Category Archives: education

#Redfored

I am a teacher.  Recently, there has been a lot of news about why teachers are upset in Arizona.  There have been walk-ins and demands and video posts and blogs and opinion pieces.  Teachers have weighed in far and wide about the conditions of education in the state of Arizona.  I thought I should weigh in too.

I am a public high school teacher.  I do not speak for my school or my district or my peers.  I can only speak for myself.  But I need people to know what it means to be a teacher in Arizona.  I need them to know what my day looks like and how I spend my time and what I do to help students.  It is not always fun.  It is not always easy.  It is always gratifying.  So please don’t see this as a complaint.  I merely want to add some light to the plight of teachers in Arizona.

I am a public high school teacher in a Title I school.  What does that mean?  Here’s the definition from U.S. Department of Education: “Title I, Part A (Title I) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended (ESEA) provides financial assistance to local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards.”  So, what does that mean, exactly?  Well, to be blunt, it means that many of my students are from families who live near, at, or below the poverty line.  Many students qualify for free or reduced price lunch because their families, for whatever reason, don’t make enough money.  How many students qualify for this service?  From the same website: “Schools enrolling at least 40 percent of children from low-income families are eligible to use Title I funds for schoolwide programs designed to upgrade their entire educational programs to improve achievement for all students, particularly the lowest-achieving students.” To qualify for Title I funds, almost half.  The school I teach at is slightly more than that.

Great, I hear you say, your school gets more money from Title I funds, right?  Well… much like most things in education, it’s complicated.  I am not a finical expert on how to use Title I funds and I won’t even pretend to be, but the funds must be used for certain things and only those things.  And they are monitored.  Schools can get into a lot of trouble for misusing those funds.  There are several very long documents here if you want to read up on it yourself.  But the actual point is that I have a lot of students who can’t afford basic school supplies.  Here’s what I require for my class: a binder ($3.59), a composition notebook ($2.64), 100 index cards ($1.72), notebook paper ($2.50), and a calculator ($12.97) (walmart.com).  All together, with tax, this comes out to around $25.00.  My students can buy everything they need for my class for under $30, maybe cheaper if they find it on sale at “back to school” time.  And yet, every year, I have multiple students who can’t even afford those things.

Now, $30 would not break my bank if I had to do this for one student.  Heck, I could even swing two.  But it is not one or two students who need it help.  Every year I have 3-4 students per class (that’s 24 students a year) who can’t afford the materials.  If I were to purchase supplies for every needing student, it would be over $700 out of my pocket just for basic class supplies.  That is just for basic supplies.  That doesn’t include markers, colored pencils, dry erase markers, dry erase erasers, construction paper, scissors, rulers, or Kleenex.  Luckily, there are some great students at my school who are willing to help and share with their classmates, but I will end up buying about $500 of supplies for my students every year.  True, I get $50 to spend at Office Depot every year, but that money doesn’t buy a lot.

I am a public science teacher.  This is important because I buy a lot of science materials.  I am fortunate enough to be in a district that wants to see students doing science.  So we have things like beakers, thermometers, meter sticks, stir rods, microscopes, and even some pH meters that sort of, kind of work (as long as you don’t stand too close to them while getting your readings).  We also have a lot of supplies in the form of microscope slides, chemicals, and fetal pigs.  But our tap water is awful for chemistry and I have to buy DI water if I want to use anything that would react with the minerals in our tap water.  It is also expensive to get concentrate hydrochloric acid every year, so I use it sparingly.  That means a lot of experiments with vinegar and baking soda, that I also purchase.  There are other things, too, like lima beans and pony beads and paper clips and plastic cups that get used for various lab and hands-on activities.  So that adds to my yearly expenses because those materials come out of that same $50 classroom supply budget.

Being a science teacher also means lab reports, practice problems, quizzes, and answering endless questions about how to do this or that.  It means being involved with students, it means offering tutoring hours, it means being available for them when they are struggling.  It means grading.  This is one of those things that I definitely struggle with because I feel like if I make a student do something in class to help them learn, then I should give them feedback on it.  Right now, I have a stack of papers on my desk that I didn’t get to last week (we’re coming up to meetings, don’t you worry).  I was at school at 6:00 am this morning and I didn’t leave until 4:00 pm.  That is a normal day.  Every day.  I spend 6-8 hours every Sunday grading and planning and prepping for the coming week.  I spend this time because I care.  I read every answer and make comments.  I cross out and make draw lines and annotate their assignments so that they can learn what they did wrong and do it correctly next time.  Again, I’m not complaining.  But I am trying to enlighten people who think teaching is a 40 hour/week job.  It’s not.

