Saturday, January 21, 2017

There is no quick-fix for public education

I'm going to come right out and say it.. yes, I'm a teacher.. I'm sure the name of the blog gave it away only subtly. But I need you to know, I'm not writing this to bash our new President's pick for Sec. of Ed. You can find, and have probably already read plenty of stories, blogs, and posts about her.

Instead, I'd like to take the time to agree that our current system of education is not great. It's not the best for all students across this great country of ours. I know that there are plenty of people that struggle every day sending their kids to the local public school. It might be the teachers, the administrators, other kids, home life, educational programs, or a multitude of other possibilities. My wife and I have struggled at times sending our kids to the local public school for our own reasons. We've wished for other alternatives, and then we've gone out to find them.

But, we've had the ability to do that. We've been able to move, make long drives, and take financial chances to find the right educational environment for our kids. It's not been easy. In fact there have been countless arguments, and nights where we've cried ourselves to sleep wondering why it has to be so hard. And I'll admit that we have it better than most, but we are not even middle class. Lower middle? ..probably. It's still been a struggle.

I bring this up, because I agree that creating educational options for kids is very important. But vouchers isn't the route to take. Good to great schools are limited in space regardless on whether you have a voucher or not. Parents wanting to use a voucher will be limited in ability to get their students to out-of-district schools. And honestly, how will the government oversee the fairness of this voucher program nationwide?

I just know that it's another "All-In" option with the hope of a quick fix. But, there isn't a quick fix option for the issues surrounding public education. The problem isn't common core or standardized testing. It isn't school funding, teacher unions, or unqualified teachers. In fact, all of these educational hot topics distract from what is really damaging public education. And that's fear.

People are afraid. Parents, students, teachers, administrators, anyone that is in contact with education in any way is afraid. The best schools are the ones that have been able to squash the fear. The kids feel safe being there. The parents feel safe knowing the kids are getting fair learning opportunities. The teachers feel safe knowing that they are respected for the professionals that they are. And the Admins feel safe, knowing that they get to work in a place of trust within the community. At these schools, learning is about the growth of each student intellectually and civically through investigative projects and group work that is led of the natural inquisitive qualities of kids. And it's all possible because they aren't afraid to take educational chances.

These schools are rare, and are commonly found in communities that are generally wealthy. It's in these communities that people don't have to worry about income, health care, or the everyday safety of their children just walking to school. They are living a life we should call middle class. A life that the service industry in our country doesn't provide even at 60 hours a week.

What is wrong with our public education system has more to do with the national social injustice against those that live in our least financially stable communities than it does with Common Core or unions. We need a Sec. of Ed. that is willing to speak loudly to the need of more governmental support for the families that can barely take care of themselves, or are struggling to simply get by while the adults in the house work multiple jobs.

Now, before you step away from this post thinking I'm about to go on some liberal tirad, please understand that I've voted along both party lines in my life. I have relied on state aid with a college degree, and family to support. I've taught in a school where kids lived each day not knowing what they would eat or where they would sleep. I grew up in suburban comfort with a CFO papa and stay at home mom. I've worked in sales and management on an hourly wage busting my butt to make it ahead. I've walked away from jobs and into stints in newspaper delivery and waiting tables all with a college degree. I see the drive and hustle of the adult students in my college night class that I teach. I've seen all sides of struggle, and the hard work it takes to raise a family as best you can.

And what I've learned is that if we stripped away the struggle and fear of having to simply survive, our schools would be amazing places of safety and inquisitive discovery that allow all kids the chance to learn. If
we treated the population of our GREAT country with kindness and understanding, then our schools will be more open for all types of learning potential. But, if we continue to keep populations of our country living in suffering poverty, or in a drowning middle class then all types of education suffers, because the fear and blame will continue to spread. WE will continue to look for quick fixes that have no impact on the overall improvement in making all schools better. Our problem is a societal problem that our elected governing officials need to want to help fix. When we work together to remove some of the burden throughout our country, then education will improve. Vouchers aren't the answer. Destroying common core isn't the answer. Taking care of the people of the country is the answer. When we all get back to living comfortable lives, then we will see education excellence return to the core of our nation. This is what our Sec. of Education has to preach to our President, members of Congress, and the Senate.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Finding the positive

I'm not going to write a post highlighting the crap of 2016. I don't need to, because we all have our own pains from this year. We don't need this post to rehash more of those feelings that we can simply find in watching a news broadcast or in reading the headlines of any news source. 

