Welcome to the first ever TMMW mailbag post! This will also, hopefully, be the last post titled “mailbag” as it seems like a really antiquated term for something that solely exists on the internet. But, alas, I’m struggling with a better title. So far, I’ve scrapped title ideas like “Inbox,” “Office Hours,” and about twenty more embarrassingly terrible titles. If you have a solid title in mind, do me a favor and write it down in the comments section. If I choose your title, a nifty Starbucks gift card might find its way into your life.
Before we begin, I want to apologize to Candice, Judy, and Kim. Your questions were amazing (and each covered the same topic in different ways) and they will (they must!) be answered. However, if I had answered every question I received this week, this post would take about as long to read as a David Foster Wallace novel. I promise that I will do another one of these Q&A posts in a few weeks and I will include my answers to each of your questions (length of the post be damned!).
As will always be the case, these are real questions from real readers (I swear, I didn’t make them up, just like I didn’t make up the Swedish supermodel girlfriend I had when I was 13 years old):
I’ve got good news and bad news for you, Brooke. The good news is that your question made it onto the first ever TMMW mailbag post! The bad news is that I checked in with my student teacher about this (we’ll call her TMST, or Teach Me Student Teacher) and the answer is simply, “no.” The whole “you may have 40 students in your class” situation is being treated the way a day camp swim lesson treats getting lost at sea: In the rare case that this even comes up, the tools we’re giving you definitely won’t help.
It’s depressing. Just like when you and I went to teacher’s college (I don’t know your age, Brooke, but I know that what I’m telling you is accurate based on the assumption that you are somewhere between the ages of 23 and 100 years old), the current credentialing programs are more focused on how to write lessons, how to backwards plan units, and how to incorporate differentiation for EL and SpEd students into said lessons/units, than on the actual act of teaching. Years ago, I was having a conversation with Melinda Gates (the sound you just heard was the sizable name I just dropped) at a Gates Foundation event that was being filmed for a PBS special on educational reform (sorry, I the weight of that second name was just too much for me, so I had to drop it, too). AN-Y-WAY, I bring this up because Melinda (we’re on a first-name basis in this version of my story) was going on and on about how teacher effectiveness was not being measured properly and how the biggest problem in education was that we had not yet been able to adequately assess the quality of our teachers. I pushed back by suggesting the biggest issue in education was how inadequate credentialing programs were in creating and preparing highly effective future teachers (I mean, imagine if doctors were trained by merely writing hundreds of prescriptions and by observing one other doctor for a few hours a day—it’s absurd!). Melinda agreed, saying, “That’s true. Credentialing programs are dinosaurs.” And then I giggled because I was excited that my point was well-taken by Melinda Gates and also because I love dinosaurs. Years have passed and the Gates Foundation is still wringing their fists over teacher assessments, credentialing programs are still ineffective, and I still love dinosaurs.
First, I want to give you my sincerest appreciation (and condolences) to you for selflessly (and bravely) taking on the rewarding (and challenging) job of teaching 8th graders. I taught 8th graders for almost seven years and there is really nothing like it. If this is your first year teaching 8th grade students, just know that nothing means anything. Today your students will love you, tomorrow they’ll be ambivalent about you, the next day they’ll act like they’ve never followed a single school rule in their lives…and then they’ll love you again the day after that). I think you’ll find springtime particularly eye-opening—on any given spring day, roughly five to fifteen students can be found crying over god-knows-what (a three-day romance has ended, best friends are now enemies (but you know they’ll just end up being best friends again by the end of the week), or my personal favorite: I don’t even know why I’m crying!!). That being said, you’ve brought up a great question.
I can tell you that any teacher with more than a year’s experience knows exactly how difficult it is to be a new teacher in a new school. You’ve got new systems to learn, new content to navigate, and new pedagogical resources to make/procure. It’s a lot of work that can often turn you into the fabled hermit teacher who lives in the classroom and only comes out once or twice a day to pee and make copies.
