I Got One Right (I Think?)

I had a rough moment teaching yesterday. As I was showing my students a two minute video [only two minutes!] demonstrating some horn moves, I noticed a student texting.

“Put your phone away” I instructed. [This was not the first time we’d had this come up this year]

“It’s important” she replied angrily.

“No, it’s not,” I responded. “Put it away or you can discuss the matter with the office”

Grumbling, the girl put the phone away and class resumed.

At this point, I could have let the matter drop, and gone on with only a small annoyance in my day. However, I tend not to get a lot of back-talking from my band members, and it is a pet peeve of mine, so I called the student to my office for a private chat.

As soon as she steps into my office, she starts crying and proceeds to explain the situation from her end – a combination of family, home, and social setbacks that all came at once. She was trying to ask her mom to come get her and take her home. She felt alone. Overwhelmed.

At this point, I decided to ditch my usual “cell phones disrupting rehearsal” lecture. I told her that I had her back, even when nobody else does. I’m old, and don’t always understand what a sophomore is dealing with, but that doesn’t mean she is alone.

She left to go to her next class, and I went to go teach my next class, filing the incident away in my head to dissect while I’m trying to sleep.

I got home and had a notification from FB on our band’s page from the girl. She had shared this picture without comment:

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At this point, I’m still at a bit of a loss. This was a somewhat mundane, somewhat uncommon interaction that I wanted to follow up on. Other than sharing it with my wife (a math teacher at a different school), it probably would have faded away over time. For this girl, though, it apparently meant more – this was (I’m guessing) a pretty rough moment for her, and a few minutes of kindness made an impact on her.

Don’t get me wrong – I manage to screw up quite a bit. This one, though, I think I managed to get right.

Teach Like a Pirate Ch 1 Reflection

1) What am I passionate about within my content area?

Nothing gets me going quite like working on concert band music, particularly band music with a story or historical context. I’ve lost sleep more than once the night before digging into a new piece of music.

2) What am I passionate about in my profession outside my content area?

I enjoy digging into new technology. Working and learning about new technologies, I readily see the potential applications, and am (almost always) eager to try them out.

3) What am I passionate about outside of my profession?

I love superheroes. I watch the movies, cartoons (er… with my son, that is), and would spend more time reading the comics (if I weren’t so cheap). I’ve found it to be a great way to enjoy some time with my son and relax outside of school.

The Joy of Teaching Band

I just finished a difficult stretch of the school year. At the beginning of March, I took a group of middle school students to Solo & Ensemble festival in Riverton (3 hours each way). The following week was State Basketball in Casper (two days of trips, 4 hours each way). After that, we entered jazz festival season, with trips to Powell (6 hours each way) and Laramie (3.5 hours each way) in the final two weeks of March.

Yep, that’s 41 hours of travel in the month. Include the performances, clinics, and post-performance reviews, and it feels like we’ve been going nonstop all month. To top it off, I haven’t missed a day of school (beyond the days traveling on activity trips). April isn’t looking much quieter, with a concert at the college Monday, presentations at the Idaho Music Educators Conference (more driving!), visits from music faculty from the University of Wyoming, and our district music festival in Lander.

To put it mildly, I’m tired.

With everything going on, it can be easy to lose sight of the “why”. Why spend so much time away from my family? Why add the stress of so many trips and evaluations to my already stressful job?

Because my students are worth it.

My students are talented, intelligent, hard-working, passionate musicians. My students are eager to learn, and are some of the best student musicians in the state.

In short, my students rock, and I am lucky to be their teacher.

Bring it on, April. We’re ready for you.

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Problem Solved

According to a guest editorial in the Idaho Education News by Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke, education in Idaho is in great shape. Better, in fact, than neighboring states Oregon, Utah, California, and Arizona (the last two don’t actually border Idaho, but don’t worry. Geography wasn’t used to measure academic success here). Education is in such good shape in Idaho, that it doesn’t matter that Idaho ranks 50th of 51 in per pupil spending, 49th of 52 in starting teacher salary, with nearly 1300 teachers leaving teaching jobs in Idaho in 2012.

The report that Bedke uses to hail Idaho as a bastion of educational perfection is the Report Card on American Education, funded by the American Legislative Exchange Council. Their criteria? Six areas: state academic standards (ELA and math only), private school choice, charter schools, teacher quality, online learning opportunities, and home school regulation burdens. Idaho earned a B-, the third highest rating awarded (no state earned an A or an F).

Maybe it’s just me, but if the criteria for “school excellence” is finding as many ways as possible to get students (and money) away from public schools, then I am glad to teach in a state that “earned” one of the lower grades awarded in the study.

Fortunately for education in Idaho, there are voices of reason doing their best to illustrate the problems in Idaho’s educational system.  Former Idaho legislator and current professor Steve Smylie offers a wonderful rebuttal article in the same Idaho Education News, and is certainly worth reading by anyone interested in truly improving education in the great state of Idaho.

