Let teachers do their jobs

I’ve been teaching for just over 10 years and have a precarious relationship with the profession. Precarious, because I feel I am skilled and have knowledge to offer but often find myself frustrated and feeling incompetent as I try to fit into a system that doesn’t work.

I do not see myself staying in the education system until my retirement.  I love working with young people and I love education, but I truly do not like the system.  I’m glad to see the general public asking questions and trying to learn what the issues are, because for a long time I’ve been shaking my head and wondering when people were going to notice the issues in our public education system.   One of the problems I’ve noticed is less and less voice and autonomy for teachers.  So much of the system is a top-down approach from school boards and the Department of Education.  Despite my years of training in the field of education, I often feel I do not have a voice.

With the current situation in the province, friends and neighbours have been asking me what the teachers want and what the problems are.  I’ve created a list and I’ve tried to keep it brief, but this is what I have seen and experienced as some of the frustrations over the years.   The frustration and stress placed on teachers due to the following issues has taken its toll.  Teachers who are close to the end of their careers have said the job is very different from when they started, when they had more autonomy and a true sense of community with their students and staff.  I’ve seen many teachers retire hating the profession they loved and were truly gifted in, and it’s sad to see how stress takes a toll on capable and intelligent citizens.

Prep time & work load:

Tell me which meal sounds more wholesome for you and your family: a drive-through meal from a fast food restaurant, or a made-from-scratch, wholesome, handmade meal?  I choose the made-from-scratch meal.  I use an analogy of the lack of prep time in a teacher’s day leading to teachers being forced to “serve” fast food lessons to their students.  When you don’t have time to cook from scratch (take the time to properly plan and create thoughtful lessons) you grab or use what’s available, and the lessons are not to the high quality that we were once able to with more time.  I understand the province feels they are creating efficiencies by cutting prep time but it’s the absolute opposite- restore prep time to teachers and you WILL see academic standards increase in this province.   There is so much waste in the system spent on consultants and technology  – constantly tossing ideas at teachers and hoping they’ll use it, when in reality all we need is TIME to think, plan, create and collaborate with our colleagues who, truth be told, we don’t even see in the same building now due to lack of time to talk to one another.   Teachers are often asked to give up prep time to cover for each other.  At one point in my career I was asked by the principal to cover someone else’s class 12 TIMES- this is almost 3 days of work I was not compensated for!  The public may think that teachers have preparation time each day but we do not.

Solution: Give teachers the time to teach and the time in their schedule at work to do the tasks required.  Now that we are easily connected to the Internet we are expected to take more and more work home to complete on our own time.  There are very few professions that are expected to take so much work home without compensation.

Lack of seniority and teaching what you know within a school:

In some cases teachers have a say in their teaching assignment and in some cases they don’t; this is up to administration.  There could be a teacher in a building with a direct background in specific courses and due to scheduling, they are not assigned to teach those courses.  Or, a teacher could teach a course one year and not the next- the next year the course is given to a different teacher (who has to sometimes then create/ learn/ gather material) instead of going to the teacher who has already taught the course.  The idea of seniority within a building rarely exists now it seems.  Teachers who are at the end of their career with a year or two left can be assigned brand new courses and material they have never taught, and spend their time gathering, prepping and learning new material rather than teaching what they know best.  Teaching new courses from scratch and knowing someone down the hall is also teaching a new course from scratch (but it’s one you know well) is frustrating and stressful for teachers.

Lack of accountability on the part of students and “credit recovery”:

As I’ve discussed teacher issues and demands with neighbours and friends, the thing they found most shocking is the change in accountability for students.  This also refers back to teacher autonomy that I mentioned above.  Students are not required to meet deadlines for assignments now.  If I assign a paper or project and set a due date, I like to gather the assignment and sit to mark them and return them in a timely fashion so we can discuss and move on and build on this knowledge.  One issue now though, is that students do not have to meet set deadlines. I am required to accept student work up until the last day of the course.  This means someone can bring me their assignments on the day before marks are due, and I am required to assess and mark their material.  This is a logistical nightmare for teachers and also a stressful situation when marks are due.  I do understand that students have situations at home that cause them to miss deadlines and that we need to assess their demonstrated learning, but the fact that deadlines don’t seem to matter is very difficult to justify.

If students fail a course they are sometimes given the option of “credit recovery” which is meant to give them a chance to submit work after the course has ended and to gain the credit.  This is frustrating for teachers when it is offered to students who did not attempt to do the work during the class, when we prepared so much and taught every single day, and they chose not to do the work.  To see them offered a piddly little assignment in exchange for the credit (I’ve seen this happen) is a slap in the face to my morals, values and profession.  The fact that administrators use this more often for students with challenging behaviour problems to get them out of the building is even more of a slap in the face.

Solution: let teachers teach and assess on a manageable schedule, and if students can’t do the work, support them as much as we can but let them try again if they fail.

Demands of volunteering and coaching:

Teachers who volunteer to coach a team do double duty, staying after school to practice and travelling to games, often during school hours and weekends.  Teachers have a lot of paperwork to complete to travel with a sports team, whether it be booking hotels or arranging rides with parents.  We often have to decide whether to use our prep time to prep for our classes or use it to organize the sports trip and the photocopying of myriad permission slips.  This is not something done by administrative assistants, because their time has been cut back to a minimum as well.  If you miss class time because you are away at a game or tournament, you also have to spend time asking your colleagues to give up a prep hour to cover your class.  So even though we may have only 4 prep periods in eight days, we ask someone to give one of those precious prep periods up to cover our classes so we can go and coach (volunteer) the school team.  The weekends away and evenings on the road are absolutely not compensated; we do it because we love sport and our students being active in sports or academic teams.

