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 III of III) by Christina Knowles

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This is the final installment of a three-part article on the causes of the deterioration of American education from a teacher’s point of view. Part I discussed how a cultural shift has taken place in American families, wherein the desires of the children and their happiness have become the primary goal of parents, resulting in a “pediarchal culture,” a society ruled by children and devoted to their contentment at the cost of doing what would actually benefit them in the long term. The inevitable backlash of this cultural change is that parents become angry with the schools when their child fails due to the the child’s learned lack of responsibility, blaming the teacher for the failure. Part II of this article begins the discussion of the school administration’s response as well as the government takeover of education in reaction to parental demands for student success. This has resulted in constant upheaval and numerous changes to methods and requirements for teachers to accommodate theses families, effectively removing all responsibility from the students and placing it unfairly on the shoulders of the teachers. It has resulted in a barrage of new legislation such as No Child Left Behind, individual state standards, Colorado’s Senate Bill 191, and the new Common Core standards adopted by 45 states so far. It is my contention that none of these things will do anything to improve education, but will, in fact, make things even worse because teachers and the way they teach were never the core problem. The core issue is parents refusing to hold their children accountable for what they do in school. This reactionary revamping of schools will drive more and more qualified and committed teachers from education, even though this constant fusillade of government interference is highly controversial.

Here is an excerpt from The Denver Post by Krista Kafar that illustrates this government over-reaching: “The federal government has taken an active role in promoting Common Core by awarding millions of dollars to states that have, among other things, adopted the national standards. Although the government is barred by law from exercising ‘direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum,’ its financial incentives (the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund was a pretty big carrot) and continuous bully pulpit have been quite persuasive” (Kafar, The Denver Post).

In theory, I have absolutely no problem with common standards, or even standardized testing, for that matter. What I do take exception to is the teacher being made to shoulder the sole responsiblity, while at the same time, removing all control of the classroom from said teacher, and demanding so much from the teacher that no human being, even working 24 hours per day could meet these requirements.

If you have not read Parts I and II, I suggest that you read those first before continuing.

Part I: https://disturbingtheuniverseblog.com/2014/02/15/pediarchal-culture-the-true-causes-of-the-downward-spiral-of-american-education-part-i-by-christina-knowles/

Part II: https://disturbingtheuniverseblog.com/2014/02/22/pediarchal-culture-the-true-causes-of-the-downward-spiral-of-american-education-part-ii-of-iii-by-christina-knowles/

Part III will continue examining the new teacher evaluation rubric for Colorado teachers based on the Common Core standards, which proves how teachers are unfairly held accountable for things out of their control.

The new teacher evaluation rubric idealistically grades the teacher on, not only the children’s behavior, but the behavior of the family. Take a look at these items for which teachers are now responsible for their students’ families:

FAMILIES AND SIGNIFICANT ADULTS WILL:

–Discuss student performance with the teacher.

–Participate in school-based activities (How can I possibly be responsible for this?)

–Partner with the teacher to support student strengths and address next steps for learning.

I cannot force families to do any of these things, yet my job depends on their cooperation.

 Now let’s look at some things for which the teacher could be responsible, if we lived in a world with 48 hour days. Unfortunately, we are held responsible for these things in an average 8 hour day:

 THE TEACHER:

–Monitors and evaluates personal behavioral changes to determine what works for individual students.

–Advocates for the inclusion of teachers and families in education and government decision-making processes.

–Collaborates with professional, governmental, and/or community agencies to advocate for curricular, school and instructional improvements. (Obviously this would have to be on the teacher’s personal time)

Advocates for students and the school to external agencies and groups.  

–Participates in school activities expected of all teachers.

–Supports school goals and initiatives. (whether or not they agree with them, often knowing that they will not work)

–Contributes to school committees and teams (on their own time).

–Collaborates with school-based teams to leverage the skills and knowledge of colleagues and families.

–Initiates and leads collaborative activities that partner with families to coordinate learning between home and school.

–Collaborates with professional, governmental, and/or community agencies to advocate for curricular, school, and instructional improvements (on their own time).

