This is fine

About two weeks ago, Bianca Goolsby publicly declared her resignation from Hillsborough County Schools. Though reactions were swift and strong, her words provided the impetus to a much needed conversation among teachers, ESPs, and community stakeholders.

If we asked teachers at some of the most challenging schools in our district, many would share her perspective and know that the events Bianca describe are an all too common occurrence at a number of our schools. And for those who would doubt the veracity of her claims, the data from her peers clearly back up the assertions she makes. But what about at other schools across HCPS?

Numerous anecdotes from fellow teachers at other sites lament how bad behavior has become at their schools. It seems that in the last 6-7 years especially, the words and actions of the most unruly students have only grown steadily worse while the actual repercussions for these students seems to have an inverse correlation. Here’s what the data has to say:

07-08 Discipline Data

A decade ago, there were 191,965 students enrolled in Hillsborough. Out of those students, 7% (about 1 out of every 13) served an out-of-school suspension, and roughly 16% of all students (close to 1 in 6) were sent to in-school-suspension.

17-18 Discipline Data

Last year, however, when the district enrolled 211,959 students, there was a slight decrease to OSS, with only 5.7% of students staying home for various reasons; in-school suspension had a drastic decline down to just under 7%.

While all of this data is publicly available here, it would be interesting to dig into these numbers to see the actual length of suspensions. When I first started teaching 15 years ago, fighting was a zero tolerance issue. The aggressor was sent home for 10 days, and the other combatant received 5 days. Now principals have to beg their bosses just to give a kid two days out of school for very serious offenses.

So have students gotten better over the last decade, or are school districts throughout Florida simply not reporting incidences so as to reduce the number of them on paper?

All of this combined ultimately strikes at the heart of the issue–when students receive little to no consequences for their actions, they are emboldened. We now live in an age in which teachers themselves are physically attacked by students, which is an indictment against our entire culture that also shows how little we respect teachers as caring adults who only seek to serve our students in the community.

Bianca shared many details during our conversation yesterday, and they echoed many of my wife’s experiences in Renaissance schools during her first 12 years teaching. In her final year at one particular inner city middle school, she was attacked by a 6th grader who was swinging his backpack at her (she was luckily only hit with straps) while stomping through the classroom breaking things including a favorite picture frame that included our wedding photo on her desk.

He was “talked to” by administrators, but otherwise received no consequence. Destruction of public property and attempting to injure a teacher = “don’t do it again” finger-wagging.

What the district needs to focus on–especially at the secondary level where these issues pose real challenges to the learning environment–is to develop a uniform discipline policy that has immediate consequences that scaffold upward depending on frequency and/or severity. At my school, for instance, our principal still does old fashioned “lock outs”; when students are tardy, he gets on the intercom and asks students who are not in the classroom to come to the elevator. From there, an administrator gives the kids a red pass to notify the teacher as they return to class, and the student in question picks up trash the very same day at lunch. After a couple lunch details, it escalates to ISS. The result? We had 59 total disciplinary incidences last year, whereas many other high schools had well over double that amount.

There’s also an issue of “disappearing referrals,” a seemingly all-too-common occurrence in certain challenging environments. Whether the principals at these schools perceive pressure from downtown or if they have been actively given orders to delete discipline referrals from the system is unknown. But many teachers have reported this practice of either acknowledging the referral way too late so that the consequence is completely decoupled from the action, by never doing anything with them at all, or, in some cases, having these deleted from the system altogether.

This has become a massive issue that needs to be rectified. Rather than “gaslighting” whistleblowers such as Bianca Goolsby, we need to all work together to devise a plan that is fair to all parties involved. While there was clearly a need years ago to adjust disciplinary measures due to the disproportionate amount of African-Americans and Hispanics being suspended, the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that we are bordering on sheer pandemonium at some schools. All students need to be in school, and trying to keep kids in school by suspending them less is noble but clearly has had unintended consequences.

We need to address this issue rather than hide from it. The unruly behavior at some of the most challenging schools is certainly hastening the flight to charters in our area, and more parents will probably avail themselves of the new scholarships to attend private schools if they can. Why? Because bad behavior is still not tolerated in these places, and students who disrupt the learning or potentially harm others are kicked out altogether. The sooner we begin open and honest conversations involving the entire community for how we can serve Jennings or any struggling school in Hillsborough, the better it will be for everyone affected by these negative behaviors.

PTSD

This month’s guest post is the second by Seth Hopkins-Federman, the teacher and current doctoral student who wrote “Band-Aids for Broken Bones“.

It was a headline many weren’t expecting nor were aware of. One day scrolling through Facebook I happened upon an article titled: PTSD and Teachers. I looked at it with a puzzlement—isn’t PTSD usually associated with combat veterans or those involved in high impacting trauma? The inconvenient truth is now teaching as a profession is listed under the causes of PTSD.

