The War on Teachers by Christina Knowles

hands_bars_prison_jailBy now I’m sure everyone has heard that eleven Atlanta teachers have been convicted and sentenced on racketeering and other charges associated with conspiring to cheat on state standardized tests. This scandal shocked the nation and teachers for different reasons. While the nation shook their heads in disgust at the dishonest actions of those entrusted with the education of their children, teachers nodded in understanding—I don’t mean to say that they condone their behavior in any way, but we certainly understand it.

If you haven’t heard, eleven teachers apparently changed the answers on student standardized tests and passed them off as student work. The failing school where they worked reveled in the jump in student achievement, and when they were caught, all the major news outlets attributed their motivation to bonuses and incentives—but immediately, I was skeptical. There is no way any teacher would risk losing his career, punishment by the law, his ethics, and waste years of education for accolades and a bonus.

It didn’t take long for the truth to emerge. According to Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post, this was not likely the motivation. In her April 1, 2015 Answer Sheet blog, she attributed their actions to “pressure to meet certain score goals at the risk of sanction if they failed” (Strauss PG 1). This might sound ridiculous to anyone who is not a public school teacher, but every year incredible pressure to outscore the year before is placed on teachers who are threatened with losing their jobs or having their schools shut down based on these scores.

I know what you’re thinking—Why don’t they just focus on doing a better job teaching? For an American school teacher in today’s society, meeting the impossible and ever-growing demands of this thankless job is not even remotely possible. Meeting the minimum requirements of a public school teacher demands a 14-16 hour day, and in reality, teachers could work round the clock and never catch up with what “needs” to be done.

Most of a teacher’s day involves actually teaching in the classroom, then meeting one-on-one with students, contacting parents, attending meetings, and copying the material they stayed up until midnight the night before researching and writing. Every night and weekend consists of grading hundreds of papers, lesson-planning, reading and researching for future lessons, and contacting any parents that they ran out of time to contact during the day. Maybe, if there is any time left over (yeah, right), they will analyze data and make plans on how to reach individual students who are struggling. An American high school teacher today has between 150 to more than 200 students to reach individually.

Today’s students are not the students of yesteryear, further complicating the job of the teacher. Today’s students have had it drilled into them that everything is the teacher’s responsibility. If they are not learning, then the teacher needs to adjust the way he teaches. If it is hard, then the teacher needs to make it easier. If he is failing, then Mom and Dad need to set up a meeting with the administration and give the teacher more responsibilities, such as typing up notes, modifying tests, and creating lots of alternate assignments to make sure the child succeeds, even though these accommodations don’t result in anything except a meaningless diploma—and lower test scores. Today’s students are allowed to be disrespectful in class and disrupt the learning of those who are trying with very little, if any, consequences for their actions. The teacher has no power to enforce detentions or any other punishment, and with the implementation of Standards Based Grading, students receive no negative consequences for ignoring homework. Sure, they will fail the test for lack of practicing their skills, but they can just take an easier, modified version of it after they Google the answers. If a teacher won’t allow this, Mom will set up a meeting. Maybe she will even get that teacher fired. And this does not even take into account attempting to mitigate the damaging effects of poverty, violence, and apathy with which some students deal on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, with every new requirement, with every new impossible expectation, worn out, stressed teachers continue to try and meet every demand for two reasons: They actually care about the kids, and they spent years preparing and doing this job and don’t want to throw it all away and start a new career. If only I can make it to retirement and collect my meager public employee pension, they think, I can just substitute teach, because even though they love the kids and the content, they only have so much to give.

Combine this with a struggling economy, student loan debt, and medical care for their acquired stress-related illnesses, and demoralized, unappreciated, and harangued teachers just may be beaten down enough to compromise their ethics and cheat when threatened by demanding administrators and superintendents to deliver the scores or be fired.

According to Strauss, this was likely the case when Atlanta public school superintendent, Beverly Hall, who died shortly before the trial of the eleven teachers under her supervision, refused “to accept anything other than satisfying targets [that] created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students’ education” (PG 2). Hall and her top administrators did not threaten job loss just once before the crime was committed. This atmosphere of fear and oppression continually built over a period of several years to the point that when the cheating began, it was encouraged through fear and reward. Teachers who blew the whistle were quickly fired, while teachers who cooperated were awarded with praise and bonuses, in effect, creating a hostile environment of coercive practices by those in charge (PG 2).

One of these eleven teachers avoided jail time by making a plea deal and giving up the right to appeal, another managed to receive weekends in jail, and the rest received up to seven years in prison (Calamur PG 1). It is unbelievable to me that they would receive any jail time! College students who cheat on tests don’t even fail a class anymore, but we are going to throw the book at a few emotionally broken-down teachers trying to keep their jobs?

Of course, Hall is not here to take the responsibility, although surely she bears more of the guilt than any of the teachers, but in my estimation, the true responsibility for this disaster of public education lies with the government. Every year there are new rules and responsibilities to contend with, new threats of losing funding, new batteries of endless tests, all which serve only to further corrupt and destroy the system of education for our children. Why are they not on trial? Why are they not held responsible for declining scores because they are the true cause. They started this wrecking ball rolling in the path of every public school in America, and teachers and students had better get out of the way because it doesn’t appear to have any intention of stopping. Why should it, when teachers make such a convenient scapegoat?

So, yes, I understand why they did it. I get it. And I don’t think they deserve to spend one day in jail. In fact, I think they should sue their district and the government for creating such a hostile work environment and coercing them to cheat (I won’t even call it a crime because that is so ridiculous). These are not criminals. These are the used and abused teachers who loved our kids, who year after year, gave everything they had and more to help them succeed, and we said it wasn’t enough.

Although I work in an honest district where the strictest protocols for testing are followed, and no one even hints at altering tests, we still feel the ever-growing pressure from the state, and so do our students. The more tests we have to give, the more, understandably, the students rebel. During our last testing session, half of my students drew pictures instead of answering the questions or just held one letter of the keyboard down and filled the page with gibberish. They don’t care anymore. They want to be more than a test score. They want to do more than take tests. They want to get excited about something that inspires them to learn.