Supervision:

Some schools and staff take on the role of supervision during recess and lunch, and sometimes this can be well organized and democratic, and sometimes it is not.  Supervision is also extra work in a teacher’s day.   Good leadership within the building by admin will set up a fair and simplified schedule so teachers do not feel overburdened.  Poor leadership by admin means supervision is a very stressful addition to a teacher’s workload.  At one point I was assigned to do supervision every day at lunch for more than half the lunch block (25 minutes of the 35 minute lunch).  On a day without any prep time in your schedule, giving up your lunch break is very difficult.  In a working day in a unionized workplace, having a lunch break should be a given, but this is not so for many teachers who often miss sitting down to eat lunch.   I recall a time when we had entire semesters without any prep time, and some teachers were still given supervision duty despite their lunch being their only break in their immensely busy day.  When I had supervision every day, I had about 10 minutes for lunch.  Most days I had to decide whether to: eat quickly, go to the washroom, OR make a quick photocopy or get organized for my classes after lunch.  How healthy is it to skip lunch?  It’s not something I would want my students to do, so why is it okay for so many teachers to skip lunch due to supervision time or lack of prep?   What really grinds my gears is that we are told we can eat our lunch on our prep if our supervision is at lunch- PREP time is PREP time, not lunch time.

Solution: ensure teachers have a healthy amount of time to take a quiet break in their day. A 30-minute lunch break without supervision and without missing their prep time should be a minimum expectation for a healthy workforce.

Administration and school board accountability:

The issue of coverage and prep time being taken away has to do with some issues at the board level and administration.  There is a lot of great leadership in our schools but there’s also a lot of bad leadership and bad leadership can do a lot of damage to a school community in both the short and long term.  Often it seems the admin is trying to jump through hoops created by school board or Department of Education policies and this leads to stress on teachers.  Many of the expectations relate to data, reporting and also liability issues such as new travel and chaperone policies that have made class trips even more time-consuming and stressful to organize.  Some administrators do not uphold strong standards for discipline and behaviour, and classrooms become difficult places for teaching and learning because teachers are not supported when they ask that a student be disciplined.  Administrators and teachers are equal in the union but not in the day-to-day running of some schools, and when this is not done well, it leads to A LOT of stress on teachers.  I have already described issues of teacher schedules, prep time and autonomy, and this does relate to board-level decisions and administration.  There is no information or transparency on how administrators are evaluated, but teachers do not seem to have a say or a voice in many cases.

Accreditation and other fake “accountability” methods:

The general public should really know how much money and time has been poured into schools’ process of “accreditation” in the past 10 years.  Binders upon binders upon binders of photocopied information done by teachers and administration have not resulted in improvements in schools.  Don’t get me wrong, setting goals and collaborating to improve schools is an excellent idea and good use of time, but the process of accreditation has not been a good use of time or human resources within a school building.  Using teachers’ inservice days for data collection and goal setting only to see the goals reversed, overturned or changed by Boards or the Department of Education has been frustrating for teachers.  Setting goals of collaboration only to realize there is no preparation time to collaborate within a building is also frustrating.  The need for accreditation is also a bit unclear because we have provincially mandated standards to begin with.  If schools are following provincially mandated standards and Board policies, and teachers come from accredited universities and are given the time and the space to do good work, why do schools also need to then become “accredited?”  This goes to the heart of the issue of money spent on bureaucracy and meeting fake goals.  It is incredibly frustrating to be mandated to complete certain types of reporting, knowing that it will not be used, implemented or effective. If a school or board sets a goal of improving technology use, one way they “meet” this goal is by spending money to put technology into the classroom.  A lot of money has been spent on iPads and Mimios and making sure every single classroom has one- so the box that states “technology goal met” can be checked.  It doesn’t matter whether teachers are using the technology or using it well; it also doesn’t matter if teachers do not have proper training to use the technology; the goal is reached if every classroom has the technology installed.  In other words, don’t ask teachers what they need in the classroom- tell them what they are getting, install it and pat yourself on the back for meeting your technology goal.  A sad, sad state of affairs- the emperor has no clothes – but they have iPads and Mimios!!!

Assessment and report card deadlines:

Recently I took a look at some of my own report cards my siblings and I received in high school and I noticed that in the past, report cards did not take a long time to complete.  Calculating marks and averages would have taken teachers a significant amount of time but the report cards themselves were not onerous.  In the past, a report card was one page with the cumulative marks and little or no comments from teachers.  There were a few brief comments if teachers chose to include a comment- one said “More effort required” and one said “A pleasure to have in class.”  The comment section for teachers was OPTIONAL.  Compare that to report cards now, teachers are REQUIRED to write a lengthy comment with details about strengths and what students can improve on for every student they teach.  Along with comments on each and every student in each and every class, teachers also have to fill in a ‘student profile’ section as well.  Teachers in elementary or junior high sometimes have two different formats of report cards to fill in if they teach in both grade levels.  Report cards are now 4 to 6 pages in length when printed.  Filling in the mandatory report card comments takes hours and hours (one veteran teacher estimated it takes them between 20 to 30 hours to complete the report card process, and in my experience 20+ hours is very accurate.) Now that we are using an online program to report more often and in more detail, and are mandated to provide comments, you would assume we would be given time for this additional work, but NO, this is not the case.  Are there any other professions where 20 hours of additional work requirements would be added without extra time given to complete this work?  There is no additional time given to complete report cards- we do it at home in the evenings and weekends and since it’s available online, we are simply expected to do it at home on our own time.  Since report cards have switched to online, the administrative days at the end of term often do not line up with deadlines for reporting, so we do not have admin or “marking days” prior to report card deadlines.  Reporting periods are some of the most stressful times for teachers.

