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So the discussion of education reform is now wholly focused on teachers. This notion that the teacher is the only variable in a classroom and having perfect teachers will fix all that ails education is completely absurd to me and should be absurd to anyone who has spent at least two days at the front of a classroom. As one of my incompetent and insane administrators often said in moments of lucidity: "we're developing human beings here; we're not making widgets".

If the teacher is the be all and end all of education, then obviously, teachers are in control of every variable in the classroom, right? So I thought about making a list of what I controlled in the classroom that impacted the students' ability to learn. Except I can hardly think of much. Here, however, is a partial list of what I did not control and I challenge any reliable studies to prove that none of these things impact a student's learning:

1. The physical environment of the room. For 16 years, I regularly taught in classrooms that were too hot, too cold, too drafty, crowded, dusty, not adequately lit (it once took two weeks to get a new bulb when a light bank went out),had a roof leak, etc...As a sub working in a much newer public high school, I have encountered classrooms that are routinely much too hot in winter. Three of the elementary buildings I have been in as a sub are woefully overcrowded and have horrible climate control. I taught in classrooms that had broken, old desks, and saw even worse furnishings in small public schools when we traveled to speech meets over the years. Teachers have zero control over even the temperature of the classroom.

2. The physical condition of the students in the room. Thanks to irresponsible parents and rules about maximum absences and course credits, high school students often come to school sick. Thanks to over zealous sports schedules, part time jobs, and parents who refuse to enforce curfews, many high school students come to school exhausted day and day out. Sick or exhausted kids frequently sleep through class no matter how "effective" your lesson is or what you do to keep them awake. Then you add in issues like did they eat breakfast? Or did they drink three Red Bulls instead? Is it nearly lunch time? Our schedule at one school shifted forward by 30 minutes on days we had mass. Students who normally are attentive the last period before lunch have a difficult time focusing when they have to wait an extra 30 minutes to eat--especially if they had no breakfast or an inadequate breakfast. You can try this one at home. Skip breakfast and push your regular lunch time back 30 minutes. If you aren't focused at work, you can blame your boss for being "ineffective". And, of course, there are extreme examples as well, kids coming in stoned, drunk, hungover...I've had that happen, too.

3. If the students are there. Some students simply do not come to school regularly. There are high school girls whose mothers call them in sick for 3-4 days once a month. There are families who take their kids on vacation in the middle of the school year. There are parents who are long gone to work by the time their high school kids are to get up on their own and drive to school, and often, those kids sleep in and miss first and even second period or don't come to school at all. "Highly effective" teaching makes no difference to kids who are not in school.

4. The emotional condition of the kids in the room. I'm sure that the most brilliant and "highly effective" teachers left at my former school cannot teach anyone anything from the curriculum this week as they buried a student on Thursday morning. Again, these are not widgets. On any given day, someone has broken up with their boyfriend or girlfriend, is dealing with parents' divorce, got a bad grade on a test returned the period before, had a fight with a friend, got a ticket on the way to school and the list goes on forever. Teens dealing with life issues don't always learn from even the most brilliant lessons.

5. The curriculum, resources, and technology available. Curriculum standards are set based on state guidelines. Alignment to those standards in most public schools is done by people in the district office and teachers must then follow it to the letter. That means that you teach stories A, B, and C in the literature anthology on weeks 2 and 3 regardless of what might work best for your students. Resources necessary to teach are not always even close to adequate. I began teaching in 1994 and did not have maps in a classroom that did not have East and West Germany and the Soviet Union on them until 2003. The local public district bought new ones the same year we did. A very large public high school I recently visited has no internet access in individual classrooms without teachers checking out one of three laptops shared by departments with ten or more teachers. More cutting of education budgets means the lack of proper resources will continue to be a problem.

6. The ability level of the students. I taught in private schools with no special education services beyond those needed for mild learning disabilities. Ability level issues were still a struggle. Due to the mandated curriculum standards from both the state and our diocese, I had to teach Shakespeare to seniors. No choice about that aspect of the curriculum. The first year I taught seniors, the majority of my students had tested reading levels at middle school or below. Comprehension was even lower for most of them. I had never taught any of these students in English or reading before that year. This was based on learning disabilities for some and inadequate prior instruction for years for the majority. I had nothing to do with the creation of those deficits. But I was still required to have them reading, comprehending and analyzing Shakespeare. Not an easy task. For teachers in public schools with mainstreamed special ed students, ELL students, etc...those issues are even more pronounced.

