Friday, April 27, 2012

The L-Word

Here's a student. Let's call him Johnny or Joey.* (Joey is usually, but not always, a male student.) Joey is clearly bright, with-it, perhaps worldly in ways that other students, even the brightest ones, are not. Joey tends to do well on tests when they concern things he has already learned, such as grammar, vocabulary, or standardized tests. Joey's report card, however, tells a different story. He gets mostly Ds and Fs. He rarely turns in homework. In fact, he almost never does an assignment outside of class, unless it is to read something that interests him. (When you ask him to write a response to what he reads, he won't do that, either.)

When you ask Joey about his performance, he has one word for you: "I guess I'm just lazy."

By the time he's 16, Joey, the promising, talented student with tons of "potential," has probably been told that he's lazy dozens, if not hundreds, of times, by teachers, coaches, parents, and maybe even his friends. Every teacher has taught a Joey. I have two brothers who were both considered "Joeys" when they were in school, and their teachers and my parents called them lazy. I, a strong student, was still called lazy when I didn't want to do chores, or didn't wake up early on weekends.

But I have learned something about this. Does it make sense to call someone lazy who gets Ds and Fs, but works hard for 12 hours a day both Saturday and Sunday helping his dad paint houses or lay carpet? Should you call someone lazy if she spends all her time creating brilliant, funny, beautiful comic books, but doesn't do any of her homework? Is a young man lazy if he spends all of his time outside of school lifting weights and learning martial arts, but not writing that essay? What if he has trouble getting out of bed, has lost interest in everything that ever interested him before, and spends most of his time on the couch instead of hanging out with friends?

Very few people, if any, are actually lazy in the sense that they are committing the sin of sloth. Kids who are not interested in school are almost always either A) interested in other things, or B) depressed. Teachers often respond to these students by punishing them with failing grades. The problem is, failing an unmotivated student is unlikely to motivate him. The Joeys of the world are already not extrinsically motivated. Daniel Pink's terrific argument in Drive, better in the shortened, TED talk version (with animation!) makes this very point. He argues that extrinsic motivation (grades, bonuses, detention, getting fired) does not lead to better performance when cognitive skill is required. Pink has his critics, but his argument is still worth considering, especially in light of this piece on reforming our industrial-revolution-era educational model. This piece essentially argues that, rather than use a punitive/extrinsically incentivized model of education, we need to remodel education completely, tapping into students' intrinsic motivation and training them as critical thinkers.

So, when a student tells me that he's lazy, I tend to argue with him. "Well," I say, "I don't think that lazy people work at their uncle's store for 4 hours every night after school, do you?" or "I don't see any lazy people lifting weights in a gym. Ever."

There is one exception to this rule, though, that both frustrates and fascinates me. Teenagers AS A WHOLE are amazingly lazy when it comes to moving their bodies. Walking down the hall. Taking out a pencil. Standing up and sitting down. They are SO FREAKING SLOW!!! Why? I googled "Why don't teenagers like to move?" and got millions of hits about teens not liking to relocate with their families. I googled "Why do teenagers walk so slowly?" and had more success. Here are some of the answers I found:
In sum, the only context in which I allow myself to call my students lazy is when I tell one to move across the room (or five feet!) to work with another and neither one will move. THAT is lazy. If they're not doing their work, then something else is going on.

*Johnny and Joey are always the generic names of choice when people who train teachers talk about students. Even when you work at a school where no one is named Johnny or Joey. As one of my students once said, "Jimmy is what white people call their kids who are named James."

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Retention Problem and the Profession of Teaching

Yesterday I went to the doctor, and, looking at my information form, the clerk asked me where I teach. She then confided that she was once an English teacher. "Oh really?" I said, trying to sound friendly, but feeling sad. Of course, this woman may have had any number of reasons for leaving education to become a clerk in a doctor's office, but she is merely one among thousands who leave the profession every year. Almost half of all teachers (46%) leave the profession within the first five years. Beginning around the year 2000, the number of teachers leaving the profession after their first year crossed the 10% mark. Turnover has been steadily increasing since the 1990s. Does any other profession have anywhere near this rate of turnover?

This study from the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, from which I've taken a lot of this data, credits "industrial-era recruitment practices" for the high rate of turnover. This strategy, the authors write, "treats young teachers like easily replaced, interchangeable units--rather than individuals who merit individualized professional development investments." In other words, it would help teachers to remain teachers if we treated them like professionals, rather than assembly-line workers. The biggest obstacle to viewing teaching as a profession is that everyone spends so much of their lives in school that they think they know all about teaching. In actuality, there's a whole lot more to teaching than what students see. I learned this the hard way when I first started teaching without any training. Students probably learn more about teaching while they're in school than patients learn about medicine by going to the doctor, but that may only be because they go to school every day for 13-17 years or more. 