But I like numbers.  Let’s look at the numbers: ~60 hr/week for 38 weeks (the average school year – fall break, spring break, and wine break) = 2,280 hrs.  Let’s divide that by 50 weeks (I am just assuming that most people get 2 weeks off/year) = 45.6 hours per week.  So, can we please stop this “it’s only 9 months” and “teachers get all these breaks” comments.  Everyone gets breaks and days off and can take time off.  It all evens out in the end.

I am a public high school teacher for all students.  This means that I have students who are on individual education plans and 504 plans.  I have students who want to doctors and engineers and lawyers and students who don’t even want to graduate high school.  I have students who can’t stay awake because they work until 11:00 pm every day to help pay the bills.  I have students who can’t focus because they are going through hard times in their personal life.  And I have to teach them all.  So there are meetings with parents and with counselors and with students and with other teachers.  There are phone calls and emails to try to get these kids on track to graduate or to understand why a student earned a B on a test instead of an A.  This takes up a larger part of my day than you think.  Two of my classes took a test today so tomorrow, I will email all 60 parents about their students’ current grade in the class and if they are on track to pass.  Technology has made this easier (thank you, Mail Merge, the teacher’s best friend) but there are still many parents who do not have email.  And since everyone has a cell phone, there are also many parents with an out of state phone number.  Since districts are underfunded, we don’t have out of state calling abilities from our classrooms.  Instead, I have to use the one phone in the office that can make out of state calls.

Here’s the bottom line: TL;DR edition: I love my job.  I really do.  I love talking to students and learning about them.  I love it when they get it.  I love it when they want to be my friend on FB and follow me on Twitter.  It can’t put into words how I feel when they come back and tell me how my class affected them.  I have a wall of student pictures and letters and notes that fill me with joy every day.  But, I would also like to have the funded to do my job better.  What other job requires their employees to shell out their own money to supply their clients?  My dad worked in sales for many years and was never expected to use his own money for client interactions.  He was always paid back if he did.  Yet we expect teachers to just give and give and give without getting a lot in return.  And we have.  Because we love what do.  But enough is enough.  It’s time for teachers to get a little back for all that do.

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Dear Graduates,

Congratulations!  You’ve made it through high school!  All of your work has paid off and you are getting a diploma.  You’ll sit and listen to the valedictorian gushes about the wonderful memories you’ve all made together.  You’ll clap as the senior class president regales tales of homecoming and prom.  You’ll role your eyes as the principal talks about the responsibilities of adulthood.  You’re friends and family will cheer when your name is called.  You shake hands with education board and the principal and the assistant principals and you get to finally move that tassel (is it left or right?) to indicate that you have reached a major accomplishment in your life.  You’ll hug your best friend (friends for life) and kiss your significant other (we’ll always be together) and you’ll have an amazing night.

And then you’ll get up the in morning and realize that it’s over.  High school is officially done.  Now what?

It’s an okay feeling to have.  There might be lots of excitement for the future.  There might be some dread that you have no clue what you are going to do with your life.  There might be some anxiety over college or the military or your job.  It’s all perfectly normal things to experience.  As you enjoy your summer and prepare for your future, I hope that you’ll remember the lessons learned from your friends and teachers in high school.

Some friends are worth keeping and some friends are there because of circumstance.  I know it’s hard to hear because BBFs and all.  I’m still friends with a few people from high school, and yes, one of my best friends from high school is still one of my best friends today.  But I rarely talk to other people that I considered close friends in high school.  It’s not because we didn’t care for each other, but we grew up and went separate ways.  I still remember them fondly and see occasional updates on Facebook, but our lives no longer bring us together on a daily basis.  It’s okay to let friends go and make new ones.

Teachers really do care about you.  It might not seem like it, and maybe all teachers don’t care specially about you.  But I’d bet that every single graduate can point to at least one teacher in high school who genuinely cared about you.  That gets more difficult to find as you go into the scary “real world”.  Professors and bosses and drill sergeants are more likely to see you as just another number or responsibility unless you do something to make them see more.  Be involved, introduce yourself, try as hard as you can, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification, don’t be afraid to push yourself and show your dedication.  Get to know these people as people, as much as you can, at least.  I mean, don’t cross any lines where you will get kicked out or fired.  Have some boundaries, of course.  My point is, make connections with people and show that you care about what you do.

You will forever be a student.  You might not always be in the halls of a school or sitting at a desk, but keep learning.  Find things your interested in and passionate about and read about it or listen to podcasts about it or watch YouTube videos.  Get involved in local organizations or clubs were you can experience new things.  Travel and experience the world because there are so many things out there that are interesting and cool and fun.

Good luck to you all.  I wish you all the best whatever the future brings you!

Congrats, class of 2016!!