Solution: Set teachers up with marking days prior to report card reporting periods.  Do not require mandatory paragraphs of information by every teacher for every student and DO NOT introduce “new” reporting formats and throw out the old report formats every three years.

Reviewing this summary I notice that I haven’t actually discussed the day-to-day or hour-by-hour activity of the classroom.  I haven’t discussed class composition, class size, or learning needs.  I think the reason for this is my list of issues often takes up a large balance of the stress experienced by teachers before or while they teach.  So much is spent on all of this other bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that the classroom goal is to “get through it” each day.  Take the work home to try to get through on the evenings and weekends in order to cope in the classroom.  There has been so much money poured into initiatives that don’t last and don’t work- the public should be outraged. As I mentioned above, many, but not all classrooms are relying on a fast food model rather than the wholesome goodness that teachers want to provide and were trained to carry out through their professional training.  Let the professionals be professionals, focus on letting teachers teach and be prepared to teach, focus on education, not on creating a system of data collection or goals for the sake of goals, technology for the sake of technology.  More community- driven voices and teacher voices being heard and less top- down bureaucracy and trusting short term fixes being “sold” to us can go a long way to fixing some of the problems within our current system. Teachers in this province are AMAZING, so trust them and let them do their jobs.

Pride

As a teacher, you get a thrill when a student masters a concept related to your course content. When a child learns to read or solve a math problem or even when they show you that they learned another life skill which isn’t an outcome like kindness and empathy, you get an adrenaline rush because in that moment, you made a difference to that child.
As a social studies teacher, sometimes we don’t get to see the results; sometimes we feel like our contributions don’t matter. We don’t get to see the skills we teach put into action because often, our students are grown before it happens.
When I used to teach grade 9 social studies, there was an outcome related to taking age- appropriate social action. My students would write letters to their local politician to explain why that issue was important to them. The students found it empowering because they had a voice, and because the adult in question was obligated to respond to their letter.
This week, as I looked out my window, I saw a large group of students, standing on a street corner, protesting an injustice. They were using their voices to show their government that they are not happy with their teachers’ working conditions and by extension, their learning conditions. They see that classes are bigger than ever, that they don’t get the attention they needs, that they don’t have enough textbooks, and resources. They see a government who doesn’t negotiate fairly, who tries to demoralize their teachers, who doesn’t seem to really care about their needs.
Today, I got to see the fruit of my labour. I got to hear their voices, their arguments, their desires for a better education system. The young people, my students, my kids, those infamous Millenials, so often labeled as lazy and unmotivated, standing on a street corner calling for change, for fairness for something better. And I couldn’t be more proud of them.

Preparing the Holiday Meal

You know that Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or “insert large holiday” meal? You know, the one that your loved ones spent 3 days before making pies for dessert? And spent the day before calling everyone to make sure they were still coming? And spent the whole day of peeling countless types of vegetables, stuffing, salads and side dishes, not to mention hours cooking and basting the turkey to perfection?
Well that’s the type of lessons we want to prepare for our students.


But here’s what happens:


Someone is allergic to various parts of the meal, so I have to make something different for them, that they will enjoy and not feel left out. Someone else has false teeth, so I have to mash everything for him. Someone else can’t hold utensils, so I have to make sure somebody can feed her. A couple will not show up, but expect me to warm up leftovers the next day. Some will only eat the dessert. Some will complain that there isn’t anything they like and get mad that there isn’t any chicken nuggets. Some don’t recognize the food because they eat different food where they are from. Some get up and leave before the meal is done.


Most just want to come and enjoy the meal. Some are thankful. Most say nothing. One or two tell you how awful it was.


So, no matter how much your loved one prepared, no matter how much time and effort was put into that amazing meal, it just isn’t right for many of the guests.
Well, that’s what planning lessons is like. Hours, days in advance, specific needs, adaptations, IPPs [Individual Program Plans], behaviour plans, attendance, learning disabilities and styles, language barriers and so much more have to be taken into account for EVERY lesson.
That’s like making Thanksgiving dinner for EVERY meal!

 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

On the first day of classes every year, I put my class “rule” on the board. It looks like this:

RESPECT

We then go through what the word actually means.

  1. Respect YOURSELF

For students, this means pay attention in class so you can understand and do your best. It means complete classwork, homework, assignments, etc. to the best of your ability. It means come to class every day on time with your materials and your mind ready to learn. It means be prepared to find some ideas challenging, but be willing to try. It means be proud when you accomplish things that you thought you couldn’t accomplish.

  1. Respect OTHERS

For students, this means listen to others in the classroom; the teacher, your classmates and their opinions, administration and the rules of the building. Be open to listening and learning with others. Be willing to work with other people, even if they aren’t your best friends and if they hold differing opinions, because even if you don’t really want to work with some of your classmates you may learn more than you thought you would.

  1. Respect the ENVIRONMENT

For students, this means take care of your work, the area in which you work, etc.

RESPECT is straightforward and non-negotiable. Today, with the state of teaching in Nova Scotia, it now seems I must listen to my own words with respect to my profession. (NB: The word profession is deliberate… this is not just my job).

  1. Respect YOURSELF

I respect myself enough to expect a cost of living increase in wages.

I respect myself enough to expect to keep my service award that was included in my contract when I started teaching.

I respect myself enough to ask for help when I need it. I need help. I am lucky enough to be a high school teacher in a school that does not have class sizes of 40+ students. However, I spend too much time doing school-related things outside of my prep time. You may ask why. I urge you to keep reading (specifically, under “Respect Others”).

I respect myself enough to constantly write “technology tickets” explaining how the latest software (Gradebook) will not load on my computer. Or to explain how I tried using all three browsers to open a website and yet none will load due to problems with the school WiFi. I have written technology tickets after spending five minutes waiting for my computer to start so that I can simply log in, knowing that the computer that is “new” to my school is actually a recycled computer from somewhere else (with hardly enough memory to use any of the equipment for which my department head fought).