In reviewing the research of teachers with PTSD, the findings are limited but the reports and studies that have been done are eye opening to say the least. As I last wrote, mental health professionals were seeing an increase of depression within educators but a truly disturbing statistic is that teachers diagnosed with PTSD has risen since the early 2000s, but the data is inconsistent due to the fact teachers are afraid disclosure will lead to job loss. The main culprits? Student and administrator behavior.

It’s becoming an everyday occurrence where you will see a video pop up of a student attacking or berating a teacher. The experience leaves behind scars that may not be just physical. Many teachers report being assaulted, emotionally abused, and left without the tools to deal with the trauma. But perhaps the most confounding statistic was the PTSD caused by fellow teachers and administrators. While we may view Horrible Bosses as a cautionary tale of corporate greed and power mongering, the research shows that a leader’s actions can have a profound effect on whether or not a teacher continues his or her career. It begs the question: how has adopting a business culture in a career centered around fostering relationships harmed the people in the profession?

As a writer, you’re often told not to put yourself in the story; however, this does hit home as I suffer from PTSD from a childhood trauma. While the details may sound like they’re from a Lifetime movie, it has taken years to properly deal with the triggers and furthermore understand the place the trauma has in my life. But notice how I said years. Some case studies show that teaching induced PTSD is never given the true assistance it needs. Teachers report that the recovery time allotted is usually told to be a day or overnight. We have to be the experts when dealing with student trauma, right? It’s unrealistic to expect that an employee can turnaround on a dime in regards to dealing with these events. This area of research is still relatively new but given the rise of cases and the recent influx of social media examples, we may soon be dealing with a new part of the teacher shortage epidemic.

Are you an educator looking to share your perspective? Teacher Voice welcomes guest posts on any topic/issue related to our profession. If you’d like to write a post, please email it to 1teachervoice@gmail.com. Thanks!

Frustrated Teacher
The declining mental health of teachers is an often ignored piece of the puzzle when it comes to why so many leave the profession or so few choose to enter the classroom.

The second guest post of 2019 is finally here! This is a brief bio of the author:

Seth Hopkins-Federman’s career as a teacher started as a way to make sure he wasn’t a starving actor. Through the years, he has taught English and Reading at several different levels and has presented at both state and national conferences. He has finally found a way to substitute his love for the stage with a profound and passionate love for the classroom. He is currently working on his doctorate in Education Leadership with the goal of becoming a striving force in education reform or finding a way to successfully pay off all of the student loans.

It’s not like you haven’t seen the meme splashed all over the walls of Facebook:

A parent is eagerly trying his best to get a loved one to school. After the frequent tries he finally exclaims, “but you have to…because you’re a teacher!”

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Jokes aside, the social emotional piece that is missing from our schools lies not only with the students but with the teachers as well. In the past decade, social health services for teachers have seen an increase of 40% intakes since the implementation of Common Core and higher accountability measures related to evaluation. While it hasn’t been confirmed, there are new suggestions in the data that teachers have been more prone to suicidal thoughts than dentists who are regularly thought to be the profession with the highest suicidal thought capacity. In reviewing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it doesn’t take a scientist or psychologist to see something is not being met. The question is why aren’t we talking about it?

In doing my research, I have found that teachers aren’t necessarily leaving the profession for the common reasons we think. In a review of some of the major strikes in the 2000s, most teachers said pay wasn’t the base need. Instead, it was respect and validation. Can this truly be matched with a pay increase? Research suggests it might, but it deals more with the organizational culture and the approach to how problems are dealt with. We all know that the teachers’ lounge is where we go to kivelt (as my grandmother would say) about our students. But the conversations go from kivelting to beotching (as my second graders in Brooklyn would call it). The conversation doesn’t move to productive solutions just constant complaining. So who’s to blame? Or better yet: why do we need to blame?

It education is going to continuously fall into the cycle of broken bones mended by Band-aids, we have to recognize that our Band-aids are blame accusations and not proactive solutions. Districts need to recognize that class sizes are marring actual learning, school leaders need to be transparent about the way school discipline works, and teachers need to learn more about deescalating than aggravating. This all comes back to a simple social need that all sides are forgetting: validation. Let’s all validate the obvious: this is a tough time to be in education. The phrase lose-lose is unfortunately becoming way too common place in decisions by any stakeholder. Research suggests that if education is to improve, the blame game needs to stop and validation needs to begin. If we can’t begin that cultural shift, it doesn’t matter the test scores or suspension rates, public education will soon see it’s broken bones evolve into organ failure and, ultimately, death.

