Thursday, July 14, 2011

Expertology, Reformenzies, and Other Words I am Going to Make Up as I Go

Prologuette (because it's short and girly--just like me):
As the calendar creeps onward, and another school year approaches, I find that THE TASK AHEAD is still monumental. THE TASK is different than it was when I first started this job FIVE YEARS AGO (certainly I can't believe it's been that long now), but it is still challenging and at times overwhelming. This is post is going to explore what's made me better than I was five years ago and the things that still hold me back in a lighthearted tone (yes, you should read that as it will be a silly rant that packs a punch with an air of truth).

This blog has been about my journey as a young teacher (some would argue that I am now on the brink of not being young)(to those who would argue that I say, "please don't talk about that. I know and I am not taking that exceptionally well at the moment.") and my journey as a new teacher (statistically speaking about the general level of experience in the field I'm no longer new). This blog is just one case study and my experience is one perspective, but I know what I think now about some things that I was not-so-long-ago too inexperienced or maybe young to offer any valuable insight into.

The Narrative of My Glossary of Made Up Terms (yeah, I think that's an oxymoron):
To start with, I am going to offer some definitions for words I recently made up. Expertology is the study of how expertise is developed in a given field (let's say education in this case) (did you see that coming?). Reformenzies is my name for all the clouds of educational reform movements in American education brought to you by politicians at every level and your occasional philanthropist with the strange phenomenon of time on his hands.

Next, I want to just get out in the open what I sometimes dance around. I dance around this opinion particularly in the company of non-edheads (that's a word I just made up for people who do not live in education world) because, frankly, it's polite practice to pretend like dealing with your kids is always my pleasure. So, I refrain from mentioning my true opinions on the amount of blame teachers get for problems in education. Those two things aren't directly related, but the line is somewhat implied. Tonight, though, I will go no holds barred. Edhead or not, I will tell you what I really think, and it's not even Happy Hour!

My Comments on the Prevailing Views on Education (at least, based on my experience which is admittedly a lot of watching fox news and hanging out with friends/family in a uniquely conservative state):

A lot of people are really worried about hunting down the "bad teachers" and ousting them--quite possibly with pitchforks and everything. It's what I call the Sheep Go to Heaven; Goats Go to Hell philosophy of education. If we can just find all the goats and send them straight to Hell, then of course we would enter into the Golden Age of Education. Unfortunately, many Teacher prep programs are nothing but Goat factories, and if that wasn't enough, there are all these unions that care about goat's rights far more than education or children. Let me be clear, I think this argument is all about finding a scape goat. There are problems with public education (we all know that), but they reflect greater problems in our culture. Of course, there are some goats working in public education; but I predict that even if Judgement Day came tomorrow and we successfully rooted out any goats and replaced them with sheep (an excellent metaphor for good teachers in the eyes of reformenziers) we would not make a significant dent in the problems faced in American Public Schools. I loved Freakonomics (one of the books on my summer books) which courageously noted the strongest correlation (not necessarily causation) in school success was home environment.

Beyond my feelings on the home's strong impact on learning, I don't think that goat teachers are as permanently fixed as we say. I am just going to come out of the bad teacher closet and admit that I was probably a bad teacher my first couple of years. Not because I was Cameron Diaz and looking for a man to get me out of the classroom or something. It was because the amount of data coming into your head as a new teacher in this day and age is unfathomable unless you've been there. Standing in front of a classroom looks simple enough, but to own that class and successfully teach it I can't even begin to describe how that works. I'll talk about that more when I talk about expertology, but suffice it to say, that it takes time and experience to learn how to teach well.

The problem with the reformenzies that either try to save education by rooting out goats or by offering so much professional development to all teachers is that you can't teach expertise. When I was a new teacher, I got so many tips of classroom management but it was only marginally helpful. Now, even as a teacher, who makes a living of of explaining and training, I don't think I can explain how to manage a classroom. I can do it, and if you put an inexperienced person in front of the same group then you will think it is a different group, but I can't explain it. That is the nature of expertise. Recently I've been reading Moonwalking with Einstein which thoroughly discusses the expertise of chicken sexers who cannot explain how they know, but just know. The expertise of teachers is currently harmed in two ways: 1, teachers aren't retained long enough to develop this in many cases;
2, it's hard to find enough consistency in teaching to develop well rounded expertise. In my four years, I've taught two grade levels, the Math curriculum has been changed three times, the reading curriculum has changed twice, and I have no idea how many different programs I've been asked to use to teach the same things.

