Friday, November 20, 2009

Cost of Living Raise or Pay Cut: The High Cost of Teaching!

Anyone reading the paper these days will know that the teachers in my district are being threatened with a 12% pay cut PLUS four furlough days to be taken during what is already our contracted spring break. Demoralizing? Yes. But even moreso when one contemplates how many district employees are moved around from bogus position to bogus position as empty reminders of empty district goals. What's worse is contemplating how much district money is spent on external contractors and other programs designed to make bad teachers better when that same money could be spent on rewarding smartly evaluated good teachers.

Just a week ago, prior to the Superintendant’s supremely callous Friday, 5pm, YOUR-PAY-WILL-BE-CUT letter,  we gave the first scheduled SPA (Secondary Periodic Assessment) of the year. This means that as a department chair, I have to follow administrative directives and rally the teachers to swap our classes’ 9th grade SPA essays so we can grade our students' work more objectively. Theoretically, this means that we have all set the same goals, have taught to those goals, and have seen whether and to what degree we have met those goals. But this test asks that students read mind-numbing essays, charts, stats and graphs about big bad video games; then they are asked to write a “persuasive” essay where they are to take and defend a position on the “issue.” And let us not forget their “position” had better be against those dangerous, evil video games, or else!

Here is the real rub, especially in the face of these horrendous pay-cut threats. The district contracts this “benchmark” test to Princeton Review, but only AFTER the students take the test--having read the information, the prompt, and the rubric--does the district's Secondary Literacy Department create what they call  “DECISION RULES.”  They describe these rules as follows:

“. . . established during the process of selecting the SCORE POINT REPRESENTATIVE PAPERS that help determine “proficiency.” These rules, which were developed through consensus among those selecting the training set papers, address questions and issues that might arise when teachers score their student work. Knowing these rules up front assists scorers and helps 'standardize' the scoring process.”

Irony? Let me count the ways:

1. Time and money have been spent not only on the Princeton Review’s silly and irrelevant test, but also on salaries earned by LAUSD "literacy experts" tasked with modifying the contractor’s sham test.

2. The LAUSD rightfully demands that teachers’ expectations be clear enough for students to understand what they need to do in order to achieve goals and grades, yet our Secondary Literacy Department (a name that can be read two ways, I know) creates grading rules AFTER THE FACT.

3. "Standardizing” what could be clever, original, intelligent writing (which these tests not only do NOT promote but work hard to prevent), the kind of writing that sometimes happens despite the idiocy of the test, is a ridiculous goal.

4. This benchmark proves nothing about students who are working hard in their classes to think and write intelligently and inventively about literature. But if they can read VCR instructions, they are on their way to the kind of proficiency that warrants a high-school degree.

5. The district has cut teacher pay, has ignored teacher contracts, and as these tests seem to indicate, maintains priorities that do anything but serve the community it's supposed to serve.

Cut away, Superintendent! I probably do not deserve the pay I receive if I see these ironies clearly but the effectiveness of these benchmarks, not at all!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Finger-lickin' OBNOXIOUS

The administration decided to host an assembly for seniors in an effort to inform them of important policies and requirements for graduation and other "fun" senior events, ranging from BBQs to prom to the graduation ceremony itself. Teachers were asked to escort their classes to our “state of the art” auditorium to ensure order, well, theoretically at least.  I scanned the room and saw about six hundred students, five teachers, and two or three administrators. Oh yeah, I knew this would be bad. Knowing my inability to cope with the boorish behavior of masses of students empowered by their anonymity, I dug into my seat, kept my nose in the papers I brought to grade, and the corner of my eye on my well-behaved class. 

No matter who stood up to speak to the assembly, the din never stopped. The man from Jostens, or whichever cap, gown, and ring company he represented, tried to impart information the kids would need should they make it to the finish line, but only a few listened to him. The poor man had to say,  “Listen up, people” as punctuation for almost every phrase he uttered. Remarkably, he never lost his patience. Then the phelgmatic student-body president mumbled a request for the students to purchase senior sweatshirts that they loudly considered too pricey, and an Assistant Principal spoke about what many considered the unreasonable senior attendance policy (7 absences max? Really, that’s unreasonable?). Soon the din became an uproar. I continued to mark comma splices and agreement problems and read and reread the sentences before me in an effort to tune out the noise. The last thing I wanted to do was confront misbehaving students whom I do not know by name. 

Finally, after questions no one heard and after an administrator was brushed off and left the stage for lack of stamina; after hoots, hollers, and whistles every time some well-meaning adult called them the Class of 2010; after rude call-outs and continuous inattention to the front of the room, the nightmare ended. Inches from a clean getaway, I rose to lead my students out of the auditorium.   

Then I saw them. Two girls in the seats right behind my class were sucking on fried chicken wings, fingers covered in grease. I was nothing short of aghast. Now, I have been known to hunker down over a little KFC myself, much to the dismay of my politically and dietarily savvy friends, but here in this sacrosanct auditorium designed for the top notch performers who attend this school, food is an absolute no-no. So I thought about it for a few seconds: do I say something and face inevitable resistance and hostility or do I just ignore this egregious defiance in front of all the students who know I have seen this display and count on me, as one of the adults in this barely controlled chaos, to maintain some form of order? 

“Are you REALLY eating in here? You have to put that away!” I registered my protest and insisted they modify their behavior. Very teacherly, but I knew I was in for it.

Blank stares. Lips wrapped around wings.

“Put the chicken away!” I remained firm.

“Where?” Finger licks, bone gnawing.

“Wherever your got it from!”


“Take out whatever the chicken came in and put it away. NOW!”

“Put it in what? What are you talking about?”

The conversation was so unprofitable, so impossible that I was getting angry at myself for starting it, for wasting my time, for feeling bad that I didn’t have a piece of chicken myself. But I am the adult here, or so they tell me. So why do I feel that sick feeling I always get when I know what the right behavior is and am made to feel the fool when I try to enforce it. 

I turned away from the offenders, cursed heartily under my breath, and stated that I was tired of the pigs at this school. One of the girls, who knew me, though I did not know her, says, “DID YOU JUST CALL ME A PIG?!”  Righteous indignation, of all the deflecting nerve!

Before I could say, Original Recipe, all the anger I had worked so hard to quell for that hour and a half of patent, room-wide disrespect rose up in me, and I just let it fly: “I said members of this student body act like a bunch of goddammed, disgusting pigs, and if you think you fit that description, then YES, I guess I called YOU a pig! Your behavior is a disgrace, an intolerable disgrace, and I am just sick to death of it!”  I turned on my heel and stormed out of the room, muttering to myself like the crazy person I suddenly felt like.

The question all this raises in me is why anyone would expect any adult to be at the mercy of disrespectful teenagers, who rarely face real consequences for their actions, and NOT get angry. One of my colleagues was recently called a bitch by one of her students, a curse to which she responded in equally colloquial and insulting language, and she was not only called out for her behavior by the administration, but she was told that a student’s calling a teacher a bitch is not an offense worthy of suspension. Really? Now if the same kid had called one of the administrators “Asshole” or dare I say something worse, would that have been an offense worthy of suspension? I also wonder whether it is just a coincidence that when I cannot get the team of boys who play a wild football game in front of my bungalow classroom (where they are forbidden to play) that this teacher, the one called BITCH, is the ONLY one who can get the kids to stop. Fire with fire, I say, unless of course, we suddenly turn this terrible tide and make civil student behavior priority one. Not likely, I fear.

Well, all this contemplation is making me hungry. I think I'll go out and get a little of the finger-licking good stuff and be done with it.