. Do we fix it by making everyone buy the exact same thing?

At the school my sons go to there is an exact list and we definitely felt some pressure to fill it all out before the start of school. With parents encouraged to visit school for the “Drop and Run”. I thought it was a great way to meet teachers informally, but my wife felt the shame of not having bought all the right things as we went from class to class. And why does everyone have to bring in two boxes of plastic bags?

Then at the school I work at, there is a school supply list somewhere, that I had no input on. So far one student brought in three boxes of Kleenex and the nonprofit that works with our school gave me a bag with a scrub brush, a box of Kleenex, some staples, and a roll of paper towels. What message did that send to me?

Follow Your Passion

This video from Mike Rowe

 

has been going around. It suggests that the advice you may have received to “follow your passion” may be ill advised. I get what they’re saying a passion is not a livelihood. Some people are lucky and maybe they love writing and make a living out of it, or they love acting in to make a living out of it, but for many people their passions are not monetizable or worse they just aren’t good enough at what they are passionate about to be successful. (And by successful he implies great which is a pretty high bar to cross)

For many people following their passion means making sacrifices. If your passion is going to be your full-time job sure you made love going to work every day but you may not make a lot of money. Some people are okay with that, and some people aren’t. If my passion is crocheting socks maybe I shouldn’t think about doing that for a living. Sure or I could probably sell a couple on Etsy. If I get lucky they become some sort of hipster value item, but it’s not very likely.flickr-3824584187-medium

And that’s the same for most people. I don’t think the average person depends on their passion to become their livelihood. I don’t think the average person even has a great passion. Much less a passion that they would consider the defining element of their life.

I mean my wife is passionate about decorating. She even started a business as a decorator, but it didn’t last. That had nothing to do with her skill or passion for the job of decorating. It had everything to do with the other responsibilities of being a small business owner. For a small business to run and make money you have to put as much or more time into the business side of things as you do the passion side of things. 

If you want to start a business in your passion, whether  it be music, decorating, or painting, or whatever what happens is after a full day or working your day job, then you put in a full day on your passion, but not necessarily doing your passion. It might be calling dozens of people asking for a gig, or looking for business, updating the web page, writing a blog post, practicing, making flyers, or a million other things. Most of them boring work. Suddenly, making a living in your passion isn’t fun, it’s work. you might even hate the one thing you used to love.

For many people working a regular job and indulging in passion during free time is a much more sensible way to live life and I haven’t even gotten into those of use who don’t really have a passion.

I didn’t have any passions in high school. I was pretty good at math so when I went to college I started as a high school math teacher. Then I dropped out because I had no passion to get over the obstacles in my way. Eight years and a series of jobs later I finished a liberal arts degree and took stock of my life.

All I really knew was that I wanted to do something that was of service to people. Education was the right answer, just not high school math. Even then it was several years later before I became passionate about education.

Don’t follow your passion is not bad advice, but I think it’s only scratching the surface of the problem. Just like follow your passions and you’ll be happy is kind of good advice that’s that’s only surface level.

The real key is to find that mix of life and passion and work that makes you happy.lego steve

I know plenty of happy people who go to work at a job that is just a job, but it makes money and pays the bills. They come home and have fun and enjoy life. I also know people who are passionate about their jobs and pour all kinds of energy into it their work. They take work home and it defines who they are, and that is ok with them.  Both are happy with their work life balance. (Note this should not be confused with people who pour their whole life into work because they are afraid to lose their jobs. They aren’t happy. It should also not be confused with people whose jobs require them to put all of their waking hours into work. They may or may not be happy)

Passion does not make you happy, neither working in your passion or just working. What really makes you happy is being conscious of the choice we all have to make and then choosing what will be best for us.

Student Review

The school year is over time for me to give my first ever student survey of my teaching. I basically took my questions from http://ukiahcoachbrown.blogspot.com/

Questions Was I well organized? Did you understand what was going on? Did you learn how to learn independently? Do you think I improved since September? Did you feel safe? Were you, as a student, treated with respect?
Average 7 7 7 8 8 8
Overall 8

I think the students were much nicer to me than I would have been, or am I just too critical?

I’m not surprised the organization is low. I think I am pretty good at setting up a system, but not very good at sticking to it. That and 7th graders tend to pull me off task. It’s something I will always need to work on.

I’m also not surprised students were confused a lot. First that can be related to the organization, but I think more importantly it comes from the way I teach. We tried to do a lot of problem based learning and the students didn’t like that very much, especially at the end. Near the end of the year I had students beg me for worksheets and tests.

