Education

A Year Later

I have been retired for just over a year now, and I have been reflecting on my career. I am definitely enjoying retirement. I miss the children – their eager faces, their curiosity and energy. But there are things that I do not miss. At all.

I do not miss the endless after-school meetings – committee meetings, IPP meetings, curriculum meetings, staff meetings…If a week went by with only two or three after-school meetings scheduled, I felt lucky.

I do not miss the constant changes that were mandated by the DOE and school board. These changes always involved more paperwork, more in-servicing, learning new programs and technology. Now, don’t get me wrong. I feel a teacher should be constantly open to change and evaluating how s/he teaches. However, when several changes are mandated at once, a teacher has little time for reflection. S/he is paddling as hard as possible just to keep from being swept away.

I do not miss the emphasis on outcomes as they seemed to become more important than the children. Yes, teachers need guidelines for curriculum. But when achieving those outcomes means more than the overall well-being of the students, they no longer make sense.

I do not miss assessment. And again, yes, I feel a teacher should be constantly checking students’ progress. But when assessment (i.e. paperwork) takes time away from teaching and learning, there is something not right. There were many days that I felt I was assessing what the children knew rather than leading them to new challenges. To my way of thinking, that is counterproductive.

And I do not miss feeling that I was not appreciated for the work I did. I put in long hours – evenings, holidays and weekends as well as school nights – no order to deliver meaningful instruction and to keep up with reporting and marking. And particularly in the last few years that I taught, I felt my efforts were not recognized not did I feel that they were ever enough. Teachers’ opinions are not welcomed by the powers that be nor are their suggestions and concerns listened to.

I guess I sound rather bitter. And a suppose that I am. I used to love to teaching, when I was given some autonomy and respect. I feel sorry for young, new teachers going into the schools. I don’t know how that will cope with the reality of teaching nowadays.

Assessment

I had a conversation the other day with a young woman I’ve known for years. She’s bright, hard-working, has a marvelous sense of humour, and is an excellent parent.

Her son is in middle school and she is struggling with his education. Bear in mind, her son is a fairly typical thirteen year old boy. He loves to tinker with engines. He likes to be busy. He’s an average student; it takes him a little while to process information, but once he’s got it, he’s got it.

The mom is getting pretty frustrated, particularly with math. The boy comes home frequently complaining that he didn’t get the math lesson that day. The teacher just went too fast.

In an effort to support his learning, she has gone to the teacher, asking for help. She wants to know how the math is being taught at school, so when she sits down with her son while he’s doing homework, she doesn’t confuse him more. Very responsible.

The extra help for her was a nightmare. There were several children from various grade levels getting help after school, so the teacher was scurrying from one to another. There was an after-school activity going on next door that the teacher was also supervising. The mom had trouble concentrating with all these distractions. She figured after school math help was not going to benefit her boy. She wasn’t blaming the teachers. She knows that there are so many responsibilities on their shoulders, they have no choice but to multi-task.

So the only apparent solution is for her to take on the task of teaching her son the concepts he is missing in class. It is a big commitment, time-wise. She has to learn the work herself and then spend time showing it to her son. Not easy for a working mom to do. And she rightly questions why she should have to take on this role of teacher.

She wasn’t understanding why the teacher was going over the material so quickly. When I told her the number of outcomes the teacher was required to cover in the year, her eyes bugged out.

And then we talked about the tests. She was totally frustrated with the marking system. She had no idea what a 4 or a 3 stood for. And how did they relate to the A, B and C on the report card? I tried to explain rubrics and how they were used to arrive at the report card letter grades. Finally she said, “I just want to know if he is passing or failing. When he gets a 4 and a 3 and a 2 on a test, what does that mean??”

And the report card comments. She doesn’t really understand all the outcomes and frankly doesn’t have the time and patience to wade through the pages of rhetoric to figure it out.

“Why can’t the report card just say if he is doing well, and what things he doesn’t get in a way I can understand?” Why indeed?