This is where the residency model of teacher training comes in. Residency programs' numbers are somewhat misleading, since the programs usually require some sort of time commitment that falls beyond the 3-year retention measurement that they use. But I can say from anecdotal evidence that teachers who train in a full-year residency (as opposed to a 10-15 week "student teaching" experience) feel more prepared to enter the classroom and are more effective in their first year than teachers from traditional programs. In my own personal experience, having tried to teach right out of college with no training and having taught for a year now after a residency, I definitely feel like a better teacher after the residency. This year has been tough, but my other first year as a teacher was arguably tougher, even though the environment was much more forgiving. The one important caveat here is that I was fortunate to have a true master teacher as my mentor teacher. If a resident is matched with a mentor who is not well-informed about best practice and not an expert on teaching and coaching teachers, then the outcomes won't be as good. And these mentors are not easy to find.

The study also mentions that it is "worth noting" that the trend in higher turnover coincides with the growth of "efforts to expand the pool of potential teachers via alternative pathways.  The influx of more new teachers increased the speed of the revolving door into the teaching profession, but did not stabilize the teaching workforce, and did nothing to improve teaching quality in high-need schools." Programs like Teach for America and its offspring have raised the prestige of teaching in some respects, by attracting Ivy League graduates to the profession, for example. But those same programs have also made it appear as though anyone with a brainy brain can become a teacher, and that it's the kind of thing that anyone or everyone should do for 2-3 years, but not necessarily longer than that. At our last reunion, a classmate told a good friend from high school, who has been teaching in my district for more than ten years, that she thinks "everyone should teach for a year." Burnout is also a major factor in teacher attrition, especially at schools where teachers are expected to work long, unsustainable hours. And many education wonks seem to think that this is not a problem. I just spent about 20 minutes hunting for an old blog post, sadly with no luck, in which a policy wonk said it was no problem that KIPP teachers burned out so easily because there are "plenty of people lined up to take their place." Setting aside the fact that this is a disgustingly utilitarian view of teachers and teaching, this particular wonk is also wrong--the NCTAF study points out that hiring new teachers alone won't suffice to plug the anticipated shortage when baby boomers retire. Current reforms that attempt to convince the public that we should implement "what's best for the children" with an utter disregard for what's best for the working lives of teachers only make things worse.

Teacher turnover is costly and bad for students. By increasing professionalism in teaching, we may be able to turn the tide.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

On Teens Having Sex

While national reports have repeatedly trumpeted the decline in teen pregnancy rates over the last two decades,  someone standing in the hallway during passing period at any high school in a high poverty urban neighborhood could tell you that this problem is still very much with us. As the numbers from the CDC show, the rates of teen pregnancy among Latina and black young women still remains much higher than the national average, and they are nearly twice the rate among white and Asian young women. The correlation between the teen birth rate and poverty--as both a cause of poverty and and effect of poverty--is staggering. Sixty percent of all teen births are from mothers living in poverty. Teen mothers have a 50% chance of graduating from high school, compared to 90% for all women, and children of teen mothers are at higher risk for a whole host of negative outcomes, including dropping out of high school, landing in prison, and becoming young mothers themselves.

Of course, the government is no help, what with the increase in parental consent, anti-Plan-B, and other laws that will undoubtedly result in increased teen pregnancies. The pro-life lobby is particularly guilty. When I drive down the highway, I see countless billboards telling pregnant adolescents not to be scared and to keep their babies. Parents don't help, either. The majority of my students are opposed to abortion under any circumstances, which means prevention has to be the way forward.

Particularly for a female, feminist urban teacher, this is a highly frustrating state of affairs, particularly when you see every day how completely ignorant your students are about sex, contraception, and STIs. Even though students in my district are required by law to receive sex education in 6th grade, I teach plenty of high school students who don't really understand how babies are made. Students should not have sex ed just once. They should have it early and often because, even though some are waiting longer to have sex, teenagers will always have sex. We already know that students need to learn how to reduce fractions or use 's more than once. Why can't we figure this out with sex ed? No matter how much people may think that "pregnancy pacts" and shows like 16 and Pregnant are to blame, the truth is that most teens in urban schools have no idea how easy it is to get pregnant because no one is telling them. When I hear that a student of mine is pregnant, I cry. I have seen teen mothers work hard and fight to finish high school, and I know they can do it. But I also know the extent to which society has failed and betrayed them by letting this happen in the first place.