So, I want to talk about a highlight of mine that I keep coming back to that needs to be shared. I have the privilege of working as a teacher to over 100 students a year. That means in the last 12 years I've at least touched the lives of 1200 different people. That means there are 1200 individuals with whom I've had the honor to share life experiences. My goal each year is to make those as positive as I can, so that I can do my part in shaping the world in which my family and I live. And I know that I have my good moments when I get the thank you notes, or the after school drop-in visits, or the facebook friend requests to let me know that I'm having the positive influence I strive to have for my students. 

The crazy part is that too often I have focused on my role as a force of positive energy for my students that I failed to open myself to all that I can learn from them. There are so many stories of strength, bravery, and inspiration that run through the lives of my students that in the hecticness of a school setting they don't get to share, because I simply don't give them the opportunity to do so in my math class. 

But on this one day about a month ago, I stopped a student (we'll call him Joe) at the start of class to ask him a question. I had grown curious to understand the story behind his relationship with a student that is part of our intensive resource program. This student has figured out Joe's schedule, and used the passing period to wait for Joe outside my room. My other students all say to the boy using his name, and giving him hi-fives...which is already awesome. But Joe gives the boy a hug each time, and spends a minute talking with him, before making sure he gets back to his class. 

After their exchange this one day, I asked Joe how he knows the student. There are always moments where I'm prepared for an answer, but I didn't see his coming. Our exchagne went as such:

Joe: Mr. Mach, he's good friends with my brother. My brother has down syndrome as well, and he comes over to our house to hang out.
Me: Oh. So, does your brother go here too? 
Joe: No, he will next year. He's in 8th grade now. 
Me: Are you excited to have him here in school with you next year?
Joe: Well.. <hesitating> No. I really don't like what they do here. It actually makes me very upset to see how they treat the students in the program. They are so much better than trash collectors. They're treated like they can't do anything. Sure it's good that they learn life skills. They need those. I know that. But, my brother didn't even know consonants and vowels, Mr. Mach. I taught him those in 15 minutes. He knows the difference now, because of me. Not the schools. They deserve so much better. 
Me: Wow. I really appreciate how passionate you are with this.. are you thinking of pursuing a career in this?
Joe: I know that I could do a better job right now. But, yeah. I really believe in these kids, and I know that I can be a voice for them that they need. 

 The conversation wrapped up shortly after that, and I did all I could to hold in the tears of pride and appreciation I had for Joe in that moment. As I mentioned above, I've worked with so many kids at this point, and I have 5 of my own.. and it's that passion I heard in his voice that all kids deserve from the adults around them. It's that drive for positive improvement I found echoing through all he was saying that pushed me to see that we're all okay. While we want to hear, and believe that the kids these days are not as connected to the world around them, I see examples like the one with Joe that prove that kids these days are just as remarkable as we need them to be. So, I'm ready for 2017 knowing that we will get through all that is thrown at us. 

Please help shine the light on the positive by sharing this uplifting story as well as one from your year. 

Thank you all of being a part of my Teacher Dad world and cheers to a safe, productive, and family centered 2017!  

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

How do you life?

I gave a test to my geometry students last week. The first test since election day. And much like all test days, I asked the kiddos if they had any last minute questions, reminding them, a) Yes, they have to take it, and b) No, I won't give them the answers.

I do this before every test, because I know there is that one kid who will finally ask the question that he's been meaning to ask for days, but just hasn't done it. I always answer the question even if it means that some kids won't finish the test during the class period.. more time can be found. I want the student to know that it was ok to ask the question, and that I was there to answer it. It's an opportunity to build trust with that student, so maybe next time he won't wait to the last minute.

Anxiety was high for this test, so I fielded several questions in each of my classes. Business as normal really. But then in my 6th period class (last of the day) after answering a question on incenter, and another on constructing altitude, one of my students raises his hand with one of those smiles on his face that is telling me
that he thinks he's about to be funny. I call on him, and he throws out, "Mr. Mach, how do you life?"

