because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Teachers

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image from google.com

I have a friend who, after two years as a full professor, is back down to adjuncting part-time due to budget cuts. A former student of mine earned his degree in math and special education and has been subbing for two years in an outstanding district, but he simply can’t seem to get his own classroom. And even though I am (currently) employed by a local community college, I recently decided to conduct an experiment to see if I, with my soon-to-be twenty years of classroom experience, could land even a part-time position in any school district within a desirable radius. I updated my resumé and cover letter and applied to four local school districts.

Did I get a bite?

Not one!

At first I was bitter, but now I understand. There are too many teachers and not enough jobs.

What does this mean? Well, theoretically, it could be a good thing for our children. If the pool of applicants is supersaturated, then – hopefully – the weakest candidates will be tossed away quickly, making way for the cream of the crop to land in our nation’s classrooms which, as we all know, are badly in need of help. Alas, I suspect it means that many positions will be “excessed” causing more teachers to scramble for fewer positions. It means greater numbers of students will be squished into classrooms, which will make it harder for them to learn. It means less adult supervision in the place where we really need them to receive specialized, individualized attention.

Meanwhile, I know plenty of people who have given up. Though stellar students themselves, each having received outstanding reviews during all phases of their student teaching experience, each has decided to leave the dream behind. One former student of mine just took an entry-level position at an editing/publishing company last fall, after three years of looking for an elementary school position. She sent out hundreds of resumés, attended dozens of encouraging interviews, but just never could seal the deal. For years, she worked as a substitute teacher, earning $75-85 a day (with no benefits). I think she files and makes people coffee now. Seriously. I’m not kidding. To do these things, one does not necessarily need to attend college.

“It’s ridiculous,” my former student says, “Spending all that money for an education I can’t use has been beyond frustrating. But really I had no choice. I needed benefits. And I needed to make money.”

How can we continue to allow good students to go through graduate school to become educators if the jobs are not there for them when they come out the other side?

So, my little experiment, though simultaneously interesting and humbling, meant little for me. I am one of the lucky ones: I have a job that I love.

For now, anyway.

tweet me @rasjacobson

My Brain is About To Explode

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Do You Remember?......Call
Image by rogilde – roberto la forgia via Flickr

For real.

It’s happening.

I’m. Having. A. Total. Meltdown.

I’ve been trying to figure out this anti-plagiarism program called turnitin.com, and while the program appears easy enough to use, well, it isn’t working for me. And I seem to have found the ugly truth: apparently no one works at this company. There is no technical support. No phone number provided at which to reach a human.

After a major Internet investigation, I found a phone number. Elated, I dialed. And then I got that automated voice that tells you to please wait. Please wait. Please. Wait. (I watched an entire DVR’ed episode of Survivor while the music played in the background.)

Before I ever reached for the phone, I tried email. I explained my situation in detail, and somebody (a monkey?) sent me an email ticket indicating somebody (in India? in Texas? from Mars?) had received my angst-filled note(s) and promised I would be contacted within 24 hours.

I’ve been waiting for help since Monday.

I can’t get a human.

I can’t even get the sales rep.

So here’s a little video for your enjoyment.

You know, while I wait.

What makes your brain explode?

School Is Not the Time To Make Friends

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When I was a student at Genesee Hills Elementary School in the 1970s, we had quite a bit of free time during which we actually interacted with our peers: during lunch, recess, specials, sure. But also during class. In 3rd grade with Mrs. Marmillo and Mr. Barnello, we enjoyed an amazing invention called “Boy, Girl and Group of the Week.” A concept that would never fly now, I feel fortunate to have been part of this fabulous, classroom environment, and I know dozens of people who likely feel the same way.

Before I tell you about Boy, Girl & Group of the Week, keep in mind, this classroom phenomenon happened in 1976 — more than 30 years ago — so I could be wrong on some of the basics (so for those who may remember, feel free to chime in).

I want to say that on Friday afternoons, students from our two 3rd grade classrooms gathered together to nominate students as Boy and Girl of the Week. Students who went out of their way to do something nice for their peers were considered, so we said things like:

I want to nominate Jeff F. as Boy of the Week because he lent me a pencil when I didn’t have one.

or

I want to nominate Siobhan E. because she got me a tissue when I had a bloody nose, and then she helped me to the nurse’s office.

