17 June 2011

The basics of what I believe

editor's note. This is the email the BlazeBlog's author sent to his co-workers on his last day. I've taken out the stuff that didn't have anything to do with his beliefs.

Colleagues, former colleagues and (most importantly) friends,

Please allow me to take a moment from your busy end of semester thrash to express my sincere and enduring thanks for your kind words and gift  on Wednesday. Though I suspect Walt and Steve are most to blame for both the idea and the execution, the picture carries its true impact because of the words you all added to it. Your kind and sincere wishes moved me very nearly to the point of tears.

So again, thank you.

(If you don’t want to hear further thoughts, close and delete now)

I’m not leaving because the district is giving me the axe, or because my ideological differences with the overall district philosophy have become untenable. When it comes down to brass tacks, I don’t know that I would ever leave over a philosophical difference. In reality, no matter how big your differences are with what the district or building does, you make a difference inside your classroom. Never underestimate the impact you can have on students, and never forget how large that impact becomes when amplified by time.

Too often, we as teachers work and grind and focus only on the frustration of trying to reach the 10% of students who are hardest to reach. I would encourage you today to think about the 90% of students who came through your room that you impacted. Further, take a moment to think about the top 10%, the students on whom you had a significant enough impact that you changed their lives.

Most of them aren’t mature enough to say thank you. Many of them don’t yet realize that you’ve changed their lives. They might not realize for ten years. In fact, they may never say “thank you.”

This is the great failing of the data movement. It wants to quantify those things which cannot be quantified. It wants raw, cold, unseeing numbers to show the decision makers the impact that teachers are having. You and I know that numbers can never show how you helped a student make friends, gain self-confidence, or learn an abstract concept. A state or national test can never show the hours you spent encouraging a slow worker, making accommodations for tests, or grading an assignment a student worked harder on than they’ve ever worked before.

But you know, in your heart and mind, that you’ve changed kids’ lives for the better.

So, no matter how chaotic the district becomes, no matter what the newspaper says, no matter what absurd documentation requirement the federal government places on your plate; keep helping kids. I know the temptation is great (especially at this time of year) to think about walking away from the classroom. You think you can’t do it anymore. You look at a calendar and say, “The average for teachers is three years. I’ve beaten that. I’ve done my time. I’m getting out.” Please think twice. Is there a greater place to work than a high school? I don’t think so. Is there a more important job in a world of broken homes, staggering technological change, and constantly shifting social norms than that of the guide for confused young people? I don’t think so.

Be that guide. Use your knowledge and experience to help young people navigate their world. They need your help now more than ever.

I know that those of you who know me think that this (admittedly lengthy) diatribe is very unlike me. You think of the guy yelling in the teachers’ lounge, snapping his rubber band until it breaks. After all, I’m Mr. Reality, which often seems like Mr. Negative. However, think back. That anger is almost never about students. They’re dumb. I think you knew that when you signed up for the job. Being angry because students do dumb things is like being angry because the sun comes up.

Don’t let your anger and frustration with administration or laws, or class size, or parents, or or or drive you away from teaching. None of those things are kids’ fault. If you leave, you will be replaced by people who aren’t as good as you are.

Listen, I know this is easy for me to say, because I’m a short-timer now. But I think most of you know, in your heart, that teaching is the only thing you’re good at that matters in the world. Don’t let foolishness outside your classroom door force you out of the schoolhouse door.

I’ll close with a story from one of my college methods classmates. He started at Purdue as an Engineering major. In ENG 100 (Intro to Engineering) they brought in an Engineer from a different discipline every week. During the mechanical engineering week, they brought in a Mechanical Engineer who worked for Maytag. He described his life’s work as making the Calypso-Action washing machine. My classmate left that lecture, went to his advisor, and started the process to become an Education major. I asked him why he walked away from the lower stress and better pay in engineering. His answer?

“I don’t want my legacy to be a washing machine”.

Don’t let your legacy be a washing machine. Make your legacy the lives that you change every day.

Thanks again, it’s been more than a pleasure to teach with all of you for the last 60% of a decade. I wish you nothing but the best.

