kitchen table math, the sequel: 'an okay teacher with a big mouth'

Thursday, June 4, 2009

'an okay teacher with a big mouth'

I feel I know this teacher: I've always loved the teachers with the big mouths! I like quiet teachers, too.... it's just that I have a soft spot in my heart for the brassy ones.

(I have a soft spot in my heart for brassy people in general, come to think of it.)

I'm trying to remember whether palisadesk has given us studies on teacher effectiveness having to do with the teacher as a strong personality -- ? Can't remember. If she's around, I hope she'll weigh in.

In any event, this teacher sounds like a lot of fun.

She was inspired to write a manifesto on taking the bull by the horns after attending a two-day conference on professional learning communities:
From: Ballantine, Sara
Sent: Thursday, January 29, 2009 10:49 PM
To: All Teachers and Staff
Subject: The Problem With Education in America: An Autobiography

Dear Esteemed Colleagues,

I would like to take this opportunity to say, well, to say that we suck. Don’t believe me? Ask Rob, he’ll show you the numbers. Now please take a minute to compose yourselves, grab a tissue, call your mom/spouse/brother/sister/accountant/etc. to wallow in self pity.

Done? Let’s move on.

The question still remains, who is to blame?

No, scratch that. That isn’t the question. The question remains, WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?

I do need to preface this by saying that I have no misgivings about my talent, as well as my shortcomings. I believe it would be safe to say that we, in fact, all have talent, as well as shortcomings. So again, just to be clear, I write this not to determine who is the “suckiest” out of all of us, but rather, as a call to action.

We are all aware that our first semester numbers were pretty dismal to say the least...I don’t feel the need to outline all of the barriers in our way; we are all well aware of the current state of things in our country, our district, and our school.

Thus, I propose that we stop focusing on the things we can’t change, and concentrate on the things we can.

Let’s stop blaming the social demographics of our students, the apathy of parents, the lack of motivation in our students, the skills that they “didn’t come in with,” the middle school teachers, the elementary teachers, the birth control that the parents of our students didn’t take, the fact that we didn’t have any coffee this morning, the union, admin, each other, and start taking responsibility for the job that we were hired to do.

Let’s change our focus from the curriculum that is not available, the money that isn’t there, the challenges imposed by the “block” schedule, and start looking to each other as our greatest resources.


The issue is critical, more so than some of us care to admit, and the time to take action is now. Actually, it was yesterday, and even before that, so it must be NOW.

I understand that I am saying things that many of us don’t want to hear, presenting issues that we would rather not confront, and making suggestions that we fear we will not be able to fulfill. I understand that this letter will make me unpopular among some of you, and expect some criticism. And to be frank, I really don’t care. I say that with conviction because this isn’t about me, it’s not about you, it’s about the 900 lives that we are charged with five days a week, 180 days a year, and the job we elected to do.

Some of us will be convening in the staff lounge (in the cafeteria) tomorrow at lunch to begin this dialogue and create and action plan; however, I hope to see ALL of us there. Let’s face it; we don’t have until next week, next month or next year.

So, Esteemed Colleagues, I propose that we do everything we can to make us not just “Better than Good,” but that we do whatever it takes to be more gooder.

No, scratch that. Let’s be great.


Sara Ballantine

I'm sorry, but I have to say it: DUMP THE BLOCK SCHEDULING. I mean, c'mon. You've got a teacher with a big mouth who's willing to lead the charge, rally the troops, swear off complaining (and gossiping!) in the teacher's lounge -- and you're saddling her with block scheduling?

How about no?

Since I'm not a teacher, I want to add that I haven't put up this post because I think Ms. Ballantine and her colleagues "suck."

I've put it up because I think Ms. Ballantine's approach to herself, her job, and her abilities is pretty close to exemplary -- at least, it is for a certain personality type. Probably the brassy personality type. As she says, she's not concerned about her talent or her shortcomings; she knows she has talent and she knows she has shortcomings. Talent and shortcomings are neither here nor there. What matters is the kids, and that's what she's saying.

"I suck and my data isn't great" can be a highly productive attitude, and I'm in a position to know. That's all.

The Comments are nice, too.


concernedCTparent said...

Wow. Love it!

The needs of the children come first. The adults in the room will pull together and make things work now matter how "sucky" the circumstances.

Even with block scheduling.


SteveH said...

My opinion is that full-inclusion screws everything up. It allows everyone to pass the buck. It allows teachers to go through the motions without worrying about whether learning gets done. "Trust the Spiral."

Even for the good teachers, it screws things up. They try desparately to fix all of the problems that walk into their classroom, and they don't have any time or power to fix the underlying problems.

There is also the problem of inertia. I've noticed that in my son's school, certain teachers will continue to assign the same silly projects and assignments they've given for the last 20 years. The few times I've mentioned specific things to the principal (like the 100 3X5 crayon drawings of definitions that the sixth grade teacher has the kids draw in science), I get very little response. Some say that administrations can be tyrants when they force new things down teachers' throats, but this is not always a bad thing. For better or worse, someone has to be in charge.

