These are not necessarily respectable pursuits for a Middle School teacher, I’ll grant you that.
But this is not your typical post.
Because one of the questions in Scott’s list of questions we could blog about was this one:
- What are some of the lessons that we have learned over the past year(s) regarding technology leadership?
And here’s what I think we’ve learned from the past few years, and what we should be learning for the future. Which looks to be terrible, by the by. Let’s take it a few bits at a time. And let’s start with seven of the obvious ones:
The Seven Obvious
1) The Testing Is Destroying Schools
Look, this probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise. We’ve known for years that testing does enormous damage to children, to teachers’ morale, to educational standards. What I think we’re only just starting to realize is the extent of the underlying corruption of the system. Was anyone really surprised by the fact that if you buy the right textbooks, your kids are likely to do much better on the tests? When just a small number of companies produce nearly all the textbooks, and nearly all the tests, something was bound to go like this sooner or later. Houghton Mifflin claims a 38% market share, for example.… but would anyone buy those books if the kids who read them wound up failing the tests? The high-stakes testing goes hand-in-hand with high-stakes book-purchases.
2) If a Teacher can be replaced by a robot, he should be.
What I am, in the words of my father, is a good all-arounder. I’ve played English Teacher, Latin Teacher, History Teacher, Science long-term Substitute Teacher, Computer Science Teacher, Leadership Teacher, Rhetoric Teacher, Public Speaking Teacher, Sports Coach, Club Advisor, Newspaper Editor, and School Chaplain. Lately, it’s included Shop Teacher (even though my school doesn’t exactly have a Wood Shop or a Metal Shop). Paper Engineer. Graphic Designer. Academic Illustrator. Technical Advisor. School Philosopher.
None of these things are easily categorizable. I’ve learned things, and learned how to teach them to others. Even if every school in the country collapsed tomorrow — especially if every school in the country collapsed tomorrow — I feel that I would still be ’employed’ somehow. Parents would seek me out, and I would find myself working as a solo tutor to kids whose parents wanted to be sure their kids got an education. I am not a robot. I will not be replaced — and even if I am replaced in a school, I will still have students.
3) Jobs are disappearing in the “Recovery”
Despite the fact that Wall Street is churning out record profits, in which some stocks have risen 300% in value per year over the last 4-5 years — there seem to be an awfully large number of people without work. Not just, temporarily unemployed, you understand, but with no prospects of ever working again. I don’t live in a bad part of town, in a bad city. At least, that’s traditionally been true. But the guy behind me savages and salvages abandoned printers and TVs and radios on garbage day. He rips them apart and salvages the metal: the gears, the cogs, the screws, the copper wire, the pins and plugs and bits and bobs. Last week, another guy was going up and down the residential street, begging for spare change door-to-door. Still another guy was selling discount socks and underwear out of a shopping cart. The ‘shadow economy’ is growing, and it’s growing in my neighborhood, not just somewhere else, sometime else. There are some increasingly desperate people out there — I don’t doubt that some of them are near your school.
Perhaps they even work in your school.
Do we remember Central Falls High School, in Rhode Island? Allegedly things are better there now, three years after they fired all the teachers on the same day and essentially closed the school. But there are now schools in America where all the teachers get fired June 15th, and rehired August 29th. That crucial 2 1/2 month gap means that all employees are essentially non-full-time, year-round personnel — and so the school district doesn’t have to fund their health care programs or pension plans quite the same way. How can the teachers object? Most of them can’t afford to live in the same school district that hires them.
A guest at my dinner table — my own guest! (no hard feelings here, just astounded a bit) — suggested barely two weeks ago that we should start hiring “apprentice teachers” in K-12 schools, to ease some of the workload for the main-line teachers, and give ‘the kids’ starting out in this profession a chance to earn their chops. I was a little hard on my guest at the time, by pointing out that this is exactly how we wound up with adjunct professors in higher education living on foodstamps and cat food, and dying in homeless shelters. It is also, alas, the model for Teach for America, right? Pay them next-to-nothing, work them hard, send them on their way after 1-3 years to a better-paying job in a more-prestigious career?
4) Teaching is not a prestigious career in the US.
Do I even need to explain this one?
- Opinions of teachers in society as a whole
- Charts of Teacher Salaries, benefits and other comparisons within the profession
- Salaries of teachers compared with other professions
- Pensions and benefits of teachers compared with other professions
Didn’t think so. Moving on.
5) Cities and towns are trying to make up their own budget shortfalls by cutting school budgets
Again, does this need much explaining?
