Nice tech, if you can get it

I worked in tech for more than a decade. Needless to say, if I had the time to automate every aspect of my life, I would. Smart lights? Check. Refrigerators that order milk for me when I get low? Check. An entire house that changes its ambience when I say the magic word? Check. Honestly, I have plenty to do — if there’s a tool that can do some of it for me, I’m in.

And then there’s education. Honestly there’s so much tech in education, it could make someone’s head spin right off. In my own classroom, I use multiple tools to deliver, track, and accept assignments alone. Then there are the gamifying apps, collaboration apps, apps to make writers pretend to know how to draw. There are the apps to check your grammar and word count (ideal for students who never bothered to see that these are built into Google Docs), apps to keep you scheduled, apps to find out if you plagiarized. You name it, education has an app for that.

What there isn’t is consistency, which becomes a problem for students and teachers alike. See, I want to try all of these tools. On the occasion that I have a chance to use a tool,  I need it to work the whole time and the first time, so I give myself a one-strike policy: if I can’t make it work as planned ASAP, then I dump it. Ain’t no one got time for that.

So, back to my school — the autonomy is great. The lack of tech tools, however,  is sort of a nightmare. And we’re not alone. In most schools, there are no offcially endorsed tech tools — teachers can pick what works for them. Autonomy for all (is that a thing?)! But no one has time to see which tech they might want to use, offer guidance or suggestions to each other or their coworkers. So we’re back to square one. The students, BTW, are just as confused.

I’m writing all of this because tonight, Canvas, decided to stop talking to PowerSchool. I’ve received countless emails from students about their grades — emails from student who were hoping their updated would chance their grades because, well, holidays are coming and no one wants to feel the wrath of an angry parent who happened to see that slacker son and/or daughter didn’t do the work. I, however, can’t fix this right now. I always want to help my students but sometimes I can’t.

I’m thrilled that my students are finally taking responsibility for their grades. It’s part of why I still dedicate time to reminding students to check their grades daily and build it into a Powerpoint that I frequently want to stop creating but the students are so used to seeing that they can’t start class without it. These are elements I’ve been trying to get them to adopt and understand since day 1. I’m just bummed that they seemed to have picked a bum night for it.

Should teachers be jacks of all trades?

My English 8 students are working on a writing unit right now. Okay, I’m working on a writing unit and honestly my outlook is far more relaxed and better because it’s writing rather than reading.

I’m going into teaching for the writing — I’m a writer, I love writing, and I want other people to understand that writing is essential, easy, and nothing to be feared. Reading? Yeah, we all need to do it but there are people better than me out there to teach the students the ins and outs of reading and build excitement around it.

Which brings me to this: our first education reform should be to encourage specialization. I’m in a tiny school — one teacher per subject per grade (and then we need to teach something else, too, to fill in the gaps) — but I’d gladly teach 6th, 7th, and 8th grade writing if someone else handled the reading. We could collaborate and SHOULD collaborate on what writing/reading we’d each teach, but students and teachers would probably all be happier and more confident if we approached teaching this way. I’d likely need to grade more, but that’s okay. That’s how I learn what needs to be taught and how to teach it.

I’ve talked to other teachers, particularly science, who would agree. Most science teachers I know have a true love for some aspect of their curriculum, but not all of it. They had to pick up the rest of the info along the way. Letting a bio teacher specialize in genetics while another teacher specializes in anatomy (no, I don’t know exactly what’s in the core) would make everyone, including the student, more engaged because we’d all be sharing the thing that brought us to teaching. English teachers, too, have a preference. Most of the ones I went to school with dreaded the writing units. They were readers, lovers of literature. Why shouldn’t they be encouraged to stay that way?

Our current system encourages teachers to be jacks of all trades, but that often puts us in the category of master of none. If we fix the system, I’m pretty sure everyone would fare better.

 

Burnout and education

I’m too busy for burnout right now. That doesn’t mean I’m not there — it just means I don’t really have the time to process it yet.

I catch glimpses of a normal life — the one I used to have — and I know I’ll have it again … eventually. With every job I’ve ever held, it’s taken between 6-12 months for me to snap and take control because it’s my life, dammit.

Here’s the deal: the teaching industry itself does require a lot of dedication, work, and devotion, but the way it’s been set up is bordering on abusive. It seems like it harkens back to the early days of women entering the teaching industry, when schoolmarms were to be married to their jobs, not to an actual spouse. As the industry became female dominated, however, administration and regulation were still run by males. Somehow it became okay to continue to make the workers jump through absurd hoops in order to do their jobs, hoops that frequently had little relationship to the end goal — ensuring children were ready for the real world.