LynnG said...

If a teacher can hang in there and continue to keep a good sense of humor and strong motivation, then there is a chance they can succeed, despite what appear to be a daunting array of obstacles.

I'm hoping they all opt for a lot of direct instruction, formative assessments, spaced repetition, and a healthy dose of humor.

If the teachers can pull together, share what works, abandon what doesn't (no matter how much you like it) and support each other through the rough spots, they've got a shot at making a difference.

Independent George said...

I've always thought that the other side of accountability is flexibility; if we're going to hold teachers accountable for student learning (and we should), then we should also give them the flexibility to manage their classrooms as they see fit.

Of course, flexibility to me means school choice and 'free agency' among teaching jobs, which probably isn't what most people had in mind.

palisadesk said...

I'm trying to remember whether palisadesk has given us studies on teacher effectiveness having to do with the teacher as a strong personality -- ? Can't remember. If she's around, I hope she'll weigh in.

The teacher effectiveness studies that I have referenced (by Pedersen, Pressley and others) have focused on teacher practices and behavior, and to a lesser extent values and attitudes,rather than personality. Not that personality per se could not significantly impact teacher effectiveness, but it would be difficult to assess in isolation, separate from what the teacher does in terms of curriculum organization, presentation, feedback to students, etc.

SteveH made this point:
My opinion is that full-inclusion screws everything up
He is not alone. Here's a piece with some provocative ideas on why he may be right, and why (besides political correctness) the practice may be so popular:
Don Crawford article

KathyIggy said...

That Crawford article is so true. I've been on both sides of the fence on the inclusion issue for years. My oldest has autism spectrum disorder. Seems the only classes where she learns actual content are the small group "instructional" classes. But our new superintendent is a full inclusion, not a LRE guy. On the other hand, some of the small group classes have very unmotivated kids with additional problems and I worry about some use of those classes as a dumping ground. Now that my middle child just finished 3rd grade, I see the effects of inclusion there. Last year tons of class time was spent dealing with one student who probably did not belong in the regular class setting unsupported. I see the constant group work and projects mounting. The "child-centered" idea has in fact sucked the enjoyment out of school for her--at home I see a creative child who reads constantly , writes her own books and invents games. At school I hear constant complaints about boredom and how slow stuff moves. I think she reads under her desk most of the day. And most all the private schools in town (except the fundamentalist Christian one) are even more of the same.

SteveH said...

I would like to add that full-inclusion prevents teachers from having any control outside of their own classrooms. That might account for why so many teachers seem to be only concerned with how well they can do given their circumstances.

I always think of my son's fifth grade teacher who had to deal with so many kids who didn't know basic skills in (Everyday) Math. She set up an after-school math club and focused her class time on fixing these deficiencies. These weren't disaffected middle schoolers or low SES kids with problems at home. She knew that these kids should have mastered the basics before coming to her class. With full-inclusion, she had no grounds for suggesting that the kids should have mastered this material in the lower grades. They are all trusting the spiral.
The assumption of full-inclusion is that learning will happen naturally when the student is ready. There is no mechanism for deciding whether a student needs a better explanation or even a swift kick in the rear. Individual teachers might have a good judgment about what is needed, but after just a few years of education, teaching becomes very reactive, rather than proactive.

A fifth grade teacher should be able to call for a meeting of all teachers to discuss why so many of her kids could not add 7+8 or multiply 6 * 7. Can anyone give an example of this sort of thing happening?

I can understand why some teachers don't like state testing. Look at what was allowed to walk into their classrooms. The solution, however, is not to claim the tests are bad or not authentic. The solution is to fix the problem.

Then again, so many in K-8 education have such a fuzzy idea of education that they can't even define the problem. At best, the problem is defined in terms of very low state cut-offs. With a natural learning philosophy, they are going to have trouble meeting those low standards.

Catherine Johnson said...

I've got to get the Crawford article posted.

"It's always worse than you think."

Catherine Johnson said...

palisadesk - there's research on classroom pacing, right?

Another article I've got to re-locate: a Trends in Cognitive Science article about....."emotional tagging" --- I believe it had to do with the fact that emotional memories are stronger.

I suspect that "brassy teachers" engage in emotional tagging...

Catherine Johnson said...

Of course, flexibility to me means school choice and 'free agency' among teaching jobs, which probably isn't what most people had in mind.

ditto that

The professional learning communities are, as far as I can tell, IT. They are the only means of improvement I can imagine actually working inside our public schools as they are set up today.

Catherine Johnson said...

I've finally grasped DuFour's central point (or one of his central points): to make professional learning communities work, a school has to have a culture change.

The culture has to change from a focus on 'teaching' (or inputs) to a focus on learning and results.

Our schools need the things money can't buy.

You can't buy a change in culture.

Catherine Johnson said...

I've been on both sides of the fence on the inclusion issue for years.


Allison said...

That Crawford article is up at an org called PRESS. Anyone know how successful PRESS has been? Has it had a particular legislative focus? educational practice focus?