13 June 2011

What I said when I one time gave a commencement speech.

editor's note: This is the text of a commencement speech the BlazeBlog's author gave to the graduates of Vista Ridge High School in May, 2011. He may have deviated slightly when he actually gave the speech. He'll provide a video link when it becomes available. 


Members of the class of 2011, allow me to say “congratulations”. This is a big day for you. It’s a day many of you have been waiting years for. I’ll finally confirm you as friends on facebook. I know that you may think I’m comfortable right now, but actually, this isn’t all that comfortable for me. I’m not used to this many people actually paying attention to me. In fact, to make me more comfortable, go ahead and feel free to text, it’ll make me feel like we’re in the classroom.

I would spend this speech encouraging you to go out and great things. In fact, I’ll probably end with that, even though it is predictable. But instead of wasting your time and my breath on that, I’m going to say something else. I’m going to say thank you.

I sat in the library at the School That Shall Not Be Named, while we were planning this school. One of our first tasks was to decide on what our vision would be. We chose 4 simple truths, maxims to guide everything we did. We told each other that  we would be, to quote the sign you walked under every day for the last 2 years, Focused on Results, Committed To Learning, Built on Relationships, and Dedicated to Excellence (some of use wanted “commitment to excellence, but the Bronco fans overruled us). These were easy promises for 20 adults to make in a library about a school that only existed on paper and in our imaginations.

Even so, there were arguments in that library. There were people on that cadre of teachers, administrators, and parents who said that those goals were too vague. They said that there was no way we could find data to support that we were built on relationships; no data to define “excellence”.

And that’s why I want to thank you. You took our words and made them truth. You, through your hard work and commitment, showed the doubters that we don’t need mere numbers to define excellence. You lived excellence; on the field and stage you didn’t allow a lack of facilities to impact the quality of the product you showed the public. In the classroom you didn’t allow the constant shifts in building leadership and district philosophy to stop you from reaching academic excellence.

This was no easy task. From the first day, it was clear that we would be creating Vista Ridge’s culture on the fly. You were an integral part of that. Though you never thought to yourselves, “I’ll do this well so that future classes will have something to live up to”, that is what your actions have done. Through your personal dedication to excellence, you have provided a map for the coming classes of Vista Ridge Wolves to follow. You have always been willing to give of your unique talents to make our building the best high school in the city. From your acting talents on the daily Wolf-Wire to your construction of robots, you gave your and talent to us. From your successes over people on the football field to running to state track titles, you shared your athletic abilities with us. From your work ethic at your jobs, to your passion for Vista in the stands, you you shared your passion with us. Everything you have done, in school, and in public, has shown that you were not willing to accept the mediocrity that is all too rampant in young people, not just in this city, but nation wide.

You have an understanding that none of this success comes without hard work and dedication. You have spent innumerable hours outside of class working on the things which Vista Ridge has quickly become known for. The vast majority of that time, you were supervised by a staff which put in almost as many hours planning and grading homework and running practice as you spent writing essays and doing sprints. They haven’t received a raise in the time Vista Ridge has been open. I hope you’ll join with me in thanking them in a more meaningful way right now, with your gratitude, and applause.

Now, you leave the sheltered, confined world of Vista Ridge. You have to take the skills you’ve perfected here out into the wider world. I am confident that you will find success in that wider world. I can be confident because I, like the rest of the staff, have seen you grow and mature over the last three years. We have spent more time than you can imagine discussing you, and your futures. We have wondered aloud how we might teach you to think, how we could convince you that this homework really was important. Now, our time for wondering is over, we know that you are ready, that you will go out, on your own, and help to shape an ever changing world.

So, as we send you out to adulthood, I’d like to ask two favors of you, on behalf of the staff.