Why Don’t They Get It?

 

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu famously states, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, of every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

How can knowing the other side of the education reform argument help? The primary argument in education reform from the reform camp centers around motivation – specifically “what can be done to effectively motivate teachers to help students succeed”? (This assumes that student success is entirely within the teacher’s realm of control.  I believe the discussion is flawed at this very premise, but, in an effort to understand my opponent, I will continue with their argument) 

When developing policies to motivate educators, policy makers will often try approaches that would motivate themselves.  According to the Meyers-Briggs theory of personality types, politicians are described as “ENTP” – enthusiastic movers and shakers that often try to improve things they don’t see as being perfect. A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research recently found that, not only does money motivate politically-inclined personalities, but it was also found to increase performance, therefore being an effective motivator for politicians.

Teachers, meanwhile, are described by Meyers-Briggs as “ENFJ” – people who enjoy being challenged and also enjoy interacting with people.  The primary motivators for teachers? According to Education Week, it isn’t money, but rather autonomy, mastery, and purpose (precisely what is being removed from the classrooms, Education Week notes).  

How does this help? For teachers, it is important to understand that arguments about “inspiring young minds”, “preserving the joy of education”, or other commonly said phrases in the debate are unlikely to influence policy makers.  They aren’t “wired” the same way we are.  Retool the argument to concrete factors. An example might be: Does taking a test increase learning? (No, it’s just a measurement of the teaching that has occurred)  How often do you measure your pants before you put them on in the morning?

For politicians, it is vital to understand that teachers aren’t interested in pursuing money to the exclusion of all else. While more money is nice, sacrificing control of my classroom to obtain it is an unacceptable bargain. I will not take a pay increase at the expense of the enjoyment of my teaching. If you want teachers on your side, retool your assessment process to be more efficient and accurate, allowing teachers to spend less time testing and more time teaching. Trust that your teachers are highly educated and qualified individuals who are intrinsically motivated to do a good job (yes, there are bad apples in every bunch, including teaching and politicians. Move on). Pay teachers a respectable wage give them the time and tools needed to do a good job, and then get out of the way.  Finally, remember another famous Sun Tzu quote:

“A leader leads by example, not by force”

Personal Reasons

The State Superintendent of Idaho has a blog.

This shouldn’t be of any concern to me, as a teacher in WY, however one of his posts that I came across really irked me. In it, he essentially states that there are a few teachers choosing to leave Idaho for other states. Many teachers, according to Supt. Luna, are rather choosing to leave due to “personal reasons”, which could be anything, from “choosing to stay at home with the kids” to “finding a different profession”. He concludes that, while the turnover rate may seem high, it is likely due to the economy and the state should continue to pursue performance pay and technology integration in the classroom, as those are the ways to keep educators in Idaho’s classrooms.

For the record, I was raised in Idaho, attended schools in Meridian and Boise, and graduated from the University of Idaho (B.Mus and M.Mus). I have numerous family members who teach in Idaho, and almost all of my family lives in the state. I have never taught there, taking my first teaching job in Oregon (better pay), and moving to Wyoming after my master’s degree (double Idaho’s pay!!!).

I do have some advice for Supt. Luna on how to address the issue of teachers leaving the state, however.

1) Quit trying to spin this to hide the fact that teachers are leaving your state as quickly as they can. Start looking at some independent sources, such as NPR, who says that teachers and professors are in the top 5 groups leaving Idaho. Or look at Washington State’s Spokesman Review, whose article title of “Idaho Teachers Leaving in Droves” probably says all that is needed.

2) Quit trying to use this exodus as a justification to push more bad ideas, such as merit pay, which has been shown to be a poor method for motivating employees. Don’t take my word for it, though. A simple Google search brings up an article reference from that fly-by-night diploma mill known as Harvard University. Too bad there aren’t other articles saying pretty much the same thing.

3) Spend some time in a classroom. Now, by “spend some time”, I don’t mean a highly sterilized visit to a select few classrooms. I mean teach. Pick a subject, and try teaching for a day. A week. A month. See what happens when the new wears off and all that you’re left with is your personality, teaching experience, and subject knowledge. If you lack teaching experience, it can be very, very hard to engage students. Anyone can sound intelligent and engaging for 10 minutes to a select group of people. All the technology in the world can’t hide incompetence and inexperience for long.