She is aware of the hours of teacher time that are involved in writing these report cards and she shakes her head. She sees it as a terrible waste of the teachers’ time.

She definitely isn’t alone. I have had many discussions with parents, trying to explain the marking systems and outcomes. And I have to ask, if the reports are not serving the parents, who are they serving? What is the point?

 

 

 

 

Math

Ramona Jennex recently announced that there will be changes to the grade 10 math program in NS. Because nearly 50% of grade twelve students failed the provincial math exam, the dept. decided something was wrong with the way high school math was taught. (Good call, eh?)

It has been decided that grade ten math will not longer be a semestered course. I say this is a good move. Trying to cover a year’s worth of math outcomes in four and a half months is pushing the limits of even the brightest students. And sometimes students’ schedules shake out so that they go from the winter of their grade ten year till the spring of their grade eleven year without any math classes. That’s a long time to remember skills and formulas that aren’t being practiced. In fact, I would like to see all core subjects as non-semestered.

It was also announced that math instruction at the grade ten level would be doubled. This would allow students twice as much time to learn and practice concepts. Again a good idea, at least on the surface. My worry is that, if students are getting double the math time, what are they missing out on? There are only five instructional hours in a school day. Something has to give. Will students have to pass up on electives in order to take math? How will they get all the credits they need to graduate?

A new math program is going to be implemented. It was successful elsewhere, so the dept. has jumped on the bandwagon and will be requiring math teachers to teach in this “new” way.

I have a problem with this. First of all, it is very expensive to bring in a new program. Aside from the books and other teaching materials, there is the expense of in-servicing all the teachers. The teachers are pulled from their classes and substitutes take over. If this occurs frequently, it is difficult to maintain a consistent flow of instruction.

And this tendency to throw out the baby with the bathwater makes no sense. Yes, it is good to look at new ideas and methods. But there are so many things that are right with what is being implemented now. There is no one correct way to teach; students learn in vastly different ways and teachers instruct in different ways. One size does not fit all. Teachers need to be given the autonomy to decide what methods work best for their students, rather than having yet another program thrust upon them.

One thing that does not seem to be addressed is the provincial exam itself. Does it really represent what students need to know in order to graduate from grade twelve? Is it a fair and reasonable test? Perhaps that also needs to be looked into.

On the whole, I was pleased with Ms. Jennex’s announcement. It will be interesting to see how these proposed changes will help the students learn and how they will alter the exam scores.

 

Who is Served?

With the policies currently in place, I believe public schools in Canada are meeting the needs of none of our students.

Teachers are assigned classes that contain students of various academic abilities and behaviours. A grade three teacher, for example, may have a student with autism, another with ADHD, and a third with auditory processing difficulties. She could also have a child or two with anger management problems, and a child with Oppositional Defiance Disorder. Throw in a student who is very bright, academically advanced and easily bored. On top of that. she has 21 other students. This is a fairly typical classroom scenario. Think I am exaggerating? Not at all.

If this teacher has an educational assistant to help her manage this hodge-podge of youngsters, she is fortunate indeed. Children with academic difficulties, ironically, do not qualify for EA assistance. Only the children who cannot function at all without consist adult supervision qualify. And as these special needs students get shuffled up through the grades, they receive less and less assistance, as if they become cured of their disabilities.

The teacher is like a juggler, trying to keep the classroom running, trying to meet the needs of all her students, trying to push and pull them to meet the hundreds of outcomes they are supposed to master in one school year. If she doesn’t achieve this gargantuan task, she may well get criticism and remediation from her board, rather than being given a pat on the back and some much-needed help.

She is also battling the policies that undermine a culture of striving for high achievement. Students are rewarded for medicore performance. They know they will be placed in the next grade regardless of their efforts. They have an attitude of entitlement that makes teachers’ desire to lift them to new heights of understanding very difficult.

The students of advanced abilities realize at a very young age that they can coast along, putting little effort into their schoolwork and they will still get top marks. Where’s the incentive to do more?