Luckily, I teach in a district with a principal who is supportive and understanding, yet even as this is the case, we, as teachers, feel the pressure. So, would I ever be tempted to change answers? Cheat on a standardized test? Fortunately, I am not even tempted. Not because it is such a detestable crime, not because there is no one telling me to, but because I just don’t care anymore. That’s what this system has done to me. Much like the students, I don’t care if they pass or fail a stupid state test. I do, however, care about them. I care that they learn to think and to communicate. I care that they find a passion and pursue it, something that will inspire them to passionately investigate.

So, that’s what I teach them, and if my kids fail the tests, then they can call me a bad teacher and fire me. So what? I am a teacher. A public school teacher is highly employable because they are skilled and intelligent and capable of working long hours in the worst conditions. We put up with abuse, disrespect, and blame while never letting it change our love for the students or how we interact with them. Anyone would be smart to hire a former teacher because we are highly educated, critical thinkers, creative, good communicators, great at thinking on our feet, and excellent multi-taskers. Go ahead and fire me for low test scores and bad evaluations based on impossible tasks. You’d be doing me a favor. The only thing that worries me is who will replace us? Who will they get to teach our precious children when they have driven the last of the good teachers out of the profession?

We can say these eleven teachers were bad, and we are lucky to be rid of them, but our system made them in to what they became, and then turned them into yet another knife to stab at the profession. But I won’t make them the scapegoat. It’s time to stop blaming teachers, or we won’t have any teachers to blame. –Christina Knowles

Originally posted in 2015

Sources

Calamur, Krishnadev. “Jail Terms Handed To Most Atlanta Teachers Convicted In Cheating Scandal.” The two-way: BREAKING NEWS FROM NPR. NPR.org. 14 Apr. 2015. Web. 23 Apr. 2015

imgbuddy.com. Photo of jail hands. web. 24 Apr. 2015.

Strauss, Valerie. “How and why convicted Atlanta teachers cheated on standardized tests.” Answer Sheet. The Washington Post. Washingtonpost.com. 1 Apr. 2015. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

Atheists on High Live-Streaming Event

atheists-on-highJoin me on October 12, 2016 at 7 pm (Mountain Time) as I guest co-host Atheists on High. According to host, Skeptic Bret, “Atheists on High is a four man wrecking crew, assembled to dig into the hard conversations that everyone has in their head when nobody is listening.”

This is sure to be a lot of fun, and hopefully enlightening, as we delve in to topics such as separation of church and state in our education system and any other topics that happen to inspire us at the moment.

This is a rowdy crew and tends to be explicit, so parental guidance is suggested.

Follow Atheists on High on Facebook to get notifications for the live-streaming podcast.

See you there!

Originally published in 2016

May To-Do List for Teachers by Christina Knowles

owl teacherThis is the time of year, as a teacher, when every well-meaning acquaintance mentions how lucky you are to have the summer “off.” Although we teachers certainly do anticipate this break, this is one of the most annoying things you can say this time of year. In my mind, I think that they are imagining me excitedly making plans for travel to places where I will spend lazy days sleeping in hammocks with the cool breeze drifting over me, and when I wake, I stroll through the sand and take a quick dip in the deep blue of the South Pacific before spending an evening in a cozy eatery, bursting with the aroma of Caribbean recipes and the rhythms of live, authentic local music. But alas, this is not the reality of my summers. My May to-do lists do not include making any sort of travel plans with the exception of an overnight trip to my nephew’s wedding or booking an overnight hotel for a required teacher training in Denver, where instead of sleeping in a hammock, I will be sleeping in a hard plastic elementary-school style chair with the impression of the keyboard of my laptop embossed into the side of my face and eating college cafeteria food for dinner. Truthfully, by the time I get through my May to-do list, I am far too haggard to plan a trip to the store, let alone to an island get-away. “What’s so tiring about May?” you ask. “Testing is over, right?” Well, here is a typical end-of the-year to-do list for a high school teacher.

Week 1:

  1. Collect 250 final essays (You planned ahead and told the students that there would be no late work allowed after this date, so that you would have plenty of time to give detailed feedback before final exams.)
  2. Instead of grading your papers during plan, go to 6 IEP and 504 exit meetings.
  3. Instead of grading your papers during plan, stand in the parking lot during a fire drill.
  4. Instead of grading your papers during plan, upload proof to the state that you taught them how to write the papers you collected.
  5. Instead of grading your papers during plan, email 48 parents whose children did not turn in the final paper.
  6. Instead of grading your papers during plan, answer phone messages from parents asking you to take late papers from students who would do nothing but play on their phones during class.
  7. Print out awards for next week’s nighttime award ceremony for those students who make your life worth living.
  8. Rummage through your closet for a dress to wear to the prom you have to chaperone. None of them fit because you haven’t had time to eat anything but fast food for 3 weeks.
  9. Go to prom instead of grading your final papers on Saturday night.

Week 2:

  1. Finish writing your final exams and modify them for the SPED department, print them, copy them, and send a copy to both the SPED department and to your administrator.
  2. Notice the typos and do it again.
  3. Attend the award ceremony, hug your students, shake hands with their parents. Today is a good day to be a teacher. I’m happy.
  4. Wake up late the next day and leave with a mismatched pair of shoes on because you’re exhausted from staying late the night before.
  5. Plan logistics of the graduation ceremony, sunrise breakfast, and senior bonfire. Why did you ever agree to be a senior sponsor?
  6. Feel like a big mean jerk as you tell 6 crying students you can’t take their late papers because you are preparing them for their future heartless college professors. You break down and take them anyway.
  7. Call in sick to grade 256 papers and get your oil changed before your car blows up. By the way, you really are sick too.