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Rob Brown (left), Art Roberts (center), Me (right): three nerds who love literature and teaching.

To use the current lingo of the kids, this episode of the Teacher Voice podcast is LIT! Considering this is episode “42”, I knew I wanted to sit down with my great friends, Art and Rob, who are English teachers at my school. We talk about why we love literature, its value in today’s day and age, as well as some of our favorite authors and poets. Please listen and share with other teachers or fans of literature in general.

Thanks again for listening, everyone, and have a great week!

P.S. – Here’s the article from The Atlantic I reference in the event it piqued your interest: “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers”

And here’s the brief clip with Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba, about how and why we must change our education system to focus on what makes us uniquely human:

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“I feel strongly that people need to speak up because silence is a tacit approval.”

The first official new podcast of 2019 features Lois Horn-Diaz, the 2017 Teacher of the Year for Polk County Schools. With her wide and varied background, Lois taught children in many ways for over 30 years in public education. We sat down at the beginning of the month to discuss how she became a teacher, what it was like to win Teacher of the Year honors for an entire district and meet others from around the state, and why she is such an outspoken critic of what public education has become in the last 15 years. Please listen to this engaging conversation, be sure to share with others, and use your own voice to speak up on behalf of all children and educators across the Sunshine State.

Thanks for listening, everyone!

relationships

Contrary to Sean Combs’ claim that “it’s all about the Benjamins,” I would argue that life is all about relationships. As teachers, we have relationships with lots of people in our daily school lives, none more important than with our students. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the bulk of my success as a teacher is due to the meaningful and lasting relationships I have fostered with my students, certainly much more so than any curriculum I may have imparted to them during our shared time together.

While I only worked as a new teacher mentor for a single year, the two most important pieces of advice I offered those who were just beginning in the classroom–whether fresh out of college or starting a second career–was: 1) be your most authentic self, as kids–especially high school students–recognize phoniness better than most adults; 2) get to really know your students as individual human beings. By taking a genuine interest in them, their journeys up to that point in life, and where they’re headed based on their goals and aspirations, teachers can forge a strong, important bond with that child. As I told my mentees, the rest will always come with time and work itself out provided that they put those two pieces of advice into practice.

I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days because of two messages I received almost back to back. Over the years, I have received many nice notes, letters, cards, and emails expressing gratitude for our relationship. And what I’ve learned in the first 15 years in the classroom is that we never know how our words and actions will resonate with our students, which is why I always do my utmost to be an exemplar of a life well lived. I was deeply honored and grateful, then, to receive this short essay on leadership from a graduate of last year’s class who is currently at the United States Naval Academy. While she could have written about virtually anyone and how that person exemplifies leadership, she chose me. Her words were truly humbling:

In my junior year of high school, I was required to take a course known as the Theory of Knowledge. This class was a introspective curriculum which mainly focused on self-reflection and relies heavily on the teacher’s interpretation and dedication to the class. It is in this class that I saw one of the purest forms of leadership within the teacher. Mr H. was new to the program and thus took on a large amount of responsibility in order to enable our success.

I would argue that the majority of my enjoyment within the class stemmed from Mr. H’s ability to spark an intense curiosity and passion within all of his students. It was not through overbearing demands, but rather a nurturing of individual abilities. One of the most important traits that I learned through H was to listen, even when you didn’t always know how to respond. Compassion never fails. The ability to sympathize and lend an ear can often be more powerful than one’s own words. As an especially exasperated high school student, H’s ability to listen to the complaints of fifty teenagers and still make everyone feel like an individual proved unique.

Besides listening, a good leader understands when intervening is necessary. Obviously, the public school system does not stand as the pinnacle of premier education. Unlike most people who just accepted the flaws of a large structure, Mr. H continued to seek new ways to reform and better the environment he was in. From interviewing other teachers on a podcast, to speaking his grievances at school board meetings, H understood the need to take a stand. This determination to better his community at a large scale and still treat people as individuals was contagious. Most often leadership is done first through example.

At the purest form H never stopped showing how much he cared. How much he cared about people, knowledge, work, and life. These traits have greatly impacted how I approach situations, as well as my interactions with others. Through him I saw someone devote themselves to others, which in the end, defines leadership.

Then, only a day later, another former student from my time at Durant tagged me on Twitter to tell me the following:

jtweets
Another random, timely gift from the universe

I responded to him to thank him for his kind words as well as to share that I do indeed remember him. By my rough estimation, I have taught over 3,000 students at this point in my career. I may not be able to remember all of their names (especially those that were from more than a decade ago), but I often recognize their faces despite the years that have passed. Regardless, these small blessings are one of the many, many reasons I love being a teacher.

