Archive for the ‘teaching & learning’ Category

a year goes by

I definitely had this thought around lunchtime: if I don’t post something today, there will be nothing in my archives for 2014.

I often think of the poem I used to have pasted in the front of my journal, way back when I wrote in a paper journal with glittery gel pens, and its description of unrecorded days slipping away like bits of cleaving ice into a dark ocean. if a day is an iceberg, what is a year? perhaps an entire small continent, disappearing under the swells of a relentlessly rising ocean?

2013 was the year I became a mother, but 2014 was the year I became a working parent, and for me at least, that has been a whole different level of mothering. in a way, it’s been the thing that has fulfilled all the platitudes about having a baby when merely having the baby failed to do so. it’s hard, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. at least once a day I find myself questioning the decision to do it at all. at least once a day I find myself thinking that if I didn’t do it, I’d be missing out on some of the most important and rewarding parts of my life. it’s exhausting. it’s exhilarating. it makes me wonder who I am and what happened to the person I used to be. it makes me feel like I’ll never be enough. it makes me feel like a superhero.

last week, one of my students gave me a christmas card. inside it she wrote, “I’m sure you are the kind of parent your students wish they had.” the truth is I often think about it the other way around: I hope I’m the kind of teacher I wish my daughter will have.

I’ve been trying to fulfill those hopes and wishes for a year now. it’s hard work. it’s good work. and when I look back at my mostly unrecorded year, I don’t regret it. this was a landscape worth exploring.

(I do wish I’d been better about journaling. maybe I need to tape a poem to my laptop.)

thoughts on career teaching

there is an article in yesterday’s new york times titled “at charter schools, short careers by choice.” this phenomenon is not news to anyone who works in education, nor is it completely unique to charter schools. my own teaching career, now at the very beginning of its second decade, still feels relatively short to me, but it has been long enough to make me one of the most senior teachers at my school, and to see me through some significant changes in perspective. being a first- or second-year teacher, especially when you are 23 years old and only beginning to understand the world of adulthood, is in many ways a completely different experience from what my job is now. the most consistent part of that experience for me has been that teaching is always interesting, often fun, and more rewarding than it is demoralizing (though it’s both, on a regular basis). most everything else has changed.

when I started teaching, I understood on an academic level that my more grown-up colleagues, the ones with mortgages and families,  had different priorities from my own. I grasped the reasons that they might be less willing than I was to spend thirteen hours straight in the school building, or more reluctant to answer weekend phone calls from students. but at that point, I have to admit that I couldn’t really imagine why I would want to dedicate less than 80% of my waking life to my job. it felt good to fully immerse myself, because teaching truly and honestly was the most important thing in my life and I liked it that way. now, even though I don’t really want to be separated from my classroom or my leadership roles at school for an entire year, I am already dreading the thought of leaving my twelve-week-old baby, and I can’t imagine that feeling will become any less intense once she is actually born. teaching is never really easy, on the whole, but there were times when it was easier to do something so hard. (and I don’t mean to imply that parenthood is the only thing that is significant enough to be more important, either. everyone’s life expands, whether or not it is because of babies.)

so as someone who truly wants to be a career teacher — to retire from the classroom, not to resign from it — of course I am offended by the idea that my job can be done just as effectively by newbies, and of course I am worried about the aspects of it that feel less than sustainable. but those thoughts and feelings are old hat by now, and don’t really need to be hashed out any more. instead, here are a few less navel-gazey reactions I had to the times article and its accompanying avalanche of comments.

1. wendy kopp is just wrong. this is what she said: “Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers… The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”  this idea is borderline delusional. can you become a good teacher in two years? yes, and I think all schools should make a point of “developing their teachers tremendously.” but if greatness means reaching your full potential — or at least approaching the vertical edge of that asymptote — then you can absolutely not become great in the classroom in two years. I’m not really sure you can do it in ten years. I know I haven’t plateaued yet. when I read this quotation to spider, he said, “no. people who just became great at something don’t quit doing it right away.” I think he has a point. 