I respect myself enough to tell the government that Nova Scotia’s ACTION PLAN for Education is not working. Yes, some changes have happened. But the government does not always take into account how these changes affect teachers or students. For example, the math curriculum has changed. Sadly, they did not look into how this would affect science courses in high school (which remain unchanged). Math 11 will now be a full year, meaning that other courses, such as technology, arts, etc., will not have as many students registering for them. Math 10 and 11 (academic only) will have a class cap (which sounds awesome, right?). But this means that the other classes will have more students than ever before, because the government will not be increasing the number of teachers hired.

I respect myself enough to make sure that when a friend or a stranger talks about those “greedy teachers,”, I have a response ready that is factual yet friendly.

I respect myself enough to not take what Premier McNeil says to heart every time he states things which I know to be untrue. I get it; I don’t fully understand his job, either – which is why I am not making the same types of inaccurate assumptions he is making in relation to my profession.

2. Respect OTHERS

I respect my colleagues enough to know that if they are saying that students in elementary are not getting anything from the provincial assessments, I believe them.

I respect my colleagues enough to help them when they need someone to walk a student to the office, to stay after school to supervise a part in a concert, or to allow a student who was absent to write an assessment in a quiet space.

I respect my students enough to know that being pushed onto the next grade is doing nothing but causing them anxiety in the classroom.

I respect my students enough to know that having the type of miscellaneous classrooms that we currently have in Nova Scotia are causing all students to lose out. Some students are not being challenged. Some students cannot read enough to keep up. Some students are not being given the proper supports they need educationally, physically and/or mentally. Some students do not have the behaviour skills to manage in a typical classroom. No matter what my colleagues and I do, it is impossible to teach these students given the current classroom dynamics.

I respect my students enough to stay inside at lunch to provide extra help.

I respect my students enough to stay after school to help with extracurricular activities.

3. Respect the ENVIRONMENT

I respect the school environment enough to clean up my classroom after students leave garbage on the floor and in the desks.

I respect the environment enough to remind students to compost or recycle.

I respect the environment enough to keep a smile on my face day after day, even though a strike has been looming for months and no one seems to be listening to anything teachers are saying.

All I ask is that the government shows some of this respect in return. That is all teachers are asking. And again, RESPECT is straightforward and non-negotiable.

On Christmas concerts…

So you’re a parent who is upset that their child will no longer have a Christmas concert this year, or at least not for the foreseeable future. You’re very disappointed. How could those mean teachers want to take away Christmas? You supported your child’s teachers before, but this is a step too far. Here’s what I want you to know:

Music teachers are disappointed too. We love Christmas concerts just as much as you do, maybe more. Most of all we love the pride the kids take in their music, their community and their culture. Planning for a Christmas concert is a bit like running a marathon. Almost all of my waking hours have been consumed with preparing for our Christmas concert for the past two months, and that includes many evenings and weekends away from my own children. Now, all of a sudden, just when we are about to reach the finish line, a crew has come in to deflate it. They say that they may put the finish line back up, but we’re not sure when, only that it will be further away. There will be many more miles to run. Maybe the finish line won’t be put back up at all. No-one knows.

I spent a heartbreaking day explaining this news to my students, who, as you know, were so excited, and have worked so hard. The information I presented was very simple, and matter-of-fact. It was age-appropriate, and unbiased. That’s my job; I’m an elementary school music teacher. But what about you? You’re still mad. The kids have worked so hard. What have they done to deserve this? Well, nothing, of course. But here’s what I will say to you, as an adult who is able to access opposing points of view, and to analyze them: The NSTU has a limited number of tools at its disposal. One of them is to ask teachers to do only what they are paid to do. And so here we are. And so, if you want to be mad about something, may I suggest the following:

* The Department of Education has implemented a program of inclusion without adequately funding it. This means that, if your child’s teacher is lucky, an educational assistant placed in a classroom for the benefit of a child with a learning disability will spend most of his or her time assisting in the management of the child with undiagnosed severe behavioural difficulties so that the class as a whole can learn, some of the time. If your child’s teacher is unlucky, it means that there are multiple children with undiagnosed behavioural problems, there is no educational assistant, the class is chaotic, he or she spends 98% of their time managing behaviour, and little learning is taking place. Does this mean that we should not value inclusion? No. It means that it’s not free, and the government needs to put funds in place to ensure all children have the chance to learn.

* The class caps publicized by the government are not real. There are “soft caps” and “hard caps”. The “soft cap” is the number the government talks about as being its cap for each class size. The “hard cap” is the actual number not to be exceeded. It’s still being exceeded in a large number of cases. In others, when it’s not being exceeded, split classes are created. Parents have reported class sizes of 40 and 50 at the high school level. In many schools, there are not enough textbooks for each child. In some, there are not enough desks for each child to sit down. In some cases, parents report that the number of students exceeds fire regulations.

* 38% of food bank users are children

* In 2014, the provincial government cut ALL funding to the Metro Food Bank for the 2016-2017 year.

And if, in fact, any of those things do make you mad, or at least give you pause, may I suggest to you the following:

* Go carolling outside your MLA’s office. Preferably when they’re there.

* Have holiday kitchen parties with your friends and neighbours. Make the price of admission a letter to your MLA and a can of food.

* Get together a bunch of concerned friends and fellow parents and meet with your MLA. Your MLA will come to your house, if there’s enough of you!

* Call your MLA.

… And so on and so forth.

Here’s what you shouldn’t do:

* Spend all that time and energy you could have spent communicating with your MLA that you want them to be responsive to teachers’ concerns, and try to put on your school’s Christmas concert in your community.

