Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Teacher Dad: How to navigate the political landscape in your classroom.

The political landscape today is tough for educators to navigate. We feel restrained by the truth that public school teachers are NOT to be vessels for political messages. We are encouraged to stick to content, and only bring up current events if applicable to what is already planned for the classroom. As a math teacher, I see how easy it can be for teachers to stick to curriculum avoiding conversations that could ruffle the feathers of students and their parents. There is always a little voice in the back of my head reminding me that I have to toe-the-line when it comes to voicing my own opinions regarding world politics.

However, there is another voice that screams the truth.. "I became a teacher to be a positive role model to the kids in my classes!" Because, in my mind, my ultimate goal each day is to be a positive force for my students. My entire philosophy of education rests on building relationships with students by creating the trusting atmosphere students need to take academic chances. If they feel safe with their classmates in the learning environment that I'm in charge of, then they will be willing to open themselves to the mistakes needed to learn.

I'm good at this. My students trust me, and feel safe.. But now the world they look to outside of the school walls feels crazy to them. And who do they come to?.. I feel like I led you to the answer, but if you missed it.. they come to me or their trusted teachers. But we're trapped in the expectations of what a teacher should be.. and it isn't a person that talks politics with the students.

However.. I'm a smart guy, so I'd like to share with you the 3 ways you can deliver a positive message of acceptance, safety, and hope to the students without crossing that political line us teachers are advised not to cross.

1) Fairness: This may seem like a no-brainer to the best of us, but holy hell there are plenty of teachers that are simply not fair within their classrooms. At this point, it is vital that teachers display fairness to all students in every class each day. I make it a mission to discuss fairness with the students regarding decisions I make on how I grade things, how I accept late work, when I'm available for additional help, AND in maintaining order in the class. Every kiddo is treated the same respectful way, because that is the right way, NO the only way to handle things. In doing so, I'm demonstrating just how safe my classroom is for each person. That everyone is allowed the same opportunity for success, and that if someone is struggling it's up to us all to help. Because that is what fairness is. Helping others won't take away or hurt your grade. You'll still get that A, but now someone else has a chance for an A too... because you helped.

2) Creativity: This one is a little tougher at times, but work to find ways that the students can express themselves within the content area. Find ways the students can write more stories, do more art, make a song, write a play.. something that can get their creativity working. Especially in math class! Get them doing problems where they need to create something. Instead of a quiz one week, have them express their knowledge in a creative way. How can they show me they understand a concept by using an artistic form? This is an amazing way to shift the playing field for some of the students. Suddenly, those great quiz takers are having to re-think things and see their classmates in a different way. The artists thrive in getting to be the lead in a project that showcases their talents and highlights a different way to understand the math we're doing in the class. It's important to shift the lens sometimes, and finding ways to build creativity makes that happen.

3) Exploration: I've changed my teaching style over the years. I was once the typical direct instructor, but that doesn't really get the students to think. We need thinkers, problem solvers, and team players right now. With that in mind, my classes are asked to work in table teams to explore the new content together in place of me rambling on for 40 minutes. I create a set of problems that the students start with guiding them to understand the material. For example, when it came to solving systems of linear equations, they quickly learned that finding the point where two lines cross is easy with a given graph. But what if they had to find that point without a graph? What would they do? The table teams created their own methods. They figured it out using what knowledge they already had, and then problem solved. I KNOW.. right?! How cool. And yes, they figured out substitution, and then I blew their minds when I showed them elimination! But they were pumped to have done it on their own first! They critically thought out how to solve a problem together. They didn't just take what I gave them, and vomit it back on a page for me. They owned the problem and solved it!

Those three things are the backbone to bringing the positive, inclusive atmosphere students deserve in every classroom. Other important things to consider would be to find ways to have the students analyzing graphs and working in understanding data manipulations. Help them investigate how changing the scale used on a graph can warp the reality the data is showing. Create historical math problems, or better yet, put together an entire project on the Electoral College... I had one once. I put it together a made up election between Spongebob, and Shrek. I have to find that and update it...

Ultimately, own your classroom, and make it a safe place for everyone to take chances. Your classroom should reflect all of the best things you want for this world. I do all that I can to model what life should be like when my student leave. And, I encourage you to focus on the same, because that is what our students deserve.

Please use the comments section to share a story about a teacher that was your positive world influence. The teacher that you knew was working to make things better by simply being fair, creative, and exploratory with your learning.  And please share this post with your teacher friends. We're all in this together, and someone might need that reminder. Thank you!

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.