Stasia Honnold was lured to Oregon by Lewis and Clark College, where she earned a Bachelor’s in English and was firmly indoctrinated in the liberal arts. After a year of tutoring and work for the Oregon Department of Justice, she returned to Lewis and Clark to get her Master’s in Teaching for secondary education, then from 2007-2010 taught Language Arts to the lovely children of Rowe Middle School. Stasia enjoys biking, running, farmer’s markets and her students, and is consequently interested in such things as making education relevant, keeping good teachers in the field, helping all students, and reclaiming curriculum from the scourge of testing.
Let me be the first to admit that this may be a weird post for a blog mostly about larger policy issues. But there’s something I’ve been noticing lately that strikes me as odd, something I’m not sure what to think about: students outside of school.
I live near two different high schools, and during the course of a school day, I often see people who seem to be students but curiously don’t seem to be engaged in school activities or on school property. Today it might be two teens flipping skateboard tricks down the street from school; yesterday it might have been a group of kids hanging out at the mini-market a few blocks away; tomorrow it might be two lovebirds holding hands in the park.
I can’t pretend to know school schedules—if students have mornings or afternoons off, or if they’re legitimately on a break for lunch. And I certainly don’t mean to imply that students should be locked away in school buildings for six or seven hours at a time. But I often find myself wondering who’s looking after these children. Is there someone making sure that they are where they’re supposed to be? And as a citizen, what is my responsibility in helping to care for the children and teens in my community?
Some initial research led me to the Portland Police Bureau’s Truancy Reduction Ordinance. Though dealing with truancy starts with the schools and the parents, not the police bureau, this ordinance essentially gives members of the police license to stop and question kids who, like the ones I sometimes see in my neighborhood, don’t seem to be in school when they should be. It’s basically an ordinance that allows police a legislated way to get involved in cases where it seems schools or parents might be failing. And with some exceptions—check the website for details—it says that kids who have not yet graduated 12th grade are not allowed on “any street, highway, park, alley, or other public property during regular school hours.”
So knowing that, I come back to one of my first questions: If I see a kid during school hours skateboarding down my street, do I have any responsibility? I don’t mean that I may be liable for that kid—clearly I’m not. But in the larger sense of responsibility, in the sense that we’re all part of the same community and that kid is becoming the person who will build the world I am part of, do I have an obligation to ask what’s going on?
On the one hand, it’s none of my business what someone I don’t know is up to. I don’t want to assume that some teenager is breaking the law or doing something stupid just because I have some predetermined idea (just for the sake of argument) that kids want to skip school. But on the other hand, schools, parents, and police don’t have eyes everywhere. If it takes a village to raise a child, and I’m part of that village, shouldn’t I step up when I see something that might be amiss? Especially when I know that students who do not attend school on a regular basis are unlikely to graduate from high school, that truancy is often correlated to low achievement and even in extreme cases crime or gang involvement?
I skipped out on school as much as the next person in high school, for things that seemed important at the time: boyfriends, sunny weather, test avoidance. I wonder how things would have been different if people I’d run into had asked me why I wasn’t in school? I don’t want the world to just be a surrogate police force, always looking for other people doing something wrong, but sometimes I worry about these kids. Should I? What do you think a citizen’s role in helping kids through school is?
Even though I’m not teaching this year, I often miss having students. I miss the personal connections with kids and their parents; I miss having my own classroom, a safe space for learning and exploration. I miss the creativity of lesson planning and the challenge of developing good curriculum. Sometimes, I just miss school.
In those moments, I’m lucky to have a lot of friends who are still teachers. I can often visit their classrooms, help out for as long as they need, and leave feeling refreshed, hopeful, and invigorated by what I’ve seen. My last visit, however, to see a friend who’s in his third year of teaching, left me feeling disheartened and frustrated—not because of his teaching, but because of the policies that are making it increasingly difficult for him to continue teaching well.
During his three years of teaching, my friend has taught four different subjects: language arts, social studies, PE, and finally this year, his actual endorsement area, math. As you might imagine, even with the best of intentions it’s been difficult for him to improve his teaching of any one subject. With the district bumping and reassignment that happens every year, it’s not what he’s good at or trained in that matters. What seems to matter is simply that he’s a warm body, capable of being plugged into any necessary teaching assignment. Is this the way we want to be using our skilled teachers, as interchangeable and menial labor?
