Saturday, April 28, 2018

Teacher Appreciation, Year Three

It's that time of year again. Grumpy, old teacher is back, but has more to say than in previous years because he has more than one audience in mind.

In anticipation of Teacher Appreciation Week, when (in theory) the public, parents, maybe students, never legislators (with sincerity), and you will die if you hold out for a sincere appreciation from Betsy Devos, tell teachers how great they are, before we get there, this grumpy, old teacher first wants to say whom he appreciates.

1. Custodians who clean the room daily. Students are messy even when they are not doing it deliberately: paper dropped on the floor, gum stuck under the desk, all types of refuse put into all the wrong places because it's too much trouble to get up and walk to the trash can to drop it in. Every day you sweep it up and carry it out. Thank you. This teacher appreciates all you do to keep my classroom clean.

2. Cafeteria workers who feed children daily. Students often do not eat before they reach school, sometimes their choice, sometimes they have no food to eat, sometimes things happen. You make sure they have hot and nutritious food to eat. At my school, you make sure the milk is not spoiled and the fruit is not rotten. You make sure that no child comes to my classroom hungry and unable to learn. Thank you. This teacher appreciates all you do to feed my students.

3. Security personnel. Students need continual urging to get to class on time, to get back to class when out for a bathroom break, and intervention when their emotions get the better of them. You keep our students safe. You come when a student melts down in the classroom to take them out so they can recover. Your eyes constantly watch our perimeter for intruders who do not belong on campus. More than that, you establish relationships with students so they feel comfortable sharing their concerns and fears with you. Because of that, we head off most trouble before it can start. Thank you. This teacher appreciates all you do to keep our students safe.

4. Caring administrators. You may have moved up the ranks, but you have kept your teacher's heart. You remember what it's like to teach, to struggle with reluctant learners, to deal with all the problems that walk in the door that have nothing to do with school, and you do not blame teachers. You support them. Thank you. This teacher appreciates all you do to support his efforts to create an environment where children choose to learn.

5. Counselors always at the ready. I detect the problems, but don't have time to find solutions. Often, it is far beyond a classroom teacher's ability or resources to help a child despite the desire to do so. When I bring someone to your attention, you go to work. You find counseling for a child stuck in grief, you deal with the trauma of their personal life's situation, you probe when we know something is going on but we don't know what, you give advice for success, you have the time that I do not. Thank you. This teacher appreciates all you do to provide students with a support system that they need.

6. Office clerks who keep the school running. You deal with all the needs of the school and children: administering medicine, tracking tardies, answering the phone, meeting parents, checking to see that people who show up to take a student are authorized to do so, maintaining records ... if you were not around, the system would dump all those tasks on teachers. Thank you. This teacher appreciates all you do so he can focus on teaching.

7. Parents who do not blame teachers when children do not perform according to expectations. We are a team and you know that. You don't call the school to complain about me; you call me so we can discuss how to help your child. You recognize we have the same goal: the success of your child. You cannot do what I do, but I cannot do what you do. You are the most significant person in your child's life, even if your child is a teenager and is busy telling you that you no longer matter (hint: the louder the protest, the more you know it is not true), and your support makes all the difference. I can't make a child do homework, I can only record a failing grade, but you can AND you do. Thank you. This teacher appreciates all the ways you support him.

8. Lastly, the public who supports a robust, strong public education system of schools. I'm not talking about fake public schools (charters). I'm talking about the real thing. You call legislators, you hold school board members accountable, you don't have children in the system any longer but are happy to pay the taxes needed to support public education because you realize its crucial role in supporting our society. Thank you. This teacher appreciates the support you provide.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Oklahoma! Where the Teachers Beg for Art Supplies

I'm not sure how to react to the story: OK Teacher posts pic of broken chair.

People have donated $44,000 worth of supplies in response.

Part of me is amazed and grateful at the support Americans provide to public education, willing to go beyond the cheap parsimony of state legislatures that have been defunding public schools for two decades in the hopes that ALEC, the Koch Brothers, Eli Broad, and others will bless their careers and give them new opportunities to build personal wealth through power.

Much of me is angry that this is what we have come to.

In my school, we can't get enough desks for our classrooms; therefore, another teacher and I pass desks between our classrooms every day to accommodate the number of students that will be in the room.

I have broken furniture that will not be replaced. Every teacher does. For the lucky few who get noticed, go viral with a social media post, and are blessed with an abundance of donations, I am very happy.

But I will note that for every one of those, there are a thousand teachers who go without.

See, that's the problem with private charity. It does its best, but it can't be as effective as a comprehensive, universal effort that is fair to all. That takes government and that takes taxes.

Private charity is controlled by the donor. Donors are generous, but they also act according to their beliefs, their histories, and their life histories.