Meanwhile, our teachers sat quietly and made hash marks (or something) on a clipboard. Unless, we gave too many nominations to the same kid — in which case they would encourage us to look around the room and notice people who had possibly never been nominated, they were pretty silent.

When we finished, our teachers determined and announced the Boy, Girl and Group of the Week. (Maybe it was predetermined. It probably was.) The prize? Winners got the privilege of walking from our elementary school to Burger King, a little less than a mile away, sometime the following week along with our teachers. To get to BK, we walked on roads – not sidewalks. Yes, there were a few cars, but we walked – single-file in sun and in slush – to get to a hamburger, small fries and a soft-drink. It was heaven.

Imagine teachers pulling off this weekly field trip in 2010. It’s practically impossible.

First off, I have a feeling 90% of today’s parents would say they don’t like the idea because Burger King is fattening, and (in case you hadn’t heard), we have an obesity epidemic in our country. Okay, this may be the case when you are eating BK every day. But we weren’t back then. And we used our lunch and recess periods (both of which were longer than they are now) to walk to and from Burger King. The trek was just under 1.5 miles, but we walked briskly, so it was a good healthy walk.

We used our best manners while waiting in line. I remember standing in the BK queue, preparing to place my order — using my own voice to speak to an adult, “One hamburger, please,” I would say, careful to add, “Thank you.” Eating with my teachers and friends was a most amazing reward! We learned so much about each other during our walks to and from school and while sitting in the big booths together. We learned about our teachers’ families, their children. We learned if our classmates had siblings, what color our classmates’ rooms were painted, and if we liked to play the same games. We learned whose parents were divorced. Hell, we learned what the word divorce meant! We learned to speak, and we learned to listen.

I imagine, these days, most parents wouldn’t like the idea of children walking on main roads with traffic. Because people worry about things like that these days. Because someone could get hit by a car! Or get abducted! Or fall into a ditch and twist an ankle! (The last scenario was probably the most likely.)

As far as I know, my parents signed one skinny permission slip to allow me to go on the aforementioned trip off campus to BK and provided me with the requisite dollar or so to purchase my meal. These days, I imagine there would be a 12-page document that would have to be signed by parents, promising to waive their rights to this, that and the other thing. Back then, nobody worried that we were going to get hit by cars or fall in gulches or get kidnapped. Everyone just kind of assumed giving children additional privileges came with giving us additional responsibilities. People sought to broaden our world experience rather than limit our boundaries.

We had so many opportunities to practice civility in elementary school. It was okay to have a little idle chatter time built into our day. The classroom was the place where we learned our academics, but we also practiced our social skills. Today, I would imagine that most administrators would tell parents that there is simply not time for idle chitter-chatter. A few years ago a school administrator told me that “school is not the place for children to make friends.” She argued that kids needed to get involved in extra-curricular activities if they were interested in making friendships. She explained teachers needed to make the most of classroom time to prepare students for standardized tests, that teachers have more to teach than ever.

In 2010, I would argue “the civility piece” has fallen out of the curriculum — along with the belief that there are benefits to idle time. In 1976, it seemed like there was an emphasis on these things, as well as the other things we learned as by-products: patience (eventually everyone got to be Boy or Girl of the Week), paying attention to the little things, actually making an effort to help out a fellow student in need, being a good citizen (not just because it could get you a trip to Burger King but because it felt good). And a million other things, too.

And in this age of technology, a little more emphasis on these seemingly insignificant niceties could go far to help kids plug into each other and their behaviors. I mean, a student might not bully the kid upon whose vote he depends to get some kind of special reward.

And I would argue that sometimes the greatest life-lessons occur when it doesn’t appear that one is learning at all.

But that’s probably a hard sell these days.

I Hit a Wall

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Okay, I admit it. I’m being a little lazy.

First off, the whole plagiarism thing has left me exhausted.

Second, I fell down an entire flight of cement stairs, hit my head really hard, and I think I actually suffered a slight concussion. I’m okay now, but I don’t want to do that again. Picture me in my sassy, short skirt and tall boots with black stockings. I’m looking very professional and confident and competent when, suddenly, I miss a step and am rolling head over heels down down down about 12 steps where I proceed to slam into the wall (somehow) face-first.