First, please don’t stop striving for excellence. Since I’m not afraid to use a cliché, I will: this ceremony isn’t called adjournment, it’s called commencement. It’s called commencement instead of adjournment because it’s the beginning, not the end. So, if you take nothing else from the years you’ve spent under our tutelage, take your Dedication to Excellence  from these last three years and apply it to your life as a whole. No matter what you have planned for the years following today, be it school, work, or service, commit yourself to your actions with the guidance of excellence. Though there is no easily quantifiable definition of excellence, you have enough practice to know excellence when you see it.

My second request is less about you than it is about myself and the rest of the faculty. For three years, I’ve ended every pretty much every gathering of the school with our clarion call; “We are VR”. For you, that cheer ends today. After you walk across this stage, shake some hands, and smile for the camera, you’re not Vista Ridge students anymore, you’re the very first Vista Ridge alumni. My request to you  is that you never forget that. You see, you’re going to be out in the world, being excellent, and doing amazing things. Naturally, people are going to ask you who you are, and where you’re from. This is where you can do us old people a great service.

You see, even though your journey through our halls is over, we have to go back to work. And every year, the competition to convince the city that we really are excellent becomes more and more fierce. Increasingly, parents look at the scores on the CSAP. They read the Gazette, and watch the news. They understandably want proof that the school they choose to send their children to is the best they can find. We want their children to walk through our halls just like you have. We need to prove to them that Vista Ridge is the best school in the city.

We’ve never been afraid to tell people that we are excellent. We’ve been proud to shout at the top of our lungs that We Are VR. But now we have walking, living, breathing proof that we are excellent

You are our proof. You are our calling card. When people are deciding where to send their children to learn, you are the tangible thing that they recognize as being great. You represent us, and our lives’ work better than any state created report card ever could. So, I ask you to pay back all the faith we had in you by doing something easy:

When people ask who you are, tell them, simply: “I AM VR!”

10 June 2011

On the value of work

I've been thinking a lot about work recently. I think there are several reasons for this. Firstly, I'm looking for work in my field, education. Secondly, a former colleague and current friend started blogging, and the second thing he wrote was about the value of physical labor, at least in part. Thirdly, I work a summer job which is totally different from my chosen profession.

When you put these three things together, you get a guy with a college degree and nine years of teaching experience thinking about work. Most of what I'm thinking isn't world shaking or soul shattering, but one of the points of this blog, I said way back at the beginning, was catharsis, and this is going to be a cathartic experience for me.

You see, I think we as a culture have made a grave error in our devaluation of labor within society. We value the person who makes more money, and in general we do so at a loss to our overall well being. We have lifted up the idea that Greed is Good . I understand why this has happened, as I'm sure most of you do. This happens because we live in a society built on self-interest. It seems to be in our self interest to obtain more things, more money, more status. And so, in our quest for more, we look to those with more, and those tend to be people who make lots of money in clever ways.

But Those People very rarely do anything good for society. Sure, there are exceptions to this claim. They aren't hard to find. Bill Gates is rich, and his cheap, easy to use, and innovative PC operating system changed the world. However, if you look at the others in the Top Ten richest Americans, there's only one other person on the list who makes things, and that person only made so much money making things because of Gates. The other 8 made their money through being born lucky to a hard-working five and dime owner or in investing and banking. What does an investor or banker make? Money? While there is value in money (econ pun there, for those of you paying attention), money's value to society in being made by manipulating markets is, I think, pretty scant.

Sure, Warren Buffet is going to give lots of his money away, but that doesn't mean there is value in the way he made most of it. It means that he's a good person who wants to better other people's lives. What I'm trying to get at here is the question of what value there is in his life's work.

You see, he didn't really contribute to society, and yet we will venerate him because he is wealthy. More and more I am coming to believe that we should also venerate the men and women who actually make things in this country. As my former colleague and current friend pointed out, if everybody got a college degree, what would all of those college graduates drive around in and on? Who would make the cars and the roads to drive them on? 

This nation needs a laboring class, and that class needs to be the middle class. People like Michael Moore would be quick to point out that a laboring class protected by strong unions became the middle class between 1930 and 1970. They would also point out that union busting largely destroyed that middle class. They would, of course, gloss over the extravagance and largess of the unions. However, that's a post for a different day. Let's get back to the topic at hand, shall we?

