Saturday, January 29, 2005

Winston Churchill's Life Lesson

You haven't learned life's lesson very well if you haven't noticed that you can give the tone or color, or decide the reaction you want of people in advance. It's unbelievably simple. If you want them to take an interest in you, take an interest in them first. If you want to make them nervous, become nervous yourself...It's as simple as that.
People will treat you as you treat them. It's no secret. Look about you. You can prove it with the next person you meet.

Winston Churchill

I read Churchill's statement years ago and discovered, upon testing the challenge, the truth of his observations.

"People will treat you as you treat them."

The novice teacher who struggles to develop productive relationships in a classroom would do well to take Mr. Churchill's advice. If you want respect, give respect. If you want students to be interested in what you have to say, be interested in what they are saying. If you act like you can't stand being around them, they will hate being with you. If you treat them like morons, they will act moronic.

Like the man says, "It's as simple as that."

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Today's Topic: Your Own Death

"I don't like that word. Don't say it."

I knew full well what the young man meant, but I pressed him anyway.

"Which word was that?"
"You know. Don't make me say it."
"Ohhh! Do you mean the word 'dead'?"
"Don't say it!"
"Why? Death is a part of living. We all will have to die one day."
"Not me. I refuse to do it."

By this time his classmates were beginning to snicker.
"Angel is immortal...he's gonna live forever."

"You know, most of us feel that way when we are young. Like we are going to live forever. Unless someone that we are close to dies, or gets very sick. That's when reality brings us into check. How many of you have been to the funeral of someone who died young?"

More than half of the hands went up.

Death and dying is not usually a topic one would expect to be discussing in a high school art class, but I was preparing them for a video we would be watching about organ donation. An area organization called Life Bank sponsors an annual poster contest for high school students aimed to encourage young people to become organ donors.

Good strategy.

The video made us think about a topic most people try to avoid.
Dying young.

It was a documentary about teenagers whose lives were saved by an organ transplant, and interviews with the families of young organ donors.
After the video, my students started thinking and talking and asking quetions. I love when that happens.
Difficult topics make for the best discussions, and the most opportunities for learning. Today's discussion might even save a life someday.
Most of my students who answered 'No' to the question "Would you like to be an organ donor?", after today's class, will now be answering 'Yes'.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

No Child Left Behind: Again

One of the reasons I began posting my thoughts on education and my experiences in the inner-city classroom was to give the general public the chance to read a first-hand account of what we deal with as teachers in large urban districts.

I've mentioned before the reactions I've received from strangers when I am introduced as a high school teacher in the city of Cleveland. They run the gamut from "You are surely a saint", to "You've gotta be bad-ass" to "You must be nuts"
And to each of these I respond "Yes...kinda", and "Absolutely", and "So I've been told".

There are other comments too.
Teachers usually won't hear these until there is a snow-day, a levy on the ballot, or a teacher's strike. They usually come from the portion of the adult population who have not set foot in a public school in many, many years. If ever.
These folks will dare not disparage us individually, it is much easier to discuss the larger group... "Those lazy, greedy, teacher's unions".

Today I received a comment from a reader who was responding to my post concerning the "No Child Left Behind" legislation. (Link to post here for entire comment)

I think teacher need to get into the real world with their contracts. NO ONE in the private sector has fully funded health care. NO ONE in the private sector gets the multiple other benefits teachers get in the way of time off, pension plans, job security, as well as admiration from their students as well as parents. When is the last time a child (other than their own) admired a computer programmer or a chef ..etc..

NCLB is not the end all, be all for saving the schools. It is a great start though. I think we need to expect more from our inner city schools and hopefully they will respond. If not, they need to be totally reorganized. There is an old saying in sports, you can't fire all the players; so you get rid of the coach

Oh boy. This is precisely the misinformation that I've wanted to address here in this weblog.

The first blaring comment that caught my pop-eyed attention was the reference to fully funded healthcare.
Wait-a-minute..let me look at my last paystub.
Hmmm...Healthcare deductions...$387.75.
So I gave my friend, a nurse in private practice, a quick call.
"Healthcare benefits?" I ask.
Her response, "Fully funded."

As for time off:

How many other professions require continuous coursework in graduate school and the attainment of at least a Masters degree in order to maintain employment?
When does this happen? When the kids aren't in school.

As for job security:

Has anybody talked to the 1,400 Cleveland teachers who were laid-off this year?
Enough said.

As for admiration:

Those of us in teaching must learn to take the sour as well as the sweet.
Granted, Some of us earn the respect of our students, and may even develop close relationships with our kids and their families. I am blessed nearly every day with at least one student who will call out, "Love you Ms Matt!"
Yet, on that very same day I, or any of my colleagues, will also hear, "Bitch" or "Go f_ck yourself" or "I don't have to listen to you a__hole!". These are phrases so common they no longer shock. They are a part of our job.
Another part of our job is dealing with disgruntled parents. They are far more vocal than the appreciative ones. There are very few teachers in an urban district who have not had this conversation with a parent on the phone:
"Listen, I am sick and tired of you goddamn teachers always calling me up. I can't do anything else with that f-ckin' kid. When he's in school he's your problem."