You say that these other 8th grade teachers are somewhat insular and that they exhibit the behaviors of their students…and I believe you! Far too often teachers end up behaving like the grade level they teach (or worse, lower). However, this does not mean these teachers are bad people. My guess is that if the other 8th grade teachers haven’t come to you—if they haven’t made the effort to reach out and get to know you—then what you have is not a case of mean girls huddling into their cliques, but rather a problem with the school culture. I would venture to say that if you were a new 6th or 7th grade teacher at your school, you’d have the same experience you are having now as an 8th grade teacher. So, what do you do in this situation? Oh right, you’re the one asking me that.
I say you reach out to these teachers and make a real point to connect with them. If you don’t make the effort (and it seems like they aren’t making the effort any time soon), then nobody is making the effort—and the culture of isolation and “mean-girlness” will continue. This may sound corny (hey, I’m a dad, so I’m ALL about being corny), but if you can develop solid relationships with your coworkers, you can be the agent of change that turns the culture around for your grade-level team—and maybe, dare to dream, the entire school! All it will take is for you to have great relationships with your peers by the time the next new teacher joins your school. Once that happens, you’ll be the trendsetter (which would be so fetch). You’ll welcome the new teacher into the fold, and they will do the same for the next person (and trust me, with middle school turnaround being what it is, there will be “next” people on a regular basis).
Or, you could just ignore my advice and spend the rest of the year hiding in your classroom. The choice is yours. Just please don’t make a burn book.
Is this a bad time to mention that I’m a Google certified educator? Brad is not alone with his concern, though. There is a slippery slope argument to be made about the corporatization of our educational system: What happens when these companies start demanding that we adjust our curricula to fit, integrate, and interact with their products? Then again, you’d also be right in pointing out that the slippery slope argument is merely a logical fallacy (the sound you just heard was every 10th grade English teacher high-fiving me for including one of their content standards in this response): If an educational sponsor says, “do what we say,” you can easily say, “no.”
But I do agree with Brad on some level, here. There are far too many non-educators who are trying to make a profit off of the back of our broken education system. And what’s truly unfortunate is that educators are so starved for professional development and so eager to be told that we are as special as we are—because teachers typically get about as much praise as a barstool (“this barstool is…not horrible”). As a result, these current “partnerships” between educators and corporations are making teachers act less like an innovative source of academia, and more like Pokémon collectors: I got Apple Teacher! I got Flipgrid Ambassador! I got Google Certified Educator! GOTTA CATCH ‘EM ALL!
So while I am not too worried about whether or not we are sacrificing our students’ education in the name of corporations, I do sometimes worry that we are selling our souls in order to feel recognized for being as special as we are.
Unrelated: All TMMW advertisement requests can be submitted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I WILL LITERALLY SELL ANYTHING JUST MAKE ME AN OFFER AND TELL ME YOU LOVE ME!!