I think what I'm trying to get at is the idea that society must learn not to look down on the doers of things. We must recognize that the guy who builds a bridge, grows corn or hogs, lays Internet cable, or roofs our homes and businesses is just as important to society as the stock broker, insurance seller, or sales manager (if not more important). We must stop believing that to have value in this nation you must have a college degree. Mike Rowe tries to highlight these people on Dirty Jobs. Tom Hanks has a movie coming out about the struggles of a man going back to college after he was fired for not being a college graduate. Sure, the world needs college graduates, but we also need laborers, and I'm not sure that the laborer should make less money just because he works with his hands more than his mind (in many cases)

(Since I know former students read this blog, let me talk directly to you for a minute, if I could. I think we've done you a disservice by making college seem like the best option so much of the time. Listen, there's no shame in roofing, building, paving, or service. Our society needs people in those jobs. Find a passion and follow it. Don't think that your teachers will be ashamed. One of the brightest students I ever had enlisted in the Army and became a medic. I admire his willingness to serve his nation in that way. Don't go to college because you think you should, or because your parents want you to. Go to college to learn about something that you love.)

But there is more to labor than the material reward. (although I'm sure those of you that work in labor would argue that you could use a little more material reward). Ask anyone who works for a living (and I mean that they do work, not that they go to a place of employment and move money from one account to another), and they will tell you that there is an mental reward to doing physical labor. When the job is done, you can see that you have accomplished something. Teaching isn't like that (see, this post will relate to teaching, if only tangentially). Teachers might not ever know the reward of their labor. Their best students will probably walk forward to success without ever looking back. 

When you work in labor (like I always have during the summer), you can see the fruit of your labor right away. When I mounted tires, there was a pile of tires, and some of them had my initials on them. Now, when I fix something, or chainsaw a trail open, or plunge a toilet, I can see that I have done something. That is immensely rewarding. You feel the effort you put in in your muscles, but your eyes will show you what you have accomplished.

Think about the hobbies taken up by men in the business world. Often they're into cars, or woodworking. Why? Because these are tasks which allow them to feel the satisfaction of creating something. I think that many people want to create things. Perhaps it's the way they were raised. Perhaps it's ingrained into their psyche. I don't know for sure why those are the things they take up, but I suspect it has something to do with the need to do things, not just crunch numbers.

Further, laborers rarely work alone. I know that in the manual jobs I have worked at, there was a camaraderie that is often missing in white collar work. Sure, that comradeship is often a little more vulgar, more sarcastic, meaner (on the surface); but it is also deeper than a professional relationship. (I should note here that I value professional relationships as well, but those tend not to be as deep and binding as my "shop" relationships.) The shared suffering of manual labor forms deep bonds. Also, I think the world of manual labor is one of the few remaining places where new guys are forced to become part of the team, and where that transition isn't made all that easy.

You see, in the professional world, people want the company to make money, and new employees generally are transitioned smoothly into the office. However, in a shop, that dynamic isn't always there. Members of a shop are generally territorial. They force new members to become part of the team. There are things you must do to gain acceptance. It is not always easy, and there is no mentoring program or checklist. However, once those tests are passed, and you become a part of that team, you are a genuine member.

One of the highest compliments I've ever received came when I was a part of one of these teams. As I mentioned, these groups of laborers tend to be a little more vulgar than your average lunch at the insurance agency, so please excuse the off-colorness of the language. We were sitting at lunch at the end of my second summer mounting tires for Goodyear Racing Tires. We were in an "office" on the shop floor. I was sitting on a steel stool, eating jelly beans while people whom I had worked with told stories about what they thought about me when I started. (I had the job because my father-in-law ran the company) They were talking about thinking I would spy on them, that I would "Casper" (shop-speak for disappearing when there was work to do), that I would never last a whole season. That was when a guy who was on his way to becoming a lifer paid me a significant back-handed compliment. He said, "This guy's alright. I mean, 9 months a year he's a pencil pushing, pencil-necked f*ggot. But then he comes out here and busts his hump. I can respect that." 

