Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Day 135: PSSA Day 4

Author's Note: This post is bitter and angry.  I've been trying to avoid posts like these because I don't want to be complaining, but if I want to be honest with myself and my readers, I need to include what I'm really feeling.  I didn't intend for this to be a list of complaints.  I don't think complaining is productive or useful.  It only winds me up and gets me more upset.  But these emotions are real and need to be put down.

Today and tomorrow, the 8th graders are taking the writing section of the state-mandated standardized tests.  My bitterness at the loss of my geometry class again and again, as well as coverages yesterday and today is starting to leak over.

On an unrelated note, my room has 97 ceiling tiles, 2 vents and 15 lights that are placed in an odd pattern that puts me in mind of the ball drop game with moving platforms.

I often look at cars or airplanes and wonder "how did we get here, in terms of human development?"  Listening to stories on NPR, I wonder about the process of evolution that brought us to feel as though the speed at which a man throws a ball to another man is of vital enough importance that we feel the need to set furniture on fire in the streets.  I wonder about streets.

Standardized testing causes me to go into a deeper existential crisis than almost anything else I can think of.  What processes of human emotion and need have caused us to think that this was a good idea?  I know the basic history and the factory model of education, but I have tremendous trouble understanding why we still do it.

With so much research that talks about how standardized testing is not a good determination of  anything besides a student's ability to take standardized tests, why are we still spending 5% of our instructional time on such things.

It's alright though.  As frustrating as they are, they are really the best measure of how effective a teacher is.  I mean, besides anecdotal data, formative assessment, content confidence of students, administrative and peer observations of teachers, long-term success and happiness of students, or any of a handful of other ways to determine if a teacher is doing his or her job.

Thank goodness that these assessments measure community culture and priorities, parental involvement, educational opportunities, social interactions, hormone levels, chemical changes and individual student needs and desires.

Imagine how different our country would be if a yearly health census determined how effective doctors are.  When studies come out about how much heart disease is effecting the country, how fatty foods and sugary carbohydrates are making us fat, not a single person thinks to blame the doctors.  Instead, we change health policy and examine how to help people make healthy choices.  We fund campaigns like "Play 60" and encourage people to get more active.

However, when studies talk about how we are falling behind other countries in terms of education, we cut education funding and blame teachers for those problems.

When doctors or lawyers open offices in areas of high crime and poverty, people talk about how noble it is.  No, they won't be able to stop the crime or end the poverty, but every little bit helps!

The school, however, is totally to blame.

None of these problems are the fault of individuals who live in those communities.  I don't, in any way, blame my students for the circumstances in which they find themselves any more than I blame Prince Charles for being born a prince.

My issue is more with myself for not having the courage to stand up against it in any meaningful way.  It's with the entire system in place that uses these tests to say that children in poor areas are stupid and less proficient.  With funding being tied to scores, rich districts don't have to care about these tests at all while poor ones are 100% dependent on the outcome.

I am burned out.  I am tired of being angry and frustrated.  I am tired of feeling ineffective and helpless.  I don't even think that the PSSA's are the problem.  They are merely an outlet (albeit a valid one) for these emotions.  Many of these are systemic and out of my hands, so I haven't been addressing them here.  Other than continued introspection on my own actions and emotions, I'm not sure what else to do.

Without the energy to fight, I took the coward's way out.  The few classes I DID have today watched Cosmos.  When they weren't too busy talking over Neil deGrasse Tyson, they actually enjoyed it.

I need help.  I need it so badly.  If I'm going to find a way to not just phone it in for the remainder of the year for the pre-algebra classes, I need some help.

I know that all I can really do is two things: 1) Provide a place for students to learn when they are ready to do so and 2) encourage them as much as possible to be ready to learn.  My current issue, which has been mounting slowly, but steadily, for months now is that several of my students seem to be insistent that if they aren't ready to learn, no one will.

I have spoken with them individually, tried to contact parents, spoken with our guidance counselor and principal, all to no avail.  I have even told them that I am willing to leave them alone (for the time being) if they would just allow me to teach and allow the other students to learn.

I don't think that it's malicious behavior on their part, although in the heat of the moment, it certainly feels that way.  I think it's an extreme manifestation of the basic egocentrism displayed by children.  They simply don't understand that their actions are adversely affecting the other students.  I don't know how to effectively teach empathy.

My speaking to them calmly about it may help in the long run, but in the short run, my classes have descended into chaos and anarchy.

From conversations with the faculty, I'm not the only one.

Until I figure out what to do, I'm going to move back to a much stricter form of discipline.  I don't know if it will be effective, and I don't much want to, but I am feeling constantly disrespected by my students and I have had enough.

I have calmed down enough that I realize my initial plan to become a hard-ass, as I was last year, is probably an emotional one.  Sadly, no better option has replaced it.

I'm so tired of shouting into the dark.

I'm so tired of fighting.


  1. What a truthful, soul baring post, Justin. I've been there and feel your pain. It's so frustrating to feel unappreciated for all that you do, but don't give up the good fight!

    1. It's not just about being unappreciated. That goes with the territory of being a teacher in general and a math teacher specifically.

      It's that I can't help the kids who WANT help because I can't give the rest what they need to allow me to do so.

  2. The more I read your blog, the more I feel that our experiences are very similar. I would like to share more, but I'm not up to the task of doing so publicly. Contact me at contact@mr-dang.com and I will tell you all about it.

