A Change In Public Education That Must Occur

I started my teaching career in the year 2000. This happened to also be around the time that No Child Left Behind was implemented. Generally speaking, No Child Left Behind said that every child would be prepared to enter college. Schools would be held more accountable. Students would be held more accountable. Academics would become more rigorous. Thus, every student would be academically fortified to flourish in college.

Now, that sounds wonderful on paper, but as with most things, there were unforeseen consequences. (At least, I hope the consequences were unforeseen and not actually premeditated.) Furthermore, from my own experiences in high school, I knew brilliant people who simply did not want to go to college. I also knew people who were very capable at life with no interest in college for many different reasons–primarily the debt they would accumulate. Even as a young novice teacher I knew that No Child Left Behind seemed to lack perspective because not everyone wants to go to college.

Here we are, twenty years later, and I’m witnessing the unintended effects of No Child Left Behind. In the interest of keeping this short, I’ll summarize by saying that if our students don’t play school very well, they are being left behind in a completely different way.

Imagine that you don’t particularly like English, math, history, or science. Now imagine that day after day, you have to sit through those classes for four straight years scraping by with Ds and Cs. You’ve been told college is the only option. You sign up for a local community college, and after struggling to pass your first year, you give up on post-secondary education.

Now what?

What do you do?

What skills do you have?

What sustaining opportunities exist for you?

I’ve seen this happen time and again and it breaks my heart.

The unintended consequence of No Child Left Behind is that, in an effort to meet all the rigorous requirements set forth by various bureaucratic entities, we lost a lot of classes that didn’t fall under the “core curriculum” category.  Most of these classes involved working with the hands. I’m not going to run through them all, but a few that immediately spring to mind are shop class, art, music, and automotive. These were all sacrificed in order to devote more time and teachers to the college-bound material.

I can think of dozens of students who would have thrived in classes where they got to utilize those skills related to working with their hands. And it’s true that some schools still have industrial arts and vocational classes, but I think in most cases they are not offered to just any general student. There’s a selection process involved due to limited space.

Remember that class you were super excited to attend because it addressed your specific interests? Maybe it was British literature, or physics, or chemistry. What if you didn’t like any of those subjects? What if, throughout your entire high school tenure, you didn’t take a single class that interested you? What if you never had the opportunity to discover you like the culinary arts, or fire safety, or automotive technology, or carpentry, or plumbing?

I absolutely believe that every American citizen needs a baseline understanding of the core curricula. Math, English, science, history–these are important things, for sure. However, why do we force a student who has no interest in college to sit through four years of English or math? Why not require two years of English, and then allow that student to take vocational classes related to a field they’d like to enter? They could also use that time to serve as apprentices or interns, get on-the-job training, and graduate from high school with real leads connecting them to a full-time job.

Of course, the great irony is that many of those in the trades are faring better than those with college degrees in today’s world because of scarcity. A plumber can charge whatever he or she wants because toilets have to work and not many people know how to fix them (myself included).

You’re the taxpayer. You know what your kids need. At the risk of sounding controversial, I maintain that most of the bureaucrats and politicians at the highest levels making the decisions influencing public schools neither attended public schools themselves nor send their own children to public schools. They are dictating the outcome of your child’s life with little to no vested interest in the welfare of your child.

How do you get vocational classes that are widely available to all students back into the public schools? I honestly don’t know. It probably starts with contacting your local representative or school administrator.

But a student exited to go to school in order to learn about things tied to the vocations that will have a positive impact on his or her professional life? I think it’s time for that change to occur.

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A Teacher’s Thanks To District 87

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As many of you know, I teach high school English. (Yes, I am the epitome of the clichéd  English teacher who thinks he’s also a writer. It’s true that I even have sports coats with elbow patches.)

I wanted to take a moment and thank my employer–District 87.

It’s been a long ride with District 87. I started teaching with them in 2002. Other than a two year sabbatical when my first child was born, I’ve been in the same building in the same hallway–and almost every room in that hallway–for sixteen years. We’ve been through a lot together.

In fact, I didn’t think there was much that could surprise me anymore when it came to teaching, and then the Covid-19 pandemic arrived.

The weeks leading up to the official “shelter in place” were confusing. Like you, we heard all kinds of contradictory reports. When the order issued to stay home, none of us knew exactly what to expect.

District 87 did two things that I find exemplary.