I hate to say it, but the racial dynamics of our country come into play. We are much more likely to be generous with someone who looks like us than someone who does not.

That's why we have a government bound by constitutional principles (equal protection under the law and due process, among others) that must be fair. Even with those principles in place, we don't live up to the promise.

Sadly, though, this is what we have come to--teachers must beg for help. Nobody seems to question it. I know a lot of teachers who maintain Go Fund Me accounts. There are enough teachers doing such fundraising that school districts are reacting with prohibitions. I guess it's too embarrassing for them. However, I have never heard of a district banning Go Fund Me that hands a teacher a $5,000 expense account for classroom supplies, either.

Does your doctor have a Go Fund Me for bandages, syringes, and rubbing alcohol? Does your accountant have a Go Fund Me for a laptop computer and adding machine tape? Does your auto mechanic have a Go Fund Me for tools, motor oil, and antifreeze? Does your hairdresser have a Go Fund Me for combs, curlers, and hair dye? Does your bus driver, even a school bus driver, have to have a Go Fund Me to put gas in the bus?!

When did we accept that this is the norm for a teacher's life?

I've made up my mind. I appreciate the generosity of Americans, but this story makes me angry.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Planet of Exiles (Ursula Le Guin)

Ursula Le Guin was a science-fiction author whose works, written in the 1960s and 1970s, were said to lift the genre to a new level of excellence much in the same way that J.R.R. Tolkien did for the fantasy genre.

Planet of Exiles is a story of two different peoples, one light-skinned and one dark-skinned, who are faced with a crisis of existence and must find a way to work together or perish. Given that the author penned the work in the 1960s at the height of the civil rights movement, the choice to make the two peoples black and white cannot be a coincidence or anything other than a well-thought-out choice.

Without spoiling the story for you (and I recommend that you read it), I will mention many of the features of the plot that examine and perhaps turn on its head what we experience in our race relations.

Most notable is how both peoples regard themselves as human and the other as something less even though they both share the same body form and function with the same intelligence. Le Guin lets us wonder until halfway through the novella when we learn that the black people are immigrants to the planet from the League of All Worlds. That reference clues the reader to her first book, where the League of All Worlds is the interplanetary allegiance and government formed by humans from Earth after they colonized other planets.

The black people have the true claim to the label 'human.' They call the white people, native to the planet, hilfs. As the League humans explored planets, they catalogued the species they found. Hilf means a highly intelligent life form. When the white people hear the acronym, they bristle as they think it is an insult.

The black immigrants are immune to the diseases that plague the native peoples. This is explained by a doctor that both people are almost identical in their genome. There is only one variation, but it is enough so that the immigrants cannot be sickened by the planet's bacteria and viruses. However, it also prevents the two races from conceiving a child together.

Both peoples are under threat from another life form that is retreating through their lands into southern places as a long winter is arriving. (The planet's orbit around its sun results in seasons that we are told last for 24 years of our time.) These Gaal are doing something new. Instead of raiding and passing through, picking off the vulnerable but avoiding the strongholds of walled cities, they are organized and attacking the cities. The Gaal are committing genocide and taking over the cities.

A black leader proposes an alliance with the white people. But it goes awry due to a love affair between the leader and a white girl. As a result, the only chance both peoples have to turn aside the Gaal is squandered as the white people react with rage and refuse to cooperate.

Later, as the Gaal sack the white city, the black people attack them and rescue as many white people as possible. They regard it as an essential responsibility that springs from their very humanity.

As the story ends, the doctor and others are left to wonder at the disease that is claiming the lives of their people wounded in the battles with the Gaal. A young white woman, the lover and now wife of the black leader, explains that they are observing the planet's diseases kill.

Does that mean that the black humans are evolving? Does that mean that the black leader and wife will be able to conceive children after all? Is that a good thing? How will both peoples react?

Le Guin leaves us wondering as we finish the last page of her story.

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Witches Were White

Now that's a tease of a headline!

Yet it's what I heard in the hallway--one of those moments when people don't think they are being overheard.

A student was complaining about the movie, A Wrinkle in Time. That's the movie for which I offered extra credit if students went to see it a few weeks ago.

I had a purpose for the movie viewing beyond the mathematical angle (I am a math teacher, for those who don't know me.) I wanted students exposed to the interpretation of a well-known and much-loved story by an African-American female director and to see an African-American female in the lead role as well as supporting roles.

I wanted students to see a fresh and different perspective on the story and wondered if that would challenge their assumptions.

I promoted my offer with a movie poster prominently displayed on my hall bulletin board.

"The movie was terrible. [I am paraphrasing.] In the book, the witches were white. They had a black witch. She was a bad actor. They ruined the story ..."

