Archive for February, 2011

Successful schools

February 14, 2011

After parenting two children and having taught fifteen-plus years, this is what I have learned. Children learn best in small classrooms.  Preferably, fifteen or less.

Second, principals need to support teachers. Students need discipline. A vice principal once told me that I was not allowed to discipline students–that was her realm.  She failed.  The student, who prompted the conversation, dropped out, got a girl pregnant and took a job at McDonald’s.  Although this chain of events cannot be pinned on the vice principal, she did fail to provide the guidance she had promised. The student received no consequences for being disrespectful to me or his classmates.  The vice principal felt this particular student needed a break. Without consequences for bad behavior, students do not learn.

Additionally, parents need to support teachers. Parents need to stop bullying teachers to inflate grades or to weaken academic rigor or discipline. One parent, a university professor, tried to push me into giving her child an A+ as opposed to an A. She had already withdrawn her student from another class for the same reason. The parent brought in all the papers I had graded, only at the end of the semester, and tried to argue every deduction I had ever made.  I stood firm.  At the end of the year, she pushed the principal into allowing a third speaker at graduation, after the valedictorian and salutatorian. She did no favor for her daughter. Grade inflation, intimidation and bullying all are means to a diminished end. As an undergraduate one of my professors, as well as many others in the psychology department,  routinely gave A’s to all students.  I do want to go to a psychologist that was given grades or to have my children instructed by teachers that were.

Next, teachers and students benefit mentoring. For too long, many schools have had a sink or swim mentally. New teachers often have to prove themselves by creating curriculum, lesson plans, discipline methods or all of the above. One of the exemplary schools where I worked, assigned me a mentor my first year.  My mentor shared everything with me from lesson plans to teddy bears.  I did the same for another teacher in subsequent years.  Why should teachers waste time and reinvent the wheel? In the same way, students would benefit from student or teacher mentoring.  Too many students, even in small schools,  get lost in the cracks.  One mega-school where I worked initiated a mentor program after studying successful schools.  One of the methods we implemented was mentoring. Every faculty member, counselor and administrator was assigned two students. We met with our students at least twice a year to check-in.   Small steps, but steps toward making a difference for the one or two children. That would have made a difference for me. When I was in junior high, I was yearning for an adult to step up.  My stepfather was beating up my mother every two week or so in all night sessions.  My grades were dismal.  When I went to the counselor, she sent me back to class. Told me to come back when I stopped bawling.  That ninth grade year affected my GPA and my future. If only she had asked, “What’s going on?” It took all the courage I had to go in the first time. I wasn’t about to go in a second. A caring adult could have made a difference for me.

After having taught in four different states in diverse schools, my experience has taught me that  mainstreaming does not work for most. The high-end and the low-end suffer. Some people feel there is stigma to classes designed for at-risk children.  However, nothing compares to the stigma felt in the regular classroom.  It is in the like-ability classroom, that camaraderie and pride develop.  Furthermore, high-end students are challenged by similar ability students. These students are more stimulated and less resentful at having to pull their classmates along.  Some common classes should be shared.  High ability students model excellence and inspire others.  Special needs students engender diversity and offer their own unique gifts. However, to meet the needs of varying student abilities in a classroom of thirty-five students is impossible or insufficient at best.

Finally,  children need to be read to and to read often, as well as to write.   Children need stability and change. We lose many children beginning with middle school.  Students need more of the homeroom quality of elementary school. Imagine a work experience that demanded employees shift every year or semester to a room with new employees and a new boss.  How much time would be wasted in the learning curve?  Although, some changes need to be made, especially if there is un-resolvable teacher-student conflict. The best model of a school, where I worked, with the greatest success was a K-12 school.  In elementary school, students stayed with their home room teachers for two years.  Furthermore, the school was small enough so that most departments had only two teachers, three I think would provide more choice and less friction.  However, teachers knew their students, worked out conflicts and developed more appropriate tools to assist individual success. Parents need to be more involved with their teenagers, not less.



February 2, 2011

When I realized I could never again beat my daughter in Chinese Checkers, I jumped my green cat eye over the heads of her blue enemy when she wasn’t looking. Simple as walking through the front door. Or stealing in college. Bag the potatoes and frozen shrimp. When the cashier asks, Did you pay for that? Say, Yes. The automatic door opens, no hands. My daughter trusts me, trusted me—past tense. After six months, I confessed. What? How could you? she asked, What else have you been cheating at? Truth is, and I do mean the truth, I haven’t cheated at anything else: Scrabble, aging (no face lifts, etc.), or income tax. Although, a whole lot of cheating seems to be going on around me.

Last year when I worked as a Family Nutrition Assistant for Purdue University and instructed low-income adults about nutrition, I learned about real cheating. One of my clients, a gaunt looking man with hollow cheeks, told me he drank two pots of coffee a day. How do you sleep? I asked.
I don’t, he replied. The man had a lung disease, which called for an inhaler. He did not have the money to pay for it. The coffee helps with his coughing attacks. An asthma inhaler costs me $25 dollars after insurance. Without insurance, the same inhaler costs $125. That means he would have to pay 400% more for the same inhaler because he is jobless, poor and has no insurance. That is a cheat. People who have more money, pay less for the same medicine. A great deal less. This creates a terrible cycle. The man is less able to work or maintain a job because he is sick. He is sick because he is unable to work and maintain a job.

Knowing he cannot win the man might be tempted to cheat. Perhaps steal food, medicine, small comforts like a chocolate bar. If things get bad enough, he might get resentful of “rich” people who receive the poor man’s Cadillac of health insurance: joint replacements or dental care. The greatest earmark of the poor—bad teeth. Then, he might be tempted to cheat in  violent ways.

That is not to say that acts of cheating, theft, or violence are justified.  Perhaps, understandable. In my own case, it would be disingenuous of me to say I regret my Chinese-checkers infraction.  I don’t. What I do regret, is my diminished capacity to think. My inability to cheat time or death.

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