First of all, they implored us to “do no harm” to students. They reminded us that maintaining positive relationships and assuring students’ well-being took top priority. They encouraged us to error on the side of caution, to be gentle, to have an open mind, and to emphasize kindness. In my opinion, District 87 recognized that trauma takes all kinds of different forms, and no matter how well individuals were dealing with the situation, it was nonetheless somewhere on the trauma scale for all of us.

Which leads me to my next point. District 87 treated its teachers just as compassionately as they urged us to treat our students. District 87 goes above and beyond in fulfilling the various needs of our students. We are not just an educational institution. I feel that we are also very much a social services entity. As a result, I personally think that sometimes we want to do so much good for the kids that teachers become physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted. One of the first things that District 87 did after we were all sent home was to alleviate our fears as much as possible. District 87 demanded that we take care of ourselves and our families. They acknowledged that there is no way we can teach like we did in the classroom. They made a point to let us know we would all continue to be paid and that they wanted us as safe as possible.

I have not once felt pressured, judged, or stressed by District 87’s leadership during this pandemic, and for that I am deeply grateful.

To my employers, I say “thank you.”

 

What the NBA G League Means For Businesses and Colleges

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The NBA’s G League is kind of a like a minor league for the NBA. Players in the G League are considered professionals, and they are paid. However, something very interesting has happened over the last several weeks. Top college prospects are electing to enter the G League rather than going to college for a year before entering the NBA draft.

Up until now, it was common for elite high school  basketball players to go to a top-tier basketball school for one year. In doing so, they raised their own stock and gained a national spotlight, but they also made a lot of other people very, very rich while not being allowed to legally earn a cent for themselves.

Jalen Green, who is largely considered to be the best of the best among high school seniors, is reported to earn $500,000 his first year in the G League. After that first year, he’ll be allowed to enter the NBA draft for, presumably, quite a bit more.

You probably have an opinion about the basketball angle of all this, but that’s not really what I want to talk to you about. No, I want to talk about why kids bother going to college at all.

Now, obviously, college is the only path for many professions–teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc.

However, quite a few of us land jobs that have virtually nothing to do with our degrees–it’s just the fact that we have a degree that allow us to obtain a job.

According to The Street, who got their information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American makes an annual income of around $48,672. The average annual college tuition is somewhere around $15,000. Keep in mind, that’s just the tuition. If you need room and board, that’s another $10,000. In other words, an average American can expect to pay somewhere around $100,000 total for an average public university’s undergraduate degree.

I teach at a local high school, and the idea of paying $100,000 for college is a crippling one, especially if a student has no idea what they want to do with their lives. Most of my students just want to live comfortably. Most want to earn a decent living. Taking on $100,000 worth of debt, plus interest, to earn somewhere around $50,000 a year doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to them.

If given the choice, I think most would opt for the Jalen Green route. Go right into the work force with the opportunity to earn lots more while learning valuable skills.

Frankly, I’m surprised corporations don’t offer their own in-house universities. Almost all of the large corporations have some kind of a learning and development department, and almost all of them offer ongoing training for certificates and advancements. Imagine if a corporation hired an eighteen-year-old at an entry-level position, then offered free courses specific to that corporation’s field of interest that the new employee could take at their own pace. After so many hours, the employee would have the equivalent of a college degree, and they could then use that degree to go find other jobs in the same field (if they chose to do so). Consequently, I’m guessing most would stay with the corporation that groomed them.

I’m going to be honest with you–I paid for a lot of classes at college that had no bearing on my career as a teacher nor did they particularly interest me. (Geology comes immediately to mind. My apologies to all of the geologists out there.)

I personally believe in the power of education. I also appreciate that college is intended for the student to receive a well-rounded education on a variety of topics. I know that education is the path to greater success and ultimately provides an easier life for nearly everyone. However, I also admit that college has become far too expensive for the average American, and that college is not particularly appealing to the average American because much of it seems unnecessary.

Education and college should not have to be one and the same when it comes to a high school graduate’s earning potential.

So why aren’t corporations following the NBA’s model? Why aren’t they creating their own “G League?” And if they do, what will be the colleges’ response?

 

Visit Monica Estabrook’s Virtual Exhibition “mother•land”

I hope you will take a moment to visit Monica Estabrook’s virtual exhibition entitled “mother•land” by clicking HERE.