Dear Students

I just want to tell you that it’s time to take responsibility for your own learning.  I’m trying my best.  Are you?

I had a student ask me the other week why I kept lower their grade.  Why I was lowering their grade.  Not how they could help their understanding.  Not what they could do to increase their grade.  I was lowering their grade and they wanted to know why I was ruining their GPA.  Seriously.

I’m not ruining your GPA or lowering your grade.  I enter grades in the gradebook based on your performance and understanding.  Why are you turning in assignments half completed and expecting full credit?  Why aren’t your taking responsibility for your learning?

I had another student ask if they could have extra credit.  This student is missing half of the assignments I have given out.  Why should I go out of my way to give you extra credit when you don’t do the regular credit?  Why aren’t you taking responsibility for your learning?

I am at school at 6 am every morning and I leave school around 3:30 pm every afternoon.  I work nights and weekends to ensure that you have fun in class, are engaged, are stimulated, and are learning the material.  I bring papers home and ignore my pets and friends because I need to grade and provide meaningful feedback.  I lose sleep at night because I’m trying to figure out new and better ways to teach concepts that I know are difficult.  Please don’t mistake this as a complaint.  I love my job (despite what pop culture leads you to believe about teachers).  I really enjoy working with you and teaching you and watching you grow into the young adult that you will become.  I don’t mind grading and planning on my off time.  I understood the time commitment of the job when I signed up.  So I don’t mention these things to complain.  I mention them to illustrate my dedication to you.

I know you have other things going on.  I know you have sports and clubs and jobs and friends and family and stuff.  I don’t expect you to live and breathe chemistry, but I do expect you to try.  I do expect you to do the work.  I do expect you to ask questions.  I do expect you to get help when you are struggling.  I don’t think it unreasonable to ask that you think about things and challenge yourself.  You will certainly be expected to once you leave the comfortable halls of high school.

So please, start taking responsibility for your learning.  If you don’t know, ask.  If you don’t understand, get help.  I am here for you and I am always happy to help in any way that I can.  But if you don’t do the work, don’t blame me for your grade.

Sincerely,

Your teacher


Too Hard

School is back in session and I have a whole new group of kiddos, including 2 sections of honors chemistry.  These are the top kids in their class; these are the kids who most likely want to go into science (either get a degree in science or are pre-med).  They are smart kids who believe a B is failing.  Then they get to honors chemistry.

I’ll be the first to admit that chemistry is hard.  It’s this weird combination of math and concepts and application that most students don’t see in high school.  I don’t just require them to know the information, I require them to apply that information to new and interesting situations.  Not all classes do that.  History is just names and dates to these kids.  English is just writing some stuff down.  Math is just solving for x.  And it’s easy for them.  Suddenly they find themselves in a situation where it’s not so easy.  They don’t have all the answers and they don’t always know all the answers right off the bat.  It’s frustrating to them.  I totally get that.  I’ve had classes like that.  But I truly believe that those type of classes made me a better student, and maybe even a better student.

I had a class in college that was super hard.  It was called terrestrial arthropods and it was a 400 level class.  It was the only invertebrate class that semester and I needed it to graduate at the end of the semester.  I dreaded that class.  For a week before classes started, I seriously debated if I should drop it and take a different class the next semester.  But that would delay my graduation and I was done with school.  So I took the class and I got an A.  It was the most difficult, time consuming A I even received.  It was also the best A I ever received.  I actually worked for that A.  I put blood and sweat into that A.  I fucking aced that class, damn it!  It taught me something (I mean, besides how to ID an insect and how spiders breathe):  just because it’s hard doesn’t mean I can’t do it.

Ok, back to chemistry.  So, I hear students talk in the hall.  One thing I hear my honors students say is “that class is too hard”.  And I have to think to myself “Too hard?  We’ve done, like, maybe two things.  They had to count significant figures and design a lab.  If that’s too hard, well shit…”  I hear it a lot in class too: “That homework was too hard.  That test was too hard.”  I’m trying to figure it out.  Is it really too hard, or do they just not want to do the work?  Sometimes, I’m not sure.  I don’t think it’s too hard.  It’s not easy, to be sure, but too hard?

My knee-jerk reaction is to make it easier.  “Ok, I’m sorry it’s too hard.  Here, let me hold your hand while I walk you through this step by step.”  I want them to enjoy my class.  I want students to want to take the class in the future.  I want students to do well.  That’s when I realize that I’m already doing that.  Students do enjoy my class.  Just today a student was telling me that they “loved this class” even though they weren’t sure about it in the beginning.  I would be doing my students a disservice if I made it any easier.