The student's friend, to whom she was complaining, shushed her. He was trying to tell her to be quiet--don't let her race-based complaint be heard lest it bring trouble.

Unknown even to her, the student's complaint was race-based. She didn't like the fact that there were black actors playing roles that she imagined were white characters when she read the book.

In a way, I rattled her worldview and that is part of the job of a teacher: make kids think more deeply about what beliefs they have absorbed from their subculture. In another way, it shows the challenge we have in building a better society.

The witches were white. I too have read the book and no, Madeleine L'Engle never specified a race for the witches. It is the privilege of the dominant race of a society that everyone, including the minority members, will assume that the characters of a book are from the race of the dominant race of the society.

Even if the book had said the witches were white but someone had a new vision and changed that attribute, why would someone complain?

People, we have work to do.

After my first year at my current school, my principal gave me a 'needs improvement' rating in one area: knowing the background of my students. That really surprised me because of all the teachers at my school, I am one of the few, a very few, who thinks about my students, who they are, and how their personal histories play into the dynamics of the classroom.

It took me a long time to figure out that what he meant was that I was not using data (test data.) Actually, I was but he didn't know. When I showed him the research I did on my students, the rating changed for the next year.

I brought it up in my annual review meeting the following year: how it took me a while to figure out what he meant, that I was one of the most culturally aware ('woke' in the current linguistic coin) of his teachers. He replied that he did not think there was a problem regarding the interactions between white people and black people at the school.

For the record, my principal is black.

But we do have a problem, the same problem of all America, that when white and black people interact, the racial history of our country plays a role in how we hear and understand one another.

(Please do not try to figure out what school I teach at and who is who. I am trying to address a larger issue.)

In my school system, in my county, in my state, a southern state with a complicated and difficult history of race relations, we don't want to address this. We would rather pretend that the color of the skin doesn't matter; we treat everyone the same. Nothing more needed.

Except we hear the whispers in the hall: the witches were white.

It's time to stop the pretense. It's time to stop avoiding the painful conversations that must take place if we want to move forward and establish a more just society.

The witches aren't white. They are only what you imagine them to be.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Reflections on the Last Few Days

I. I admit it. I'm the weird one. Long before Parkland, long before Sandy Hook, long ago I began the practice of keeping my classroom door locked and closed at all times. What makes me weird is that I do not allow anyone except me to open the door.

You read that correctly. I answer the door, not students, not teenagers, not children. ME. Only me.

Teens see a classmate or friend through the window and throw the door open not stopping to realize that someone they cannot see may be ready to come through the door.

Only me.

It's routine for me. I hear a knock or a student alerts me that there's someone at the door. I go to the door, scan as much of the hallway as I can, assess the situation, and make the decision. If I make the wrong decision, I'm the one in the doorway dealing with it while my students jump out the window as fast as they can.

Weird ol' Mr. Sampson. It's the best I can do to keep my room secure.

II. Calls and plans for school walkouts have begun. Three days are mentioned: March 14, April 20 (anniversary of Columbine), and May 1. I have made no decision as to what I will do. I could be fired if I walk. At 60 years of age, it will be difficult to find another job and 60 is too early to retire. But a moment has arrived where one must make a decision whether to stand up and be counted.

Enough about me. This is a call for civil disobedience and that is what I will help students understand. There are times when rules and laws must be disobeyed, either because the laws and rules themselves are immoral or because something of tremendous importance requires action that would normally not be considered.

Students taking action, demanding change, demanding reasonable laws, insisting that their lives be protected, organizing protests in whatever form, walk-out, sit-in, or a march, these students are making the decision to engage in civil disobedience for a cause that matters: their lives.

There will be consequences and they need to understand that. That's the point of civil disobedience: authorities impose consequences until they are so shamed by the lack of resistance that they cannot ignore the issue anymore.

Remember these days: March 14, April 20, May 1.

III. You cannot enter the U.S. Capitol Building without undergoing a screening of your belongings and passing through a metal detector. Congress Protects Itself

Yet those senators and representatives won't even try to engage in writing laws to protect schoolchildren.

IV. Out of thousands of responses I've read over the past two days, I've only found two teachers saying, "Hell, yes , let me have a gun."

I'd like to say no teacher is saying that, but I have to be factual.

That almost no teacher wants a deadly weapon in their classroom should give all the self-appointed experts, who think because they once went to school they know everything about education, pause.

V. We can stop these tragedies. But it takes the will to do so. It takes the ability to find solutions and do it! It takes giving up all the divisions that our elite have devised to keep us apart and fighting when we the people should come together, give the elite the boot, and "form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." (Preamble to the United States Constitution, 1788)

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Hollywood Heroes

John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Samuel Jackson, Bruce Willis ... the list goes on. These are the heroes who stepped up when the world was blowing up around them, when people were dying right and left, and saved the day with their heroics. Facing enormous obstacles and can't-beat-it odds, nevertheless, they pulled their guns out and blazed their way to glory.