Even though the rubric we created was more like step by step guides many students still struggled with what and how to create a project. For example the second page of our last rubric had a list of components. Still students struggled with what to do. My mantra for the last week of the project was, “If you are not figuring out probability you are not doing your project right.” Still I had students spending hours on their game boards that didn’t include any form of probability at all. Sometimes teaching is like banging your head against the wall.

At least we learned something. Next year our projects will start with these very detailed rubrics, but I will actually shorten the work-time. What happens is students still work, work, work up until the final due date then turn in a project that doesn’t meet the criteria for success. No matter what feedback I give to them during the project, they only listen when I put a grade into the grade book.  (Not everyone, but quite a few anyway).

After the grade goes in and they see that low grade about half the students ask how they can make it up. So the plan is to allow everyone who wants to reopen their project and make improvements. It was my experience that after the grade is in and isn’t acceptable to the student that they begin to care.

It is still too focused on grades, but this is the first step. If I can teach students to see the relationship between the rubric and the grade maybe we can start getting students to pay attention to feedback before the grade goes in the book. It’s a thought anyway. My next post will have more detail on the changes we are going to make for next year.

This does lead me to the next rating, “did you learn how to learn”? I’m surprised that rating is so high, but maybe because most of my class time seems to be spent dealing with students who struggle with rubrics and only look at grades.

I’m glad I improved in the eyes of the students, they felt safe, and respected. This is the most important part of course. Students feel safe and respected, but perhaps not safe enough because many still don’t take risks in their work. I’ll try better next year.

Still Fighting Charter Expansion

Last month I wrote about the school board meeting in North Chicago. This month was the fourth and final meeting on the topic.

The local community was there in force. In the end the local board, many of whom were appointed by the state, voted unanimously to deny the 2nd charter school.

North Chicago School

The quandary was and still is that the charter will just go to the state on appeal and the State Charter School Commission will approve the charter, over the objections of the local community.

It is true that for years the district was stuck in the doldrums. Any teacher will tell you it is easier to disrupt than to create unity. It only takes a few bad apples to break things, but takes almost the whole community to build it up. But it was more than that. The history of the district has been in freefall for many years. Read more details on that below.

What we need right now is help. Local, state, and maybe even national help. The state charter commission has a history of ignoring local decisions and allowing charter schools to force themselves into school districts.

During the board meeting many parents, children, and staff members spoke of how the charter schools will financially devastate the district. It is true, a charter is a public school using public tax dollars for the bulk of their financing.

When a charter opens it’s doors to 200 more students, these students don’t just magically appear, they come from the local schools. The tax dollars that are paid to the local schools are then sent to the charter. This sounds fine, let the money follow the students. The problem is buildings cost money, having too many schools in one place makes it difficult to run any one of the buildings.

On the other side the charter supporters often spoke of choice. If another school is opened in the community the hundreds of students on the waiting list will automatically be able to join a better school.

I contend that charter schools don’t actually give students a better choice. Having a different school does not automatically give us a better choice. Schools are more than just the building we inhabit, they are also the curriculum we deliver. Curriculum is more than just the subject, but also the style and pace of the delivery. (Dr. Martindale’s and Mr. Pollack’s presentation to the board explained succinctly how the district and charter are completely equal in terms of academics, how the district is much better in terms of satisfaction for teachers, parents, and students, and how the financial strain the the district will cause hardship)

If a community cannot support 8 big schools it may sound like a good idea to reduce the size of each building to create more choice. The reality is that small schools tend to reduce choice because each school has to offer the same basic curriculum, but the extracurricular choices are limited. There isn’t a diverse enough population to support the less popular activities like chess clubs or makerspaces.

Another premise is that a new school with new staff will be able to create a culture of learning excellence. Oh, if only that were true. Public schools and communities are inexorably connected in the United States of America. To truly tear down the school and start over would require tearing down the entire community and starting over. Schools are a reflection of the community, it is the bedrock that makes a school. We can create a private school divorced of the greater local community, but that isn’t a public school, by definition it is limited to a subset of the community.

The model of a new charter school or a turnaround school is to start over from the beginning and do it right this time. The implication being that it was done wrong the first time. Of course it wasn’t, it deteriorated over time, as I explain further down, but it isn’t wrong. To make a great school requires a great community around it and vice versa. The nice thing about that it striving for excellence in one helps push the other towards excellence.

It isn’t choice that makes for better schools. It’s responsiveness to the needs of the community. The biggest problem with the school district is that the community has lost faith. This isn’t to say that we can restore faith with a magic wand, or even if we could that things would turn around tomorrow. It means that until we do we will never actually turn around the district for the long term.