Furthermore, my friend just received news that his district, still facing budget shortfalls, will likely be cutting an additional 100-120 teachers at the end of this year. As a teacher at the bottom of the experience scale who has each year very narrowly avoided being laid off, he’s fairly certain he will finally lose his job this time. So even though he, like me, is excited about teaching, loves his students, and wants to give them the best education possible, his motivation to improve on what he’s doing this year or to create long-lasting curricular plans is basically shot. Who wants to pour their soul into something, only to have it taken away, again, in several short months?
I don’t want this to simply be a complaint about Oregon’s districts, because I know that some of them are doing great things to avoid what my friend is going through. But I just want to know what the plan is here. Clearly schools are going to have to get used to not having enough money, but how can they adjust to that while not killing teachers’ continued desire to do well? How can we continue to give good teachers a chance to shine?
Teaching is a lonely profession. At some point in their career, everyone bemoans the fact that teaching, planning, grading, attending meetings, and tending to bureaucratic necessities leaves little time to reflect on one’s practice, much less to talk to another knowledgeable adult about it. It’s one of the paradoxes of education: to get better at something, you need time to reflect on what you can do to improve, but with so much pressure to show improvement, there’s no time to get real feedback on how to get there.
With that in mind, I was thrilled to see how many English teachers showed up in Orlando last weekend for the annual conference put on by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Over three days, teachers attended sessions on everything from using Facebook as an instructional tool to helping middle school students talk more deeply about literature, from improving grammar to being mindful of the social justice obligations of English instruction, and everything in between. Teachers had a chance to hear from other successful teachers what was working in their classrooms and also had the opportunity to mingle with principals, instructional coaches, and professionals whose experiences were drastically different from their own. It was an amazing opportunity to learn from each other’s experience and successes—not to mention a chance to be constantly inspired by the good work that’s going on across the nation.
Of course, the teachers who were there had predominantly been supported by their districts. Most needed to take at least one day away from their classrooms to attend; many balanced their time attending sessions and talking to other teachers by day with time spent in their hotel rooms at night, grading the student work that never quite comes to an end. Regardless, for one weekend, the focus was only on being reflective about one’s practice, about doing things better. To me, it seemed double or triple the worth of any district-sanctioned professional development.
So does it seem reasonable to assume that conferences like the annual NCTE conference, events that bring professionals from all walks of the nation together to reflect on their work, are the way education is going to improve? Sort of a grassroots movement that comes from those who are actually implementing change in their classrooms? To me it seems to embody the way change should happen: brought about by those who are most directly involved and knowledgeable about it. Is it possible that this is the way to make sure the important voices in educational change are heard?
I was in the middle of my lesson when the literacy coach for my building interrupted me. “Ms. Honnold?” she asked. “I wonder what would happen if you had a student write the steps on the board as you went over them. You know, to give the visual people in your class a way to access what you’re talking about.” As she spoke, the students in my class looked on, clearly unused to someone giving their teacher feedback.
It could have been mortifying. And I’m sure some of you, reading this, are reliving all the horrific teaching moments where someone called you into question in front of your students or undermined your authority in some way. But it wasn’t like that. Instead, it was exactly what I now think of as teacher collaboration at its best: two professionals working together, in the moment, to figure out what is going to serve students best. (more…)
The minute I signed my name to the papers in front of me, I became a statistic, one of the nearly 50% of teachers who leave after only 3-5 years in the profession. And holding my resignation papers in hand, I couldn’t help but think of how weird it was to become just another number—especially because I’d always seen myself as a teacher who would make it. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have a special calling for teaching, it’s something I’ve been good at, and something I’ve mostly enjoyed. Why would I—or the 50% of other new teachers like me—quit?
For me, it wasn’t the money. Even though teacher compensation is pathetically low—I once calculated my take-home pay, with all the extra hours I put in, at something like $14 an hour—I knew before I started that I wouldn’t make much. I wasn’t in it for money. I didn’t leave because of the difficultly, either: my students and all the challenges they daily brought me were, without a doubt, the best part of my job. I didn’t leave because of nasty coworkers (my coworkers were awesome) or an unsupportive administration (my principal was awesome too) or any of the myriad reasons people cite when they talk about teacher retention or the lack thereof. (more…)