Week 3:

  1. Race through the end of the unit and review all units before the end of the semester.
  2. Go to your evaluation meeting and find out that you weren’t working nearly hard enough. Maybe you can cut out watching TV on Sunday nights.
  3. Supervise 3 nighttime senior events and the drama play your students begged you to attend.
  4. Show up to first period the next day in mismatched clothes and notice your shirt is on inside out.
  5. Meet with 3 angry parents who want their students to pass your class even though they only attended it 6 times the entire semester. You are too tired to argue about it.
  6. Grade senior final exams and finalize grades before graduation.
  7. Attend two bridal showers, a baby shower, and a wedding over the weekend.

Week 4:

  1. Administer final exams to the non-seniors and control their wild end-of-the-year behavior while grading 190 final exams.
  2. Make a casserole to feed thirty people for the potluck that is supposed to save you time during finals by freeing you from making one peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
  3. Finish grading final exams and more late work.
  4. Spend Saturday attending the graduation ceremony. Cry as you hug and say goodbye to students you taught for 4 years. This is a bittersweet day.
  5. Spend Sunday doing the laundry you haven’t had time to do for 3 weeks.

Week 5:

  1. Finalize end-of-year grades while answering 32 emails from parents who would not previously return your calls for two months.
  2. Grade late finals of students who went on vacations during final exams and came back to take them late.
  3. Turn in grades, file 1,000 handouts to re-use next year, clean desks, remove posters from walls (as if they were going to paint), remove everything from book shelves, stack desks, chairs, inventory room, and get 37 signatures from people you cannot find in order to check out.
  4. Go to staff meeting and find out that everything will be different next year, so over the summer you will need to re-write all of your unit plans, attend a training, and read 3 new text books.

So, while I am sure I will enjoy the overnight trip to my nephew’s wedding in the mountains, I don’t think there will be any hammock naps in the Caribbean this summer. I might take a week off to sleep before starting those new unit plans. I might take a day to work on my résumé and fantasize about getting an easier job. Maybe I could do something less stressful like be a cop, a corporate executive, or a surgeon. It’s just a pipe dream, though. By the end of the summer, after re-writing these units and reading these new texts, I’ll be excited to start it all over again. Well, maybe excited is too strong a word, but you get the picture.—Christina Knowles

“Teacher” by Christina Knowles

“Teacher”

pail

There’s nothing quite like the light in the eyes of a student

Understanding dawning unexpectedly

A signpost revealed on a destined journey

Previously lost, the way revealed

Better still, enthusiasm kindled

The desire to know just for the sake of knowing

I can see it when our eyes meet

Suddenly and unanticipated

A kindred spirit

I see the spark glimmer

Sharing the love a favorite poem

An incredible novel, words that move and stir

Words that burn and change them

The philosophical depth of Thoreau

The insight of Dickens

The straightforward profundity of Steinbeck

And then . . .

The birth of something new

The product of a student’s pen

The baring of a soul, the beginning of knowing

Who they are and what they have to say

To a world listening, eager for a relationship

Between writer and reader, poet and philosopher

There’s nothing better

A new writer, excitedly asking you to read his work

The pride in his eyes as you express your awe

In the phrases he creates

A new Whitman is born

And I contributed a verse

To the inspiration of a new generation

The state can’t document this on a form

But I know what I’ve done

Evaluate away

I’ll be right here, creating the Emersons of the future

My job is to find the spark in a student’s eye

And start the fire.

—Christina Knowles

Student Loan Nightmares by Christina Knowles

college-loan-debt-roommateAs the next presidential election nears, everyone is talking about college, taxes, the price of tuition, and how those struggling to enter or maintain their positions in the middle class are going to pay for an education. Some are rather harsh in their criticism of those who may not have the gumption to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, something one might note that is quite impossible. Others note that one must hang on to something to leverage his pull up, but that it does require effort. Still others suggest an elevator be made available to everyone hoping to rise.

Traditionally, federal student loans, I think, have been put in that middle category—an aide to the motivated and responsible individual, a way to invest in one’s future with a concrete reward at the end, which enables the individual to pay back that debt after becoming a productive and valuable member of our economic system. Everyone wins, right?

Well, my student loan nightmare really began in grad school. I scraped my way through undergrad courses with no help from my family and through no fault of their own. My father was a WWII disabled veteran, who was denied benefits, and I knew I couldn’t even ask for help paying for college. I finished two associate’s degrees by working my way through and paying as I went, in addition to a couple of very small loans. I paid those back immediately and took another small one to transfer to a university. After twenty-four credit hours, and with a 3.9 GPA, I finished my bachelor’s on an academic scholarship. Like many who do not fully understand that student loans are not really meant to help, but are a means of profit for the lender, I deferred them and took another to start my master’s because everyone knows to make a living as a teacher, you must have at least some grad school.

When I finished my Master of Arts in Creative Writing, I was already teaching, but I took another loan to get my teaching certificate to work in the public school system, taking all my education classes for graduate credit, while simultaneously beginning course work on a Ph.D. in order to teach on the college level. By the time I got my teaching program finished, I was a single mother on a teacher’s income. When I took my loans, I was married and fully expected I would have no trouble paying them back. But as life routinely shows us, things don’t always turn out as we expect. It was time to face my student loan nightmare.

I get it. I took the loans; it’s my responsibility to pay them back. I am not a deadbeat, a freeloader. I am someone the system was meant to help. I am an intelligent and motivated person who came from the wrong side of the tracks, grew up in bad neighborhoods, had no hope of going to college. Now I am a highly educated and productive member of the middle class who has not been unemployed in the past thirty years. Still, I do admit, however, that I think that college should be free for all academically inclined citizens because it levels the playing field, provides opportunity for all, helps to eliminate the caste system we say we abhor, educates our citizens so that they can participate in the political process, allows us to compete with the world in science and innovation, and increases the ideals of freedom and democracy. An educated people raises the overall health of the economy as well. We need our citizens to be educated—not just for their sakes, but for our country’s health. Nevertheless, I took my student loans with the intention of paying them back, which I am now doing. I just had no idea that it would have been better to put my college education on a credit card than going through our federal programs. Of course, I wouldn’t have been able to get any other type of loan because we save all the good deals (low interest rates) for the people who don’t need them. But mainly, our generation was fibbed to, if not exactly lied to. We were told that student loans were great. They existed to help. They were low interest, were easily deferred if you ever had a financial hardship, you did not have to worry about paying them back until you could afford it. To the naïve poor girl with big academic dreams, it sounded too good to be true. It was.