Then there is the matter of the level of engagement and effort the students put in. Teachers can't teach in a vacuum. Learners must actively engage and participate in order to learn. And no matter how brilliant the lesson, some kids refuse to be engaged in learning. Somehow, we have decided that it is not the responsibility of students to learn so much as it is of teachers to teach. That makes no sense. Learning is a not a passive activity. We cannot open up their heads and pour knowledge in, but this notion that teachers are the only ones responsible is creating an attitude in students that it is a passive activity and the duty of the teacher to make them learn. That doesn't work at all.

Broken System and Annoying Kids

I flipped around the news channels last night and wanted to scream.

We have this mess in Iraq, an economy that we're supposed to believe is thriving but is leaving so many people behind, and a number of other huge issues looming before us......and what was the news all about? John Kerry unsuccessfully trying to tell a lame joke about Bush and what the "political fallout" may be.

Suddenly, everywhere I look, this is the main issue in the mid-term elections. A guy who isn't running for anything mis-telling a lame joke about another guy who isn't running for anything. A poster on a forum I frequent said this made him decide to vote for the Republican in his local House race.

The only conclusion I can reach is that if this is actually what decides the elections our system is broken. Maybe irretrievably. Americans clearly don't know and don't care what's really going on. And the media is filling air time by allowing the GOP to make mountains of mole hills once again. The worst part is that it seems if CNN and MSNBC and FOX say it's a mountain, the whole country believes it is.

I just want to hear one politician from each party and one newsperson say out loud, "This is stupid, people; this is a non-issue." Jon Stewart basically did last night; now let's have an anchor on the "real" news have the guts to say it. Let's have candidates, Democrats and Republicans, call a time-out from such insanity and say that this is not the issue, that there are real issues. Perhaps someone could even have the courage to say that supporting the troops is not about bad jokes or good jokes or anything that anyone says. It's about making sure they are well-paid and their families are cared for, and that benefits are adequate, as well as supplies and training. It's not about magnets on cars and what politicians say or who they have standing behind them when they say it.

And then, there are my annoying students. And maybe they're not annoying so much as they are young and naive. I had the tenth graders read a Tim O'Brien story, "On the Rainy River", where the narrator struggles to decide whether to accept his fate of being drafted to Vietnam, or to run away to Canada and avoid it. Before they read it, I told them a little about Vietnam, about the reasons people didn't agree with it, or didn't go. And they came in this morning and said the story was dumb, that decisions aren't that hard, that no one thinks about anything that long. And at first I wanted to yell at them, "are you all insane?" How does one decide quickly and easily between not standing up to beliefs and breaking the law, between home and exile, between what feels like duty and what feels like treason--even when your convictions tell you it's the other way around......... And then I realized that to them decisions are things like what shoes to wear to school (we have uniforms except for shoes) and whether to have the entree or taco bar for lunch. "How do you make a decision this big?" I asked them, and one girl said, "You just do what you feel at that moment and live with it." Someday, they'll realize that when the consequences are much bigger, your feelings in the moment aren't always the best guide. Until then, they won't understand the story. It ends with O'Brien's narrator telling us that he was "a coward" and went to war.

Try that ending out on sophomores in a red state. "You can't call going to war cowardly!" one student said defiantly. "All soldiers are heroes!" a boy said. Of course, a summer ago, a small town in our state gave a hero's welcome for one of their own who was injured in Iraq. Complete with a parade and festival and gifts for the girl and ending with fireworks in her honor. Must have been a horrific injury that occurred in heroic circumstances, right? Not so much. Someone dropped a crate on her foot while they were unloading a shipment of supplies. The foot was broken and she came home to a medal of honor winner's welcome. I asked the kids why are all soldiers heroes. "Because they defend our country!" And, in fourth period, one lone voice in the back suddenly said with a tremor, "But were they defending US in Vietnam? Are they defending US in Iraq?" And then it got quiet. They can never quite let themselves disagree with the things they parrot from their parents. Then the silence ended with a parrot, "If we don't fight them there, we'll fight them here." And the voice in the back got stronger, "Were the North Vietnamese going to attack us if we had stayed out of it?"

So, of course, the bell rang. Sigh..........

Every Breath You Take...

I have a stalker.

Yesterday, there was a letter in my mail at home from the father of a former student. A totally creepy short rather rotund guy who used to come to conferences and try to be charming while ranting about his ex-wife and how she was ruining the children. The letter included a picture of himself and informed me that he has been watching me as I go to and from work and when I stop and get my coffee and he found my car in the lot at my apartment so he knows where I live. And, by the way, would I like to go out with him?


