22 August 2011

Your Education Policies: A View from the Depths

I've had a really tough time so far this year. A passel of new regulations, passed by a viciously anti-teacher legislature last spring, have tied me up in knots and wasted a lot of my time.  I wrote this essay between midnight and 1:30 a.m. just to blow off some steam.  It's not like I had time to write during my 11-hour workdays. I'm planning to share it with my legislators and with SCORE, a Trojan-horse organization founded by Republicans in Tennessee to de-fund public education and drive every last well-meaning teacher either out of the state or into private or charter school jobs.

I teach at a school that you represent, Station Camp High School in Gallatin. I’m beginning my third week of the school year, teaching German, Creative Writing and 11th-grade English.  I sponsor three clubs at our school (yours and mine and my 9th-grade daughter’s).

I’m burned out. That’s right, and it’s only the third week.

Someone needs to tell what’s going on.  Someone needs to describe all the work that has been wasted by the onerous regulations placed on public school teachers and administrators in the 2011 legislative session.  Someone needs to get you to see the effects of decisions you made six months ago.  I will do my best to try.

This is my eighth year at my high school.  During that time I have taught every grade level of English, and every strata of each class except A.P.  I have also taught--as I am teaching now--German 1 & 2 and creative writing.  After three years here--years in which I was observed regularly, and I carefully worked out lesson plans under the direction of my administrators--I earned tenure back in 2007.

While politicians, movie producers and journalists tried to disparage tenured teachers like me with allegations of ineptitude and stories of mysterious “rubber rooms,” I was proud of my tenure.  I knew how hard I had worked to earn it.  I also knew the ways it could be used to benefit both me and the students who would study in my classes in subsequent years.

Tenure gave me the freedom to turn my classroom into a learning laboratory.  I knew how to teach, plan, and manage a classroom--that’s what I understood my tenure to mean.  It meant that I had the freedom to experiment with new styles of learning, to reach out and form community partnerships that might benefit learners in my classroom, to organize learning experiences outside the classroom and collaborate with teachers across subject areas and grade levels.  I wouldn’t have gotten tenure in the first place if I hadn’t shown mastery of basic teaching methods over three years.  Tenure gave me a solid foundation from which I could reach higher.

Over the past three years, this foundation has produced amazing results both for me and for my students at SCHS. My love of experimentation and my creativity--with the support of my school administration--really began to blossom in new ways.  I formed a close bond with TPAC Education which brought teaching artists into my school to help make lessons more meaningful.  I learned Google Docs and used a donation of 32 used laptops from Volunteer State Community College to create my school’s first “paperless classroom.”  This past summer I won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study American history through song at the University of Pittsburgh, where I developed ways to use folk music to augment my literature classes.

I returned from Pittsburgh four days before the administrative day where we learned about the new evaluation system:  that tenure was transitory, that teachers who didn’t perform “above expectations” or “significantly above expectations” for two years in a row would return to probationary status.  When I saw the regulations--about 30 minutes of paperwork per 90-minute lesson (and I teach three different lessons a day)--I knew that my days as a tenured teacher were numbered.  But that didn’t bother me as much as knowing that the freedom I had worked so hard to gain, build, and share with my students, was also transitory.

You need to know what is going on in the schools you represent. If you’re working for teachers, parents and students, you need to understand the results of your policy actions.

This is how Tennessee Educaton Reform 2.0 has worked for me so far:

  • I have attached below the lesson-planning form that was adapted by my school’s administration. It includes all the relevant data that will go into my evaluations this year.  It took me 30 minutes to produce.  The toughest part about the planning form isn’t the questioning or the assessment--I’ve been doing that since I started teaching, it’s how I gained tenure.  It’s wasting time referencing the standards.  In German 1 there are about 20 to utilize, but in English 11, there are almost 70 state performance indicators (SPI’s). I find myself asking, “This is a logic lesson. Is it 5.2 or 5.4?”
    • This has tripled the amount of time it takes me to plan lessons.  Usually I have lesson plans posted a week in advance of the lessons I teach.  This year, I’m struggling to stay one to two days ahead.
  • My grading has increased markedly--not directly because of the state regulations, but because of an ambitious goal I had set to make my classes paperless.  With laptops at every desk, students generate about 30-35% more work for me to grade.  This is an exchange that I’m willing to make, because (1) I am investing my time to see kids learning more, and (2) I’m optimistic that eventually technology will let me cut the grading load to what it was before or less.  Before, the satisfaction of seeing successful learning and being a part of technological innovation made the extra work worthwhile. Now I feel like I’m doing a lot of work the State of Tennessee doesn’t necessarily want me to do, and instead I should spend more time acting and planning like a non-tenured teacher. You might imagine the frustration I feel there.
  • I have no time.  Last year I graded at home from 9 to 10 five nights a week; this year I am grading/planning from 8:30 to 11, and I have little to show for it.   Last year I graded on Sundays only when I had a big batch of essays to complete.  The first Sunday of this school year, I spent four hours at my school setting up for the launch of my paperless classroom.  Last Sunday, my wife and kids went to the movies without me so I could spend five hours getting my grades ready to post and plotting out lessons for my three classes.
  • I can’t perform the kinds of leadership roles I want to provide to other, less-experienced teachers.  I mentioned earlier how I arranged for teaching artists from TPAC Education to come to our school.  Last year I had three colleagues join me in an Arts in Education Unit.  This year, we’re all so busy trying to keep our heads above water, we’ve all but given up on the idea, losing precious momentum toward Arts in Education that I had labored to build over two years.  I learned some cool new teaching tricks at the NEH Summer Institute that I would love to share through a professional development, only I have no time to draw up a proposal, much less plan a three-hour training.
  • I can’t develop the technology that I brought into my school last year, and I can’t train other teachers to use these 21st-century teaching tools.  I want to train more teachers at my school about Google Docs and utilizing technology in the classroom. This summer the district brought in a “tech guru” from Atlanta as a keynote speaker.  I got to have a private meeting with her to share some of the things I was doing with Google Docs in the classroom.  While she had a broad knowledge of Google applications--and other forms of software--she hadn’t experimented with it in the classroom setting like I had, and she was very impressed.  I don’t get paid four figures a day to visit Tennessee like she did (it would be nice, but let’s face it, I’m just fighting to keep my job in this state, much less tenure).  I live here and have committed myself to my county’s education success, not just my own.  I can’t do it, though.  That’s what I’ve realized in just three weeks.

I’m just speaking for myself. I cannot speak for the administrators whose work loads have doubled with the additional evaluation responsibilities.  I cannot speak for the colleagues who were a year away from tenure and now have to wait for three.  My kids are all in school now (my youngest is eight), I can’t speak for teachers with young families or those expecting babies, who are now facing this increased workload.  You need to talk to them.  It is you who need to listen.

I share with SCORE and many others the desire to see Tennessee’s public education system become the best in the South, and I hope that I have demonstrated a willingness to do the hard work that profound change in education requires without explicit, step-by-step direction from the state department of Education.

I just fear that we’re missing out on opportunities for implementing real learning by treating teachers like numbskulls who have to fill out a planning guide and list out standards-based questions on their forms before they can teach a German class how to say “What’s up?” or lead an English 11 class through the turbid waters of Moby Dick.

Last Sunday’s New York Times featured a number of respected thinkers who finished the thought, “If I were president....”  James Dyson, the engineer who re-invented the vacuum cleaner, wanted to change education in the right way:
“Standardization and rote learning lead to sub-standard results because they don’t inspire or challenge. My solution: get rid of binary right and wrong answers. Experimentation is learning. Only through making mistakes do we find out what works, what to do differently and how to get better.  Box-ticking does not correlate with world winning. Certificates won’t beat global competition. Creativity will.” --Kornbluth, Jesse, “If I Were President,” New York Times, Sunday Review Section, 21 August 2011.

Part of me is willing to accept a lower TVAAS score because I chose to teach my students about thinking and not “box-ticking.”  I would rather see a student demonstrate a love for learning than a high score on an end-of-course exam.  As a teaching professional, of course I want to grow towards both goals, but as an overworked, maligned public school teacher, I feel hung out to dry.

In your capacity, you attend a meeting, you write a press release, you attend a luncheon or a fundraiser, and you feel like you have done something with your day, you might even feel like you did some good.  Where I’m at now, I grade sixty papers and work 90 minutes on planning, and I feel like I have only fallen an hour further behind where I need to be. I haven’t contacted parents, I haven’t arranged extra time to help a student who isn’t yet up to speed, etc.

Tennessee has gone too far towards standardization in its onerous micromanagement of teachers, both tenured and non.  Legislators and policy advocates have taken away from teachers and administrators the freedom to experiment with learning, the room to let students try--then fail--then explain and learn.  I hope that this letter may apprise you of the situation on the ground and encourage you towards more balanced, more rational policies in the future.


James Dittes
Station Camp High School