Students who have learning challenges are given accommodations or Individual Program Plans (IPPs). These are supposed to allow them to work at their own pace in order to cover as many outcomes as they can handle. Because the teacher often does not have an assistant to help implement these special plans, she is spread very thin to work with each student on a one-to-one basis. Think about it. In an hour math class, with a class of 25 students, the teacher has less than 3 minutes per child! And when you factor in the minutes wasted because she has to deal with disruptions from obstreperous students, it’s a wonder that she is able to get anything accomplished at all.

Students who are working at grade level jounce along, managing to meet most of the outcomes. But are they getting the instruction and attention they need and deserve? Teachers do their best – they are a caring and dedicated group – but they are not magicians.

I am not against integration. I have seen its benefits for both the special needs students and the other students in the class. However, policies make it an unmanageable task. When integration was first put in place in N.S. schools, (this is would be back around 1990) every child with a diagnosed disability qualified for EA assistance. Teachers were provided with time to work out programs and plan with the EAs. They were given resources and materials to meet the special needs within their classes.

That lasted for one year. And since then, budgets for educational assistants and special needs programs have been whittled down (along with all other education expenses).

If the needs of ALL students are to be met, I think several things have to change. First of all, education needs to become a priority with our governments. I think it is terribly short-sighted for us to short-change our children’s educations. Don’t we want our future world leaders and professionals to have the best foundation in learning we can possibly give them? Money for education is money well spent.

Secondly, teachers need more support for the many students they are dealing with who have learning and social difficulties. EAs should be available for every class where children in crisis are schooled.

As well, class sizes need to be realistic. If teachers have to cope with IPPs and accommodations and multiple abilities within their classrooms, they need to be teaching fewer students. I have often said, “Give me a class of 15 students, and I will be able to perform miracles.” Twenty-five or thirty youngster in one class, when there are so many difficulties and learning challenges, is an impossible task.

I would love to see education policies that make student learning a priority and achievable in public schools. Wouldn’t you?

 

 

 

 

Raising the Bar in Education

What happens when rewards are given for unwanted behaviours?

Well, pretend you are house training a puppy. Let’s say that every time the puppy made a puddle on the living room rug, you said, “Oh, almost, Rover. Good dog for trying to get to the door. Have a biscuit.” What would your expectations be for successful house breaking?

However, if you waited till the puppy made it outside to do his business and then gave him lots of “good boys” and pats and biscuits, he would soon get the idea that it was a grand idea to pee on the grass.

I feel the education system is using the first approach with students. The children get rewards for mediocre work or incomplete tasks, and then departments of education and school boards wonder why standardized test scores are not stellar.

The first part of the problem is that students see few consequences for not putting an effort into their educations. Students in the lower elementary grades have already figured out that the teachers can’t fail them. Ask any seven year old if he will grade this year and you will get an affirmative answer and a questioning look as he says, “I always grade.”

I am not proposing that the education system revert to how things were 30 years ago and fail students. However, there needs to be a better way of assessing and promoting students so they understand that until they successfully complete one level of learning, they do not proceed to the next. Shuffling them from grade to grade regardless of the quality and comprehension of their work confuses the students and their parents. This method of promoting students would also save our gifted students from shutting down from boredom as material is reviewed and reviewed so that all students “get it”.

And yes, I know students are given report cards that detail the outcomes they have completed – I spent many, many hours writing up the outcomes for which each child had “consistently demonstrated understanding”. But the bottom line is that most parents don’t really get that, and at the end of the year when they see the “promoted to…” on the child’s report, they feel he or she did just fine.

Despite teachers’ desire to teach every child at his or her level, as students get hustled forward from grade to grade, those who are struggling find the gap between what they can do and what the rest of the class is doing widens every year. This is demoralizing and does not boost the struggling children’s self-esteem.

