Friday, March 27, 2009

March: In like a lion, out like an even bigger, angrier lion

Recently, we had a staff meeting about this year's Learning Environment Survey. Apparently, we didn't have high enough participation in last year's survey, so my principal wanted to give us the chance to fill it out on school time. And by "give us the chance," I mean "fill our head with strong suggestions of how to grade our school in order to get Quality Review off our backs."

Seriously, they did everything but stand over us with a #2 pencil and whisper "strongly agree!" in our ears. "Last year, some teachers claimed they didn't have frequent contact with parents, but don't forget, you send home a homework sheet every week!" "Last year, some teachers said we didn't offer a wide enough variety of courses, but don't forget, some of the third grade classes are getting a theater course!" Come on, a homework sheet? That counts as contact with parents? And that "theater course"? Is offered to an extremely limited number of classes, once a week for about six weeks. That's supposed to count? It's like we were scrabbling around for anything we could pat ourselves on the back for.

And then there's the whole Quality Review issue -- apparently, if a school receives a high enough grade on its progress report, it is exempt from Quality Review for two years. (Like, "An A keeps Quality Review away.") The learning environment survey factors into the progress report grade. So there was definitely a strong aroma of "give our school high grades just to exempt us from Quality Review" in the air of the meeting. As in, I actually overheard a teacher at the next table hissing, "Lie! Lie if it'll get Quality Review off our backs!"

Here's the thing. I don't view the survey as an opportunity to get revenge on my school (even though I'm not exactly feeling love for it at the moment). But hello, people, it's called constructive criticism, or, in my world, telling the truth. (A novel concept, apparently.) Do I feel supported by other teachers at my school? Sure! Strongly agree! But do I trust my principal at his word? Absolutely not. Strongly disagree!

I mean, don't we want to instill these values in our students? Am I moving Jonathan to a level G in reading just because it'll make him feel better and it'll make my life easier because I won't have to answer questions from my AP about why he's been an F since November? No, because you can't dress up Jonathan as a G reader and you can't dress up my school as a delightful haven for learning where everyone gets along and no one says nasty things about the principal behind his back.

So what did I do on my survey? I told the truth. My fiance says it's because I have integrity, but I say it's because I'm freaking fed up. I am fed up with being shuffled around like a substitute and with the fact that 75% of what we do is a sham to make us look good for Quality Review and does not actually benefit our students. Like, right now our administration is twisting themselves into knots to make sure that every grade has an inquiry team, because Quality Review decrees it must be so and lo, it must be! Except that in order to ensure that every grade has an inquiry team, we routinely hold inquiry team meetings that pull all the teachers from a grade out of their classrooms, and AIS and ESL teachers are dispatched to cover those classrooms, so the end result is that students are not taught. I mean, doesn't that seem backwards?!

Our second grade inquiry team is going to focus on teaching a reading skill that is so obscure and so freaking unnecessary that I don't even want to type it out lest one of my colleagues attempt to Google it and wind up here. We're supposed to be using strategy lessons to teach this skill to three students during 50 minutes, which our contract stipulates we are not supposed to have to plan for, except unfortunately our union rep does approximately nothing for us (besides offering to collect the surveys from us and bring them to the post office, like thanks, that's such a generous offer considering they already have stamps on them).

This past week I finally wrapped up my running records. Our literacy coach insists running records should take no longer than one week to complete. Mine took nearly three. Why? Because I was never there; I was off covering other classes all over the building. We've had 18 teaching days so far this month, and in one of my classes (as it happens, my lowest class, where fully half my group are beginner ELLs, most of them in the country less than 10 months), I've missed 10 of them. More than half.

Anyway, so I was finishing up my running records, and I literally wanted to cry, because I could tell that the major problem for a few kids was that they had no idea how to talk about the book they had just read or explain the story to me or answer my questions, and the reason they couldn't do this is because nobody meets with them during reading. I mean, obviously their classroom teachers do the best they can, but at the end of the day they have "their" group to meet with and (this is the key part) write up data on, because God forbid an AP looks in your reading binder and sees a dearth of data. So these kids, who have zero attention span to begin with, who cannot sit and read their books independently for 30 minutes at a time because they're just not developmentally ready for that, go day after day after day sitting around in the classroom during reading time, staring blankly at the cover of their books, and nobody is teaching them or meeting with them. And if there were space on the survey to write something, if it weren't just bubbling in the numbers like everything else in the whole freaking New York City Department of Education, I would write this:

"Dear Administration of PS 00: I am failing my students. I am failing them by not being there when they need me to teach them. I am failing them by not being there when they literally beg me to meet with them. I am failing them by being inconsistent, by being there for them one day and then gone the next even when I've promised I will be working with them. You are causing me to fail them."