Yes, all of this is required to keep my $47,000 a year job in addition to my responsibilities of instructing in front of a class for 5 hours per day, planning lessons, creating tests and assignments, copying them, and attending meetings for 2 to 3 hours per day, grading papers for 3 to 4 hours per day (which is not nearly enough time to complete them), after-school tutoring for 1 hour, contacting parents and documenting evidence for 2 hours, inputting and calculating grades 2 to 3 hours, reading required books, continuing education to keep my license, and on and on. As you can see, my job REQUIRES a minimum of 15 hours per day to do only the essentials, but these other tasks have been added as if we had unlimited time to devote to our jobs, and even if we did, many of these things are impossible because their completion assumes the cooperation of third, fourth, and sometimes fifth parties. In addition, Colorado may well find itself in some legal hot water because I believe holding teachers to the contents of this evaluation rubric violates existing labor laws, and I am at a loss as to why union representatives have not sued to remove it altogether.

All of these things standards are ideal, but to believe that one teacher can control or would even have the time to attempt to control all of these things is unimaginable. But it is now state law that I am to be held accountable for all these things in my yearly evaluation, in addition to my students’ achieving good grades and state testing scores. Added on to that, it is my task alone to provide the hundreds of documents to prove I have met all of these impossible tasks, which in itself would be a full-time job. And all of this does not take into account behavior issues for which the teacher is solely responsible, managing with less and less support from administration every year. If a child is disruptive, disrespectful, or even violent, it is a strike against the teacher for failing to manage discipline, even though we do not hold the power to affect or enforce any consequences on the students, such as suspension, detention, or any other disciplinary measure. Often students return from the office after being referred by the teacher and brag how no consequences were given. Once a student returned to my class ten minutes after throwing a desk at me with no disciplinary consequences. The level of disciplinary support differs with every administration; however, to tie the hands of the teacher, and also expect him to control his classroom is irrational. It is even more ludicrous to expect learning to occur in a classroom where there is no disciplinary support for the teacher. This level of support changes from year to year as principals come and go.

Teachers are increasingly losing control over the curriculum and the grading method employed in their classrooms as well.  With the advent of Standards Based Grading in many schools across the country, teachers have to prove they are testing in the exact same manner as another teacher regardless of teaching style or level of students, even when there are several learning disabled students in the classroom. Standards Based Grading put an end to holding students responsible for homework or other formative activities. They are graded solely on meeting the standards on summative tests and projects, but the issue of motivating students to participate in formative activities with no grade attached is a persistent problem. Even though teachers can demonstrate to students that those who complete formatives and receive feedback achieve higher grades on summative assignments, this is little incentive to a hormonal teenager given the choice to do their homework or not. In addition, students are allowed to do nothing for weeks and then turn in assignments for full credit, essentially reducing motivation for keeping up with learning throughout the semester. Standards Based Grading is a nightmare of grading for the teacher as well because students are allowed to re-do everything, even tests, so most students do not even try the first time, knowing they can re-take it after they have had a chance to see it. This effectively doubles grading. If the teacher does not want the student to take the exact same test after the student has had a chance to memorize which answers are incorrect, then she has to write an alternate test, again, effectively doubling the teacher’s work. However, in my opinion, the worst problem with Standards Based Grading is that a student is only held accountable for what they know, not what they do. This is a dangerous lesson because nowhere else in life does anyone care if you are as smart as Einstein if you refuse to contribute anything to society with that knowledge. Standards Based Grading teaches students that behavior and responsibility do not matter; only knowledge matters, which creates an impossible learning environment. Without disciplined behavior and responsibility, knowledge is not acquired.

Supporters of Standards Based Grading like to quote statistics from obscure studies done in areas that do not represent the typical American school to say that students’ test scores went up, but these studies are not representative, as I said, of the general population, and they do not take into consideration real-life skills in the work place, such as meeting deadlines and studying for tests, nor do they prepare a child for the demands of college. Quite the opposite. Our students are in culture shock when they go to college, and when they have to take their own notes, pass the test the first time, and turn in their essays on time with no chance of re-doing them for full credit. These studies do not follow these students to college to see if this method has really benefited them in any meaningful way. However, the toll on the teacher is obvious every day. It is no wonder that more and more qualified teachers leave the profession every year.