Amazingly, I never let go of my unattractive wheelie bag that holds all my papers and my grade book. I hit my head really hard, and I think I actually suffered a slight concussion. I’m okay now. (What do you mean I am repeating myself?) Plus the plagiarism stuff has left me exhausted. (Did I say that already? I think I might have said that.)

Third, this brilliant blog entry was written by a former student of mine, Zach Sparer. His content is made to be inserted in a place where education and parenting collide, so I can’t not post it. (Was that a double negative? It was. It was a double negative. I’m really sorry. I hit my head earlier this week.) I mean, I have to post-it. Wait, not like Post-It, the company. I have to post it, without the hyphen.

Wow, so this is what happens when I hit a wall.

What I mean to say is that Zach’s stuff is good. Like I-wish-I-had-written-it-good. And this is the place where education and parenthood collide, right? (At least, that’s what is says up there at the top of the page.)

California and New Jersey are currently considering putting ads on school buses. So now I’m wondering: what is this Minneapolis school district thinking? You should click on this link and read the article now. (I know I usually summarize things more clearly, but I hit my head earlier this week, and I think I have a slight concussion, so I just feel like you should read the source material yourselves because there are a lot of big numbers in it.)

We all know times are tough, and schools are having to get creative about how they generate revenue to support certain programs. If they don’t get the dollars, they may have to cut valuable programs. But do we really want to turn locker space into advertising space? Will savvy advertisers start using students’ Facebook information to target individual locker users? You know personalized ads bombarding kids with images from their favorite stores, their favorite eateries, and coffee shops? Oh, and when the students start drawing all over the walls, that Minneapolis superintendent better not whine about it because nothing says, “Go ahead and write on the lockers, kids!” quite like these graffiti-ed up lockers. (Graffiti-ed?I just turned a noun into a verb. Yikes.)

Did I mention that I hit my head?

Nabbed a Cheater!

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My cyber-friend, fellow blogger and educator, Clay Morgan, recently wrote a very funny blog about how we teachers notice when our students cheat. And I laughed because it was true: There are “peekers” and “sneakers” and “giraffers” and folks who try to write everything they can on their pencils and their shoes and their arms.

And then yesterday, I busted one of my students for some crazy, overt plagiarism, and suddenly it isn’t so very funny anymore. Well, it’s a little funny because the person copied from Wikipedia and left in the hyperlinks. But still, when you get down to it, it’s not that funny.

I hate this part. I hate this part. I hate this part. I hate this part of being an educator.

Let’s assume for the sake of ease that the cheater is male. Then I can avoid all the he/she stuff.

My thought is to have The Despicable One take a look at his paper along with a copy of the Plagiarism Contract which he signed earlier in the semester and ask him to respond in writing to three questions: 1) Why did he choose to copy directly from the source rather than paraphrase or summarize it? 2) Why didn’t he use in-text citation and include a Works Cited page at the end of his paper? 3) What does he think the most appropriate course of action would be in this situation?

When he is done writing (read: documenting the offense in his own handwriting), I will listen to what he has to say, explain to him how serious an offense this is, (because it is serious), and then I will think about it for a while.

So today I’m feeling a little snarky. A little annoyed, even.

Why? I guess because I feel plagiarism is just so dang silly. It is the laziest of all academic infractions. I can predict The Plagiarizer will say something like: “I didn’t know how do to it the right way, so I just didn’t do it.” That is what lazy people say. I guess I’m noting something of a character flaw in plagiarizers (as if other flaws aren’t obvious enough). I keep thinking, if I didn’t know how to do something, I would do my damndest to figure it out.

In this specific instance, for example, if I didn’t know how to cite properly, I would have called a classmate for assistance. I would have stopped playing BeJewelled on Facebook and looked online for tips of how to cite a paper. (There are a zillion free websites offering advice.) I might have looked in the style book which I was assigned to purchase at the beginning of the semester. If all that failed, I would have tried to indicate that I knew I was taking information from an outside source. I could have written:

Dear Professor-In-Charge-Of-My-Grade:

I am getting this information from reallycoolandfakewebsite.com, but I’m not sure how to cite it properly. (*hangs head in shame*)

When you get a chance, can you show me? I hope you won’t deduct too many points. (*lame attempt at humor*)

So so so sincerely,

Ashamed One

If I knew in advance that I were going to be in trouble with citation, I would have made at least one appointment with the folks at the college’s Writing Center (where one can schedule a free 30-minute tutoring session to really get some help on a paper). I might have even asked my teacher to meet with me. Because teachers want to help their students. Some will even skip lunch or blow off grocery shopping to help their students.