Dealing with the government loan system has become quite similar to owing the mob money. Here is one brief example that is typical of my experience with them.

A couple of years ago, the company who owns my direct government loans (yes, they sold them to a for-profit company), suddenly, inexplicably changed my name, address, phone number—everything— back to my previous information from twelve years ago, and sent all correspondence to my ex-husband, including some important information regarding paperwork that had to be completed by a certain date. I never got it. As a result, they deducted $1500 from my checking account instead of $300. When I called to complain, they realized their error, and put it back after about a week of having an empty account. I had asked them to refund the $1200 and keep my regular payment that was deducted each month. They put it all back instead, and then sent me a notice that I missed a payment, so they capitalized my interest, added $20,000 to my loan, raised my payment and my interest rate, and said, “Suck it.” I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that was their attitude.

This was not an isolated incident either. Due to paperwork errors that had nothing to do with me, my interest and payment has been raised periodically. Then, about two weeks ago, I went on my loan site to check it (because now I check it all the time with great fear and dread in the pit of my stomach), and I noticed that all my information was once again back to my ex-husband’s information, even though I am remarried and have lived at my current address for eight years. In a state of panic, I began the process of phone calls, emails, and faxing information, wondering how many thousands of dollars would be added to my loan this time.

Long story, short (too late, right?), I borrowed about $55,000 for one degree $40,000 for another, and after paying over $15,000 back, I magically now owe $152,000. At least as of yesterday. Last week I owed $151,000, and I have no idea how it went up a thousand dollars in a week. I’ve never missed a payment or submitted one late. In fact, it’s on automatic deduction. When pressed for explanations, the loan personnel go into impossible-to-understand details about capitalization (Did I mention I was an English major?) and the fine print on my thirty-two-page loan documents. My payments are now about $800 a month, but I never even touch the principle. I hope to utilize the ten-year forgiveness plan for public servants, but hope is really too strong a word for this cluster—k. In truth, I have little hope of this “loan forgiveness” ever being realized because the loan company will, no doubt, continue to sabotage my efforts. They have even lied to me about special teacher programs when I asked to apply for them.

For some naïve reason, I thought that government loan programs were there to provide opportunities to those who would not be able to go to college any other way. I idealistically thought that, as Americans, we wanted an educated society, if not for the altruistic reasons we claim, then at least to raise the general level of the economy in order to compete with other countries in the world, and finally, because having the majority of its citizens educated is the best way to ensure freedom and democracy for a country. Clearly, I was wrong. We want to offer education to our citizens as a carrot to wave before them, teasing them with a better life than that with which they were born, only to yoke them in an indentured servitude from which they may never be free.

As politicians speak of free college and more and more high schools are offering free classes for college credit, what will we do about the scores of us who have already gone to college, and will never be able to retire because long after our homes are paid for, if we can even afford a home, our student loans will still linger on? My mortgage is much less scary than my student loans because I don’t have to renegotiate it every year, they don’t constantly raise the payment, and I can sell my house if I can’t handle it. I can’t give back my education. Look, I’m not a deadbeat. I want to pay back my $95,000, but I am a public servant. I teach other people’s children, I work long hours, I work after work—unpaid, I go years without a raise, and I make much less than those with the same education in other careers. In the midst of all this reform, may I simply suggest that the exorbitant interest be removed from the loans of those of us who did not have these opportunities available to us? At least remove that $20,000 added for a mistake that was not even mine. Or do something about that unexplained $1000 increase in just one week.

I have a full-time job as a public high school teacher, I also teach part-time at a college, and I get paid a little for my writing, but my student loan is always there, hovering as some dark force over me, and it’s the single most stressful thing in my life. The harder I work, the more my payment goes up. If I had a home loan for $95,000, I would have a fixed rate I could afford. It would have an end date. I would be paying part of the principle every month. I am not a deadbeat just because I want—no, I need— retroactive student loan reform, and these payment plans of 10% of income don’t work for two reasons: they continue to snowball interest out of control, and they discourage people from getting ahead and making more money. Someday I can hope to pay $1000 a month to my student loans, all the while the principle goes up with no end in sight.

If our government can bail out corporations and corrupt banks, they can forgive the interest on previous student loans, which in my opinion, is nothing more than illegal usury with the government as kingpin and the private loan companies as mob captains and leg-breakers. At the very least, it is government sanctioned indentured servitude. This is the 21st century; let’s catch up with this rest of the free world, and stop pretending our failed systems are part of a healthy free market society, or if we truly care about the financial health of our citizens, show it.—Christina Knowles

Generation Z: Is There Hope for the Future? by Christina Knowles

Generation Z Generation Z. We’ve heard a lot about them. And a lot of it is true. They are glued to their phones and computers, they prefer snapping pictures of the board to taking notes, and generally they would rather Google answers instead of reading a book. They are realistic and question the system they’ve been brought up in. They question tradition and think for themselves. And they are the sweetest, most compassionate, and socially conscious generation I’ve ever encountered in my teaching career.

My students realize what kind of world they live in, and they don’t accept the failed solutions of previous generations. They are cynical about bureaucratic systems, but they are idealistic about the world. They know they need to make money, and they usually have a plan of how to make it, but they want to make it while changing the world for the better.

They want to do something meaningful with their lives; they want to serve the community with their careers. Not like the Peace Corp hippies (which I love, by the way) of the past, but through their innovation and creativity.