Monica Estabrook is an art teacher at Bloomington High School. I’ve known her as a coworker and friend for several years and appreciate her unyielding passion to create art even as she excels at teaching and raising children.

Many weeks ago, Monica invited my Creative Writing students to participate in an art show (“mother•land”) she had scheduled to appear at Heartland Community College. My students were both very excited by the prospect and also genuinely touched that Monica would share the spotlight with them. If you know Monica, however, this generosity would come as no surprise.

The plan was for my students to recite their poems on the opening night of Monica’s exhibition.

As you have probably guessed, the Covid-19 pandemic changed everything. However, the artistic spirit cannot be stopped, nor should it. Monica and Danell Dvorak, the HCC Art Gallery Coordinator, quickly developed a “plan b.”

When you visit the link, you’ll be able to view each of Monica’s photographs individually, and you’ll also be able to view a “walk-through” video as well. At the bottom of the page, you’ll find both text and audio versions of my students’ poems. They were tasked with recording themselves reading their poetry and submitting those audio files to Monica. Due to various circumstances, not all were able to participate, but those poems available are magnificent.

The pandemic has caused great tragedies, bitter disappointments, and mild inconveniences. I can only imagine how upsetting it must be to have an exhibition overshadowed and drastically altered due to the outbreak. But, if you know Monica, you won’t be shocked to learn that she took it all in stride, overcame the difficulties, and even found a new, creative way for her art and my students’ poems to shine.

Show this indomitable spirit your appreciation and visit her art show at this link: https://www.heartland.edu/artGallery/motherlandExhibit%20.html

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Working Hard, Or Hardly Working? My Answer Is … Yes?

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The other day someone asked me if I’m working more or less than I did before the COVID-19 outbreak. I thought about it for a few moments, and I found that I could only logically answer “less.”

As a teacher, I spent about eight and a half hours at work every day before the pandemic. That doesn’t include any assessing, lesson planning, or prep work I did at home.

Now, with my wife working in the house as well, and two children under twelve years of age trying to learn remotely, I cannot honestly say I’m working eight and a half hours every day at my job.

I can’t.

It’s impossible.

There are far too many interruptions, distractions, and general necessities that come with a family spending all day together, every day.

However, even though I’m working less hours, I honestly feel like I’m working harder than ever before.

There is no routine now–not like there is when I’m at work during an average school day. As a result, I do a little work, we make lunch. I do a little work, I go outside and watch my kids as they play. I do a little work, we help our kids with their lessons. I do a little work, we make dinner. Do you see the pattern? The pattern is that there is no pattern. As hard as we try to establish a routine, it’s impossible due to the nature of our jobs and the circumstances.

Ultimately, there is no work “shut-off.” I’m thinking about work all the time. I’m at least reading–if not answering–emails at all hours of the day. It used to be that when I walked out of my place of work at the end of the day, that was it–the end of the work day. That mindset no longer exists.

I’m thankful that I work for a very humane district. They are stressing the importance of both physical and mental health, not just for the students, but for the employees as well. They have made it very clear to put health before work, which I greatly appreciate. However, teachers are self-motivated people who thrive on routine-oriented, multifaceted tasks. We like spinning a thousand plates at once, but we also like clearly established patterns.

I’m sure you’re probably in a similar circumstance–we all are. This is hard. It’s hard on kids, it’s hard on adults, it’s hard on everyone.

Are You Checking Your Child’s Grades?

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Whether COVID-19 has sent your life into utter chaos or perhaps simply a bit of disarray, chances are you’re forgetting to check on your child’s grades. I urge you to do so regularly.

Most school districts have an online grade book that allows family access. I’m sure your elementary and middle school teachers have communicated with you how to take a look at your student’s assessments, but if not, get in touch and ask. It is absolutely your right to keep up with your child’s grades.

Most high school students know how to check their grades using an online grade book, but that doesn’t mean they actually are. I suspect many high school students are checking out or in denial. They need your support right now, and that support will probably feel like nagging. Most adults have felt like shutting down and hiding under the sheets at some point during all of this. Teenagers feel that way, too, but they may not have the capacity to actually get over that feeling. They need you cheering them on, urging them on, or nagging them–whatever works.

Most districts have adopted a “do no harm” policy. This basically means that schools are focused on improving each and every student’s grade. If your student is currently failing, most teachers will be very accommodating with helping that student improve. It could be in the form of making up missing work, doing work over again, or perhaps even excusing some work and treating it as a “no count.”

