Sunday, May 1, 2011

Three Years

Damn! I can' t believe that it has been three years since I posted to this blog.

Looking back and rereading the posts from 2008, I have been remembering the (mental) place I was in when I wrote those posts. That was a bad time. That was when I started a blog to distract myself from the worst year of my professional life.* It was the year I almost quit teaching.

Things are better now. I'm teaching in a great place with a great administration, where the community actually seems to give a damn about education.

With summer coming up and a new writing project on the horizon, I wonder if I can't find a way to turn some of that into posts for The Arbitrary Elbow.

Whoever you are reading this, o accidental stumbler upon my blog, be well and know that I might be back.


* Although I did write about my miserable year in "237" below, I have somehow managed to resist explaining exactly why the despicable weasel who was our principal didn't seem to know the difference between competent school management and a hole in the ground. Even after three years of vastly rewarding work, an award for excellence, and almost dangerous levels of professional satisfaction, the idea that one egotistical little turd's incompetence made me so miserable that I nearly quit teaching pisses me off to no end.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Ought There Be a Law?

It's easy to get caught up in the "there ought to be a law" jingoism that reigns in the legislative branches of the post-modern United States. We see it every year: some 'bad thing' catches headlines and legislators, eager themselves to catch headlines, propose new laws to protect us from the bad thing. Usually, of course, there are already laws on the books designed to protect us from these bad things, and layers of redundant, yet semi-conflicting laws are piling up, clogging the arteries of the American legal system.

I generally cringe when I hear someone say, "There ought to be a law," because there is often already just such a law on the books. And even if there's no such law, there are an entire host of topics about which our society does not need laws written, about which laws should not be written.

The preceding is, of course, a prelude to my own pet grievance. A thing about which even I believe there ought to be a law.

"237," the title of my previous blog posting should be all I need to say, assuming you read the previous post. For most of the 2007-8 school year, I found myself with more than 200 students on my rolls, maxing out at 237 in September/October. I went to my department chair, my Assistant Principal, and even my union (Texas AFT) and was told the same thing: There is no law in Texas mandating a maximum teaching load for high school teachers. There is a law mandating the maximum teaching load for elementary teachers, from which the general public mistakenly infers that a similar law protects high school teachers and their students. That inference is, as my year has proven, dead wrong—and, yes, there ought to be a law.

It is difficult enough to ensure that there is enough of yourself to go around to your students when there are only 150 on your rolls. Giving each student approximately 1/150th of your professional time during a school year may not seem like a lot of attention, but it does make a substantial improvement over 1/200th of your time (or 1/237th). Many teachers at 'better' schools across the country would consider 150 students (an average six periods with 25 students each) to be a heavy load in itself, but it is more typically teachers at the 'worst' or lowest-performing schools that see numbers nearing 200. Typically even within these schools it seems to be that the teachers assigned to teach the non-gifted, non-Honors, and non-AP classes—those filled with the students who are most difficult to manage—whose numbers drift up near 200.

In other words: the students who need the most attention, in the schools that need the most help, are most likely to get the least.

In my previous posting, I discussed how the No Child Left Behind Act shifts priorities away from helping students and focuses on achieving high test scores for schools.* The problem of my own 237 was discussed in the context of speculation that school administrators were trying to "bulk up" the test scores of 11th graders (whose Social Studies class sizes were very small) and while 9th graders, who do not take a standardized Social Studies test, were packed into classrooms like so many sardines. Before NCLB, however, problems like fiscal mismanagement and/or misplaced priorities led to the same results: overloaded teachers with underserved students.

Truthfully, however, it should not matter all why teachers are being loaded with more than 150 students (and why students have to make do with less than 1/150th of a teacher). It just should not happen. Period.

I am not going to take the time in this post to sing the obvious song about teacher burnout or to dance the obvious dance about how schools failing to properly serve 9th graders will pay the price when those 9th graders take the 11th grade test. I'm just going to hum a few bars and shuffle a few steps about right and wrong and let you fill in the blanks.

If you're the kind of person who has read this far into the letter, then the blanks are easy to fill:


* I haven't met anyone recently who still believes that raising a school's test scores is the only--or even the best--way to actually help students learn what they need to know to have a good chance at being successful in life.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


The number two hundred thirty-seven is the ugliest number I have ever seen.