Why not? Well, for one thing, your child’s music teacher probably wants to finish that marathon with his or her students. It would be wonderful if the parents of Nova Scotia came together and made that particular Christmas miracle happen.

But also for another, much more important reason: If enough people spend the next few days communicating with their MLAs, we can get back to doing ALL the things outside of our contracts, that we truly love to do. And that includes annual food bank drives and breakfast programs. When 38% of food bank users are children, and the food bank receives no provincial funding, those might just be the most important “extras” of all.

_____________________________________________

FIND YOUR MLA

http://nslegislature.ca/index.php/people/member-bios

http://enstools.gov.ns.ca/edinfo2012/

I am not who you say I am……..

I am a teacher.  This I am sure of from the tips of my toes to the deepest part of my soul.  But I am not the teacher you say I am.

You sit behind your keyboard and screen and you tell people who I am, what I value, what I care most about.  But you don’t know me.  I do not recognize myself in who you say I am.

You say I am lazy.

You say I only care about the money.

You say I do this job for the summers off.

You say I am overpaid.

You say I don’t really teach, I just let my students watch movies.

You say I don’t care about my students.

You say I leave as soon as the bell rings.

You say I let my kids play games instead of teaching them.

You say I teach because that is what you do when you can’t do anything else.

 

I do not know this teacher.  This is not who I am. This is not who my students say I am. This is not who my family, my friends, and my colleagues say I am.  This is just who YOU THINK I am, but that is not me.

I am a hardworking teacher.

I am a teacher who cares about her students as if they were my own children.

I am a teacher who loves her job.

I am a teacher who cries when your kids cry.

I am a teacher who comforts your kids when they are hurting.

I am a teacher who celebrates with your kids when they achieve something amazing.

I am a teacher who works many evenings and weekends.

I am a teacher who sits at the dinning room table and does her homework while her kids are doing theirs.

I am a teacher who sits in the doctor’s waiting room, the gym, the dance studio, etc… with her folders of tests and assignments to mark while waiting.

I am a teacher who chaperones school activities because it benefits my students.

I am a teacher who maintains an online classroom because it benefits my students.

I am a teacher who gives extra help before school, after school and at lunch.

I am a teacher who calls parents when I am concerned about their children.

I am a teacher who calls parents when I am proud of their children.

I am a teacher who writes reference letters for my students to help them get jobs, scholarships and entrance to university.

I am a teacher who listens when your kid needs someone to talk to.

 

And most of all, I am a teacher who is grateful that I get to teach every day.

That is who I am.

 

 

 

 

I don’t think I will ever be a teacher again.

I used to be a teacher. No, I am not retired; I am 34 years old. I am “officially” on a leave of absence, but to be honest I am not returning. I graduated from my BEd when I was 23 and I taught for 10 years. I graduated during a year when a large amount of teachers retired due to a major change in the pension plan. This meant I was never without a contract, although I did teach percentages some years. I taught in a couple of school boards in Nova Scotia and finally settled in a small rural school. I taught there for several years and the school was a perfect fit for me. I loved the staff and the students were amazing. I was lucky to have decent class sizes and excellent support staff. I always had a professional relationship with my administration and received very positive reviews. I was a teacher advisor in a lot of different extra-curricular activities.

So why did I leave teaching? I left because I only have 24 hours in my day. I have a husband and family that I need and want to spend time with. I have housework, cooking and sleeping to do. I have a lot of hobbies I enjoy working on. I like to eat home cooked and healthy meals. While I was teaching I felt like I could not have a personal life.

We know this job is all encompassing. Initially I ignored the slow build up of tasks and I believed that “it gets better after (5, 10, 15) years” lie we tell new graduates. It actually got much more tough for me as years went on. The first few were just about keeping my head above water and I assumed that feeling would go away but it didn’t. It seems that every time the province decided on a new initiative or program, I was expected to use it immediately but was not allowed to discontinue any of the older ideas. Overall, it seems teachers are still doing the same work as teachers from 1976, 86, 96 and 06 plus all their new work. Most of the initiatives make some sense and I have no doubt decisions are made with students’ achievement in mind.

However something has to give. Here is an example. When I started teaching, I was expected to look at the outcomes for a course and assign them to my project and make a scoring rubric. This was time consuming but it made sense. It gave students a clear idea of what was expected. It meant that every teacher who taught the course had the same guidelines. I felt I had a bit of freedom in how it was worded and scored. But the department of education decided that this system was not precise enough. Within a couple of years, all my junior and elementary classes had moved to the 1,2,3,4 scoring. The rubrics still had to be made but now they had to be based on the awful “outcome based wording”.  I spent additional time trying to use this format but I also had to try to make the rubrics easy to understand. Then Powerschool came. I was told it would make things easier. The 1,2,3,4 marking was recorded online and parents could see it and they would know their child’s progress. It sounded great; except some parents did not have Internet and even more don’t want to check. So I still had to make rubrics based in outcome language and write a personalized comment afterwards to explain the rubric. Then the comment had to follow a formula; it needed to include what a student did well, what they needed to improve and what to work on in the future. Then the “powers that be” realized that students need constant feedback past the final grade received on their rubric or in Powerschool (I would like to point out that a classroom teacher has always known this and has been doing it for years- it’ s called teaching). However apparently verbal confirmation isn’t enough and data needs a paper trail. So I needed to start tracking all the feedback I gave students, so I created checklists, charts and running records. Everything was to be recorded, even if it was a small informal conversation with a group of students. In the end a project that once took me a 2-4 hours to design, make and mark now could take 6-8 hours. However the students only worked on the lesson for an hour or two. So I needed to plan many lessons for one class for each week. Plus over the years I taught between 3-7 courses at one time.