Oh, but it's not just the endless coverages that have me so ticked off these days (although that's a huge part of it -- last week I subbed a full day for the same teacher three times!); it's our actual units of study and teaching points themselves. Our teaching points are written for us by somebody, God knows who (our literacy "coach"? his coaching group?) and they are literally handed to us...usually the day before the unit begins. OK, so, first of all, the day before? You can't give us, oh, a week to prepare for the next unit? Especially when we've done things lately like non-fiction and book clubs, and we've been running around like vilde chayas (that's Yiddish for "wild beasts," and it's a term I highly suggest adding to your vocabulary, as I much prefer it to "chickens with our heads cut off") trying to get our stuff together.

Second of all, this method of doing things means we have approximately zero say in what we're actually teaching our students. And I have to tell you, lately there's been a bigger and bigger discrepancy between what I (remember me? their reading teacher?) think they need to learn and what Teachers College thinks they need to learn. For example, we did an entire non-fiction unit without ever once teaching them about the actual features of non-fiction: tables of contexts, indexes, headings, bold text, glossaries, etc. This past month, we did book clubs for the very first time without ever once teaching them how to conduct a book club...and then we were told to conduct our assessments without even listening in on their book club conversations the way we were originally supposed to do! Our teaching points have become increasingly ridiculous, to the point where even I don't really understand them or how to teach them. I feel like I'm cajoling and harassing my students to learn something that I feel is pointless. So you can imagine how well my lessons have been going lately.

On top of all that, one of our staff toilets broke, and our janitor informed us that that's it, no new toilet part this year. Which means that we have one bathroom on our floor for about thirty people, most of them women, two of whom are pregnant, and let me tell you, there is now always a line.

And then I came home from school and read these comments on a Gothamist article in which readers opined that New York City public school teachers are "stupid" "whiners" who "just want to be left alone to do nothing until they get their 30 years." I know it's completely ridiculous to take moronic statements like that personally, but I really want to hurl something large and heavy through a window right now.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, we had a similar online survey that our district put out. A week after it came out, we had to go to the computer lab and do it in front of the computer tech, who then signed us off. Some teachers had already done it of course...... so they did it again, which would make it REAL valid. And what happened to "voluntary"?

Ms. M said...

I cannot disagree with a single thing that you said. You explained so precisely what it is like in so many of our schools!

Ms. Peace said...

I know exactly how you feel!!!! It's like "What else can they throw at you?" I remember one year where we had construction in the building and we had to leave by 4PM every day only to come back to a mess in our rooms in the mornings at least on a weekly basis. Plaster dust, grease on the rugs, books literally all over the floor, footprints on tables, etc. And to top it off, our staff bathroom was also under construction so we had to run out to Starbucks... yes... Starbucks! This lasted from September through January of that school year. My tip for bathroom use: If you have a Pre-K or K classroom with a bathroom in it, get the teacher to block it off for you if you have an emergency. It's better than nothing.

Anonymous said...

You are so right on. I teach at a high school in NYC and it's the same thing there--everything's a show to get the A rating, and things that would actually benefit our students are not done if they would hurt our score. Keep on rockin'!

Spoonski said...

Could not agree more. I teach 4th grade in NYC, and our principal recently ran out of money for subs, so our AIS and ESL teachers are covering for the rest of the year. My colleagues and I are fed up with the amount of our time that goes into preparing for the Quality Review. If I spent more time planning lessons, not looking at data and putting papers in folders and binders for administrative review, my students would probably be much better off.
FYI: We got an "A" on our report card but we are still getting a Quality Review next year, which of course we are already preparing for. The things we are preparing are nothing like what we did for our Quality Review from last year. Consistency anyone?

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