My message to students is a simply one: Try harder.  I know somethings it’s difficult and you don’t understand.  Take a break.  Go watch a show, listen to some music, play a video game.  Then sit your butt back down and figure it out.  Life isn’t going to get any easier and if you give up on something just because it’s “too hard” at first, you’re going to miss out on a lot of stuff in life.  Besides, your A in honors chemistry will mean a lot more to you than in any of those “easy” classes.  You just have to work at it.


Some of them can actually think for themselves

I have the pleasure of being the Science National Honor Society sponsor at my high school.  As the sponsor, I arrange trips for the students to engage in community projects.  Some of those projects involve students teaching elementary school kids about science.  Some of the projects involve the students pulling weeds in order to help native habitats.  And some of the project require students to interact with grad students in order to learn more about science.  In all of those projects, I’m super proud of my students.

Today, I took about 20 students to ASU to hear presentations from grad students at the Institute of Human Origins.  The grad students walked my high school students through the basics of human evolution.  Then they asked my students to arrange a set of skulls from oldest to newest.  My wonderfully fantastic students were not only able to put skulls in a mostly correct order, they were able to justify why they chose that order in the first place.  And their reasoning was sound.  Given what they knew and what they just learned, they were able to work together and solve the problem.  They impressed me and the two grad students who were leading them through the lesson.

It’s easy to become jaded when you teach.  You see a lot of students who give up, who don’t challenge themselves, who don’t try hard, who don’t leave their comfort zone.  It’s easy to think that they are lazy and stupid and that the future is doomed.  It is easy to give up on humanity and turn your back on the younger generation.  Then you see students work together to solve a problem.  You see them think it through and put thought into their decisions and take each other’s opinions and critics in order to accomplish a goal.  And you realize: things are not doomed.  There are smart students out there, smart young people who will go on to be smart adults and contribute their knowledge to the collective good of humanity.  They talk about their future with such optimism in their voices and in their eyes.  They are excited about college and learning and becoming better.

It’s easy to forget that not all of them will become parents at 15 and work at McDonald’s for the rest of their life.  I’m glad I get to see those students who will really change the world.  It makes my remember why I want to be a teacher.  Why I want to stay a teacher and inspire students to continue their education.  I’m glad I get to be their sponsor and see them use their skills to solve problems.


What Students Really Need to Hear

I just said the same thing to my classes today because they didn’t do some homework. The point wasn’t that they didn’t do their homework. The point was that they didn’t even try because it was “too hard”. That thought drives me nuts! As I told me students: Step up and figure it out. Life’s hard, get a helmet.  This essay is exactly what I wanted my students to hear.  The point of school isn’t the academics, although those are good things to know, the point is to step up and learn to overcome difficulties.  Thanks for writing it. 🙂

AFFECTIVE LIVING

It’s 4 a.m.  I’ve struggled for the last hour to go to sleep.  But, I can’t.  Yet again, I am tossing and turning, unable to shut down my brain.  Why?  Because I am stressed about my students.  Really stressed.  I’m so stressed that I can only think to write down what I really want to say — the real truth I’ve been needing to say — and vow to myself that I will let my students hear what I really think tomorrow.

This is what students really need to hear:

First, you need to know right now that I care about you. In fact, I care about you more than you may care about yourself.  And I care not just about your grades or your test scores, but about you as a person. And, because I care, I need to be honest with you. Do I have permission to be…

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rethink my classroom

The Buckeye Union High School District just passed its bond on Thursday. This means that my district gets some money to build some badly needed buildings (cause we have on average 40 students per class and no more rooms for new teachers), some extra buses (cause our district is growing like crazy), and a laptop for each student. BUHSD is going one-to-one with technology.

This is an interesting change to this district. Buckeye is a fastly growing community and I see this as a step in the right direction for the school and the community at large. Time to enter the 21st century. Students that I teach are going to fact completely new challenges than the ones that my generation is facing and technology is going to be key to their success. These students need to use the resources available to them is super important and often overlooked. We expect these kids to know how to use technology because they have smart phones, but the truth is that they are just as clueless as other sects of the population. They just know how to snapchat better. It boggles my mind when I ask students to look something up. Most just Google the exact question asked, read on the first link (they don’t actually click on it), Yahoo answers or Wikipedia. They don’t know how to use key words or how to look for creditable sources. So that becomes a challenge as a teacher.

The second thing this bond does it’s make me think about how to redesign my curriculum in order to effectively use these new devices. Students having laptops completely changes the way I need to teach. No more PowerPoint notes and worksheets. Or is there still a way to use those? How do students turn stuff in? Which program is best to use for file sharing? How do you administer tests? How do you charge 30+ laptops in a class using the four outlets available?

All these questions need to be thought out and answered. But despite going into the unknown, I’m excited for the change. This will be something good for my students, my school, and the community. It’ll be exciting to see how it plays out next year.


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