This doesn’t take into account any individual program plans (IPP) or adaptations for the lesson, which can take hours to do properly. This example is one part of the job. There are similar long and ever-changing processes for grade level planning, long term planning, accommodating different learning styles, report cards, discipline and school improvement plans. Plus most teachers volunteer to run teams or groups that require planning, overnights and after school hours.

Again, I want to make it clear that I think most of these initiatives in theory are worthy, but as a teacher I did not have the time to properly complete all of them. More importantly I was not able to choose what parts of the process worked best for my courses, my students and my teaching style. With each new requirement I watched more of my personal autonomy go away. I felt like I could never get it all done. When I wasn’t working in the evenings, I was feeling guilty about not working. I counted down the days until Friday and then felt relaxed until Saturday night. Sunday was a day of stress whether I was working on schoolwork or just thinking about going back to work. I would start a count down for long weekends and holidays long before they arrived. Essentially I was counting away my life. I stopped exercising and working on my hobbies. My husband became 100% responsible for all the cooking, cleaning and other life chores. I was exhausted. My physical and mental health started to suffer. My husband encouraged me to leave my job and finally I decided to take the plunge. I am in process of starting up a small business. I have no idea if it will be successful and it is scary leap of faith but I am much more healthy and happy. If it does not succeed I will have to retrain for another career because I don’t think I will ever be a teacher again. Which is sad because I actually loved teaching my students.

So, how was your day?

Every day I come home and ask my husband “so, how was your day?” To which he invariably replies, “Same old, same old!” Some days I wish that I could say that.

I arrived at school the other day, opened my classroom, turned on the light, and had not had time to take off my coat when a student walked in. I had taught this boy last year and knew him to have social and emotional issues. He, for whatever reason, seemed to gravitate to me. I bade him a “Good morning!” And asked him how things were going. His response? “Terrible. I might as well kill myself. ” And yes, he was serious. It was 8:10am. Welcome to MY day!

Four times in the last two weeks I have had to refer students for mental and emotional issues. It is epidemic in our schools! They come to me sobbing, full of fear and anxiety, terrified of failure in all respects, overwhelmed by course demand, workload, parents divorcing….they are broken kids! I find them huddled in the corners of the halls unable to function or hiding in the washrooms. And I am just a teacher who cares, who can hug them, talk them down and try to get them the support they need. And these are not even the ones I am teaching this year! What is the school system doing to these kids that they have no coping skills or resilience by the time they get to high school? What happens when they get into university? Well, let me tell you.

They will all crash and burn on some level, mostly because they have never had to adhere to deadlines before and can not time-manage. Many of them will burn out in their first year or radically change their path. Some will rethink their goals and continue; some will quit; some will stick to their path but suffer from stress and anxiety. Whatever happened to learning being an adventure? What has happened?

As for me, my day is full of juggling the needs, the fears, the insecurities, the  assessment, the learning and the lives of 95 students this semester and trying to make it fun, exciting, stimulating in spite of everything that is being dictated to me by the Department of Education that tries to imply I don’t know what I am doing and in spite of all the factors I cannot know, much less control,  that are affecting each and every one of my kids every day.

So? How was my day? Draining emotionally, exhausting physically, mind-numbingly busy and I still have to mark. Oh…right yearbook meeting after school. [Leaves at 5:00.]

“Hi Honey, how was you day?” “Supper? I am too tired.” “From what?” “Never mind; you have to be there to understand” ” Sorry, I am having a nap.”  It is 5:30. Lights out. Day over. Marking will have to wait as I will not wake up until the next morning. This is my last year. I just wanted it to be quiet and uneventful. Thanks Mr. McNeil!

It comes down to value

It is a stressful time for teachers in Nova Scotia. Really, all the time is a stressful time for us, and report card time just adds to it. This November though, it’s been dialed up a notch. That might be an understatement. It’s up at 11. With the rejection of the provincial contract offer, 9000 teachers, at an amazing 96%, voted in favour of legal job action. Regardless of how individual voted with regards to the contract, many of us felt we were left with little to no choice.

None of us want to strike. No one. We do not want to be out of our classrooms. We do not want to compromise our students. We do not want to compromise our way of life. We want to continue to teach, to coach, and run committees, and organize food and gift drives for the Holidays. (If we strike, or if there is a work-to-rule, gymnasiums, normally full of food and gifts at this time of year, will be empty.) We want to be in our schools, working with our students, giving them the best learning experience we can. But here we are, and if it has come to this, there is a major problem.

I, personally, feel a little sheepish about this. When this government, whom I have supported in the past, gutted the Film Tax Credit, I tried to understand both sides of the argument. I even blogged about it. I may have even ticked off and possibly hurt some of my friends, whose lives were impacted with my trying to understand government reasoning. Now, here I am, ready to potentially take job action as a teacher, under the same government, asking people to understand our position.

It is an odd feeling, and very isolating. I’ve tried to explain what our lives are like as teachers here in Nova Scotia. I try to explain how bargaining and consultation with regards to our own responsibilities and contracts is not something we experience, and how more and more is downloaded onto us without time and resources or proper understanding of logistical applicability. I try to tell them about the learners and personalities in my room, and how I come home completely drained at the end of the day, only to have to log back in to correct, log marks, complete Individual Program Plans and prep before I get to go to bed. I had a friend tell me I made him feel awkward, (when the appropriate response would be “I’m sorry – this is an unfortunate situation”). I had an acquaintance post that we should be going to discuss working conditions, even after the Minister, again without consultation, decided to cancel some of the assessments before the committee even met. “DO IT FOR THE KIDS” he said. We do everything for the kids thankyouverymuch. We always have, we always will, and we are now. We’ve been adapting and doing more with less for years, giving of our own time and money. We changed practices without question at the whim of the department. The union has said no to those meetings because of the fact that this cancellation of the assessments was again done without consultation and is indicative of our established relationship with government in general. They left the table because of a government who decided to balance the budget on the back of its workers by eliminating a bargaining process. This all in addition to the rhetoric of people telling us we make too much money, get too much time off, and are undeserving of our ‘generous’ pension etc.