The class reacted with a mix of laughter, annoyance (several students just wanted to take the test), and paused reflection. It would have been easy for me to write it off, and tell the kid to cut it out, but under the circumstances of the last 2 weeks, I decided to answer the question as seriously as possible. What came out was similar to this:
How do I life? Well, I make sure that I wake up every morning with the best attitude that I can. I wake up focused on being the best version of myself that I can be each day, because in being the best version of myself I might inspire others to do the same. I life by treating people the way that I would want my kids to be treated or my grandma to be treated. I wake up knowing that if I'm honest, kind, and hard working that good things can happen around me. Because I don't know what type of day or back story those around me are having. I can only control what I bring to each day, and I life by bringing the best day that I can for me, my family, and all of you. So, that's how life. I own it. I don't blame others, and I accept people for who they are by celebrating the wonderful differences between us. Now, remove everything from your desks except a pencil, compass, and straightedge. And let's make this happen! 
My message to the class had impact that day. The student that asked the question has a tough time with school. Life isn't the easiest for this kiddo, and in that moment I said something that connected. For the first time all year, he asked questions during the test to better understand what needed to be done. He showed resolve that I'd not seen in him before. He was serious about his work, and for the first time in a long time, he cared about doing well.

I take my job seriously. Not because I LOVE math, but because I get to work with kids all day. I get to know that for a few of these kids each year, I get to be what Mr. Wyman, Coach P, Mrs. Kolder, Mrs. Nyquist, Ms. Belzer, Ms. Anderson, and plenty of others were for me.. role models. Because in my life, school is a place to grow as a person. School is a place to learn about how to be a member of society from those adults around you. I look at school as a place where compromise, listening, compassion, and
understanding are the root of success, because these things foster the trust and comfort allowed for free thought and creative thinking. School is NOT for rigid rules that create people fearful of thinking out of the box, or in thinking only what they are told to think.

There are too many schools that rule through authority, and create a level of fear that stymy the free thought needed to move our country forward. It is the responsibility of our public education system to change from our old traditions by learning to foster an environment that allows comfort for students to take chances, to learn trust and respect others out of appreciation for our individual thought and creativity.

This is an important time for teachers to work beyond the stress of regulation, standards, and evaluations. We need to see through the burden of what legislators have put on us, and in many cases, what administrators allow to fall on our shoulders. This is a time that requires us to create the safe space students deserve to be in while at school. We are the drivers of change, and the models of character that some students need.

This is a time for us to answer each question the students throw at us, and more than anything, a time to show them how to life.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Family Day - The Compassion Experience

For most people the start of November signals the beginning of the holidays. Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and then it's a straight shot to Christmas and New Years. Which, I will agree, are amazing holidays each year. But for my crew, November holds a more special place in our hearts.

November is adoption awareness month (read a past adoption post here), and being that my family of 7 consists of a pair of kids that have come to us through adoption, we have an added appreciation for November. And if things weren't already great for this month, we celebrate a huge adoption milestone this month as well. We call it our "Family Day" and it symbolizes the day that our family "officially" became our family.

My wife and I have been with our boys since the day they were born. They were "ours" well before we held them in our arms, but in a world of legalities, we had to go through the court system to finalize the adoption all the way down to getting our names on their birth certificates. The day that this happened in front of a judge was 5 years ago this month! And each year we celebrate this day as our Family Day, a day we focus just on our crew.

Each year we do this a little differently depending on where we are physically and financially. In years past, we've tried to do a fun activity (Zoo, Children's Museum, Chena Hot Springs, family hike) and then go out for a family dinner. For our activity this year, we were pulled towards providing a deeper experience for our kids. With all that is going on in our day-to-day lives, it's far too easy to disconnect from the life experiences of others around the world.

We feel it's important for our kids to understand that there so many things to be thankful for each day, AND even more reasons to find opportunities to give back and help. There is no reason to use all that we have just for ourselves when there are kids throughout our country and the world with so little. So, this year we took our family to The Compassion Experience, a mobile exhibit that allows you to step into the world of 2 children growing up in a 3rd world life. We started by experiencing the story of a boy from Ethiopia whose parents left him with an Aunt. He wasn't allowed the same privileges as his cousins, but his story shows how he kept a positive outlook. After time, a neighbor convinces his Aunt to allow him a chance to be a student on scholarship. His story goes through the heartache he experiences, but also the support he received from his sponsors to finally become an artist and builder.

As we walked through his experience,
listening to him tell his story, I watched how each of my kids reacted. My oldest four (5, 5, 8, & 10) looked through each room interacting with the story. They were engaged, and showed elation for his successes, and sadness for his defeats. His story hit each of them in a different way. Two of the kids were overwhelmed with all of it, and were ready to be done when we exited his story. The other two were ready to learn more as they looked through the pictures of kids that we could choose to sponsor.