So I can tell this student started really, really late on this paper.

Like eleven o’clock at night: too late for phone calls or in-person tutoring sessions.

And, frankly, because of his procrastination and poor decision-making, I now have to make difficult moral decisions. And now, depending on how far I want to go with this, I will have a boatload of extra paperwork to handle. And copies to be made in triplicate. Because my Department Chair will need a copy. And so will Student Services. And I’ll probably have to hold on to this paper for the rest of my life. (Hubby, I have another important document for the fire safe…)

I guess you can tell that I have strong beliefs about integrity and honor and honesty. Basic values which everyone agrees seem to be on the decline. Interestingly enough, judging from the reaction that I’m getting from some of my students, they don’t see plagiarism as a big deal. I’ve tried to explain that it is a big deal. A very big deal. Because when you turn in something with your name on it, you are claiming to have authored those words and, when you haven’t, it is a lie.

In my eyes, The Despicable One is a liar and a cheater. Does he understand that I think of him as a person who steals ideas? That I can’t trust him or anything that he says? Ever? That I would never vouch for him for anything? How could I? He signed a banana-yellow piece of paper promising not to plagiarize, but he did.

I’m worried about this generation. So maybe my tone is annoyance with a side order of panic.

There have to be consequences for this transgression. This is not kindergarten, folks. I teach at the college level. This is where people learn life lessons. And sometimes people have to learn the hard way; after all, you don’t always get a second chance when you screw up.

So I have options.

Put on your thinking caps for a moment and consider this.

If you were me, would you:

a) Allow the aforementioned student to write a new paper with proper citation by a certain date for a maximum grade of D. (If the paper doesn’t come in, or there is evidence of future plagiarism, the student would be failed.)

b) Not allow the student to rewrite the paper. Give him a zero, but allow him to stay in the class with the warning that if this happens again, he will be failed.

c) Tell the student that he has done irreparable damage to the student-teacher relationship and fail him from the course as well as report him to Student Services. (This could impact his entire financial aid package, but he might learn a lesson.)

d) Make him babysit my child every Saturday for free from now until the end of the semester.

e) Ask him what he thinks should happen.

I’m definitely leaning in a particular direction, but I’m open to suggestions.

What would you do if you were in my shoes? Can anyone think of other options?

10/17/2010: ***Note: Read the  interesting, varied and intelligent comments to learn the difficult decision that I had to make, and the thought processes that teachers have to have to consider every day above and beyond our course material!***

Pep Talk For New Teachers

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As the new school year approaches, it occurs to me that there are a lot of new teachers heading out there.  This is my twentieth year in the classroom. It hardly feels possible, but if you were to check my Facebook page, it is peopled by former students from five different schools. Most of these folks now have children of their own!  I figured I’d share some things with new teachers that I’ve learned over the years. And I hope that parents will consider these things, too – especially if you hear your child has a new teacher. Before you start wringing your hands in despair, understand that new teachers bring enthusiasm to the classroom. They are eager to work, eager to get to the business of teaching. Help them; encourage them. They have to figure things out very quickly.

August. A new class arrives. Wide-eyed, unformed, brimming with enthusiasm, the youngest ones tinged with trepidation. They find their rooms, sit in desks which have held many before them, smile brightly, secretly thrilled, eager to ponder great books, study unfathomed formulas, devour complex theories, dream noble dreams. This is the ritual of August, right?

Sort of. I mean, maybe for the first week or two. But by the end of the first month, when that ho-hum routine is kicking in, and summer feels like past tense, students may become hauntingly silent, or worse, horribly restless. This is when a new teacher may begin to panic. Because  there are papers to be graded, charts to be updated, forms to be completed and returned to somebody’s office: It’s grueling and even more difficult when you are still trying to figure out whose office is where and which key opens what door.

When I was a teacher at Metairie Park Country Day School in New Orleans, Louisiana, I was on a Committee that helped to create a new faculty handbook filled with enough information to get a new teacher started, but not so much as to overwhelm.