So now I am living in complete paranoia. We had mass this morning and have to walk a block and a half down the street to the church. I came out of the building a little late and most of the staff and students were quite a ways ahead. So there I was looking for strange cars and running to catch up with the last straggling teacher, a large and intimidatingly strong football coach. I resisted the temptation to ask him if he'd like to start giving me a ride to work in the morning.

Ginger, my coffee supplier and good friend, is very concerned now, because another frequent customer got a similar letter from this guy about three months ago. She is consulting with another frequent customer this afternoon--Sheriff Dan. She doesn't think it's good for business for a creepy guy to use her coffeehouse to stalk women! Mind you, he is only in there at mid-day, not when I am there, so he is watching me from someplace else when I go in and out. We don't know where.

So...has anyone else had a stalker? What did you do? I seriously think he chose the wrong former teacher of his kid. I know one who probably would've taken this letter as a very romantic gesture and called him for a date right away.

Thank God I am not that desperate.

This Crazy Job on a Monday

It's definitely Monday. And it's a Monday Monday. The kind of Monday that people wrote all those Monday songs about.

Last night, about nine o'clock while I was watching Intolerable Cruelty for maybe the fourth time probably just to look at George Clooney because he looks a lot better than the sophomore writing I'd been reading for two hours, a friend I hadn't talked to for forever called. So I shut off my movie (which she wants to come watch some time because George Clooney looks better than her house and children and unfinished editing work and the chapters of her new book which she currently hates) and we talked until almost midnight.

So I was just asking for a bad Monday.

I got up late and couldn't find my shoes. Every third morning or so, I vow to organize my shoes or simplify my life by having less shoes. But then I forget about it until the next time I can't find shoes. And I couldn't find my coffee mug, so I had to get a styrofoam cup so the coffee got a little cold, because they haven't turned the heat on in the building yet.

And I was late. Then the secretary was at the front door to ambush me, which usually means she wants you to take someone else's class during your plan time. This time it was even better; she wanted me to take someone else's five problem children during my plan time so the sub doesn't have to deal with them. Terrific. They better pay me for it.

First period, I took my speech class to the library to work on researching and outlining their speeches. A middle school class showed up at the same time, even though I had signed up for the library. Their teacher had put her name over mine, since she wanted three periods and I only wanted first. Then she threw this fit about how there wasn't enough room for her class and mine and she needed the library so I brought my kids back upstairs and they got nothing done. And blamed me. Second period, I went past the library and the other teacher had her second session of the class in there. They were sitting at the tables and she was teaching. Why couldn't she do that in her room??

Then I opened my e-mail.

Anything in life that I previously considered an irritation or a problem or a constant source of annoyance pales in comparison to the new bane of my existence : the online gradebook.

They call them helicopter parents. They hover over their kids' every move. And we have given them the ultimate place to hover: the online gradebook. Parents can now check their children's grades from home, from the office, from wherever they may have an internet connection...they can check one, two, fourteen times a day. They can obsess and call and e-mail and accost us in the grocery store or the coffeehouse or church or anywhere they can find us over what they see there...

So I had not one, not two, not even three, but five e-mails from the same parent about his kid's missing grade. We did not have school on Friday because we had a workshop for the Archdiocese, 45 miles away. I no longer have internet access at home. So had I checked my e-mail since Thursday afternoon? No. His first e-mail came Thursday night. A second came Friday morning. A third on Saturday. The fourth on Saturday night. The fifth on Sunday afternoon. By number five, he is angry that I do not care enough about Johnny's missing grade to answer his e-mail. Clearly, it could not possibly be because it was the weekend!!

Here's the even dumber part of it. The missing grade is for a class activity that was worth 15 points. Johnny was gone the day we did it for a field trip for another class, and I just let it go and didn't make him do it and didn't enter a grade at all so that it has no effect on his average. The same was true for six others who were on that field trip.

Helicopter parents are becoming a nightmare with this system. Last week, a parent called the principal because her kid took a test first period and when she checked the online gradebook at 4 p.m, no grades for the test were posted. The way the system works, for it to be posted by 4 p.m, the teacher would've had to have had it graded and entered by noon. To give our principal credit, he told us this because he was asking us for ideas on how to stop those sort of calls. Tell the parents to be logical for two seconds?

Long ago, at another school, I walked into the teacher's lounge to check my mailbox after school one day. Sitting at the desk by the phone was a normally very calm and collected and exceedingly professional teacher banging her head on the desk and saying over and over again: "I wish I taught orphans..."