It was at this point, that my wife took the two that wanted to go on to the second story, while I took our youngest, and the other two out to a playground next to the exhibit. We were all moved by the reality of their lives, and left the experience wanting to help. And while we couldn't commit to sponsoring a child this go around, it is a goal of ours. We will instead get back to our Christmas tradition of giving a gift of a farming Heifer International.  There are many options for helping, and I've linked to the gift page on their site to see all of the great options. Please take the time to visit both sites and consider helping this holiday season.
animal to a family in need through

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Listening Ears

My wife and I have used the phrase "put on your listening ears" with all of our kids over the years. We use it when we can see that our crew can hear that we're talking, but just aren't listening to what we're saying. Or when they anticipate what they think we are going to say missing our point completely. As parents, we try to emphasize the importance of listening to those around you in order to be effective communicators. By listening to and considering all sides or opinions, educated and thought-out opinions can be established and then further explained.

Now, that doesn't mean that I'm always perfect at it, as I'm sure my wonderful wife will tell you that I often anticipate what she is saying, and speak to points that she never made. For the record.. she does it too.. Just less often :)

We all get caught up in the speed of the world around us, and selectively listen to most things. We hear the points we want to hear, anticipate our conclusions, and stand by opinions that we truly can't have a foundation on based on the lack of listening we've actually done.

The other day, after the last debate, I was speaking with an adult peer of mine. This person was surprised that I wasted my time listening to the debate stream from my phone. "Really? I knew it would be a train wreck. I know what they're going to say." In fact, I noticed many posts on Facebook saying how they were SO glad to skip the debate to watch football or whatever else.

And THIS surprises me. Because in this same conversation the person, and another peer went off on the increasing premiums and pharmacy costs under ObamaCare. And everything they were frustrated about was exactly a talking point of Secretary Clinton. I listened to her speak to each of their frustrations during that debate. And when I said that, these two adult peers of mine admitted that maybe they should watch the next debate.

I've let this conversation sit in the back of mind as I continue to watch and read things on Facebook supporting the idea that many of us are selectively listening and anticipating talking points from each of these candidates. So much so, that I see so many people picking candidates without actually listening, OR sometimes worse, based on feelings about a person that they've never met, and only know about through media coverage.

We are less than a month away from one of the most important voting days in my lifetime. So, I encourage you all, to put on your listening ears. Really listen to the candidates without selective listening, without anticipating your own feelings about what you think is going to be said. We expect that of our kids, our friends, our employees, the students in our schools, and our elected officials. But I feel that there are many out there that are missing that expectation of ourselves during this election. If you do that, I don't care which candidate you choose. I just want to know that those that voted listened, truly listened to the points the candidates are making for our country.

Friday, August 26, 2016

My Teacher Dad Vote

I have never much been into politics. As a kid, I was always just focused on being a kid (playing sports, GI Joe, Star Wars, video games, etc.). It always surprised me when I met people my age that were so passionate about politics. Especially in college. I had and still have fraternity brothers that are actively involved in everything politics.

The first time I voted was for President Bush Jr in 2000. I just didn't like Gore.. Not sure why I didn't, but didn't. Then 9/11 happened and in 2004 I voted for President Bush again. I felt like he was the best to continue navigating us through the Middle East mess. At some point, I learned to believe that I was a Republican. 

During Bush's second term, my first 2 kids were born, and I had become a teacher. I began to listen more to the happenings of the world around me. I actively listened to the 2008 candidates. Things began to matter so much more for my own kids, and for the livelihood of my students and their families. I was moved in so many ways as I listened to the message of hope spoken by candidate Obama. He spoke with such intelligence, passion, and pride. I felt patriotism for him as a leader that I never felt for any President in my life at that point. I remember standing, holding my then 7 month old daughter with tears in my eyes as he spoke in Grant Park having just been elected President. I was so proud to be in that moment with her knowing our country was truly moving forward. 

In the 8 years since that moment, I stand proud of all that our President has worked to accomplish. But, I'm stunned at what has happened to our country. I'm now the father of 5 kids. Two of those 5 are twin black boys. I've gone from having tears of pride to having tears of real fear and worry for our future. Today, we have a candidate that can be openly prejudiced against different races, cultures, & religions and gain support towards winning the presidency. How can that be? Because his opponent in this election has support from big business? Because she has become a political scapegoat for a terrorist act on an US Embassy? Because she's a woman that is intelligent and with a strong voice?

I'm not going to sit here and say that I'm a huge Hillary supporter. In fact, I voted for Bernie in the primaries. But, for the record, I'm not voting for her as an anti-Trump vote. Not at all in fact. 