As I said before, it’s incredibly isolating and disheartening. Social media can make contract negotiations tricky, while making the spread of (mis)information, opinion, memes, commentary etc. incredibly easy. It can be an overwhelming place, where one, in today’s Trumped-up world, can seemingly forget civility, and personal value.

No other profession is as susceptible to public scrutiny and commentary than teaching. Everyone feels qualified to comment because they went through a school system at some point in their lives. We are accountable not only to our employer and to the students, but to the parents, to the public, and to people who rant that their tax dollars pay our salary. They feel free to question why we do or do not do things in whatever way without an ounce of training or insight into best classroom practice, all while misunderstanding the nature of our classes, duties, workdays and benefits. If I had spent my 8 years of post secondary education going to med school or law school, no one would ever publicly, and maliciously question my salary or the way I choose to run my classroom. Instead I chose a profession that makes all others possible.

For me it comes down to value. Does the government and the public value teachers? Thus far, this government, the Department of Education, and the boards have made so many major, logistically unsound decisions for the 9000 teachers who deal with the futures of over 118 000 kids in this province. I know that the government’s line is that they redirected $65 million back into Education, which had been taken out by the previous government. They soft-capped the elementary classes, and hired a few mentors. They’ve given us Google Apps For Education, but not enough computers to run it, and no time for training. There are more acronyms, data collection initiatives, and meetings than I can keep track of. (PGAP [Professional Growth and Appraisal Program] sounds like something I need to go to a specialist for, hoping they warm it up first.) I know the financial situation of the province. I also know how politics and government works. I know that our job action will have a precedent-setting cascade through other unions. However, if so much hadn’t be foisted onto our shoulders over the past few years in “initiatives” and responsibilities and mandates, etc., etc., while at the same time taking away from our classrooms and us as workers, maybe we wouldn’t have been so strung out and cranky so as to reject and fight an unfair contract. We can’t and won’t roll over anymore. Does an ad campaign instead of a mediator demonstrate value for teachers who foster an educated public? I don’t believe so. Should a government seemingly go to war with the people who educate their citizens? Probably not. Does the public value and understand our jobs and what we do for our students enough to support us? I hope so, but I’m not so sure.

Here we are on the brink of job action, and I have no idea what will happen. I am incredibly uncomfortable and lonely in my augmented stress. I do not want to withdraw the additional support and program we provide students. I do not want to be on a picket line when I could be helping and preparing kids for the future. However, I know that at this point it is necessary. As I say to my students, in whatever I am teaching, there is no change without challenge. In this case, I value my students and myself enough to challenge for change.

 

 

How Consequential Validity Ruined My Fall

When I moved to Nova Scotia in 1999, I had ten years of experience in Special Education. 10. But I was told that I could not work in Special Education because the neediest students deserved the best educated teachers, and I didn’t have an MEd. As a sub, I could not afford a fourth degree. I subbed for several years and eventually was able to enrol in a Masters of Education in Diverse Learners at Acadia.

I like learning, so I actually enjoyed my degree, tuition aside. One of my favourite courses was the one about Assessment. I’m into statistics (raise your hand if you’re a nerd), so I was REALLY into this one. One of our assignments was to write a pretend article for the kind of woman’s magazine you find in waiting rooms. Mine was about large-scale assessment. Here follows my submission, with some updates:

When I was in my mid-30’s, I got mono. Silly me. I was one year past the age that the Centre for Disease Control ­­recommends that you not get mononucleosis. When the doctor told me that I had mono, I croaked my protestations (“I haven’t been kissing any teenagers!”), and she sent me off for a blood test.

While sitting in the waiting room during my next visit (one gland the size of the tennis ball, the other the size of a golf ball), I asked the receptionist about the test results.

“Negative,” she said.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“You don’t have mono.” And she went back to her filing.

When I finally saw the doctor, I wailed “What’s wrong with me?” (Mono affects one’s emotions. Really.)

“You have mono.”

“No, I don’t!”

“Who told you that?”

“The receptionist! She said the blood test was negative, and that means I don’t have mono.”

She jumped up. “Wait right here.”

I never knew what she said to the receptionist, but she wasn’t working there much longer. When the doctor came back, she said these words that have resonated with me ever since:

“Tests don’t diagnose. Doctors do.”

Turns out that mono has little to do with kissing teenagers. And the blood test, a “mono spot,” doesn’t always work.

I’ve included this anecdote from my medical history to illustrate how far we have come as a society in trusting tests, and what the pitfalls of this trust might be. The fact is we trust tests because, aware as we are of the shortcomings of human subjectivity, we turn to objective measures for confirmation. This strategy is flawed in its core. No test created by humans avoids human judgement. Someone invented the mono-spot. People manufacture the microscopes and glass slides, and people conduct the tests.

In the analogous education world, the teacher is the doctor. The teacher has opportunities every day to “diagnose” how well your child reads, writes, speaks, listens, figures, predicts, synthesizes, revises and questions. Many forms of assessment are used, such as projects, journals, tests and oral presentations. Let’s say your child loves cheetahs; they research (read), take notes (write), and make a presentation (speak). They might even write a song about cheetahs to accompany their slide show. The teacher reinforces their strengths, and when they make errors, provides corrections. Not only are the students demonstrating multiple skills, but they are also using them in a way that people actually do in the real world. And isn’t that why we want literate children?  Because we want literate adults.