Generation Z-ers are looking for ways to create the next big thing, the next big thing that will make them lots of money, and the next big thing that will slow climate change, feed the poor, and feed them organically. They want to cure cancer and AIDS. Or maybe invent the next trendy technology, and then donate a portion of the proceeds to a charity like some of their favorite socially conscious companies—Be Good, Fair Trade Winds, and Toms. Somehow, they learned to care about others even with their noses in their phones, maybe even using those phones to learn about what needs changing.

They are accepting of other people more than any generation I’ve ever seen. For the last couple of years, I’ve seen a change in the classroom—students who are kind to people who are different, students who have compassion for the developmentally and physically challenged, who have understanding and respect for their LGBT neighbors, and kindness for the socially awkward. Of course, there is a bully or a bigot here and there, but these kids are the most socially sophisticated people I have ever met. They discuss differences in civilized tones, make friends with people completely different than themselves, and stand up to these few bullies that rise up around them. This gives me hope for our future.

So, these kids may live at home with their parents a little too long, they may lazily Google their homework, they may decide college is too expensive after weighing the costs, and they may question everything I tell them (I love that, by the way), but our future is safe in their hands, and we definitely can rest in the knowledge that this group won’t simply cast aside the previous generations as useless because they are way too nice for that.

We can also trust them to find solutions to environmental problems, stand up for animal rights, fight for the rights of every oppressed group, they will raise their hands when they disagree with us, and jump up to help the transgendered kid who dropped his books. They will politely quote a philosopher they discovered on Reddit, Vine, Medium, or whatever social media site they are currently using. They will throw out our old ideas along with our misconceptions of their inability to take care of themselves and prove us right when we say, “Kids these days—there really is hope for the future.” –Christina Knowles

Why I Still Do It by Christina Knowles

IMG_3551 With all the changes in the public education system, with all the increased time demand and responsibilities, with all the blame and disrespect aimed at educators today, some people ask me why I still teach, especially because I actively speak out about problems in the educational system. The truth is I continue to teach for a lot of reasons, but the simple answer is that it’s who I am. When I am in the classroom, I love it. I think I even need to do it. Even if I won the lottery, I would continue to teach at least one class. I don’t speak out because I hate teaching, I speak out because I love it, and I hate what people outside the classroom are trying to turn it in to. I speak out because somebody has to stop the damage before it is too late, too late for current students, and too late to stop good teachers who love teaching from leaving the profession. But this article isn’t about that. It’s about why I do it anyway. What is it about teaching that keeps me coming back for more, no matter what unreasonable working demands are placed on me by the state? I can’t speak for other teachers, but I suspect we have some of these things in common.

Surprisingly, I never intended to be a teacher. I went to college and majored in English Literature because I loved to critically read—everything, the classics, contemporary fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, political commentary, philosophy, everything . . . and I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t feel confident in my skills, so I thought I needed an education. In addition, I believe a well-rounded liberal arts education is good in general. A liberal arts education helps a person look at the world with new eyes, not only critical and informed eyes, but with appreciative eyes. I went on to earn my Master’s degree in Creative Writing with the intention of being a novelist and screenwriter.

IMG_3330  However, along the way, I sort of fell into teaching, looking for more “time” to write while still earning a living. That’s quite funny to me now. I’ve never worked so many hours in any other career. But anyway, I entered the classroom at a private school that did not require a state teaching license with zero experience teaching and not even one class in education under my belt. Nervously, I faced my students that first day with an idea in mind of what I wanted them to learn, and then I just started talking, talking about my favorite subject, English. I loved it! All of it—the literature, the grammar, the writing, the reading, the speeches, the debates, and the critical discussion. And I adored my students. I loved getting to know them, listening to their ideas, hearing their dreams, their problems, and inspiring them to learn. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to share what I was most passionate about all day, every day. I even enjoyed grading papers. I loved reading, encouraging, and advising students about how to make their work creative, interesting, organized, and purposeful. To this day, I have to force myself to limit my comments on work to realistically grade it all because, left to my own devices, I would write an essay on each essay.IMG_3320

Teaching seemed to come naturally to me. I think I am good at it. Like many good teachers I know, I frequently get comments from students that they understood something for the first time in in my class, or saw something in a completely new way. I keep in touch with a lot of former students, and I am always touched by comments from those who say I was a major influence in their lives, students who are now doctors, lawyers, grad students, writers and aspiring writers, and future politicians. This is the most rewarding thing about teaching.

So after a couple of years, I went back to school and majored in Education: Curriculum and Instruction, obtained my state licensure, and began teaching public school, which has been even more rewarding from the standpoint of reaching a more diverse population of students. I’ve been teaching for 15 years and don’t realistically see myself ever completely leaving the classroom, although I do wish I had more time to write—that will always be my first love. But this love of writing, I believe, makes me a better teacher as well.

American Lit  One thing that motivates me to continue to teach is that I am a serious academic at heart. I think about everything in excruciating detail. I analyze, deconstruct, reassemble, interpret, compare, contrast, and relate to my life and the world everything I read, hear, or see. I just can’t stop. I frequently get the question, “Can’t you just enjoy it [movies, books, art] without thinking about it so much?” The answer is that I do enjoy that; it’s why I enjoy watching movies, reading, and art, and because I’m married to a musician, I’m starting to do this with music as well. I hope that my enthusiasm for my subject helps my students to connect to literature on a deeper, more critical level, which in turn, will make them more critically thinking individuals in every aspect of their lives.IMG_3162

Teaching English is good me for another reason as well. I am somewhat introverted with people out in the “real” world, but teaching gives me the much needed intellectual conversation that I am often unable to attain in social situations. I know it sounds like a contradiction that someone who talks all day is actually an introvert, but it is quite common. Introverts spend a lot of time thinking and have trouble engaging with what they see as unimportant or trivial “small talk.” It takes a lot of energy to talk about nothing. However, talking about something deep and intellectual is energizing. The problem is that people don’t typically jump into these types of conversations, and by the time I’ve awkwardly engaged in several minutes of small talk, either I’m exhausted from the effort, or they are. Although I know they are just trying to be polite, I actually dread attending events where I know I will be asked the usual teacher questions: “How’s school going? Are you ready for break? How are the kids this year?” I don’t think they really want to know, and I certainly don’t want to talk about it. I don’t think they realize how many times a day I have to answer these same questions.Prom

Conversely, intellectual conversation fuels my thought-life. Discussing literature and writing organizes and clarifies my own thoughts as well as sparking new ideas. I learn things and get new ideas from my students all the time. I get to have important conversations that many people don’t seem to want to engage in outside of the classroom. I get to have interesting conversations with people from all kinds of backgrounds and interests, from different races, cultures, and life-experiences. This excites me.