My Reformenzy Manifesto or What I Would Do If I Had Majored in Philanthropy Instead of Education which Would, in Defiance of Logic, Still Be More Profitable:

My Reformenzy would focus on teacher retention and the nourishment of expertise. Attrition for teachers is at its worst in the first three years. I would have teacher apprenticeship as opposed to student teaching and it would be a paid three year position. Those teachers would be on a low pay grade with no increase for three years. Master teachers would be paid more and would be the ones accountable. (Too expensive, you say. Hey! I'm a philanthropist now and can pay for what I want).

To nourish expertise, I think you've got to make the job manageable enough that you can focus on the important stuff. Now coming into my fifth year, it is all the junk that eats my time that I dread. If I was going to lead a reformenzy, it would unburden teachers so they could use their expertise for the majority of the hours they work at the school. I would bring back teacher's aids.

The second thing I would do, is push for consistency. Our slogan would be, "Nothing new for at least two!" I would push to keep curriculums the same, to minimize grade and subject switching, and to keep programs consistently in place.

The third thing I would do is keep strenuous measurements and reports of success in place. Yes, of course, I would keep standardized tests in place, but I would let experts deal with them. I think administrators should use that data to help teachers who need help and even to weed out goats. BUT I think it can't be done with a blanket rule. Data is our friend, and as a teacher I love it, but data isn't our God. We might as well make computers principals and even superintendents if we're going to be told exactly how to use and interpret data. I'm sure that corruption could happen and not all administrators would be good, but let's see corruption is already happening (how many cheating scandals are currently going on?).

My Comments on My Comments (Is Anyone Really Still Reading This?):

Wow, this is what happens when I take a little break from writing/ranting about education. I get a little, teensy bit long-winded. My family and friends and likely colleagues should thank me for writing this, so they don't have to be subjected to the oral version.


Five years ago, I began my professional journey as an educator. I worked so hard, and people told me it gets easier. They were right, it does, and it did; but I should have paid better attention to the fact that they didn't say it would get easy.

As I sit here, I realize that I have all these thoughts, now, on what might be done, but I'm not sure I want to be the one to do it. I'll leave the details out of this, but I've been looking at a lot of alternative career paths recently. Maybe I'll jump ship and maybe not, but a part of me feels that I owe my time as a sheep after making it through my goat years, and that maybe I should one day be a shepherd and put my money where my mouth is.

For now, I have another year here to do my best with what I have, which is a lot more than I had five years ago.


luckeyfrog said...

The school I recently taught at was trying to improve test scores and had a few programs.

One of them, through stimulus funding, allowed me to be an interventionist and "assistant teacher" within a single classroom, working alongside a more experienced teacher.

I really think that something like this for a year or two as a "residency" would not only help new teachers be more prepared, but would also provide much-needed support in other schools, especially if low income schools were specifically targeted. It would help the teachers improve, and the kids to get caught up when they are behind- but unfortunately, it's a very expensive proposal, so it probably would never be considered.

HappyChyck said...

I appreciate your honesty in admitting you've had your goat years. I had mine, too, and I think most teachers do. Of course, a few people were born to teach and make it look easy from day one. I just don't understand the public's view on how new teachers are so much better. Cheaper, yes. Better? How can that be? It's so disrespectful for the veterans.

I also like "nothing new for two" and the concept of just letting us do what we do. I've been teaching long enough that I'm starting to see "the best new thing" repackaged from previous new things. I know what I'm doing, but there's that constant pressure to jump on the next band wagon that makes me constantly question my expertise. Sure, I'm willing to grow, but is it really necessary for me to be constantly reborn? It's a waste.

Hang in there now that you've made it to five!