Just kidding, Jenni! The topic of your question might be the closest topic to my heart because I constantly find myself at odds with pacing guides—especially when it comes to delivering quality instruction to my SpEd and EL students. Maybe I’m wrong here (it wouldn’t be the first time), but I’m of the mindset that it’s better to have a deep, nuanced understanding of a handful of things than have superficial (at best) knowledge of many things. Deep, nuanced understandings last and are more easily related to new information, whereas superficial knowledge lasts about as long as a two year-old’s ability to share (I’ve heard my kid yell, “No! That’s MINE!” so many times these last two weeks that I don’t think she knows any other words at this point). Moreover, I’m of the mindset that SpEd teaching is good teaching. SpEd students benefit from using graphic organizers? Who doesn’t? SpEd students benefit from being able to show their understanding in a variety of ways? Who doesn’t? SpEd students find sentence starters to be helpful? Who doesn’t? As a SpEd teacher, I’m sure you understand this, but sadly, many gen ed teachers don’t. And this is where a pacing guide can do more damage to a child’s psyche than R.L. Stine’s literary masterpiece, “My Hairiest Adventure!” (I don’t wanna grow hair on my body, mom! Please tell me I won’t have to grow hair on my body! [sobs uncontrollably])
Take my own pacing guide, for instance. We are given 30 school days to complete a unit (we have a total of 6 units in the year). On the surface, that does seem like a pretty fair amount of time to complete a unit…until, that is, you actually look at what is covered in each unit. Unit 4 in my textbook, for example, covers the classic tale of “Romeo & Juliet.” My students (SpEd, EL, or not) all are expected to read this classic Shakespearean text (in the classic Shakespearean language), and fully understand the vocabulary, the subtext, and not to mention the actual story itself in just nine days. Keeping in mind that this is probably the first real exposure my students will have with Shakespeare, and that a growing percentage of my students are coming into 9th grade with an IEP or EL designation (or both)… again, they are ALL expected to have mastered “Romeo & Juliet” in nine days. Giving a child nine days to become a Shakspearean expert is like giving an Uber driver twenty hours of flight school and declaring, “Yeah, I think you’re ready to be an airline pilot now.”
My honest opinion is that I think you’re doing the right thing. By focusing more on what’s important (the complex material) than rushing your students through your curriculum, your students will gain both a deeper knowledge and appreciation for the content you are giving them. It’s crazy to say this, but there are teachers who hold fast to the pacing guide and, come hell or high water, they push their students all the way through to the finish line (regardless of how deeply or superficially their students grasped the content). In a side-by-side comparison, do these classes cover more material than my classes? Absolutely. Would I put my students understanding of (and their ability to think critically about) complex texts against any other group of 9th graders? You bet I would. But that’s part of the dilemma educators are facing: This isn’t a competition, yet pacing guides can make you feel like you’re running a race. As with a museum, it’s probably best if you don’t run through it as fast as possible—y’know, to really appreciate and understand what you’re looking at.
Oh, Jake…you sweet, sweet high school cherub. How great would it be if all educators were as introspective and philosophical about their own teaching practices as you are about your learning? My new goal in life is to keep this blog going until you’re ready to take it over. You can call it, “Teach Me Jake From Long Beach” or something like that (TMJFLB has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?). Full disclosure: Jake is a student of mine who found my blog and loves the irony of providing me with weekly feedback on my writing. Well, Jake, since you took the time to write me a question, I will give you an answer that is both honest and to the point:
If you want time to reflect, you need to ask your teachers to give you that time. Many teachers won’t come up with this on their own, and it’s not 100% their fault. As I mentioned above to Jenni, sometimes teachers feel so rushed to get through what they believe they are SUPPOSED to do that they don’t even take the time to reflect on what they are doing (or even why they are doing it and how well they are doing it). They are so consumed with the end goal that they forget to account for (or completely overlook) what the needs of their students may be. By the way, this also happens between adults—like when teachers overlook the needs of their new coworker, as Sarah is experiencing.
One thing is certain, though: reflection is a skill that takes time to master. Just like the whole “40-students-in-a-classroom” situation, many teacher programs are not doing their job of imparting in our future teachers the skill (let alone an understanding of the importance of) true reflection. What’s so great about your question is that you’ve shown everyone that you’re already ahead of the game. I’m not sure if you have been told this before, but the way you think is exactly what we need more of in education. Should you choose to pursue a career in education, the generation that follows yours would be lucky to have you as a teacher. And I know that, personally speaking, I would be VERY lucky to have you (or anyone like you, frankly) as a corporate sponsor for my blog (SERIOUSLY JUST MAKE ME AN OFFER PEOPLE I’LL PROBABLY TAKE IT!!).
Obviously, I’m joking about my need for love and affection [laughs nervously], but I’m not joking about my need for comments & questions about this first-ever TMMW mailbag post (especially if you have a better title)! Please leave yours in the comments section below (except for you, Jake