It’s true, I have numerous friends and family, including my husband and my book club friends, who are always up for some meaningful and intellectual conversation, but as a teacher, I get to engage in this all day long! I love this so much that teaching alone is not enough. I am involved in several discussion groups with adults from book clubs to philosophical discussion groups, the Diversity Forum to cultured interest groups. My new favorite thing is teaching at the community college, where we take diversity of experience and worldview to a new level. After teaching high school all day long, I teach night classes at the community college—two in a row, and it actually gives me more energy. If my entire job consisted of nothing but time in the classroom, no one would ever hear me complain.

So when you hear a teacher complaining once again about how difficult his job is, or how he must deal with increasing pressures from every direction when all he really wants to focus on are his students and their needs, don’t assume he hates teaching or think he’s a bad teacher.Rachel and Sierra

And if you run into me, please, don’t ask me how school is going, or you may get one of two responses: the stock “fine,” or a tirade on the evils of Common Core testing twice in two months. Instead, ask me what I’m reading, what I think of Nietzschian philosophy, or my thoughts on whether or not The Patriot Act should be renewed, but only if you really want to hear the answer. But most of all, please don’t tell me that “dealing with all those teenagers must be horrible” because that is the best part of teaching. And if I deteriorate into complaints about the Department of Education, lack of funding, or having 500 papers to grade by Monday, don’t assume I take it out on my students. I wouldn’t dream of it. They make all the bad stuff go away, one fabulous paper, one sincere thank you, one inspired dream, and one great discussion at a time.—Christina Knowles

Choosing Contentment by Christina Knowles

 

Courtesy of Pinterest
Courtesy of Pinterest

I have decided to like my job. It just seems easier and far more pleasant than hating it. I am a high school English teacher, and I absolutely love my subject and really love and enjoy teenagers. But lately, the insane expectations placed upon teachers by the government, the critical blame-laying on teachers, the lack of accountability on students, the absence of respect for the profession, the inability to obtain fair compensation, and the sheer magnitude of the workload all soured me on my vocation. With all that weighing on me, it is all too easy to forget what I love about it. However, having fourteen years invested in this career and a huge student loan debt, I cannot just change careers or quit. Furthermore, I am a person who likes to be happy, and focusing on these negative, albeit real, aspects of my job won’t really get me there. I choose to be content, regardless of my circumstances. The best way to attain contentment is to be grateful for the wonderful things we have. With that in mind, here are the things I love about being an English teacher:

  • Reading: I love literature, just about every genre and time period. I read for enjoyment, and I read to learn new things or to understand things more deeply. I love to analyze it, speculate about it, interpret it, talk about it, and criticize it. I get to do this in my profession almost every day.
  • Writing: I love to write–fiction, non-fiction, poetry, anything. Most of us forget a lot of what we learned in college if we don’t use it, but teaching a writing class allows me to keep up good habits and practice the techniques I teach my students. Teaching keeps what I learned fresh in my mind and ready to use in my personal writing. I also love teaching my students what I know about writing and seeing their talent and creativity flourish. My creative writing students love my encouragement and get so excited about their writing. This enthusiasm is contagious and helps me to want to write every day as well. Right now my creative writing students and I are working on compiling short stories for a class anthology that we intend to publish as a free ebook. I love these kids. I feel like we are kindred spirits when I work with them.1492499_10202398236311367_1034169101_o
  • Grammar and Vocabulary: These are often considered to be the drudgery of English class, but I love them. I enjoy diagramming sentences and figuring out really difficult grammar questions. Learning new words along with the students is a benefit of my job. Having a large vocabulary makes me a better writer. It also just makes me feel intelligent. I like that feeling.
  • Argument and Reasoning: Discussing rhetoric, logical fallacies, and philosophical thought are extremely satisfying activities I am able to include in my lessons. One of my favorite things about my job is the journal topic discussion I have with my science fiction literature class every day. We discuss important and controversial philosophical, political, moral, and social issues daily. The students can voice any opinion they have as long as they can logically defend it. They love it, and so do I. Again, kindred spirits. All of my classes learn to logically support their arguments. Logic is good. I feel like it makes the world a better place. The world could use more logic.1500811_10203176068396683_1291760977947750353_o
  • Academic and Professional Environment: Working with an intelligent group of people who are all educated in the same discipline is a stimulating experience. There is never a lack of informed conversation, and we all are eager to help each other and share our ideas. The people in my department are a lot of fun as well. There is never a lack of clever author quotes, puns, double entendres, or witty aphorisms. We even take our practical jokes to the next level, academically, of course. Over lunch we dissect our favorite shows, such as The Walking Dead, and analyze them for plot and character development, and of course, thematic significance. What else would you expect from a room full of English teachers?

When we have to work evenings, with the exception of parent-teacher conferences, it is usually to supervise a concert, a play, attend a sporting event, or to participate in fun activities with the students, such as our Jeopardy-like competition, Knowledge Bowl. Working late is a regular occurrence for teachers, but I have to say it’s not as bad as other jobs I’ve had.

