Category: Uncategorized

For better or worse, teachers get grades too

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Arizona is buzzing with news about the latest state school report cards — district and charter schools get letter grades based on kids’ performance on AzMERIT and other factors.

The grades effect school enrollment, real estate values — and teacher pay.

The fact that teacher pay is based on student performance is not discussed much outside of school lunch rooms. But it’s true. Whether or not students perform well on one state standardized test can figure in to whether that teacher will have a nice San Diego beach vacation  — or stay home to roast hot dogs on the family grill  over summer break.

It sounds unjust. And it is.

The teacher rating system that takes school performance into account has been around for about five years. Many think it is unfair and there have been arguments in the legislature about whether it should be scrapped. 

A few years ago, when I was still a newspaper reporter, I sat in a meeting on education salaries and listened to outstanding teachers from a Title 1 high school complain that their bonuses would be half the amount of those going to teachers at a wealthier school just a few miles away.

Their  hard work in the past year had earned their school a B on its state report card, up from a C the year before. But the A school remained an A school and those teachers would be putting down payments on new cars and going on vacation. The others would not.

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I didn’t think much about school letter grades when I took a job at a high-performing school in a wealthy area my first year of teaching. But come summer break, I was glad I did. One payday last summer I discovered more than $2,000 extra in my checking account My bonus was based on my school’s letter grade, whether or not I participated in district training programs and my principal’s evaluation of my work.

Teachers are not given letter grades but most often are rated “effective,” “highly effective,” “developing” or “ineffective.” They usually need an “effective” rating to get a bonus.

Relieved that my school held on to its A

My pay this year will be based on similar criteria. I just learned that the school where I teach this year was among the 18 percent of Arizona schools that hung on to its A this year. The criteria for getting a good grade is tougher this year so many schools dropped a grade or so. Staff at my school were elated by the good news.

But the Saturday after the grades were announced, I attended an education conference and saw the worry and stress other teachers were experiencing.  Many of these professionals have dedicated themselves to teaching world languages to some of the state’s poorest children.

Is it fair that the state should downgrade their schools just because children arrive with fewer advantages? And should these teachers receive smaller bonuses?

Why should advantaged teachers and schools get higher ratings?

I have taught at a district middle school in one of the wealthiest parts of the Valley. Now I teach at a district magnet school that enrolls students whose parents have the means to drive them to and from school and stack the supply room high with paper, pens and anything else a classroom might need.

Sure teachers work hard at those schools and the As — and teacher bonuses — are well deserved. But shouldn’t our peers at schools in poorer communities get the same support?

 

 

What this new teacher did during summer vacation

20170610_154106What did I do over my first summer break from teaching?

I did not work a summer job so I could afford the finer things in life, such as a boat, as one Arizona legislator suggested earlier this year.

Nor did I sit around by the pool catching up on Netflix and reading trashy novels as some might suspect teachers do during their eight — unpaid — weeks off during the summer.

I  have gotten to know many teachers in the past 12 months and I don’t know of any who were not busy doing something — paid or unpaid — to help kids and improve as teachers. Many worked in summer programs with students, others helped their schools and districts bring curricula up to date and a couple daring middle school teachers even guided tours to Central America for a few weeks.

Remembering what it feels like to take a Spanish class

It has been many years since I completed my MA in Spanish at Arizona State University, so I decided it would be good for me to get back to the classroom. I enrolled in a month-long advanced Spanish class in Barcelona — after taking a fun trip through southern Spain with my retired teacher mom.

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Wow. What a great experience. On the first day I had that deer in the headlights look when the instructor asked me a question I could not answer.

After mentioning that I had arrived late to class because I had just finished a tour of Andalucia, he asked if I had been robbed. The problem was I was not sure if he was joking about southern Spain’s legendary problem with pickpockets — or if he was asking if I was late because I had been kidnapped! We sorted it out and I made a mental note to be a bit more sympathetic with those looks of terror this school year.

I also filled my mobile phone to capacity with photos to show students throughout the year and collected tiny souvenirs for my classroom. Books and videos are fine when teaching students about the language and culture of other countries. But nothing beats real objects they can hold in their hands.

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Last summer I took similar classes in Mexico City and returned with images of everything from Mayan tamales to Acapulco’s cliff divers to show students. Few things grab students’ attention better than an image of their teacher learning something new in an odd setting.

Scholarships and sabbaticals needed

One thing that struck me as I got to know fellow students in my Barcelona school is that some were there on expensive paid sabbaticals — or they had scholarships to study Spanish as they earned their MAs in Spanish universities. They came from countries like Japan, Brazil, China and Russia.

One mid-career government worker from Brasilia was on a three-month expense-paid trip to Spain so she could improve her language skills and better communicate with peers in Spain and other Latin American countries.

I was fortunate to have been able to create a travel fund before I left a more lucrative career for teaching a year ago. But most teachers are not in this situation. Their low salaries go to pay off student loans and then to support families. There is little money left for unreimbursed classes and professional travel.

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I plan to write more about this at the end of this semester, when many will be planning for summer 2018. In the meantime, if you have teacher travel resources you would like me to share, please write to me at cathryncreno@gmail.com.

This teacher’s favorite gifts

This teacher’s favorite gifts

It’s been three days since my first semester as a middle school teacher ended. I’m still a bit overwhelmed.

