Thursday, April 21, 2011

Why I'll Never Be a "Good Disciplinarian"

Subtitle: and why I'm not sure I care.

I realized the other day that as I get older and more experienced as a teacher, it has added absolutely nothing to my classroom management skills. Well, scratch that. Wrong phrase. Experience has added absolutely nothing to my abilities to fairly discipline my students when needed. Recently, I've thought a bit about why that is.

First is the way I present myself in the classroom. This has a lot to do with it. Were I 6'7", 280 lbs. and could shoot lasers out of my eyes, I'd probably be a little better at having my students settle down when necessary. But I'm not. I'm 5'8", 150 lbs. (soaking wet), and I sit on tables and desks to talk with my students, with no laser-eyeballs. Not that this means I'm not going to be able to have my students listen to me, but it's a piece of the puzzle.

Secondly, I don't have a thunderous voice. I have a fairly mild-mannered way of speaking, and that adds to the thought that I'm a mild-mannered person who can be taken advantage of. Mild-mannered? Yes. Able to be taken advantage of? No. But again, a piece of the puzzle.

Thirdly -- and this is the big one -- I honestly believe that my students best learn -- in ALL aspects -- by making choices and having natural consequences happen. This means that they may choose to do their homework or not. I'm not going to force them. They may study or not. This also means they may choose to pay attention or not. I'll ask them to make the best choices, and I'll give honest reasons why they should. But ultimately, if they're going to zone out or misbehave in class or what have you, that's their choice. My main issue is when it affects the choices others are trying to make as well. That's where consequences need to come in.

And this is where I have difficulty. I'm not completely certain how to continue to have natural consequences when someone's talking is impairing someone else's learning. I'm not going to remove them from the classroom. I'm not going to give them all the attention they want. But I also can't let them continue to disrupt the class. Overall, I believe I need to do a better job of engaging them, but there are still times in every classroom that everyone needs to be able to silently pay attention to another person in the room, be it teacher, classmate, or whomever. I'm not sure how best to accomplish this.

We talk a lot in my room about why we need to act certain ways in certain situations. The consequences of our actions, especially when it comes to others. But how do I enforce this? It seems like any external consequence (demerits, detentions, name-on-the-board, whatever) cheapen the authenticity of my classroom. Is it possible to have an effective classroom management plan in place with real consequences that is also authentic?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Why I'd Rather Give a Student Some Intense YA than THE HUNGER GAMES

If you're not sure what this post will be about, please go re-read the title. And yes, follow the insinuation that The Hunger Games is not intense young adult literature. Sure, it's a fascinating read, and kids are eating it up. I love the fact that there's a popular series out there that is pulling in regular readers and reluctant readers alike. And schools are embracing this, as it is so common to see 7-12 graders reading this series.

And part of that sickens me.

Why? Because these are the same schools who may be pulling books from classrooms or libraries because they are "objectionable" in their themes or content. I can understand that not every book is for every person. But if there's one thing a really good YA book does, it offers a safe place for the reader to engage in some difficult scenarios.

I'm not going to re-invent the wheel talking about this. Check out what Laurie Halse Anderson (LHA) has to say about this: Open up the "Challenges to TWISTED" part.

Let's use Twisted as an example. First off, this book is not for everyone. There are many students who may not be great with this book. However, there are many more, typically reluctant reader boys, who need this book.

Why? This book talks, openly and honestly, about hormones, sex, suicide, teenage drinking, divorce, parent issues, bullying, and the struggle to find your own voice. And you know it does with these things? IT RESOLVES THEM. By that, I don't mean LHA puts a nice bow on each of them and says "this is what this means and how it should be handled." I mean she follows the choices of the characters through the consequences that result. So instead of having underage drinking happen and nothing result, we see where that can lead, in a very real way. Actions have consequences, and most of the book is about watching those consequences become wrapped up in each other, and finding a way to overcome them and get life back together.

In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins introduces a lot of other touchy subjects: murder, Communism, oppression, slavery, power, lying to further your own causes, suicide, sex, defying authority to name a few. And you know what? Most of these are left unresolved. Suicide is discussed as a positive option to giving in to an oppressive government. And this isn't dealt with; it's just there. Nearly every character lies, and in fact this is used to move the plot along. This is never resolved. Sure, we see some consequences, but many are just brushed over to continue the plot of the story. The brutality of murder is probably the only one from that list above that is adequately touched on.

To me, as a teacher, this is more dangerous than anything in Twisted. To read a dramatization of tough choices when the only consequences are the ones that lead to the desired resolution is not creating a realistic worldview for our youth.

Now, I think The Hunger Games are good reads if you're looking for something to read. But they're not going to change anybody's life. Good young adult literature has the ability to change someone's life for the better. However, it's often not given that opportunity to do so, because it is removed from the shelves before anyone who needs it has a chance to read it.

If we really did not allow our students to read anything with themes beyond the life experiences they've already had, there would be no reason to read anything at all. Not that it would matter; nothing would be read anyway.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Why Cutting Teacher Salaries and Merit Pay Cannot Co-Exist

There has been a lot of discussion and debate lately about teacher pay (though really, more mud-slinging than debate, from both sides involved). There's talk of "shared sacrifice" and how teachers are overpaid, and blah-de-frickin'-blah. The thing is, nobody wants to pay anybody less money. But the economy warrants such discussions. Okay.

But wait. Weren't we having the same conversations, just a few months ago, about merit pay? How good teachers should be paid more? There are certainly things to be said about both of these things -- cutting teachers' salaries and raising good teachers' salaries -- but let's look at just one big idea of each, with the understanding that neither idea consists of only the one piece I'm going to pull out. But it's a big piece of each of them.

Cutting salaries. One of the big ideas here is that teachers make more than their fair share of the public sector pot, so it makes sense to cut 'em a bit, especially in benefits and retirement, as that's what a lot in the private sector did a few years back (or never had in the first place). Underneath this, though, is the understanding that those who truly want to teach will teach so long as they can afford to do so. So as long as we don't cut too much (though for some, any cut will be too much), we'll still have those passionate teachers. And, don't you know, passionate teachers tend to be the ones more likely to engage their students, and those students will be better off. They may even test better. There's likely research to support this, but I don't have it on hand. The argument remains: cutting teacher pay will not cut our good teachers. They're motivated intrinsically by their own drive to teach and to teach well.

See where I'm going with this?

Merit pay. One of the big ideas here is that teachers who have proven themselves to be more effective (big can of worms there, but that's for another time) deserve to be paid better. Their results are better, they have shown to be more of a master of their craft -- let's reward them. And then, in turn, teachers will strive to become better so they can also earn some of this higher pay.

Wait. Let's rewind a bit here. If teachers are going to strive to become better to achieve a higher income, then that means that we're assuming good teachers are extrinsically motivated. They're going to be motivated by the money more than they are just the intrinsic motivation to teach well. Is this the same group of good teachers that is intrinsically motivated to not leave the profession under a lower salary?

I know teachers, good teachers, who would work harder for more money. They're in the minority. I know teachers, good teachers, who would leave the profession if they were paid less, even if they could survive on the new pay. They're in the minority. Most of us (good teachers) are not going to be severely impacted by changes in the pay scale. What we will be is outraged over being treated like pieces of a puzzle instead of people. We're outraged that our students are treated as mice in a maze, tested over and over and over again, and now it's finally our turn to be outraged on behalf of ourselves. We're outraged that even when we agree to pay cuts, it's not enough, and we need to not be allowed to bargain as a group.

Have the discussions that need to happen. Balance a budget. But treat those who are being tossed in front of the bus with some respect.