Regardless of sex or gender today, the teaching profession holds onto some of these archaic notions that teachers should hold a 24/7 devotion to their jobs. You’re always  on, regardless of your contract hours. In what other profession are you expected to give up your lunch in order to help someone? Where else are you expected to stay late because of someone else’s needs? Which other profession expects you to show up on the first day fully planned and ready to go, knowing full well that you couldn’t possibly create those plans in a few short professional development days, especially when most districts expect you to spend those days listening to an overpaid, inspirational speaker who has repackaged and rebranded some strategy that you’re already doing anyway?

I don’t just blame the administrators and regulators, however. I blame the teachers, too. Too many take the martyr role — “I have to give everything of myself” — which simply perpetuates the abuse. Too many also enter the profession never knowing how business operates. They teach; that’s what they know. They’re performing the most important job in our society. They should feel honored that we’re allowing them to hold this position. Yes, we’ll make you  get more education, show us a paper certificate, spend time on stuff that may or may not be valuable in your own classroom in order to earn $30 more on each paycheck. Yes, we’ll give you a partial pension so you can collect a portion of your $40k/year after you retire, but you’ll have put in 60+ countable hours each week during the school year — as well as plenty of time during your prescribed vacations — in order to get it, so you could really see it as deferred compensation. Yes, we’ll relentlessly poke and prod you during your day-to-day, ask you to manage a team of 150+, ensure you’re again jumping through frequently arbitrary hoops that simply may not make a bit of difference in how your students learn. Yes, you can have a sick day but you’ll need to ensure you’ve already done the work so that your class is occupied and learning. Yes, we’ll encourage you to try something new, but we’ll also place so many must-dos on you that rocking the boat simply can’t happen. While we’re at it, we’ll hold you accountable for students who opt not to engage. We’ll ask you to change your plans to ensure your team of students each receives a different education because we’re all different. We’ll expect you to be on your best behavior when you’re off the clock, although you’re never really off. We’ll check up on you every few years and threaten to take away your license if we find out you did something dumb. We may even put you on some sort of probation for a single screw up. And we’ll continue to expect you to do more and more with fewer and fewer resources.

Other industries are dedicated to finding time for employees to innovate and ensuring that the always-on mentality created by a connected society goes away. Private business, especially tech, VALUES workers’ time to think, relax, create. Education isn’t there yet, and based on what I’ve seen in terms of budgets and funding and the people we keep voting into our legislative branches, we’re nowhere close.

To me this says one thing: teachers need to push back more. Teachers and unions need to peel back the curtain and show legislators and the public exactly what it takes to teach a child — and multiply that by 100+. Spend a day in a classroom to find out what teachers are really up against. Until we do this, nothing will change. People simply don’t understand what our society is putting teachers through and how educators with the greatest plans ever are hobbled to the point of ineffectiveness.

I was warned by instructors at the college where I’m getting my teaching license to expect nights with little sleep — hell, even a whole year of sleep that most people would call a “nap” instead. Interns and student teachers sit through lessons in avoiding burnout. It’s no secret that this is a huge problem in the profession. But still, no one is doing anything about it.

The industry needs to change.

I see teachers who won’t make it past their first year. I see teacher who will stick it out and drop from the profession by year three.  I have friends who were amazingly dedicated teachers and who dropped out because working for a corporation was easier and paid more. I know they’re sad to have left the profession, but they’re happy to reclaim themselves.

It’s early days for me, I admit. Sometime between January and March, I will snap and take control of my life again — I know this because that’s just how I am. Still, I’ll be in a profession that may not see much value in me. Yes, I am working with unbelievably supportive administrators, the kind that I know teachers in two other districts in the area pine for (in fact, one of those other-district teachers has already indicated to me that he’d be willing to take a cut in pay simply because of the conditions at the school where I’m interning — yes, teacher crave that type of support). But the one thing those great admins can’t do is change the fact that education as a profession and education as a system MUST have an overhaul. Without this, we’ll continue to lose the best teachers and force the really great ones who do stay to never live up their profession. Pay more? Yes. But also look at the conditions because no increase in pay can fix the fact that you’re in a system where you’re being set up to never truly excel.

I’m making this my mission: to fix education for teachers and the students. And trust me, it will happen. Listen up, because I’ll be the squeakiest wheel you’ve ever heard … once I get through this year.