237 was the number of students on my class rolls as the Fall 2007 semester got rolling at Waco High School. No, it wasn't a computer glitch. That was the first thing I asked. I was told that more freshmen than expected had enrolled and that last year's administration had spent so much money we couldn't afford to hire another teacher. "We're aware of the situation," said the the principal.

237 students breaks down into six sections of World Geography, each with 34-38 students, and one section of 'Enrichment,' a course in which students would be prepared to take the high school exit examination. At a 'good' high school, a typical teaching load would be no more (and usually a lot less) than 150 students in five or six sections. 237 is, for most teachers, unimaginable. Inconceivable.

Didn't we all have fun when they all showed up? The 32 desks that would (barely) fit into my smaller-than-average classroom would not contain them all. I pulled in chairs from the library and sat three at my desk when necessary; students sometimes volunteered to sit on the floor. Usually, however, they didn't all show up. Even so, even if 'only' 33 were in class, these were 33 students crammed like sardines into an under-sized classroom in a school with a reputation for disciplinary problems. Some days, in some classes, even fifteen years of experience and a reputation for being able to handle difficult students could not overcome odds like these.

Even when class was not in session, the load that was my 237 bore down upon me. Each assignment, each quiz, each test, meant more than two hundred papers to score and more than two hundred grades to enter. I had to buy a special high-capacity stapler just to staple together the stacks of papers.*

Perhaps most difficult of all was the fact that fifty of my 237 were classified as Special Education students. I was required by law to follow fifty different custom-tailored sets of modifications for teaching these students. Daily I filled out twenty Behavior Improvement Plan sheets for students who had a history of inappropriate** behaviors at school. I have no accurate tally of exactly how much of my life was taken up attending and filling out paperwork for Special Education meetings (called ARD's), but I am sure the true figure would shock even me. One Special Education teacher told me that even she didn't teach fifty Special Education students and that she certainly didn't try to teach them in classes filled to capacity.

It did, eventually, get better. As the months wore on the numbers on my student rolls slowly dropped. The slow, but steady attrition of economically disadvantaged students—via suspensions, juvenile detention, and dropping out—whittled my numbers down almost to 200 by the Christmas break. By April fewer than 180 were on my rolls.

In fact, it wasn't until April that someone clued me in on why I really had 237 students to start the year. "Look at how small the classes are for the 11th grade teachers in your subject," said the veteran teacher with 30+ years in the classroom, "and look at how large the 9th grade classes are. This school gets in real trouble if our 11th graders' test scores aren't good enough this year. They could have rearranged the schedules and made the 11th grades classes larger so some of those teachers could have picked up part of the 9th grade load, but they chose to let your classes be huge to keep the 11th grade classes as small as possible. Anything to try to bring up test scores."

I'm not sure that even I am cynical enough to believe what I was told. Sure, it seems to make more sense than saying the principal last year blew the money on a new copy machine, so we can't afford to hire the teachers we need, but would they go this far just to raise test scores? Could the school administration intentionally put 9th grade students in less-than-ideal learning conditions in order to keep the school out of trouble with the state and federal governments? If so, is this justifiable? Or is it merely the educational equivalent of robbing Peter to pay Paul?

If I were responsible for the school, would I make such a choice? It's the kind of question that makes me glad that I'm not in charge of a school and it is another example of how the high-stakes regime imposed by the No Child Left Behind act distorts what should be important in the American education. Even if overwhelming evidence existed that the size of my 9th grade classes has absolutely nothing at all to do with getting higher scores on this year's 11th grade tests, the system established by NCLB would make it difficult for many to accept that evidence.

The joy went out of teaching for me this year; my teaching mojo has evaporated. I never thought I would have cause to say those words, but the 237 have worn me down to a nub. I have the summer to find my joy again, to get my mojo back. If I do, I'll back in a classroom next year, but it won't be at Waco High.

* Typical staplers are rated for 20 sheets and can usually handle up to 25, they are useless for anything larger.

** 'Inappropriate' is a term running the gamut from not completing assignments to bursting into nearly psychotic states of rage at one or several classmates for no apparent reason. Some of these behaviors are so unique/bizarre that I will not mention them for fear of violating confidentiality.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Bathroom Monitor

"I am the very model of a modern bathroom guardian.

I've information…um…something…something…Edwardian?"

Okay, so the chances of turning my current predicament into a light opera patter song are slim—but it's worth the respite from boredom that even such a ridiculous effort brings.

