What is the best learning environment?

Our traditional classrooms with desks in rows, with hard seats, is that a good learning environment? Probably not! Most classrooms are small, with hard floors, white walls, and 30-plus student desks. The desk traditionally are in rows facing forward, recent trends have teachers moving them around more but with limits due to class size. My current classroom is pretty big. I have large science lab tables that seat 2 student per table. I have them arranged in groups of 3, with two tables facing each other and one table at the end facing the front of the room. This seating arrangement creates seating for 36 students in my room. Luckily my largest class is 34. Recently, a few students complained because they were having problems focusing on learning. We talked about where they wanted to sit. In the end they concluded that there was not an ideal space in the room for them.

I got to thinking, where would I want to sit? Where would I learn best?  For me, I learn best alone in a quiet warm room while sitting or laying on a soft chair/sofa. Putting a sofa in a science room doesn’t work on so many levels and my room is usually far from quiet. So how do schools create idea learning environments that meet the needs of the students? What does this environment look like?

I remember at the end of a college course years ago, I was asked to create a plan for my ideal classroom. It should be large, with flexible seating. Carpeted area for students to sit on the floor. Book cases full of leveled reading materials. Muted colors on walls. A space that makes whole group instruction work, as well as areas to divide up the class for group and individual instruction. Nooks available for students who need a quiet out of the way space. Comfortable seating.

Many of these items are missing in my room, and many other teachers rooms. Schools just can’t afford the space or materials to create the “ideal” space. Our student are learning to deal with the less than ideal learning conditions. I am okay with it. Making do with what you have is valuable learning for students too. Teachers, administrators, society  need to keep in mind that the learning conditions might have impact on students performance. As a society we need to attempt to create the best learning environments in our schools.

Why teachers are frustrated….

Education has been in the public spot light for the last year. Teachers have seen various pundits speak as if they were expert teachers. Many have stated education just needs more “dedicated” teachers who “care more”  and “work harder”. Some experts have been teachers, for Teach for America. Now they are policy experts, after teaching two years. Other experts are come from industry or policy think tanks, with no experience in teaching except having been a student. These attacks hurt and make teachers feel unvalued in their profession. This is not where the frustration sets in.

Frustration comes when the leaders of education, superintendents, accept these criticisms. These leaders except the changes based on political and funding pressures. They fear for their jobs and district funding. Money seems to have power over even the most intelligent educational experts. The best research out today, says the one size fits all models don’t work in education. When big money from state and federal government and private donors like the Gates and Broad Foundations are at stake, best research goes out the window.

Teachers are frustrated because they don’t have an advocate that is being heard. Sure Diane Ravitch, the AFT and NEA are vocal opposition to the  “reform” movement. They are viewed as radicals or groups with vested interest not to change. Teachers don’t fear change. They fear a world that leaves students that are poor or that have special needs behind. Teachers fear a educational system that believes all students learn the same way at the same rate.

Teachers believe that all students learn, in their own way, at their own rate. Do all children walk or talk at the same age? Teachers believe that standards are guidelines not rules that are written in stone. Teachers feel the pressure of the world, since any time society sees a problem, society wants schools to solve it. (Think childhood obesity and bullying)

The teacher frustration will end when OUR leaders stand up and say ENOUGH!! Schools need to focus on students needs and students learning. Not meeting an expected score one day on one standardized test. When the leaders stand up, the teachers and communities will stand behind them. Then and only then can education focus on REAL Change: Making schools a place where everyone can learn.

MEAP Matters?

Today I had the pleasure of administering the 7th grade math MEAP (Michigan Educational Assessment Program) to my 2nd hour science class. It is the second week of testing, 4th day of testing. We give up about 2.5 hours of instructional time each day that our students are required to take the test. I find it odd that we are testing 6th grade growth in writing, reading and math a month into the 7th grade year. shouldn’t the test be at the end of the 6th grade year? Before our students have 10 weeks off and then comeback and get into a routine of instruction just to be interrupted by testing over 2 weeks. Enough about testing times, I want to focus on today.

Today I walked around the room observing students working on the test. I noticed students answering questions without writing down any calculations in the test booklet. I took a moment to look back at the instructions: “You may underline, circle or write in the booklet but only the answers on the answer document will be corrected.” First off, I don’t like the word MAY in the instructions. I feel it needs to be changed to “You SHOULD”. Why do we give the students permission to choose not to show work, which as an educator I know is a best practice. It will help students see what they are calculating and they may notice a mistake. The other problem is the directions are telling the students that their work doesn’t matter, just the answer. Sure, the government does not want to pay someone to grade written work, but they devalue it before it is even attempted.

As I continued to monitor the class take the assessment, I felt more and more useless as a teacher in the classroom. I saw students making mistakes. I wanted to ask them how they came to their answer. I wanted to help them see their errors and make corrections. I felt helpless, watching students make mistake after mistake. Trained to help students learn from mistakes, I was forced to sit on the sidelines so the educational autopsy could be performed. Result coming in 6 months with very few problems released to aid student instruction.

After the students had finished: some rapidly and some worked diligently to achieve their best. I talked with a few students individually. My first conversation was with a student who finished the suggest 40 minute second part in 15 minute. I asked “How did you do?” His response was “Doesn’t matter, my parents don’t care about the MEAP, glad I am done.” I wanted to say it matters to your school and teachers. I felt the urge to explain that the scores rank schools and can affect funding. But he was right! To him the test has no relevance. It does not affect his grade or standing in school. Why try your best on a test if there is no true benefit. What is the point of the test for him?