Coming from a co-teacher, this would have been, at best, laughable. However, coming from someone who works 10 hours a day, who does things, who respects hard-work above all else, it was a badge of honor, which is why I'm still talking about it 4 years later. 

That, I think, is probably a greater reward than being rich, but I wouldn't mind trying out being Bill Gates rich for a while. (just a little while).

note: if you'd like to read further on the idea that maybe labor is more rewarding than making money, I suggest you check out Shop Class as Soulcraft by Mathew Crawford. I've read chunks of it, and I think that he has even better insights than I do.

07 June 2011

Does size matter?

One of the most common questions I get when I tell people that I teach in a high school is, “How big is your school?”. This is a common place for conversations to begin, because everybody judges a school by how large it is compared to the high school they went to.
I bring this up not to have a conversation about the conversations teachers have, or even to talk about how people tend to judge schools based on something very concrete instead of the intangibles like relationships and growth. No, I bring this up because I’d like to offer my meandering thoughts on the best size for a school.
I’ve always been a proponent of smaller schools. I went to a high school that graduated 121 (so, that’s about 600 kids total in the school at a given time) and my first job was at a school that graduated about 70 kids a year (300 kids total).  I feel like there’s tremendous value in schools that are small enough that all teachers know all of the students, since I believe that relationships are the building blocks for real learning. Small schools offer this. In a small school, many teachers have students multiple times and this means that relationships can get even more meaningful.
(There is also the point that many smaller schools tend to exist in places that have relatively stable populations, which means that they often serve multiple generations of one family at the school. This has the benefit of building community around the school and the school community, as well as a continuity of expectations and tradition. However, I’m going to talk about tradition some other day, so I’ll leave this tangent hanging un-addressed.)
However, my wife (who went to a larger school) would be quick to point out that smaller schools have major drawbacks. She would make the argument that smaller schools offer fewer classes because they have fewer students. She is correct. Smaller schools don’t have the resources to offer odd science classes (say your Zoology or Atmospheric Science), or multiple AP courses.
Following our marriage, I went to work at a school that had (at the time) almost 2200 students. The school was overcrowded but was able to offer many classes that my smaller schools had never even considered. They had a full-time drama teacher. They had a broadcasting program. Weird science classes and a sports psychology class were on the schedule every year. They used their size to operate like a small university.
This is where I, as the small school proponent, point out that I barely knew any kids in the building. If I didn’t have a kid in my class, then I didn’t know their name. Kids in the hallway without passes, breaking the dress code, cursing; I had no recourse except to play the heavy and get out the old referral pad. In a small school I would rely (in most cases) on my relationship with a kid to correct the offending behavior without having to get the office involved.
I don’t know which of the two sizes is superior. I can certainly understand the point of view that says the more classes offered, more opportunity is a positive. And it certainly is. But I’m not sure that those positives outweigh the negatives. You see, since I think that high school is, for the most part, a precursor to further education, I’m not sure how important it is to offer a multitude of specialized classes at the high school level. Most of those classes will be completed by students who would want to take them at the collegiate level.
I suspect that between 800 and 1000 kids in a school is pretty close to idea. I think that 200-250 per class is enough kids to offer multiple levels of courses, and some electives, but not so much that kids are unknown to the staff. At this size, the school offers diversity of opinion and belief, and clubs and activities for many people, with many interests but isn't so big that kids can very easily slip through the cracks. 
In the end, I’m glad that we have a system that offers all of those options. However, (in a surprise to no one who reads this blog) I’m going to stick with my original position, and say that I like a smaller school. I think that the relationships that are built in a smaller school tend to be more durable than those in even a school of 800, because when there are fewer people, they have no recourse but to know each other. When people get to know each other they tend to bond like family units, and (when fostered properly) support each other like the best of families. In this situation, students can do more than they could without that support, since they have the power of a group behind them.

04 June 2011

Adjusting to summer

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm currently in the Central Valley of California working a summer job. Actually, I'm here to live now, since my wife moved us here to take a job (for her, not for me). Anyway, something is happening to me which happens every year: I'm trying to adapt to summer.