4) Finally, if you want people to stay in your state to teach, start treating them as if they are highly valuable and irreplaceable resources. In your statements to local new station KTVB, you state that, while many teachers have left, the rate of issuing new certificates has risen, so the number of certified staff in schools has remained mostly constant (certified staff aren’t always the same as teachers, but I’ll let that one go). Even if the number of teacher bodies in the classroom has remained constant (which I doubt), there is a big difference between a class run by a first year teacher and a 5-, 10-, or 15-year veteran. I look back on my first year (a success by many measures) and wish I could go back and teach those kids again. I had great groups, but it took me time (years of experience) to learn how to get the most out of students. I am finishing my 9th year teaching and am still figuring new things out. Don’t try and make it sound like all is fine. The only reason parents aren’t outside the Capitol building with torches and pitchforks is because it takes years for the effects of your policies to truly be felt, at which point I expect you’ll be well outside of the state’s borders.

Supt. Luna – things are not irreversible. You still have some time left in your final term in office. Begin enacting policies that show teachers that they are valued in Idaho by your office. Quit trying to spin the failures of your policies as “business as usual”. Pay your teachers a living wage so that they may enjoy living in the wonderful satay of Idaho. Good luck, Supt. Luna. You’ve dug yourself quite a hole, but you can still stop digging and reverse course.

No School Left Behind

As I continue to read about the brewing conflict between public- and charter-school interests, I have to step back in wonder at the logic behind the privatization movement in public education.

In my classroom, if a student is failing, there are certain steps I am required by my school district to take to help the student figure out how to be successful in my classroom and in life.  Imagine if, instead of using time, energy, and resources to help this student succeed, I employed the logic of our privatization champions.

“I’m sorry, but because you are failing, I will need to take your textbook, desk, chair, and pencil away, as you are clearly not using them as wisely as someone else might” (removing money and resources from “failing schools”)

“I’m sorry, but because you are failing, I will be asking the state to remove you from your home, as your parents are clearly not doing a good job giving you guidance and direction” (firing administration)

“I’m sorry, but because you are failing my class, I will be removing you from my class. You are welcome to try and get into a different class, but this one clearly isn’t for you” (firing teachers, closing schools)

To be fair, I have not spent a great deal of time in or around the “dropout factories” that have been widely credited with the downfall of American education, nor have I spent a great deal of time around the “lazy, tenured teachers” who “only care about money”.  I’m sure both these exist, and should be addressed.  

It seems to me, however, that our time and energy would be better spent helping change the schools that are struggling.  Provide money to hire additional teachers, purchase new materials, and renovate the facilities.  Work with teachers, parents, and community members to help change the culture of struggling schools.  We demand that our teachers work tirelessly to help failing students achieve. Why do we allow our politicians to do less?

Assembly Line Teaching

After following Diane Ravitch’s blog and reading her thoughts on the CCSS as well as the battles over charter schools and business-style education reform, I began to wonder, “what is teaching?” There has been a great deal of debate on the matter – primarily centered around defining “good” teaching and punishing “bad” teaching. The thought process has primarily been, “if we can define ‘good’ teaching, distill its components to a checklist, then we can ensure that every student receives ‘good’ teaching on a daily basis.”

After I completed student teaching, I landed a job as a clean room technician at a tech company while waiting for teaching jobs to open up. My job was fairly simple: the parts for the engines our company built would come in, I would clean them, a QA technician would test to make sure the parts were clean enough, I would then seal the approved parts in a plastic bag and send them off for assembly. Parts that failed the inspection process would be re-cleaned until they finally passed.

In many ways, my clean room job fits perfectly with the narrative around “good” teaching. The kids come in, I fill their heads with the prescribed knowledge. The students then take a test (QA), before being sealed in a bag and sent to their next class for further assembly. If I am doing my work correctly, and adhering to the “good teacher checklist”, my students will pass inspection, and I should deserve a raise, or a car, continued employment, or whatever the current carrot-on-a-stick is.

The problem is, however, that teaching is not an assembly line process (as any “good” teacher knows!). I knew that the parts coming in to my clean room station were ready to go, every time. The parts had eaten a good breakfast, gotten a good nights sleep, and we’re interested in moving on to become part of an engine. The parts hadn’t dealt with abuse, neglect, poverty, relationship troubles, money troubles, drugs or violence.

Unfortunately, the students that enter our schools everyday have dealt with those things, and need much more than just an assembly-line approach to education. Our students have goals and dreams beyond being a part of a corporate engine. Yes, it is important to know what students will need to be expected to do after school, and, yes, we should prepare them for multiple career opportunities with a solid foundation of skills in a variety or disciplines. We cannot, however, remove the individualization of each student from the educational process. We cannot continue to narrow the curriculum to the point where students are no longer able to choose their own paths. We must offer a diverse approach to education to match our diverse student population.

RS Band Man

My name is Brian Redmond, and I’m a band teacher in Rock Springs, Wyoming. I am currently completing my ninth year of teaching music, and am preparing to undertake the national board certification process. After following a few bloggers for a while now, I decided to begin sharing my own thoughts with the great wide world.

This blog will be dedicated largely to music education and other general education topics (Common Core, STEM to STEAM, etc.).