For the past three days, I've been spending 4 ½ to 5 hours sitting in front of a high school Men's room while the smell of stale urine wafts through the open door. The sounds of flatulence and other things echoing on the tiles declaratively punctuate my thoughts: My college degree is being wasted *FLUSH* This job stinks *FLUSH* High-stakes standardized testing is excrement *FLUSH*

Yes, the general atmosphere in which I'm writing this is having a definite impact on my thoughts. So? There are worse things in the air: it's testing time in Texas.

The reason a college graduate with fifteen years' experience in his profession is harassing adolescents outside the restroom is the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). Under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, standardized testing—once merely very important—has become DO OR DIE for American students and their schools.

Before we moved to our current location, I had no worries when it came to testing. I used to teach in a school that was "recognized" for its high test scores, which were nearly "exemplary." We teachers spent most of the year teaching, the weeks before the TAKS test reviewing, and the week of the test itself basking in the knowledge that our mostly-white, middle- to upper-middle-class students would make us and our school look good with their scores.

Since arriving in here, however, my TAKS-based experience has undergone a significant change for the worse.

I joined the faculty of a low-performing school and what a difference it has been. If you've never had the experience of working in a place where everyone is afraid the government will step in and fire all the employees (teachers) and all of the management (principals), you really cannot know what you've been missing. The fear and paranoia become endemic. The attempts to motivate students (who are usually of a different race and socio-economic class than most of their teachers) become frenzied. The whole idea of 'teaching to the test' becomes the expectation, not the exception.

Common sense and rational thought are thrown out of the window, replaced by fear-motivated new initiatives and changes in personnel and administration. New school- and district-wide attempts to motivate students, new tutoring programs, and new initiatives to motivate students to attend new tutoring programs all whizz by, one after another.

The extremely high stakes of the testing also inspires the uglier side of human nature. Any human activity with rewards or penalties as high as those presented by the TAKS test under NCLB is going to inspire some folks, both students and teachers, to cheat. To combat this schools become lock-down zones when TAKS time arrives. The tests are kept under lock and key—even from the teachers. Cell phone possession by anyone on campus is an anathema. Even students' bathroom usage must be closely monitored—which is why the soundtrack of my life for the past three days has been filled with the flushing of porcelain fixtures.

TAKS regulations state that no more than one unsupervised student may enter a restroom. Other students with restroom passes must wait in line outside the bathroom. No talking or whispering is allowed in the line. If a restroom monitor is willing to stand inside the restroom itself, instead of outside the door, two students may enter the restroom simultaneously, but still may not talk, and another monitor must remain outside to ensure no talking or whispering is taking place among those waiting to enter.

When there are no 'customers,' I sit on a hard plastic chair and read a book (or write an essay like this one).

Despite the ambiance and intellectual rigor of my assignment, many of my colleagues consider me lucky precisely because I get to sit down and read for a few minutes out of every hour. Those 'lucky' enough to be test administrators have a different sort of fun. They are responsible for "actively monitoring" students for the duration of the test. Students are allowed unlimited time in which to take the test, so this can stretch to four or five hours at a stretch of doing nothing but walking about the classroom, watching students take the test. They may not read, write lesson plans, grade papers, or even sit in a chair. If asked about one of the test questions, they must fight against the very urge that made them a teacher, and refuse to help any student better understand the question. If any 'irregularities' occur, from someone suspected of cheating to a student's coughing too much to the mere ringing of a telephone in the classroom, that teacher must fill out 'incident forms.'

Looming over their heads is the repeated threat that if they somehow make any serious mistake in following the almost-Byzantine rules of TAKS administration their teaching license will be revoked by the state.

Logically, this all makes perfect sense. Common-sensically, there's little logic to it at all. If, as NCLB mandates, standardized tests like TAKS are (and should be) the end-all/be-all of public education, then everything described above, every rule, regulation, procedure, and penalty, follows logically from that fact.

If, however, using only a single criterion to conclude whether or not a student (or school) has succeeded at so complicated a game as education defies common sense, then no premise that follows from that part of NCLB is reasonable.