There are many students who are capable of successfully completing the outcomes, but realize they will grade anyway, and so see no point in engaging their gray matter any more strenuously than necessary. Again, you will find this with students as young as 7 or 8 years old.

So, promotion to the next grade regardless of capability or effort on the student’s part needs to be re-evaluated. Maybe it’s time to trash the whole grade concept and expect students to work their way through levels of learning. (The key word in that sentence is ‘work’.)

Several years ago, middle schools and high schools rewarded hard working students with Honours and Honours with Distinction. The criteria for achieving these awards was fairly challenging, requiring very good marks in most subject areas, and excellent marks in core subjects, such as English Language Arts and Math. When students earned these awards, they were proud of their efforts. Many struggling students gave their all so they could achieve these awards.

Then, the Department of Education deemed the Honours awards to be unfair to struggling students. Instead of a recognition for academic excellence, it was decided that the bar should be lowered, making the Honours awards more accessible to all students. The Most Improved Student awards could be scrapped.

I remember the first year this was put in place. I had one student in my grade six homeroom class who was a bright lad, but tended to have many priorities above his schoolwork. Despite being very capable, he wasn’t interested in putting a great effort into his work and made lackluster scores on assignments and tests. He made a bare pass in math. He did well in Phys. Ed. class, though.

Imagine the surprise when he was called up onto the stage to receive his Honours certificate. I heard him mutter to himself, “How is that possible?” His classmates all had the same look of disbelief on their faces. At that point, every student in the class who had made Honours looked at his or her certificate differently. It wasn’t a reward anymore. It didn’t mean much of anything.

And now, when two-thirds of the school population troops onto the stage for their Honours awards, it means nothing. It is no longer a recognition of hard work and scholarly integrity.

The students who are academically inclined, and who in the past would have worked hard for the prestige of an Honours certificate, now realize that they will receive it with ease. Why make the effort when the prize is a sure thing? They tend to do enough, not do their best. Like the puppy in the beginning paragraphs, they get their biscuit without a great deal of effort, and now the biscuit is stale.

This type of praise without earning does not nurture students’ self-esteem. It makes them confused with the education system’s expectations. Awards need to be worked for. Otherwise they are nothing but an empty token.

If we want students to learn, to take responsibility for their learning, and to be proud of their successes, we must not reward mediocrity. We need to let students reach that bar and then be justifiably pleased with themselves for doing so.

 

Zero

Let’s explore the current trend among school boards to have a “no zero” policy for assignments. This means that if a students neglects to pass in an assignment when it is due, or even before the end of term, the teacher is not permitted to give a grade of zero for that assignment.

The reasons that school boards and departments of education give for having this policy are very high minded and generous. The idea is that every student, regardless of socio-economic lifestyle, learning disability or challenges will have ample opportunity to complete assigned work and not be penalized because of time restraints. The work alone will be assessed; how long it takes to complete it will not.

Looking at this from a teacher’s point of view, this is a real can of worms. On the one hand, teachers tend to be very caring professionals. They want their students to succeed. Most teachers will give students whatever help and encouragement needed to achieve the necessary outcomes. So having the flexibility to provide students with open-ended due dates for assignments may be useful.

But, by mandating that teachers may not impose due dates on their students causes no end of difficulties. For starters, when an assignment is presented to the class and a due date is given, students immediately understand that it is a mere suggestion. Like not having to stop for the red light. They realize they can do it whenever they get around to it. This undermines the teacher’s credibility right off the bat.

Then the teacher must continue to monitor students’ progress with the assignment, helping any students who are struggling, not just until the day the assignment is due, but beyond. According to the policy, it is the teacher’s responsibility to give each and every student the support needed to successfully complete the assignment. Even after the class has moved on to a new unit, the teacher is juggling the record keeping and the extra support for those few stragglers while at the same time, fostering understanding and completion for a new assigned task. It is like trying to juggle more and more balls, without dropping any of them.