Finally, addressing the sports analogy being applied to education:

Why would one apply a practice that doesn't work in sports (Remember, Cleveland fired Bill Belichik? Where is he today? Where are the Browns?) to educating inner-city children?

As NCLB demands accountability from public schools, the ultimate solution that NCLB offers when a school fails to acheive the mandated goals is to turn the school into a tax-funded charter or tax/voucher funded private for-profit school with NO mandated public accountability. For-profit schools, as private businesses, may keep their records closed to the public.

Perhaps I am a bit jaded, but it looks to me like the fox is guarding the hen-house.

Who Raised the Bar?

Sometimes it is not enough to do your best. Sometimes you have to do what is required.

My good friend and colleague, Richard Hart, has this phrase posted in his classroom, and I have heard him repeat it often over the years, to his young welding students, in his booming bass voice.

It is often too easy for any of us to excuse our half-assed attempts at a task, by using the pat "Well, I did my best." As teachers we often tell our students, "Just do your best."
The problem with doing our best, is that often we underestimate ourselves, we fail to raise our own bar, and sometimes our best doesn't cut it. Sometimes we need to do what is required, even if we need to push ourselves that much harder.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Candid Thoughts on "No Child Left Behind"

Rarely will I keep an opinion to myself when I have one, and when it comes to the "No Child Left Behind" Act, my experience gives me plenty of opportunity to form a few opinions.
I began writing this post originally as a response to a request by a reader (thank you Ali) to share my thinking about the NCLB legislation. It was going to stay in the "comments" section, but as I wrote, my frustrations got the better of me, and I decided to publish my thoughts here instead.

It is insidious

My own gut-reaction to NCLB is that it is, indeed, a stealth piece of Republican legislation which will result in the destruction of the public school systems in large urban areas, and render the powerful (mostly Democratic) teacher's unions in those regions ineffective.
One aspect of No Child Left Behind mandates that any school which cannot meet NCLB standards loses some federal funding and may be reconstituted or taken over by a charter school or a private for-profit education company.

It will be interesting to see what happens to the schools in Cleveland, our nation's poorest city, that fail to measure up to NCLB. Several have been classified as failing schools, and the probationary period is almost up. I shall be most curious as to how NCLB will move to rescue the kids in these schools.

Who will be tapped to play the hero?
My money is on Republican businessman David Brennan's White Hat Management company.

I wonder how many Cleveland Municipal Schools will become for-profit Hope Academies.


The red needle is centered smack-dab in the middle of the zero on my outdoor thermometer. The numbers are big and bold, easy to read from the warm comfort of my kitchen window.
Oh yeah, it's a Monday morning, and I'm still at home.

The Cleveland city schools are closed today. Unplowed sidestreets, impassable sidewalks, and dangerous temperatures,I'm certain, made the decision fairly easy. I can't help but think that the school district, beleaguered by a debt, that at one hundred million dollars can only be described as awesome, will also save a few dollars by not heating the buildings on this most bitter of days. Probably more than a few.

Cold mornings in Cleveland will find the students in my morning classes bundled up in wool afghans,working Cratchet-like at their drawing boards. No matter how hard or hot the uni-vents blow, they will not often keep pace with the icy drafts of air that pour through the cracks, spaces, and holes of the single pane windows in their ill-fitting frames, along the north wall of my classroom.
Winter morning room-temperatures in the forties prompted my purchase of about fifteen hand-knit blankets and afghans from church rummage sales. I keep them in a box at the back of the room, and the kids will sometimes argue over their favorites.
We laugh at how pathetic we look and how "ghetto" it is for us to have to work like this.
We console ourselves with the idea that hardships make us stronger, scrappier, tougher.

Still, I get angry when I think about the public schools a few miles up the road, in the suburbs, whose communities would never tolerate such conditions for their children.
The taunt "No child left behind." infuriates me so much more during Cleveland's long, cold, winters.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Senility Prayer

God grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway
The good fortune to run into the ones I do
And the eyesight to tell the difference


Hmmmm...Now where did I leave my keys?

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

On Ego, Guilt, and an Accused Rapist.

I know. I know.
I have been neglecting my journal...and I promised that I would get back to writing, since my original intention was to use my writing as an attempt to organize my thoughts and discipline myself to manage my time.
Okay...those who know me well could have predicted this lapse, as organization and discipline are not words normally associated with me, nor qualities I have ever been accused of possessing.
What I admit to possessing is an ego.
Last night, attending an event at Case University, I was chastised by two different sets of people who noticed my virtual silence. It felt good to be missed.

So many things have been happening at school which I should have been writing about, that in order to assuage my Catholic guilt, I will have to share with you in the next few days.

The latest incident was the arrest of a security guard in our building this past weekend. The guard was accused of molesting/raping two 15 year old female students during school hours in the security office. The story broke on television Monday night, and Tuesday morning, my classes were all abuzz.

Of course, in order to take what could be a gossip-fest and turn it into a teachable moment, I was required to use a bit of a tricky manipulation, since so much of the information that was circulating was innuendo.
We did have some insightful conversations, however, on the difference between rape and consensual sex, statutory rape, employee hiring practices, and the justice system.
Not exactly what I had planned for my morning classes...but it probably will have more impact on these kids lives than a lecture about color theory.