2. the alternative is not 30 years of mediocrity (or worse). you see this argument in the comments a lot, or sometimes from educators themselves: better to have someone young and talented for two years than leave a terrible teacher in the classroom for thirty years! or my high school teachers were all old and burned out, I wish I’d had somebody who actually cared. I agree with those statements, at least in the sense that I think teachers who are perpetually unsuccessful or unhappy should stop teaching. the idea that teaching is something you can’t be passionate about or good at for more than a few years, though, is both sad and wrong. professional development for young teachers should be designed to help them become good, quickly, but not to the point that they are completely spent by the time they are 25. we should build their capacity, not overflow it. more veteran teachers like me also need support to continue to develop, because I think the feeling that I am still getting better at my job is one of the things that makes me want to keep going. (and if you haven’t seen it, here’s a report from TNTP about retention of the most effective teachers.)

3. there’s nothing wrong with remaining a teacher. the article mentions a 27-year-old principal who oversees a (small) staff where more than 50% of the teachers are in their first year. being an administrator is undoubtedly a very different job from teaching — honestly, I would leave education altogether before I would take an admin position — and I believe that young principals can be good at their jobs. but truthfully, there is something weird about being evaluated and counseled by people who have significantly less experience than you do. obviously, basic math dictates that this will eventually happen to any veteran teacher who stays in the classroom until retirement, but I’m not sure it should happen so frequently to teachers in their first ten  years. the idea that there is something bigger and better out there than “just” teaching is based either on an undervaluation of what teachers do or an overestimation of what everyone else does. I’m not saying teachers matter the most, but they absolutely don’t matter any less than principals, chancellors, or superintendents. (or doctors. we lose a lot of our young science teachers to medical school.)

4. teacher turnover affects more than just student achievement levels. it’s frustrating to be constantly trying to hire new teachers. it can feel futile to pour two years of support and collaborative work into a new teacher only to have to start again when that person leaves. it’s been harder for me to improve as a department leader than as a teacher because I feel like I keep starting over. of course, none of that is as important as how it affects the students. they notice when teachers leave, and they often express a sense of abandonment when reminiscing about the teachers they had in 9th grade who are gone by the time they graduate. that matters, and it’s something that no amount of intensive preservice preparation, natural teaching talent, or high test scores is going to make up for.

my taxpayer-funded salary

writing about my job is not something I normally do here, for two reasons. one is that I believe the details of my students’ lives, however anonymous or small, are also private, and should be shared only privately. the second is that, as I’m sure everyone has noticed, being a public schoolteacher is on a certain level an intensely political act, even if you don’t want it to be, and while I am fiercely opinionated, punditry makes me uncomfortable.

I have nothing against facts, though. and while I understand that I am just one little data point, and that one data point does not a trend make, one data point can also go a long way towards disproving a false hypothesis. so I would like to share some information.

if you watch the daily show and/or fox news and/or almost any news, these days, you’ve heard the argument that teachers make too much money and don’t work as hard as other people:





you know, I’ve been appalled by fox news for a long time now, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt injured by it before. this is probably a failing on my part; maybe I should have been taking things more personally all along. I just want to say a few things, with a few numbers. [I’m doing much of this math in my head before sunrise on a saturday, so feel free to check it for me.]