I don't think of myself as a vocal person. I like to sit back and listen to any and all respectable sources be that blogs, podcasts, shares from friends that I respect and trust. And through that I've learned a lot about Hillary Clinton. I've learned that she's made mistakes, but has had plenty of victories in areas that I believe in. 

I'm voting for her, because she's never backed down. She has taken hit after hit from things as personal as her marriage, to her political opinions. And yet, she never ran away or backed down from her drive for presidency. She has shown resilience when all around her criticised her and called her a murderer. She didn't get nasty back, either. She didn't get into petty name calling. For the way that I've seen it, she has stood by what she has believed in, but has allowed her views to change as she has listened to all that is around her.

I've learned in my own life that when you are doing great things, making changes, and are at the top, you will be attacked. Your actions all the way down to the number of soccer shoes you have or your classroom management style will be questioned. And it is so easy to hear all that is said and hide away. But Hillary hasn't. She continued to stay in the center of things, and to follow her path in life with strength, confidence, and gusto.

So while one candidate stands as a symbol of fear and hate, I see another that is a shining example of female resilience and strength. She is an example that I would be proud to have my daughters look up to. She compliments what they already see in my wife (a business owner, strong, determined, passionate). So, yes. My vote is for Hillary. I'm not going third party. I have no need to. Because in my life I want to know that my kids will grow up knowing that it is normal for a black man to be president and for a woman to be president because that is the right direction for our country and that is what continues to make our country great.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

They're smarter and more balanced, because state testing..?

State Testing.

Just in reading those words, you're already a bit angry.. aren't-cha! Since my students took the Smarter Balanced math test in May, I've been trying to process my feelings and thoughts on the matter.  And the word that best sums up my experience and the experience of my students is torture. For one, I spent each class block listening to the same complaints and questions:

*Do we have to take this?  *Is it a grade?  *Will I still graduate if I do bad?
*Then why are we taking it? *This is stupid! *I don't care how I do on it?
* Does this even matter to anyone? *You never taught us this!
* These questions are impossible! *Seriously, who came up with these questions?
*Shit!..err, Sorry Mr. Mach, but what the hell?! When did we learn this?
*Why can't I have my cell phone?!!

That last one.. the cell phone. It was if I was creating a horcrux out of it by murdering their souls as I asked them to place their device into the plastic container. The look of hatred that spewed from them.. I'm thankful that my small children weren't around to witness it!

The students harbor so much hatred towards these tests, or at least a strong enough percentage of them do. And I don't like using the word hate, but it fits for this. They hate the test, the process, the time waste, and the feeling it gives them. No one likes to feel stupid, and for many the Smarter Balanced test makes them feel so very, terribly stupid. And there are a couple main reasons that the kids walk away feeling stupid after these tests.

For this first reason, I'm taking a higher ground approach, and making the difficulty of this test reflective of teachers. So, the Smarter Balanced Test asked questions that require a Depth of Knowledge that most teachers just aren't getting to with their students. This means that while the kids may actually know the concept, the questions are asked in a way that requires them to show that understanding or apply the understanding differently. This is a shot to the gut when you can see the information you need, but you're not directly sure how to use it to get to the correct answer.

Now, to piggyback on that.. these questions are HARD. There are few adults that work for any of the governing bodies of the 15 member states of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium that would take the test and feel good about themselves afterwards. I've been "privileged" enough to work through the interim assessment and walked away feeling challenged, tired, and down about the prospect of my students feeling prepared. And I feel like I'm an above average teacher. But there is just something in the way the test is worded and how the test is laid out that can at times be confusing. There is a practice test that anyone can take (click here), and I would encourage you to take a look just to get a feel for what I'm talking about.

Ultimately, these tests are trying to serve a purpose. We all can agree that we want the children of this country to receive the best education possible. And I would hope we can also agree that standardized tests are NOT the best way to make that happen. With over 98,000 public schools in our country, we can NOT expect each of them to be working at the same level, especially when funding and resources are not even close to being equally distributed OR socio-economic lifestyles and opportunities are SO diverse from one neighborhood school to another. These tests can serve the purpose of showing us teachers that we need to strive to improve student depth of knowledge, but there are better ways to make that point than picking a standardized test that allows for a strong percentage of students to walk away feeling stupid after taking it. That doesn't improve anyone's academic experience, or lead to a generation of high school grads confident for their future and ability to positively impact the world around them.