Not by the amount of work it took  to get missed test and homework made up and grades in. Not by the zany pre-holiday behavior of the 160 or so 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds if my Spanish classes.

No. I’m blown away by the cards and notes of gratitude many of my students took the time to write at the busiest time of the year.

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At a faculty meeting the week before winter break, I asked the veteran teachers I sat with what they liked receiving the most from students at holiday time.

All emphasized that they did not expect anything. Our kids, after all, connect with six or more adults at the school when you count coaches, counselors and others who interact with students and getting something for everyone would be too much for many families.

But I teach in school attended by middle- to upper-middle class kids and, at the start of the year, a couple of teachers had whispered to me “wait until your mailbox is stuffed with gift cards at holiday time.”

So I pulled out my newspaper interviewing skills and pressed them a bit. The men confessed to liking liked things like amazon.com  gift cards and the women said that for anything from bath and beauty stores was considered a windfall. Starbucks gift cards were welcomed by everyone.

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But no one mentioned what I found to be the best part of pre-holiday week: Cards from students. Maybe they are just taken for granted by experienced teachers who receive kind messages about their work year after year.

But the notes of gratitude certainly surprised me. Especially after a semester of tough evaluation comments from school administrators and negative e-mails from parents about subjects ranging from the way I grade to my classroom management style.

— Thank you for teaching me Spanish!

— We will be requesting you next year!

— You have been such a big help!

— You make Spanish fun!

— I am happy to have you as a teacher!

Several even put the traditional Spanish upside down exclamation marks in for emphasis.

In an age when people have cut back on cards even to friends and relatives, I was surprised and, as I said to before, overwhelmed. I took every single note home and read them again as I unwound from the week.

When teachers write about why they love their work, they use words like “meaningful” and describe the joy they feel when they see “the light go on” in kids eyes. I get that.

But I rarely hear teachers say how teaching a subject you love to appreciative students is just plain fun.

I will enjoy having a couple of weeks off. But I also can’t wait to start the next semester.

Happy holidays, everyone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My big surprise: Kids who want a traditional teacher

My big surprise: Kids who want a traditional teacher

I’ve been a teacher for two months now and my biggest challenge has not been the short attention spans of middle schoolers – or how much they crave lessons with computers and cell phones.

Eight weeks into my new life, I am shocked by the handful of kids who still want an old-fashioned teacher.

Yes, the kind of teacher who wants everyone in their seat facing forward, who writes everything out on the board and peppers lectures with the phrase “know this for the test.”

The kind of teacher my education course instructors and textbooks tell me NOT to be.

Not a ‘sage on the stage’

When I decided to leave my journalism career and teach Spanish to kids, I did not picture myself standing at a lectern and reciting verb conjugations until kids nod off. I did not want to be what modern educators disparagingly call “the sage on the stage.”

I arrived at the classroom with ideas for games, a stack of music CDs and links to educational videos that kids can dance to. Sure I planned to do short lectures but I expected to spend most of the time overseeing group work, encouraging kids to converse in Spanish and having fun with music, drawing and other activities that reinforce what we are learning.

With most students, this system works. At the end of last week, I gave out a boatload of As to kids who have worked hard, played hard and say they are enjoying my class.

But then there are the students who surprise me.

Some kids want an old-fashioned teacher

“You have only taught us ONCE this year,” one student complained a few weeks after the start of the school year.

It took me a few minutes to realize she was referring to a time when I conjugated a verb on the white board because I could not find a creative image of the conjugation online and the verb was not in our textbook. As I wrote, I explained the rules for the conjugation. And I felt like a bit of a failure because the instuctions were not more fun.

But a couple other students chimed in after their classmate’s comment. They praised teachers who write out everything students need to know on overhead transparencies. And teachers who give long, and apparently comforting, lectures.

Nevermind that one of my textbooks calls the document camera and overhead projector the worst enemies of teachers. It is impossible to sit behind a desk and walk around to monitor student’s independent work at the same time.

So how did these kids get so traditional? And what about the majority of students who do so well in classes where teachers mix things up for a variety of learning styles, including musical and kinesthetic intelligence?

An experiment with tradition

After some long, soul-searching conversations with my principal, who tells me he is trying to get teachers out from behind the desk and at students’ sides, I decided to experiment with more traditional lessons.

We started out with an activity that always put me right to sleep when I was a public school student: Reading directly from the textbook.

But the previously unhappy students cooperated happily. As they read, you could feel the anxiety level in the room drop. I did not call on kids randomly but went in alphabetical order so they knew exactly what to expect. We went through the vocabulary words one by one until we had covered an entire page.

I was amazed. Students were focused. No one whispered or crumbled paper for spit balls. This was their way of learning. My college instructors would call them “auditory learners.” Most got As on the next quiz.

I am still a little baffled by this situation. Is my confusion because I learn best by reading about something, then writing or doing a practical activity related to what I have read? Perhaps. So, as I plan lessons for the second quarter, I am including more time for old-fashioned lectures and reading aloud for the kids who want it so much.

My worry – will they survive in AP classes?

Part of me is sad for the kids who learn in such an old-fashioned way. How will they make it in the more free-form high school honors classes that I know they are capable of taking?

I picture them in college waiting to take notes until a college professor opens the textbook and read it to them. Or in a high-tech work group waiting in vain for a team leader to write out instructions for that day’s work.

I worry about them.

Let it go, my teacher friends tell me. They will find their way.

And so I do. After all, I am finding mine.