It is popular to say that teachers don’t do it for the money; however, with so little respect, reward, or support, teachers are increasingly opting out for more lucrative positions where the workload is manageable, efforts are appreciated, and expectations are realistic. I recently got my W-2. I went up a “step” in pay for another year of experience, which used to be about $900 in a year. I was frozen in pay for four years, so I was happy to finally get a step raise. However, before the district gave us a step, they lowered the pay of all the steps. According to my tax return, I made $100 more for the entire year. Somehow I don’t think that’s kept up with inflation and cost of living or my insurance increases. Through all the years of being frozen for one reason or another, I am paid as a teacher with seven years experience, even though I have taught for fourteen years. Every year my classroom sizes get bigger, I am required to shoulder more responsibility for things out of my control, forced to implement methods of grading and teaching with which I may not agree, and it is literally impossible to complete my required tasks in a 10-12 hour day, even though I am paid for an 8 hour day. And if you might be thinking that at least teachers get all that paid time off, you are wrong. We have zero paid vacation. We are paid for the number of contracted days in a school year, and then it is disbursed in twelve equal payments. We are not paid for summer break, spring break, fall break, or Christmas break, although most teachers use their breaks to catch up on work that is impossible to finish at any other time. Despite all this, most teachers struggle to do the impossible because they care about kids and don’t want to punish them for a failing system.

Indeed the situation is grim, and I have very little hope in it turning around. It is highly unlikely that this pediarchal culture will reverse itself anytime soon, but it will inevitably run its course, and the pendulum will begin to move in the other direction, but probably not in my lifetime. However, I do believe there is an answer. The government needs to give control back to education professionals, and those education professionals, specifically school administrators, need to allow teachers to do what they were originally intended to do. They need to be able to use their time to plan, create, and implement engaging lessons, and give the necessary feedback to students. They need to empower the teachers, so that they have control over their classrooms, to support them in matters of discipline, grades, and accountability of students. If they want to judge our efficacy on standardized test scores, so be it, but if we are to be held accountable for test scores, let us teach in the way we know works, rather than experimenting with some logic-defying new method every year. I am perfectly willing to be judged on test scores if I have control over my curriculum, my methods, my discipline, and my grading. I know what works for my kids, and I don’t want my job constantly threatened by people who have no idea what they’re talking about, and I do not think it is fair to be held accountable for the success of something I knew would not work from the beginning.

Speaking of useless efforts, I heard on the news the other day that the government is considering spending a proposed $100 million dollars on teacher evaluation. You have heard me complain about a lot of things in our education system, but you have not heard me mention the lack of funding. That’s because although everyone wants to focus on money, all the money in the world will not fix our deteriorating educational system. Yes, our class sizes are a problem, technology is limited, schools are old and in need of renovation, new schools are needed, and teachers are underpaid, but that is not the source problem. We need to counter our pediarchal culture by standing up to parents to do what we know is right for students. Parents will either realize that their child has to live up to expectations or fail, or they will have to find alternative education. Let them. When the scores come up, and students begin achieving, they will be clamoring to get back in. As for money, cutting waste and reducing extraneous administrative staff (and schools are full of them) would solve the money problem. Every year, as we suffer through another year without a raise, our district adds another useless administrative position. If schools were responsible with their money, residents would pass more of their bond measures.

As for me, I am considering leaving education like most teachers I know. I doubt the pendulum swing will happen soon enough for me. Until then I will try and do my best for students and enjoy them for who they are, and attempt to set personal boundaries, leaving work at work whenever possible, regardless of the insane expectations.–Christina Knowles

Sources

COLORADO STATE MODEL EVALUATION SYSTEM FOR TEACHERS . Colorado Department of Education. http://www.cde.state.co.us/sites/default/files/TeacherRubric.pdf Accessed: 2/14/14

Kafar, Krista.  “Kafer: We may be too hasty in instituting Common Core.” The Denver      Post http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_25201453/we-may-be-too-hasty-instituting-common-core#ixzz2ufsrwZRO  Posted: 2/22/14. Accessed: 2/28/14.

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