- Johnson City Reacts to School budget cuts
- New York City Cuts Charter School Budgets
- Philadelphia not adopting Doomsday II Budget… yet.
- Phoenix, AZ is running out of money
6) These Issues Affect Some But Not All Schools
I wish I didn’t have to say this. But I do. What I’m saying in the preceding five points doesn’t affect every school district in every city and town, in every state. But these points ARE causing effects on far more cities and towns and school districts and schools and teachers and students and parents than these brief summaries can allow. It’s not like this everywhere. Just, perhaps, Almost Everywhere.
7) It is going to get worse
I don’t think the United States is anywhere near the bottom of this current morass. Something like 11% of Americans still think Congress is a functional political body. Something like 26% of Americans believe the President is somehow illegally living in the White House. This week we had peaceful protests become riots in a place called Ferguson, MO, as police began to turn their guns on people exercising their First Amendment rights to assemble, and to demand redress of grievances. Twenty years ago, in 1994, it’s doubtful that I could have even known about Ferguson, MO as a place except in a US road-map, much less tried to understand what was happening as it happened. The fact that elected political officials still don’t understand the degree to which they are not in control of the messaging of these kinds of events, from Hurricane Katrina to these riots, indicates that most of the serious lessons about modern Internet technology are still yet to be learned.
That learning will be literally years in the making. At least two presidential terms beyond the current one. That’s a decade. A decade or more of this mess, and that’s assuming that something really terrible doesn’t happen in the meantime.
A colleague of mine says, “It’s about the kids. It’s always about the kids.”
And she’s right. Actually, he’s right. Actually, they’re right. Every time I’ve thought through the list of the previous seven items (and I’m sure you have five or six more that I haven’t touched on), some colleague of mine, male or female, has uttered these words or words like them, at exactly the right time to keep me from spiraling into despair. So I give them to you. Maybe I’m telling them to you at the right time — right here, right now, just before the start of the school year. It is always about the kids.
Last week in summer school, a couple of kids and I made a movie with no more than this set-up. The camera was thirty bucks (price is up since I bought them, but wait for the sales). The flash drive in the camera was ten bucks, thereabouts. The tripod was under $15. The paper from which we made our cartoon characters was ‘free’ from the stores of the school (and some of it was, I admit, salvaged from a dumpster behind a local printing company. Shhh.)
A broken whiteboard on the floor, a scene list, and 60-odd drawings with sharpies on paper cut-outs, and we made a six-and-a-half minute long movie.
I had never made a movie this way before, before last week. But I will do it again, for a number of reasons:
- The kids had fun.
- They learned something.
- They worked together as a team.
- They thought they each could teach someone else how to do it.
And this final point, to me, is critical. The Seven Obvious points suggest that our world is in great trouble, and that the adults, the ones allegedly in charge, are too busy wrestling with who gets to own the rubble. They are paying no attention to the kids.
So here’s my advice, if you want to be a technology leader.
But most of all…
The evidence of the Seven Obvious shows strongly that it doesn’t matter whether you keep your head down and hide from the coming changes, or whether you plant your feet and face them like they were an oncoming tsunami. The changes are coming to get you. If you cower in the corner while your students try to learn without your help, then you’re going to get swept away in the current. If you’re helpful and positive and encouraging with your students, you’ll be remembered and thanked one day…
But you have to be out in front. You have to be showing the way.
Make General Computer Learning your goal for the 2014-15 school year. Make sure your kids know how to use a spreadsheet to do their mathematics homework. Make sure they understand how to use it to balance a checkbook. Show them how to use it to plan play practices and movie shooting schedules. If you don’t know how to do this, experiment and figure it out.
No one taught me how to use a spreadsheet this way… I figured it out. (By the way: Movie Shooting Schedules: Very important. Names of your cast and crew members in the A column, dates of your movie schedule in the B-DD columns, individual jobs and scenes to prep for, for each day and class, in the grid that forms between the person’s name and the date. Block out in red the part of the grid when any student is out for the day or unavailable ahead of time — black out any day the cast member doesn’t show up and is needed.)
Follow the Surgeon’s Model:
- See One
- Make One
- Teach One
The more you make, the more confidence you have with your computer skills, the easier it will be to get buy-in from your students. Show them what you know, show them that this is not very much to start with, show them where they can go for help. Use the documentation, use the examples, find tutorials online, use a classroom projector to show the tutorials when you don’t know how to do it yourself (if you have a projector).
Be Kind, Be Just, Be Fair. It’s always about the Kids. Keep Leading.