I've got one more day to sit by this bathroom and ponder these things. There's a chance that I'll reflect on the good ideas embodied in NCLB or the positive aspects of the TAKS test. There's also a chance that the smell or roses will waft through the door and I'll discover that a beautiful garden has sprung up through the cracks in the dingy bathroom tiles. Let's wait and see.*

* No. Sadly this did not happen. On my fourth and final day of sitting like Janus at the bathroom door, we had no fewer than three students decide that their tests could wait, but their nausea could not. The smell of fresh vomit really puts things into perspective when you've been complaining about the smell of urine.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Three Laws of New Education Initiatives

I was browsing the new entries at Rules of Thumb ( and finally decided to add my two cents. What popped into my head are what I'm calling the Three Laws of New Education Initiatives. Non-teachers and people who attended 'good' schools might not get what I'm talking about, but professionals and folks who clawed their way through dysfunctional school systems should get the following without any further explanation:

4056 Education
The more poorly a school or school district performs, the more frequently that school and/or district will implement new programs or initiatives--and the greater the odds of that school/district failing to give the new initiative enough time to be effective before moving on to the next new initiative.

4057 Education
The greater the number of new education initiatives a teacher is asked to implement during his/her teaching career, the less likely that teacher will implement anything but lip service and window dressing to appease the current school administration.

4058 Education
The greater the number of educational initiatives implemented during a student's twelve years of schooling, the less likely it is that students in the poor to mediocre range will retain anything at all positive from any of the initiatives implemented.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Play that Funky Music

It was a hot Louisiana September in 1976 and I was in the fourth or fifth grade. I can remember riding in the backseat with my friend in his mom's station wagon. Wild Cherry's Play that Funky Music (White Boy) came on the car radio and she turned up the volume. We sang along as we rode around with the windows rolled down. It was a lot more fun that the country music that our parents usually inflicted on us.

We pulled into the driveway as the song was ending. My friend's father, enjoying a cigarette and a beer in the shade at the end of the driveway commented in disgust, "Goddamn n----- music," and I realized for the first time that music had color.

White kids like me growing up in the South, in all-white neighborhoods and attending unrepentantly unintegrated schools, get one of their first tastes of the complexities of race relations when they learn that music has color and how much of American music is black. It gets even more complex when they learn just how much of that music was imitated, borrowed, or stolen by white musicians.

In The Buddy Holly Story, his parents were upset that the music their son wrote and played was "too black." Elvis borrowed plenty of songs and lots of his style from black musicians. White parents across America were concerned when their children enjoyed Jerry Lee Lewis' "jungle rhythms."

The lines began to blur. White mothers humming Motown songs warned their kids to beware of black people. Klansmen cursed the "uppity nigras" of the Civil Rights Movement while their kids danced the Watusi. It might seem odd to some to mention someone like Little Richard in the same breath as Martin Luther King, Jr., but each brought the races together in his own way.

Little Richard? Yes, Little Richard. "Tutti Frutti" might not have packed the moral and emotional punch of "I have a dream," but white kids dancing to a black man's music were probably better prepared to have a black student in the desk next to them at school.

Growing up in those "unrepentantly unintegrated" schools I mentioned earlier meant that a lot of kids I knew didn't actually have a black kid in the desk next to theirs until they were half-way through high school, but the Commodores, "Good Times," and Dr. J let them know that it would be okay when they finally did.

Make no mistake: the examples set by black icons and entertainers popular in mainstream white culture had more work than they could handle. Bias, bigotry, and hatred have never gone away, have never been silenced. For every bunch of white kids who enjoyed that funky music, there were others complaining about that "goddamn n----- music."

The more I ruminate on the subject, the more I come to believe that the most overwhelming emotion I feel for unrepentant racists of any generation isn't anger, outrage, or frustration. It's pity.

How can I not pity the bigot who won't let his feet start moving when he hears Aretha Franklin wail? How is pity not an option when you think about someone who can watch Gregory Hines dance and not want to possess some of that skill and grace for himself? Don't you pity the bigot who never let Richard Pryor make him laugh so hard his sides hurt? How can I not pity someone who is missing out on so many of the fantastic, beautiful, and amazing things this world has to offer, just because they are offered by someone who looks different than they do?*

The kicker to this whole story, the moral that makes me smile and shake my head when I think about that hot summer day in 1976, is that every single member of the band Wild Cherry was white. My friend's dad couldn't enjoy music performed by guys as white as he was, because to him they sounded black!

It shouldn't take much more than this to confirm the niggling suspicions in the back of your mind that tell you exactly where the slippery slope of racism leads.

* I have to believe that, if I were black, I would be a lot more in touch with the anger, outrage, and frustration and less aware of the pity that this kind of racism engenders in me. As a pasty white guy, however, I have noticed that my past angry/outraged confrontations with this kind of racism have had absolutely zero positive effect. Besides, openly pitying racists really annoys them. It's fun. Try it.