The other student I talked to was a girl. She appeared tired and was laying her head down on the desk after the test were collected. I asked her why she was tired. “Well, I did not go to bed until 11 pm last night and had to get up at 4 am to get to school.” Okay 5 hours of sleep would make me tired too. I sure would not be performing my best on a test getting that little sleep. After further inquiry I found out she was with her mom at her mother’s boyfriends house, an hour away from school. Well, that explains the sleep issue. Is it fair for this 12-year-old girl to have to take the test? I don’t know.

I do know we need to create a testing system that is relevant to our students. It need to not be an autopsy but be a tool to mold instructional needs for the students. It also needs to have the flexibility to allow for students to show work and retake if needed. We need a testing system that helps students grow and become better learners. Not one that is used to rank students and bully teachers and schools.

Where do we go from here?

As a veteran teacher I have been thinking non-stop about the next step in education lately. I pursed a career in teaching because I love working with young minds and molding the future. I enjoy the challenges of working with a new crop of minds to motivate each year. I now feel pressures like no other. I feel disrespect daily from the media, community and students. When I talk to colleagues I hear overwhelming concerns about where our profession is heading. Stress levels seem to mimic the ones I saw in my father, a cardiologist, when I was a child. I chose the teaching profession over being a doctor because I wanted to have time to spend with my family. My father never had that time. However now I feel like I am losing my family time to my other kids. The 125 or so students who I have at school. I need to plan more than ever before to make sure I reach all of them. It seems society forgets that teachers are parents too.

As I read about different “Ed Reforms” I grow concerned. Most ideas come from people who have not spent much time in the classroom working with students. The ideas come from business, think tanks, and short-term teachers who climbed up a ladder and never looked back at classrooms. These ideas do not have research or proven methods behind them. Teachers will have to burden the costs of implementing them. Whether it be a financial cost, time cost or professional cost. Race to the top has created ranking systems that have no merit in a work place where there are too many variables for student achievement. A teacher could be ranked highly effective in one school but if they were moved to a different school they would be ranked ineffective.

The United States education system needs to change for sure but not the way we are doing it now. Right now we seem to be looking for a silver bullet that fixes everything at once. We want to blame “bad” teachers and “praise” great school programs. (Read blame union teachers/praise charter schools if you will). If we continue down this road, the winners will be businesses that profit off of the change, the losers will be the rest of American Society.

There is a model that seems to work. Look no further than the medical professions for assistance. Doctors train as interns for 2,4 and sometimes 6 years. Studying under the TOP leaders in their profession. Their teachers actually show, hands on how to perform in the field. Medical students start by watching the best work , assist and then have a hand at showing what they learned with the best watching on. This is completely different from how we train out teachers. We throw them in a student teacher placement with who ever will take them, and then tell them we will come see them teacher every few weeks. No wonder some teachers are bad, they received bad training, blame the school of education they attended.

If a professor is teaching college students how to teach, they need to be active in a school teaching. Not all day but a class or two. If someone is going to be recognized as an expert in the field of education, they need to be actively teaching in the field. We can’t have experts observe and report out, they need to do, so students can see them practice what they are preaching. I know teachers work hard to become the best in their field so they can consult. Is it best for students to have the best teachers sitting on the sidelines? Would we want a surgeon who heard an expert speak one day? or the surgeon who watched, assisted and was critiqued by the best?

Let’s fix education!! But let’s make sure we do it right by listening to the teachers and giving them what they need.

Is teaching a job? or a career? or ….

As a teacher I often talk to my middle school students about preparing for their careers. Many times I have students ask What is the difference between a “Job” and a “Career”. My simple answer is that a “job” is a way to earn money (temporary, hourly pay), where as a career is a job where you advance your roll into leadership or require higher degree of learning (longer term, salary). I give examples of jobs as waiting tables or working cutting grass. Career examples I give are retail jobs where one can move up to management or police, firefighter, doctor. My students often respond to the retail example stating it is a job that could be a career if nothing else pans out. I have to point out that starting low in retail and working up is a time-honored tradition, giving the example of a friend of mine from college who worked in a Jockey Retail store and has worked his way up to a district manager position.

My view is a similar view of what Trent wrote in a blog “The Simple Dollar“. I have used this blog in the past help explain the difference in a career planning unit I have taught during middle school advisory lessons. Up until recently I have always thought of teaching as a career and not a job.

I have a masters degree that is in the field of educations. Check one-off in the career column. I have been teaching for 13 year. Check. I have a salary. Check. I work hard and want my boss to notice my work. Check. Sure does look like a career. But I think there is more to teaching than calling it a career.

After re-reading Trent’s blog, a few ideas stuck in my head. A career is “connected employment” leading to “higher pay and higher prestige.” That really does not happen in teaching. If I want higher pay and prestige I have to leave the teaching gig and head into management and consulting. I guess you can call those teaching jobs, I don’t really see it that way. I teach because of the students. Sure someday I might leave them for a different kind of student but I don’t want to go into management. I am like most teachers very dedicated to my students. We all work hard. Spend time outside of our normal working hours, working to better us at our craft. So I don’t see teaching as a career I see it as a LIFESTYLE. Sure we might know some who see it as a job, They leave the job after the first 5 years. Some see it as a career, the move up the ladder quickly forgetting how it was to be in a classroom daily. But there are some who live teaching 24/7/365 and to us it is truly a LIFESTYLE choice.