New Teachers, see if any of these things help:

photo by Eric James Sarmiento @ flickr.com

1. Don’t take things too personally. You have to know this up front. Your students are going to talk about. If you are lucky, they will say nice things like, “I like Mr. X’s hair,” or “Ms. Q. is kinda cool.” More likely, you will overhear them in the halls: “(Insert your name here) is unfair. Not flexible. Boring. Biased. Unqualified.” Let’s face it. Not every student is going to die for your class. Not every student is going to find the Quadratic equation fascinating. Not every student is going to care about conjugating verbs. They won’t all be interested in Mendelian genetics. Some of them won’t like your unit on Lord of the Flies, or insects, or rain forests. Listen to their comments, glean from them what you will, and then let them go. This is especially true for teachers of older students when you receive your first batch of student evaluations.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Usually teachers are the nicest bunch of folks you can ever meet. (Except when there are budget cuts. When there are budget cuts, hide your construction paper and bolt down your stapler.) But generally speaking, if you need support, a new teacher can ask just about any other faculty member to explain how to un-jam the copier or for directions to the nearest bathroom. No matter what your problems might be, if you are in need, there is someone who can help you. Teachers like to be helpful.

3. Don’t forget to forgive yourself. One of the greatest advantages to teaching is the forgiving nature of children. That same characteristic which makes your students forget the complex theory which you masterfully presented to them just yesterday allows them to completely forget your prior day’s blunder. Even older students will be tolerant of your errors if you are honest about them and don’t try to pretend they didn’t happen. You should apply this same forgiveness to yourself. Some of your lessons are going to suck. But some will be brilliant.

photo by Nick J. Webb @ flickr.com

4. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. This is not in any  handbooks I’ve ever read on teaching, but it’s actually really important. If your new teaching experience is anything like mine was, in addition to your teaching responsibilities, you’ve probably already taken on extracurricular responsibilities. Whether you’ re working on a yearbook, organizing a dance or proctoring for SATs, helping to make costumes for the play or coaching a sport, no doubt you’ve got your new teacher hands full. And just as you are getting a grip, someone pops his head in and offers you another great “opportunity for growth.” Don’t be afraid to say no. It isn’t always easy, but you don’t have to take on additional responsibilities you don’t feel ready to handle. Because if you take on too many activities, you’ll get sick. This is because new teachers spend late nights planning, and grading, trying to stay one day ahead of their students. So while it sounds obvious, don’t forget to get enough sleep, eat right, and take lots of vitamins.

5. Don’t forget to laugh. If necessary, look for something funny! Just watching a group of kids at work or coming down the hallway is usually sufficient. There’s usually someone picking his nose, someone with an unzipped fly, someone with pants down around the knees, some girl wearing waaaay too much make-up — (and I’m pretty sure this applies from kindergarten all the way up to college level, folks!) And don’t take yourself so seriously that you can’t appreciate the hilarity of the moment when you learn that you have chalk on your butt. It’s funny!

6. Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers. The most seasoned teachers will tell you that even fifteen or twenty years from now, you still won’t know everything – especially these days with the technology changing so quickly, the kids will, no doubt, be teaching you many things. Let them. If you don’t know something, don’t make something up. Tell the student you don’t know the answer to the question. Write. It. Down. Do some research, and get back to the student with the answer. That student will know that you care.

In May, when you feel more relaxed, more comfortable, more competent, you will walk from one end of the campus/quad/building to the other and each time experience something different — a burst of magnolias on the east side of the auditorium; on the terrace, a gathering of students, intense in their chatter; the sturdy dark wood of the dining room, inviting and scented with red sauce; in the middle school wing, you might see mouths devouring a snack. If it is a Thursday, maybe they might be eating donuts (*she said nostalgically*); outside, during recess, the littlest ones will swing and climb, jump and shout; and everywhere fluffy squirrels will scratch up the nearest trees. You will smile at a colleague while passing her and return a wave to a student who enjoys your class. You will remind someone to throw his plastic something-or-other in the garbage can. You will begin making plans for next year’s classes. You will feel calm. You will feel you belong. You will have survived your first year, the gauntlet.

I promise you, the following year will be a lot easier!

Seasoned teachers, how did I do? What did I forget?