During the school year, your child has multiple opportunities to demonstrate their skills. Maybe they were away the day their classmates chose their animals, and your kid got stuck with ants. Let’s say that they’re afraid of ants, and weren’t too motivated to do a good job on that topic. The next project is around the corner–maybe they’ll shine during the readers’ theatre about the expulsion of the Acadians. Maybe they forget periods at the ends of sentences. The teacher will reteach that skill, and the child will be marked on what they eventually learn, not the mistakes they made along the way. As they work through these activities, teachers provide ongoing feedback. Research shows us these practices—these formative assessments—are the best way to increase academic achievement.

Let’s contrast this process with large-scale testing. We have been led­ to believe that these tests are the most objective, therefore most accurate, measurements of student achievement. Unlike classroom assessments, they are not “tainted” by human subjectivity, in the form of the teacher. Centralized authorities (people, in fact) compose the tests, which are sent to schools to be administered according to precise instructions, complete with scripts that accompany them. (Almost every single teacher apologizes to the kids for the dorky scripts.)

However consistent these procedures may be, innumerable things can go wrong when testing is administered to thousands of children. Empty stomachs, bad moods and coughs are just the obvious ones. If a teacher has taught a concept using examples and vocabulary that differ from the test, or if students aren’t comfortable with multiple-choice testing, they may perform poorly on material they actually know. An actual standardized test, administered one-on-one by a qualified psychologist, takes these factors into account; large-scale testing doesn’t.

The mono-spot is judged by a human—the highly-educated doctor—who use their skills to account for the factors that affect a testing situation. While a person competent to make these judgments in a school—the highly educated teacher—is present on testing day, they can’t use those skills. Even if they want to—and they really, really want to—because however much teachers encourage students to learn independence, they hate to leave them hanging bereft, confused and ashamed. Which many are. During provincial assessments, I’ve seen kids cry, throw books, leave the room. One year I had six Gr. 6 kids crying over a math word problem. And I can’t help them. Not if I’m following the rules. All I could do was say, “You’re done; it’s over” and take away the offending booklets.

Teachers find it very difficult not to provide ­support during the provincial assessments, and not always just out of pure compassion; the teachers who administer the assessments are stakeholders. The mono-spot is a “low-stakes tests” for the testers; their jobs don’t depend on the results. They have no incentive to “fudge.” But large-scale testing is almost always “high-stakes.” What are those stakes? Worldwide, where these large-scale assessments are done, every jurisdiction metes out different consequences, but here are some of the possibilities. For the student: program placement or not, extra tutoring or not; for the teacher: reprimands or accolades, pay raises or not; for the school: funding cuts or extra funding; for the community: your school’s ranking in the newspaper and on the Internet. On real estate agents’ websites, no less.

We like to think that all teachers are professional, but the testing-day pressures on them are enormous. So I’ll leave you with this anecdote. I worked in a school (in another province) where test results were used by the rather nasty principal to punish teachers he didn’t like. On the day of the provincial literacy tests, one of the Gr. 3 teachers stood up in the staffroom and announced that she intended to read the test out loud to the her students. Any alteration in a testing situation affects results, but reading a literacy test out loud renders them pretty useless. Let me reassure you that this behaviour is unusual, although not unknown. While the rest of the staff were picking their jaws off the floor, I hurried down to the other Gr. 3 classroom, where my best friend sat at her desk weeping. She knew the principal didn’t like her; now her class’s results would almost certainly be lower, and this would be reflected in her evaluation. But as we discussed it, we realized that she could not bring herself to do something unprofessional; she would administer the test as instructed. And she did.

Although, this may seem to prove the point—you can’t trust teachers—look at it this way: because we don’t trust teachers—because we don’t trust the multiple tasks that teachers and students spend all year working on and documenting—we establish a single summative evaluation point, in which we have so much confidence that we’re happy to publish the results on the Internet. But do large-scale, high-stakes tests deserve that trust? Or have we created a situation in which results are not reliable, teachers act unethically, other teachers get shafted, students are frazzled and misunderstood. Fallible or not, we’ve got to trust humans; they’re all we’ve got. Your child’s teacher spends five hours a day, five days a week, ten months a year with your child. Who better to diagnose and treat your child’s academic health?

 

By the way, I got an A on that paper. But now I want to put the provincial assessment program to the test of consequential validity. Consequential validity is the analysis of how tests affect the people involved; do they do more harm than good, so to speak. Does the data gathered justify the effects of testing? What indeed, are the effects of testing: Cost: Printing. I have run my hands over the lovely paper in the testing booklets many times, and wished my school could afford that quality of paper. Or that we could print in colour. Postage. Each student’s name, provincial number and birthdate are printed on the front. Guess who checks all those—me! The unused booklets for children who have left the school must not be used for new children who have shown up. Instead, we order new ones. Postage. And return the unused ones, I assume, to be shredded. Postage.

I’m a resource teacher at my school. I spent one afternoon with one of the brightest students in my school because she had missed the morning administration of the assessment for religious reasons. She needed a quiet place to write that assessment and access to a member of the teaching staff. Me. Those are the rules. During the math assessment, she asked me to check the translation of a question (allowed). The question was so ridiculous, she couldn’t believe it. We both fell over laughing when we realized, that, yup, that’s what it says! (the confidentiality document I signed prevents me from telling you what it said.)

As I mentioned, I’m a resource teacher. My job is to support students with needs and their teachers. This year, because of the many required assessments and other documentation, I did not start doing my actual job until mid-October. I cannot think of a better example of consequential validity. And it’s going to start again in May, and will probably go deep into June. Our school year comprises ten months. I can already wave good-bye to three of them.