I started teaching in the fall of 2003. I was unpaid leave for a little while, working on my phd full time (though I was also in nyc public school classrooms continually throughout throughout that time, in supportive and research-based roles), so my salary right now is based on six years of full-time work. (I am actually eligible for more pay than I am getting based on my continuing education credits, but… sometimes people aren’t very good at doing paperwork correctly, and that is all I will say about that. I don’t feel terribly upset by it and someday I will try to fix it.)

it makes my father nervous when I say anything here about money, but I need to do this for the sake of the data. (sorry, dad.) according to my W2, in 2010 I made $57,961.78 before taxes. living in new york city, I pay a fair amount of taxes, and my after-tax income was $39,320.52. this salary does include some hourly overtime pay, for doing things like covering other teachers’ classes, running after-school homework center, and serving as my school’s data specialist and science department chair.

this next part is going to take a little bit of estimation, and I will try to do it conservatively. on a typical school day, I get to work at 8:00 in the morning. I prepare materials (for myself and sometimes for other science teachers too), take the chairs down, maybe do some grading, gather my attendance sheets from the office, and set up my classroom until 9:00. I teach science from 9:00 until 11:45. I have a (daily) planning meeting with the 9th grade science teacher, and then I teach advisory from 12:34 until 1:15. my lunch period is from 1:15 until 1:45; although I am not required to be with students during this time, I always, always am — giving them extra help on assignments, talking to them about whatever they need to talk about, signing out laptops to them so they have a chance to check their email. then I teach my last science class of the day from 1:47 until 2:37. after classes end, I meet with the principal, run homework center (this means actively teaching kids in small groups, in addition to managing the large group of students, usually with the help of other teachers), meet with other science teachers, attend professional development, and/or meet with my grade team, depending on the day. it is usually after 5 pm by the time I am in my classroom by myself. from 5 pm until about 7 pm, I grade student work, plan lessons, make photocopies, clean up lab materials, answer work emails, manage the science department (budget, materials, ordering, trainings, PD, etc), enter attendance and grades into my gradebook, write recommendation letters for students applying to colleges or jobs, enter data for school- or grade-wide projects, and generally catch up on all the administrative, paperworky details that I haven’t been able to think about all day because I was working with other human beings for the past eight hours.

there are some atypical days in one direction or the other every so often, but let’s say that I work 10.5 hours at school, on average, every day. (that helps balance the fridays that I leave at 4:30 for happy hour.) 180 school days times 10.5 hours per day = 1,890 hours of work.

just to be extra, extra conservative, let’s not worry too much about the work I do at home, because that’s much trickier to estimate. some mornings I do an hour of work before I leave for school. some weekends I grade or plan for twelve hours. depending on the season, sometimes I even teach at school on saturdays to help the kids get ready for the standardized test at the end of the year. but some weekends I don’t do any sort of work until 8 pm on sunday and even then it’s just to update a grade team googledoc. so let’s just add an extra one hour of work per school week, done outside of school — an almost laughably lowball estimate, but that’s okay — which means 40 more hours. so we’re up to 1,930 for the year so far.

I also work in the summer. not a ton, but some, mostly doing large-scale curriculum revisions and coming in to school for occasional meetings or interviews if we are hiring new staff. let’s say 2 hours per week in the summer, on average, which means 20 additional hours. 1,950 total work hours for the year.

of course lots of people work more hours than that, but my conservative estimate has gotten me to within about 50 hours per year (or 12 minutes per day) of a standard, 9 to 5, 50 weeks a year job. and lots of people take work home with them and don’t get paid for doing it, which is why I haven’t accounted for very much of my take-home work at all.

so how much is my time worth? if you divide my salary by my total yearly work time, it looks like I make:
$29.72 per hour before taxes,
$20.16 per hour of which I see after taxes. (I like and believe in paying taxes, for what it’s worth. even if way too much of it pays for war machines.)

now! that is not a shabby salary and it is an awful lot better than what I made as a first-year teacher, when the starting salary was below $40K. and I truly feel like I have nothing to complain about–I love my job, and this is enough money to pay my mortgage and my bills–especially considering how poorly paid many of the city’s workers are. new york state minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, so I make over four times more than minimum wage workers. as a single person with no dependents, I get that this makes me relatively well off in this country (but let me remind those of you reading from somewhere outside of new york city that the cost of living here is… high). I don’t feel poor. I don’t feel underpaid.

but does anyone honestly believe that what I do isn’t worth thirty dollars an hour?