My wife and I do not have children, and that is a big reason why we truly love our students as if they were our own kids. I believe that love infuses our classroom and the interactions we have with all students, which is why I consider the relationships we build with them so critical for their future success. Being a teacher is an important job, but being good toward other human beings who are sharing this sojourn with us through this space in time, who have been given the same gift of life that has been bestowed upon each of us, is the pinnacle of what it means to teach. Regardless of a student’s grade average or mastery of content, it’s how we treat them with an inherent dignity that will forever resonate with them. As Maya Angelou famously said, “…people will forget what you’ve said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget the way you made them feel.”

Let’s ensure that our students feel loved.

P.S. – And, as always, if you are one of my current or former students reading this, thank you for being a part of my life. All of you mean the world to me.

Love,

– H.

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SCHS IB Class of 2019 surprised me on my birthday last August by having me come down to the cafeteria before bursting into screams and singing Happy Birthday, none of which would have happened had I not loved these students.

 

Spyglass
When you look into the future of education, what do you see?

Friday afternoon I had the good fortune to speak to my middle brother Brad for over an hour and a half after school. He is a busy world traveler who works as a high level executive for one of the world’s major technology companies. He and I are alike in many ways, although our professional lives diverged when it came to what we chose to do.

But he is deeply committed to education, whether providing one for his own children, sharing his knowledge and expertise with the people on his team, or constantly learning himself, he thinks a great deal about what education is and what it will become in the future.

Our conversation largely revolved around what will happen to education when machine learning/artificial intelligence can supersede our own cognitive abilities. What will we “teach” our students then? Brad then sent me this short two-minute clip of Jack Ma, the founder and CEO of Alibaba, sharing his vision of education in the future.

Yesterday morning, I ranted a bit about this on my personal Facebook page, and here are a few key passages:

Every teacher I know laments what public education has become: a non-stop testing regime that has largely sucked the life and joy out of education. People my age and older had the good fortune to “learn how to learn” for lack of a better phrase. With tests and “data-driven instruction” being the hallmark of today’s education—all in an effort to demonstrate what a student “knows” (or perhaps how well a student “tests”)—we’ve created a rather inhumane system in which teachers and students are the central components of a commodified, monetized education machine.

What happens, however, when machine learning and AI become more advanced than us? What will education look like when computers can “know” anything instantaneously, make calculations faster than any human, or anything else that machines can (and will continue to) do better than the most intelligent, most capable of us?

Jack Ma, the founder and CEO of Alibaba (China’s Amazon, basically), believes that we need to educate our children about what makes us human—to be creative, to think critically, to empathize with others, to work collaboratively—and get away from teaching “knowledge” for which machines will inevitably have far more computational power than any of us.

While I might not see this radical shift during my tenure/career as an educator, I think I’ve been doing some of this in my own classroom for the last 7 years at least: focusing on the human experience; trying my best to exemplify love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience; genuinely caring for each and every student who becomes a part of my life; inspiring kids to love learning intrinsically/for its own sake; using mindfulness techniques to manage stress while being in tune with one’s own mind…the list goes on and on, but it is these soft-skills that are far more important than the “facts” they can look up on Google at any given moment by consulting their smartphones.

Having slept on it and thought about this challenge all day yesterday–and as much as I love the ideas put forth by Jack Ma–I don’t think he’s completely right (or at least his comments don’t provide enough nuance for the entire educational experience). While I would concur that education fundamentally needs to be about teaching kids how to learn, adapt to and thrive with change, as well as focus on what makes us inherently human, there is still a place for some fact-based knowledge.

Here’s Ken Jennings of Jeopardy! fame to share why (it’s cued up to start at 7:16, but the whole talk is worth watching):

As a teacher of the capstone course for the International Baccalaureate program, Theory of Knowledge, I am fortunate enough to teach the kind of class that Jack Ma talks about: one that instills the value of conceptual and critical thinking while constantly asking “how do we know?”

Knowledge is tricky and complex. It is dynamic and we can never know anything with absolute certainty. And while Jack Ma has a clear / important point about fact-based knowledge being important in our world for the last 200 years since we started compulsory public education in the West, I agree with Ken Jenning’s point that the bits and pieces we carry around in our heads (in TOK we call this “personal knowledge”) is critical for our own self-identity and our shared cultural heritage.

Hopefully the future of education falls somewhere between these two views. Either way, the future of education is perhaps a return to the past: a time when we didn’t incessantly test our children in the name of accountability and to make a quick buck; a time when we focused on educating the child how to be human rather than a machine that simply produces particular outputs based on the bubble sheet in front of him or her.

What do you think the future of education has in store for us? Share your thoughts below or comment on the Teacher Voice Facebook page.