Too many people in North Chicago, and our neediest communities, gave up on education years ago. It has stopped being a gateway to the middle class, instead it has become a pipeline for prison. Dividing a community won’t fix that. We must come together and create our own pathway to the future.

 

North Chicago History

I’m not a historian, but a quick look at the history of the city tells a pretty grim story. Is it any wonder the school system was a mess.

Fifteen years ago (2000) when I first started teaching the district had already earned a poor reputation. The advice to me, as a new teacher, was to get a year or two of experience and then move to a good district. As Senator Link said when he addressed the board. North Chicago used to be one of the best districts in the county.

Maybe twenty or thirty years ago, when the Navy base was strong and pumped tons of money into the district, before the gangs and drugs (Probably around the 70’s or early 80’s after Chicago started its war on gangs. This is also the same time that many of the manufacturing jobs in the city started disappearing.) had taken a strong foothold, the district was the jewel of the north suburbs.

The ugly side of North Chicago School District 187 history.

I’m sure the reasons for the decline of North Chicago are many and varied, it did happen. And while a city declines so does it school system. We have had a good twenty to forty years of decline. As it is with many things government it takes a while for change, even negative change. If the city started it’s decline in the 70’s then the school may not have really started to decline for 5 or 10 years. By the late 1980’s though we can see solid evidence of the school district in decline.

Patricia Pickles was superintendent when I started in 2000.
The board hired Pickles as superintendent in 1997 with high hopes of changing what had become a go-it-alone culture in which principals, lacking consistent leadership from above, ran their schools as nominally independent entities. Before Pickles, the district went through nine superintendents in as many years. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2001-06-03/news/0106030293_1_district-s-school-education-meetings-round-lake

We can see as early as 1988 the city knew the district was on the wrong path.

Pickles left in the middle of the year in 2002. The school board hired an interim superintendent to finish the year. If I remember correctly the next guy lasted maybe a year or two. Not just that, though, Pickles had spent millions on upgrades to schools and the new superintendent changed direction, basically wasting most of that money. This is what happens when you have a revolving door at the top. I left soon after that. Having three building principals and 4 superintendents in 5 years was enough for me.

That was 2005, and it seems that Pickles 5 year stint as superintendent, as short as it was, may have been an island of stability in the district.

Mr Thompson, hired in March 2011, was the 14th superintendent to take the reins of the troubled school district since 1991. http://schoolsnapshots.org/blog/2012/09/06/another-superintendent-out-at-north-chicago/

Is it any surprise that the lack of leadership eventually led to corruption? Like these incidents in 2009 and 2014, and those are the two that are easy to find with a ten second google search.

Our current superintendent Ben Martindale took over when the state dissolved the locally elected school board in 2012. Normally, I’m not for state takeover of schools, and this one did have it’s problems, but on the other hand Dr Martindale seems to have been a very steady influence on the district.

The question is are things getting better?

I think North Chicago is on the rise again. Like a decline the process is slow and there are many factors that contribute to the rise. The enforced stabilization at the top of the school district has helped. It has only been four years and that isn’t very long, but there is hope.

Around 2012 Abbot, a 100 year old company in North Chicago, split into two Abbot and Abbvie. I don’t know if that was a catalyst, but they have been strong supporters of North Chicago Community Partners and the school district ever since.

In 2008 North Chicago Community Partners, NCCP was started. A non-profit specifically centered on helping the North Chicago community. I was a bit skeptical at first, but they won me over. Many school districts have PTO’s and educational foundations, NCCP goes one step beyond. They make fundraising and support for the schools and community a full time professional endeavor. I can’t tell you how nice it is when as a teacher you find a grant or something that you would like to work towards, but you don’t know where to start. NCCP is there to help. They help us write grants, they are a 501c3 so we can use them to manage money, they have connections everywhere so if we want to partner with say a theater company they can help facilitate that. It isn’t a blank checkbook to do things, it’s better, it’s a partner that can help us and our students do things for ourselves.

Leadership
North Chicago is lead by Dr. Martindale and Mr. Pollack. Martindale has a track record of successfully helping districts rebound while under state take over. Mr. Pollack is an interesting leader, his resume is the standard charter school reform leader. He worked at the Academy for Urban School Leadership (a charter school) and graduated from New Leaders (A leadership program noted for its support by many of the same groups that support charter schools) program. Judging by his history and education Mr. Pollack is the man you would expect to be leading the drive for a charter school in North Chicago. Instead he has very firmly and logically opposed charter expansion.

But what about test scores

Nope. Those scores are some of the worst in the state. They will continue to be some of the worst in the state for many years. It takes time to make changes.