Why do I need to adapt, you ask? Here's the thing; just like students, teachers need to get used to a slower pace of life during the summer. Even with my current (summer) job, which can be stressful, and where I live on-site, I find that I'm less busy and hectic feeling than I am during the school year. I also find that I can leave work at work more easily.

But this doesn't happen overnight. No, it's a process. For example, today I wanted to go shopping for some items that we'll need at camp on Monday. I also made a to-do list for when I go back up the hill. Now, could I have done these things on Monday when I'm back on the clock? Obviously. In fact, I think most people would suggest that unless there is something really pressing to start on Monday morning that's the right time to do those things.

However, as a teacher, I'm really used to taking care of that kind of thing on "my" time. You see, the school day is a time for teaching, mostly. That means that work like planning and getting basic items prepared must be done outside of the work day. I know that written about this before but that happened back in the first week that the BlazeBlog was on the Internets so I think I'll re-air my thoughts about how hard teachers work.

Teachers plan, they grade, they do paperwork. They do most of this on their own time. If a teacher gets 90 minutes of "work" or "plan" time per day without kids they work for an exceptionally generous district. Most teachers get barely half of that. Now, as schools receive less money and are expected to do more with it, teachers will end up with even less planning time. 

These are people who knew exactly what they were getting into when they took the job. They knew they would have to work at night. They knew that they were in for a life when they wouldn't be able to go out to lunch, a life where "Square Pizza Day" was a day for celebration. They knew they were taking less money than their peers, but were willing to do that because they wanted to have an impact on children's lives. 

They deserve better than they get. However, I suspect that as long as people continue to demand more services while also demanding less taxes teachers won't get more. It will become a more and more thankless job.

But as any critic of public teachers will tell you, those teachers get a summer break, and that's enough, right? It will be for me, since my wife convinced me to put down the list and to actually do some work around the house instead of shopping for supplies. (Don't worry, I'm taking care of that on Monday morning). 

Happy summer, but don't let these 8 weeks of relaxation for teachers convince you that the other 44 weeks of their year didn't more than make up for it.

02 June 2011

Summer Jobs, and their necessity

I'm coming to you tonight via the miracle of the Internet from beautiful Lakeshore, California. You may be wonder what I'm doing at basically the edge of the civilized world. The answer is one that many public school teachers in this country would give. It's my summer job.

I know that you think summer jobs are something for teenagers. You envision bad uniforms, misspelled nametags, hairnets, and minimum wage. However, in America, a surprising number of teachers take up summer employment to help pay the bills. I (and most teachers) get paid during the summer. However, that pay is generally low enough that teachers feel the need to find further employment.

I should be clear at this point. A lot of my co-workers do not take summer jobs. They relax with their families, work on advanced degrees. That disclaimer provided, I'm on to the meat of my argument.

I believe I was talking about the need of teachers to work summer jobs. We work mostly in fields that are different from what we teach. My high school US history teacher painted houses. I work in operations at a summer camp. A guy I used to work with was a raft guide every summer.

Why do we do this? Well, part of it is money. Last year, I made (before taxes) about $42,000. That's really not that much, especially if you own a house or have children (or both). It gets worse if your spouse teaches as well. I'm not trying to say that teachers are below the poverty line, but they are certainly paid less than many other professionals. (As an example, Taco Bell managers make more on average than teachers.) I've said it before, but I'm going to keep saying it: the way teachers are paid shows the real value that society puts on them.

But I think there's a second reason teachers work during the summer. They are hard workers by nature. Even those that don't find a second job are generally bettering themselves through education or travel. It goes against the nature of teachers to just sit around for 2 months. They're hard workers, and they aren't going to watch Jerry Springer and Law and Order reruns for 8 weeks. (and yes, FoxNews commentators, I'm looking at you).

I don't want you to think that I don't like my summer job. In fact, I love it. I would work it even if I didn't need the money. But the fact that I do need the money is a sad commentary on the value Americans put on the job that teachers do.