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  • Students: I left this one until almost the end because it is truly the second most loved aspect of my job. I love my students. Well, most of them. I’d have to say that out of five classes, I have only a handful of students who are really a pain. Every year I think that my students are the best I ever had. Every year I meet such sweet, kind, funny, and engaging kids. They make me laugh and smile every day. I miss them when they graduate, and we often keep in touch, sometimes becoming good friends in their adulthood. I have to admit that they really do bring joy into my life, and I hope I do the same for them.
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  • Breaks, Snow Days, and Holidays: The absolute best thing about my job! I work in a district with a modified year-round schedule, so I get two weeks off for fall break in October, two weeks off for Christmas break, two weeks off for spring break, and about six weeks off for summer (the students get eight, but teachers usually have training, staff development, and start a week early to get ready for the year). We don’t get paid for this time, but it is so worth it and necessary. I honestly could never do my job without this recovery time. But mostly, I need it to write, which is my passion. I don’t know of any other job for which I would be qualified that would allow me this uninterrupted stretch where I can focus totally on my personal writing consistently for several weeks at a time. A lot of teachers travel during the breaks, but I use it to work on my novels and spend more time with my husband.

Snow days are gifts from Heaven throughout the winter in Colorado. The thing I love most about snow days is that they are totally unexpected days off. I don’t have any plans, nothing I was counting on doing at home, so it really is a day off. If I take a day off, it is always to get something done, but a snow day is perfect for watching movies or reading with no guilt–and no sub plans! The worst thing about taking a day off when you are a teacher is planning for a substitute, and then coming back and finding that they didn’t do anything you asked, and now you are behind. I do have to admit, though, I often grade papers on snow days to catch up, but the beauty is that I don’t have to. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be any worse off than if I had to work. In addition to that, we get all the major holidays off with pay. Having worked retail in the past, I can really appreciate this benefit. Without breaks, I don’t think any teacher could endure the rigor and demands of the job. At many low times in my career, the thought of upcoming breaks was the only thing that kept me from quitting.4599_1112432185140_818882_n

So there you have it, or should I say, there I have it? After all, this was really about convincing me that I love my job in order to obtain contentment in my life. I think it worked! I really do. Focusing on the positive is more than a mind trick. The good things in life are always there all the time. They just become obscured when we pile on the negativity so thickly that we can no longer see through the dark haze we created. I don’t mean we actually create the negative things–oh, they’re really there, believe me. But we don’t have to let them obliterate the beauty and joy that is also there. At least I choose not to, not anymore. Life is too valuable and wonderful to live like that, so from now on, I choose contentment.–Christina Knowles

Pediarchal Culture: The True Causes of the Downward Spiral of American Education (Part I of III) by Christina Knowles

601288_10151639540830639_216435886_nI have been an English teacher for 14 years. I was a middle school teacher for ten, and a high school teacher for four. When I started, I believed I had found my calling. I love my students, I am passionate about my subject, but I have become increasingly disenchanted with the system of education in this country. I have witnessed, first-hand, the deterioration of this system over the past several years, despite, in fact because of, the constant efforts of both educators and government agencies to revamp the system and “fix” this seemingly insurmountable problem. Why doesn’t anything we do work? Why are we in a constant state of change? And why are we driving experienced and qualified teachers out of education faster than we can graduate naïve young idealists to replace them? Well, there are a number of reasons, in my humble opinion, and that is just what this is, an opinion. I haven’t done double-blind studies or charted any statistical analyses. But I have observed trends over the course of 14 years of teaching that are undeniable to common sense. I will attempt to relate those observations and interpretations to you in the least offensive way I know how. Why would it be offensive, you may ask? Because there is going to be some blame, and as Americans, we all share in this catastrophic cultural shift in one way or another. The recent trend is to lay the blame at the foot of the teachers. This is clear by the implementation of recent laws such as Colorado’s Senate Bill 191, which basically holds the teacher accountable (and only the teacher) for the success or failure of each student, and is responsible for the requirement of a new, insane teacher evaluation rubric. If you don’t believe me, just wait, and I will show you exactly how ridiculous this rubric is. However, that will be covered in Part II and III of this blog because this topic is so large that, out of necessity, I have divided it into three parts. So for now let us focus on the main problem because the second is merely a grasping-at-straws-reaction to the first. The main problem is America’s transition from a patriarchal society to a “pediarchal” society, a society ruled by and existing for the pleasure of children.

I may not have conducted and documented my own studies, but I have done a little research into this subject and was not surprised to find evidence that confirmed my belief that a cultural shift in the way we treat and view children is at the source of the problem with education in this country. Here is how the Center for Excellent Living describes this shift in values:

“Traditionally most cultures have given authority to the elders, who through experience and  education have become wiser people and more discerning when making decisions. However, our western society has become both “pediarchal” and hedonistic. We’ve given family authority over to the children, and our desires are for their “happiness” at all costs.

The flaw in this is that our parents have become fearful of a child’s sorrow. Children are permitted to make decisions that counter the parent’s wisdom because it may infringe on the child’s happiness. This creates conflict and struggle; a home of tension and frustration” (Center for Excellent Living).

How this shift affects education should be obvious, but I will go into detail later. But first, more research.

According to an interview with Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, conducted by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, there was a significant shift in the culture of parenting beginning around the late 19th and early 20th century, that was necessary, but has gone so far in the opposite direction as to redefine parenting. Senior describes this historic transformation as beginning with the protesting of child labor laws. Historically, in many cultures, children were seen as a source of income. Of course, most parents loved their children, but they often purposefully planned to have them to help run the business, farm, or add to the financial stability of the family (Senior). No one denies that these reforms were good and necessary, or that children should not be servants brought into the world in order to prosper their parents, but this pendulum has swung back the other way so far that now parents have become indentured to the fulfillment of every whim and desire of their children. It is not uncommon, in fact it is normal, to hear parents complaining of working second jobs, extra hours, or foregoing their needs to buy the latest in designer clothing, the most popular gaming system, or to purchase a new car for their children. Parents often sacrifice their own retirement funds or go into debt to foot the bill for their child’s education. Somehow they think they owe it to their child because the child never asked to be brought into this world, and therefore, it is the parents’ responsibility to ensure the happiness and success of their children. Does this sound ludicrous to anyone but me? How about being grateful that you were brought into the world at all? That you were fed, clothed, and sheltered until adulthood?