The music world celebrated the hero complex this way:

Now we turn to teachers: our new heroes. We want to arm them, require them to carry weapons as a police officer does, because they will save the children.

(Never mind that we were just shaming them, falsely, as being unable to teach our children to read and do math.)

Yes, the average, anonymous teacher will be the new Hollywood hero. With no training, no experience in violent situations, and no evaluation as to qualifications, we now expect teachers to leap into action if a shooter is active in their school. Rather than try to shelter children or get them out of harm's way, we want our teachers to pull their weapon and blaze away.

It is time, long past time, to stop viewing our world like a Hollywood movie. Real life is nothing like one.

Think of a police officer, someone who is authorized to carry lethal weapons. That officer has undergone training, pondered what-if situations to think in advance of the best way to respond, spent hours on a range honing skills in using a firearm, <I have asked my local police agency, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, for an idea of the training a police officer undergoes. When they respond, I will update this post. But I'm too eager to wait. Sorry.>

Teachers get none of that. Priorities, people. Should your teacher receive training in being a pseudo-soldier or SWAT officer? Or should their training be focused on your child's learning needs?

Teachers don't have enough time as it is. Go ahead and force them to spend their time preparing for a role that is not appropriate for a teacher. Then, when nothing happens at your schools, condemn your teachers for poor test scores.

If that doesn't convince you, consider this. While school shooting incidents are isolated, teacher misconduct occurs in every district every year. In my district, about a dozen out of 8,000 teachers are disciplined or fired for acting inappropriately with children every year.

That teacher (recent incident) terminated for swatting a young child on the back of the head? You really want that teacher carrying a gun when her frustration overwhelms her?

That teacher disciplined for taping children's mouths shut because he doesn't know how to make them stop talking? You really want that teacher having a gun to pull out and aim at the class?

We don't need heroes and we don't need teachers packing heat.

We need to address the root causes: the availability of guns that no one needs in domestic life, the trauma of our violent, urban neighborhoods, the dysfunction of families, everything that causes a child to make a horrific decision to exit life by taking as many others with them as they can.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Thoughts and Prayers

Like the steady ticking of a clock, another school tragedy has occurred. Wednesday, February 14, the day of love, a 19 year-old former student acted on his impulse to shoot up his former school. This day, seventeen lives were taken.

We used to offer our condolences. It was a stock phrase and remains so, yet its utterance is understood: I don't know the words to say, but we know what this means, and I can say it to keep my emotions checked so I don't break down in utter despair and sob my way through the hours of awfulness while I process how horrible this is.

My condolences to the families of the victims, the other students and adults traumatized by the event.

However, the usual response of media, politicians, and others is to say, "My thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends."

Let the social media nastiness begin.

And it has.

Therefore, let us dissect this carefully.

First, the thoughts. People caught in a camera used to offer their prayers, but then took second thought that this may offend atheists and those of other faiths. They added thoughts so those who don't want prayers would not object.

People calling out the 'thoughts and prayers' on the internet are correct about this. Thoughts do nothing to address underlying causes and to devise solutions that effectively work to prevent a tragedy from happening again.

But the prayers? That takes a deeper dive.

It depends upon your theology. If you have a superficial belief and give token obeisance to the prevailing Christianity, then your prayers (if you really offer them) are no better than offering a formal expression of sympathy that does nothing for anyone except you.

If you don't think a Creator God is still actively involved in the world, stop telling people you will pray for them and say it better: I'm sorry, My condolences, This isn't fair.

But there remains in this world people of faith, people who know that the God who created the world has a very real interest in its well-being. This is not the time to discuss free will. When death strikes without warning and in intensity, it is never the time to discuss free will.

It is time to remember that for whatever reason God allows evil to happen, this is the same God who joined himself to human flesh and was willing to die for humanity.

That is what Christianity means. No other faith offers that.

If you don't believe that God died 17 times Wednesday afternoon, February 14, 2018, you don't understand Christianity and you should not judge it. (But by all means, judge the fake versions; God does.)

That God is so involved in human affairs, so passionately in sympathy with human suffering, that prayers will cause God to act.

When true people of faith say they will offer prayers, that is what they mean. They will pester and bug and bother God (not that God needs it, and please forgive the awkward phrasing as I'm trying to avoid the pronoun issue) because they know God cares and will act.

Isn't that what our young people are demanding? Make them safe; enact reasonable and intelligent gun-control laws.

God works through human agency. God will find the right people. Keep praying.

My prayers are with you and for you.