Finally, end of term looms. Exams must be evaluated. Marks must be generated. The teacher has a completely non-compromising due date to get those assessments evaluated and in to the office. The teacher must also be very sure s/he is able to justify each and every mark; there must be sufficient data to back up the scores.

The night before those important marks have to be completed, what are teachers doing? Marking assignments that students have only now passed in. Desperately trying to do a fair and comprehensive job at 2 am because, unlike the students, the teacher is accountable and does have a due date. Who’s working the hardest for the student to succeed? The teacher.

And what about the students? A few self-motivated students will pass the assignment in when it is due, being careful not to let their classmates know they have done this as it becomes an excuse for ridicule. Others will pass it in within a few days of the due date, knowing that if they don’t, work will start to pile up, or they know their parents will be checking up on them. Most students will procrastinate either because they are not motivated, because they don’t have the skills to organize their time, or because they feel the assignment isn’t important anyway. These are dangers of the “no zero” policy that greatly hinder student learning. It’s hard for the teacher to make the assignment relevant and a necessary part of the learning experience, when students see it as optional.

Students, especially those students who have learning difficulties – the ADD, ADHD, ODD, OCD kids – need the structure of knowing what is expected and when it is expected. If educators become namby-pampy about the target they want students to hit, these special students in particular will not find the mark. And ironically, it is because of these students that boards claim they need the “no zero” policy.

What are any of the students learning about time management? About organizational skills? About having a work ethic? About responsibility for their own learning? Precious little. And when they get out into the real world, does that all kick in because they have been nurtured and coddled and rewarded for mediocre work? Not a chance.

Employers are becoming discouraged by the unrealistically high expectations and the lack of motivation and skills among young people. Young employees expect to get high rewards for minimal effort. The classroom may have worked that way but the workplace does not.

Universities have had to implement remedial courses for time management and organization.

People between the ages of twenty and thirty are seeking professional counseling more now than ever before because of dissatisfaction with their lives. Things suddenly got very difficult for them when they left school and they have no coping strategies. No skills to draw upon. Life is no longer a bowl of cherries.

Students need to learn to complete work within a reasonable time frame. They need to learn organizational skills. They need to realize that there are consequences when little effort is expended on a task. They need to realize that they are responsible for their success, not the teachers.

Schools that are no longer teaching these things are failing their students, despite the “no zero” policy. Failing them for life.

So what would be an alternative to “no zero”?

Students, even young children, should be part of the assessment process. A class discussion about each assignment, covering what is to be done and how the assignment will be evaluated, including due dates and consequences for late work, would have the teacher and students on the same page. Accommodations for special needs students would be broached at this time. This discussion would ensure that the purpose of the assignment (what students will learn by doing it) and how it will be reflected on their course mark (scores) were clearly understood by teacher and students. The rubric or expectations would then be posted, so students could review the criteria as they worked on the assignment. Wouldn’t that help teach responsibility and accountability and be far more meaningful and manageable?

 

 

 

Thanks

I have found it interesting who has valued my services as a teacher over the past 33 years.

It is gratifying to know that many of my students – and I hazard to say most of my students – appreciated my efforts. I have received notes, visits, hugs and handshakes from lots of young people that sat in my classroom at one time or another.

A good number of parents also have expressed thanks for my efforts.I was once introduced by a mother of two as the “best, kick-ass grade 6 teacher”.

When I retired last spring, I was invited to a banquet by the Teachers’ Union and received a plaque to comemorate my career.

This fall, I was invited to a lovely breakfast by the Retired Teachers’ Organization.The invitation arrived by personal phone call, urging me to attend.

Have you noted an obvious missing party here? My employer. After thirty-three years of dedicated service to the school board, I received no recognition at all. In reply to my letter of resignation, I got a form letter. There was no gift, no personal letter, no handshake. It’s as if I was just a worn out cog in the works of the school system, easily replaced with a newer model.

Good thing I put in the many extra hours and the tremendous effort for the sake of the children. If it had all been for the administration’s nod of approval, it would have gone for naught.

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