Whatever the case may be, it starts with you checking in. I know life might be crazy for you right now. I know it seems like you might not have time to do that. I know it seems like it’s the students’ responsibility to keep up with their grades, or the teachers’ responsibility to notify you of failing grades, but it’s yours as well.

The schools want your child to succeed, the teachers want your child to succeed, your child wants to succeed, and you want your child to succeed. Let’s all work together to make sure that success is achieved.

One Month Later …

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I took this picture of my classroom on March 16th, which was a Monday. I didn’t have any students that day–they had already been told to stay home due to the COVID-19 outbreak. I spent the day in an empty classroom. It became obvious that we would not be back for a while, so as I walked out of the room at the end of the work day, it dawned on me to take a picture and commemorate the moment. I suspected we wouldn’t be back for several weeks.

I literally took this picture before I closed my classroom door, and, as of today, that was one month ago.

One month.

I have to admit, that’s pretty surreal.

While I’m fortunate enough to still be in contact with my students via technology, it’s very, very odd not to share the classroom space with them any longer. I spent roughly eight and a half hours a day in this room every weekday. I spent more waking hours in this room throughout the week than I did in my own home.

When a teacher leaves for the summer, the mind is mentally prepared to step away for some much needed restoration. However, I don’t think any of us were ready for the emotional ramifications of this unexpected quarantine. We didn’t get to say goodbye to our students. Most of us didn’t realize the significance of the moment when we said goodbye to our coworkers. Furthermore, I’m not sure any of us were ready to partially relinquish our professional identities on March 16th.

We’re still working. We’re still in contact with our students. We’re still encouraging learning. None of it feels the same, though. My identity as a teacher relied on having students physically in front of me. I liked making them laugh and seeing them smile. It was important to me to make a positive impact on a daily basis, no matter how small.

I miss my classroom space, but I miss having that space filled by my students even more.

One month … and counting.

 

 

 

Are You a Parent Feeling Overwhelmed By Remote Learning?

In the span of twenty-four hours, I have received no less than fifteen emails from my children’s schools, several recorded phone calls, and “suggestions” that they utilize six new e-learning programs. (By the way, my kids are eleven and seven years old.) We are getting messages from principals, superintendents, food services, music teachers, art teachers, homeroom teachers, science teachers, math teachers, social studies teachers, literature teachers, physical education teachers … it’s overwhelming.

By the way–I’m a teacher.

Not to sound pompous, but my wife and I are both veteran educators, have our Master’s degrees, excellent bandwidth, numerous devices that can access the Internet, three levels in our house for privacy, and are absolutely feeling overwhelmed. We are in about as good of a situation as possible, and yet we are feeling overwhelmed.

For example, I had a Zoom meeting this morning at 9:00 a.m. for work. My eleven year old had a voluntary Google Hangouts meeting at 9:30, and my seven year old had a voluntary WebEx meeting at 9:45. That word “voluntary” is kind of tricky. We are overachievers, so nothing is really “voluntary.”

Here’s the thing–I have never doubted for a minute that my children’s schools love them. They have always made our children feel important, special, and loved. Yet, even though I’m sure this was not their collective intention, I felt like they were overburdening us. I can only imagine what it must feel like for disadvantaged families or for families that cannot take time away from work to help their kids navigate six new computer programs all in one morning.

Maybe you feel this way, too?

I want you to remember that, in nearly all cases, state superintendents are mandating that schools do no harm. Illinois’ own State Superintendent of Education, Dr. Carmen I. Ayala, has directed that “Remote Learning Days embrace the principle of  ‘no educational harm to any child … ‘”

So what does this mean? It means that you and I should relax. Our schools want our children to remain engaged. They want them to keep learning. However, they also want them to maintain mental health, and they want that for you, too. Overachievers like us have to make peace with the fact that there may be days when we just can’t help our children get their work done. I promise you, the world will keep turning, and your child will not fail out of school as a result. No matter how much it seems like the teachers are throwing at your child, they want the best for your child and they will ultimately do right by your child. 

Take a breath. Do what it takes to keep your job. Help your students as much as you can, but, most importantly, love them, give them security, talk to them, and let them be kids. If it comes down to choosing between a hug or homework, pick the hug.

We’re all doing the best we can.

Stay strong. Stay healthy. Love your kids. Love yourself. We’re going to get through this, and we’re going to do it together.

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