I know what you want to say, “Tear it all down and start over”. Sounds great on paper, and in some respects that has already been done. Removing a locally elected school board is a pretty drastic step that has been taken. Opening a charter school as an alternative is also a drastic step that has been taken. Firing a principal and half a school staff is also a drastic step that has been taken. If we closed every school, razed the buildings and started over from the beginning with new staff and everything it still wouldn’t fix the schools in North Chicago.

The fix for North Chicago schools, just like every other school district in the country that is failing, is to rebuild the trust and faith in education. When the community believes education is important they will give the schools the support they need to grow. Money, yes, volunteer time, yes, well adjusted students, yes, time, yes and so much more.

Not every student or parent in our school has faith in the district, but that is true for every school district. I have been a part of many school districts in many states and I have never found one that hold unanimous support from the community. What we do have is the beginnings of a culture change. The question is, will this new fire be snuffed out or fanned?

Students for Social jusstice

Charter School Worries

The other night was a special school board meeting for North Chicago School District 187. A charter school wants to open another K-8 school in the neighborhood. When the first charter opened 4 years ago, the school was in bad financial state and was forced to close several schools and lay off over 100 teachers. The district has not had a positive reputation for many years so it wasn’t a surprise.

 

My first job in education was in this district 15 years ago and even then the advice was to look for a job in a better district. (I didn’t quite follow that advice, I had a child and left education for a year. After 10 years, three districts, and one edtech start-up I finally returned.) In 2012 the board was replaced by an appointed financial oversight committee. Which still sits on the board today. After 4 long years the financial situation is finally starting looking up.

 

I, and many teachers in my school, feel this charter school will hurt the students in North Chicago. It will increase choice, but the choice isn’t any better. It will also divide an already too small pool of money between three schools, forcing all of us to spend too much time asking for extra money (three teachers have raised over $8,000 on donors choose so far this year). We banded together and showed up at the meeting and made our voice heard.

 

More importantly, and more powerful, many of our students showed up and made their voice heard. At first I worried because the Charter showed up in force, asking people to sign petitions and giving them t-shirts. They brought students and asked them to speak and they spoke well. However, as soon as our students started to speak, time and time again the story was, I love my school, I feel supported by my teachers, I am learning. It was hard to deny that for many of the students the public school was the better choice.

students

 

Many Navy parents also stood up (children in families living on the Naval Training Center are in the district) telling us of stories they were told about how horrible the schools were in North Chicago, and how they learned the hard way that those stories are not true.

 

One mother cried as she told a story of homeschooling her son for years while he languished on the waiting list. When he was finally accepted into the charter school he changed from happy and outgoing to unhappy and inhibited. She pulled him from the charter and enrolled him into AJ Katzenmaier where he was transformed back into a loving happy child.

 

Nearing the end of the meeting I was feeling pretty good, especially as our deputy superintendent and chief learning officer gave a presentation using hard numbers. They showed clearly that not only has the current charter school not done any better at educating students, they have hurt the district by splitting funds. They explained how we are at a crossroads, if we don’t reach the threshold of 20% naval student enrollment we will lose 3 million dollars in impact aid. This will be devastating for a district already on rocky financial grounds.

 

Then right there at the end they said something very scary. If we don’t approve the charter, as they didn’t approve the first charter, then the charter would appeal the decision to the state, which will almost certainly approve the  charter, just like they did the first time, and this new school would be considered a separate district.

 

What they left unsaid was that the new district would almost certainly siphon off many of the students from navy families making it impossible to earn this impact aid from the federal government.

 

So basically the district is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Approve a charter that will slowly bankrupt the district, or deny a charter and watch as they appeal to the state, get approved, and bankrupt the district in just a couple of years.

 

Four Legged Guest

The tails of the two four legged guests this week.

(just ignore the grammar)

We have two house guests this week. Gracie and Austin.

20151221_155852

Austin likes to climb

Gracie likes to play.

Let me tell you about Gracie’s day. She goes for a walk at 5:30 AM, but she doesn’t walk she wants to jog. Which is great because I need the exercise, but I’m old and fat and slow. She keeps looking back lie, “Umm, do you think you can pick up the pace old man?”

Whatever, you’ve got four legs, I only have two.

When we get home she goes to sleep on the couch.

At 9 ish my son gets up and takes her for another walk. She comes home and goes back to sleep on the coach.

Later the neighbor comes over with his dog and Gracie goes out again and the boys chase each other around and around the yard. Eventually, rolling around in a big pile in the mud.

Luckily for me he takes her right upstairs to the bath and cleans her up. I can tell because he leaves a bunch of wet towels and dirty water in the tub. The dog is clean though.

Now it’s 6 O’clock and she is back sleeping on the couch. Sometimes it’s good to be a dog.