According to Senior, who quoted Princeton sociologist Vivian Zelizer, after the legislation regarding child labor, “Children became ‘economically worthless and emotionally priceless,’ exalted creatures at the center of our lives,” which sentimentalized children in a way that has progressed through the years into the child worship we see today. Senior goes on to say that before this trend, parents would expect to provide food, shelter, and childhood education because there were no public schools.  Of course, the well-to-do might send their children to college, but this was rarely the case.  It was not until the 1940s that the majority of American children even began to graduate from high school in a public setting.

Gradually over time, parents began to see their roles as parents become more child-focused. We see popular trends today of parents “dating” their children, in an innocent effort to model how a girl should be treated by dating her father, but which strangely elevates the child to equality and indirectly puts her in competition with the mother. These parents are obviously not familiar with Oedipus. This modeling used to come from the child observing the father treating her mother with respect and kindness, not being “dated” by her father herself.  We also see this shift in the term “housewife” becoming “stay-at-home-mom,” and mothers in the home shifted their focus from creating a stable home environment, being in the background but available if her children needed her, providing time for creative play and allowing imagination to flourish, encouraging independence, allowing their children to struggle through their homework before offering assistance, to the other end of the spectrum, feeling as if she had to spend every waking moment catering to the children, playing with them, driving them constantly to practices and activities day and night, and sitting at the table “helping” with homework, that more often than not, is actually doing the child’s homework (Senior).

As a result children do not even expect to have to think anymore. They want information spoon-fed to them, and anything that does not come instantly is too hard. I see this daily in my classroom, perfectly intelligent 17 and 18 year-olds who want the stories read to them, interpreted for them, and when given the task to critically think or analyze a piece of literature, they simply sit and stare, ask me repeatedly for the answer, or turn to their neighbor for help before even trying. When I refuse to give in, guiding them in the direction of how to begin, asking them leading questions, trying to spur actual thought, they give up and say they will take it home and do it, which is not an option in my class. I have even had juniors and seniors, when receiving poor grades on a homework project, say indignantly, “Well, my mom made it,” without even seeming to realize that this is cheating. Then the parents demand special accommodations, modified testing, type-written notes handed to the child, and open-note tests, using the notes that the teacher provided. Special education used to be about helping the children learn, but now it is about ensuring that the student passes, so the children don’t feel bad and ruin their self-esteem. In my opinion, there is not one intervention of which I am forced to implement that does anything other than enable the student to do nothing and still pass. And now anyone and everyone can get accommodations just by having their parent complain about the work. I have so many students on accommodations and modifications that I cannot keep track of who they are. God forbid that their children have to struggle through figuring out how to solve a problem. And if all this doesn’t result in excellent standardized test scores, and why would it? then it must be an inadequate or lazy teacher’s fault.

But I digress. As time went on, this trend metamorphosed the duties of the parent. It became the parents’ job to nurture their children, then they became responsible for instilling self-esteem, and finally for making them happy, which is an impossible task as happiness is an elusive goal at best, and much more so for a spoiled child. But this began to be an expectation for parents. In fact, if you are not willing to sacrifice your happiness for your child’s today, you are considered a deficient person. Centuries ago, they would have found this notion absurd, and it seems to me that their children were probably happier, and most assuredly better educated, at least in life, if not calculus. Children now see themselves as entitled to happiness, and we as parents, are required to deliver. Sociologist William White coined the term “Philiarchy” to describe how children rule us through our love for them (Senior). The trend in this direction has continued to the point where we are seeing a significant backlash in our society; the consequences are a disrespectful, unhappy, and undisciplined generation, who don’t know how to make themselves happy and will not take responsibility for their own learning. The obvious result of a parenting style that demands that the child be protected from all negative experience, the self-esteem be protected at all costs, and states that the child’s happiness is the utmost good is that the teacher will bear all responsibility for any deficiency in a child’s performance at school. Holding the child accountable may damage their self-esteem.

Now, I realize that this is not true of every child or family; however, it affects every child because they are still influenced by the culture surrounding them. It is true that there a couple of uncharacteristically curious children in every class, who are motivated to learn or perform despite these influences, and there is, once in a while, a legitimately learning disabled child in a class who needs a different learning environment to succeed, but for the vast majority this isn’t the case. The few children who buckle down and put actual effort into school despite their average abilities invariably come from homes where parents put discipline and expectations above the child’s happiness, and ironically, these children seem happier than the others who have the freedom to fail and blame the teacher. These children will be prepared for life, they know how to work for success, to problem-solve, and accept their mistakes, so which parent actually is showing more love for their child?

Schools, at a loss to explain how they are keeping up with changing times and equipping themselves with new strategies to educate the modern student who supposedly learns differently (as if this were the challenge), frantically implement one completely absurd and logic-defying plan after another in a vain attempt to pacify the angry parents who demand that their children receive the education he/she is entitled to, even though they are not willing to put any effort into the obtainment of said education. This reactionary system of school administration will be the focus of Pediarchal Culture: The True Causes of the Downward Spiral of American Education, Part II.

Sources:

“Are We Having Fun Yet? New Book Explores The Paradox Of Parenting,” Fresh Air, Interview by Terry Gross with Jennifer Senior. Accessed: http://www.npr.org/2014/02/04/271416048/are-we-having-fun-yet-new-book-explores-the-paradox-of-parenting  Date Accessed: 2/14/14.

Center for Excellent Living. http://excellentliving.net/98days-2/parenting/. Accessed 2/14/14

Senior, Jennifer. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.  New York: HarperCollins, 2014. Book link: https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=xTgHAQAAQBAJ&source=productsearch&utm_source=HA_Desktop_US&utm_medium=SEM&utm_campaign=PLA&pcampaignid=MKTAD0930BO1

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