  3. Dude, this is brave.

    You say you're not trying to change the system, but it's clear you sure want to (and it also clearly needs to change). I'm sorry you're going through all of this junk, when your good intentions can't be met by your kids and aren't seen by your administrators. It's absolutely draining, and I don't have any advice to give (also been there myself).

    Sometimes, it's just the particular kids/year, and sometimes it's time for a new school.

    1. Think globally, act locally. I would love to change the system, but I am realistic about my ability to do so. I'm just trying to make my classroom a positive learning environment for my students.

      Unfortunately, it feels as though the more rope I give them, the more they hang the other students.

  4. Hi Justin,
    Aw, man, I wish there was something I could say or do to help you feel better. Your post has given me A LOT to think about. For instance, why do so many of us feel like this AND suffer in silence? Why do we always feel like we have to be the ones to take the high road? After 6 years, I'm beginning to ask myself these and other questions about why I became a teacher. Anyways ... for what they're worth, here are my thoughts (YMMV):

    1. I'm feeling the same way as you, unfortunately. It's sad that we have to teach students how they should treat each other, but they generally get that from their parents - good or bad. A parent sent me a hateful email (and cc'd my principal) over the weekend because I had the audacity to assign Algebra homework during spring break. I didn't retaliate in my response, but it took every bit of strength I had not to. My new mantra: I don't want to be thanked, but I'm tired of being spanked.

    2. Be careful about ruling with a clenched fist - you'll end up with a sore hand. All joking aside, give your students more responsibility for their learning. Something really simple: I allow my students to choose their own seats as long as they do what they're supposed to do and allow me to teach. Sounds cheesy, but it works for me.

    3. After testing, there is still learning to be done, contrary to popular opinion. I'm going to use that time to review topics that are crucial for their success next year. I'm lucky, though, so far my students are behaving. We'll see after spring break. Maybe a menu of choices or Math's Greatest Hits?

    4. Remember your why. There are many other professions out there, why did you become a teacher?

    Okay, enough blah, blah, blah. I hope what I said helps. Please keep posting ... we need your voice out there.

    Hang in there, Justin!
    Laurie (@lauriemline)

    1. 1) You are absolutely right and I'm going to steal that phrase from you. But I do want to be thanked, so I'm going to change it to:
      I don't need to be thanked, but I'm tired of being spanked.

      2) I have given them responsibility and I understand when they choose to not take advantage. It's often very difficult for a student to do that, especially when they have a history of being "bad at math." The problem I'm having is that they aren't content to simply "not learn." They feel the need to destroy the learning environment of everyone else in the room, which is something I can't abide.

      3) There is always learning to be done and my pre-algebra class is 2 months behind. I think I'm going to simply remove the forces that are too disruptive and cannot control themselves. We will see how smoothly the class moves without them.

      4) I love teaching and I love instilling that love of mathematics in my students. I love exploring with them and watching as they discover new things, making connections between concepts they didn't realize were connected. My geometry class is doing that very well. The pre-algebra...

  5. Do you think the kids who are ready to learn would be willing to express their frustrations in a circle go-around so that the disruptive students can hear the message from their peers? Sorry it's been so brutal for you.

    1. No. They would not. The kids who want to learn are generally polite and calm. The ones who are disruptive are bullies. I wouldn't ask the ready kids to speak up because I would worry about how they would be treated afterwards.

      The disruptive students seem to rationalize any criticism as being a direct insult, regardless of how it's presented. See the conversation I posted yesterday for an example of how it goes.

  6. I'm at a Catholic school. I consider my prealgebra to be penance for any bad thing I've ever done. They're just sooooooooo likely to fly off the handle at ANYTHING; it's a completely different situation than high school. Is there a way for you NOT to teach prealg next year? I'll probably get it again, though we're talking about leveling them next year, which would have to be an improvement. Justin, do you have kids of your own? Have you ever read the book about power struggles and parenting? (I'm blanking on the name, although it could be something like "Parenting Without Power Struggles.") I find (on my good days) that NOT engaging in an argument is the best we can do. State your case and move on - most kids are receptive. "Would you throw that paper away for me, Janie? Thanks. Who has the answer to #2?" or "I need you to stop talking now, Johnny, thanks. Pythagoras was awesome, wasn't he?" If they then engage, you just say, "Okay, but in general, we need to be quiet now." I had the power struggle with one boy a few weeks ago and it became a major case... I wish I had been more in control of myself at the time. Nonetheless, I'll stand by what I said: prealgebra is penance, or one of the circles of hell, perhaps. They don't remember a thing from day to day, I can't imagine what my final exam is going to look like. I can get most of them to slap numbers on a right triangle and come up with an answer, but they don't care if it's a leg or a hypotenuse. A 2-step word problem? Are you kidding? Sigh. They're coming in an hour.............

    1. Wow, can I relate to this last paragraph, starting with "They don't remember a thing ..." and very much nodding my head to "I can't imagine what my final exam is going to look like." I feel absolutely absurd, like I have nothing to offer them--that that's the one thing we all (sadly) agree on. It's really rough.

    2. I think there's a VERY important distinction between "I have nothing to offer them" and "I don't know how to convey what I have to offer them."

      Don't lose sight of it, brother! You pour your heart into it!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...