Teacher Appreciation Week

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This last week has been Teacher Appreciation Week. There’s not really much that happens. At our faculty meeting we had ice cream treats. Then we heard about the current status of our budget cuts. Thanks for doing a great job. By the way, we have to cut 10 of you. The budget is a long story and hopefully it doesn’t amount to that big of a cut at my school.

On Thursday we had parent teacher conferences. The Hmong Club invited us to the library where they had punch and cookies for us. We were all given a thank you card with our treats. We were also treated to some delicious sandwiches from a local deli in the auditorium foyer. I’m not clear who organized that one. But it was nice, all the same.

Honestly, I don’t expect anything during this week. Teaching is a profession where the appreciation pops up in unexpected places. You don’t count on it, therefore, when it does occur, it’s a really nice surprise. After my 4th hour Pre Calculus class, one of my students gave me a little gift. She said “Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!” and was then on her way. It was a very nice surprise. She’s a fantastic student. I don’t know a whole lot of personal information about her, so I was surprised to get a lovely card thanking me for teaching her so much.

This is definitely a profession of surprises and non-material rewards. Finding out the impact you’ve made on a student doesn’t just make your day, it makes your year.

 

Day #6

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10 inches of snow. Even here, that’s a lot. We’ve got great snow removal, but even the best have to err on the side of caution. I’ve been up since 5:20am. The robo call came while I was in the shower. The winds are ~40 mph, which makes it worse. Since I live in a ‘burb, my street looks pretty good. Since I live in a town home, my driveway was cleared overnight. My drive to work is only about 5 miles, but as soon as I get into the city, there is a noticeable difference in plowing.

It’s our sixth cancelled day this school year. This has never happened. Well, at least since I’ve been teaching in this district AND when my parents taught in this district, starting in 1967. It’s crazy. The polar vortex is supposed to come back for a visit next week, but hopefully it won’t be that bad.

So in the meantime, I brought enough stuff home last night to make sure I had stuff for the weekend. I corrected tests and had a pretty productive evening of planning and correcting. So for today, I’ll be glad to be warm and safe at home.

Surprising the Kids

We had our first pep fest in about seven years yesterday. I must say that it went really well and the kids had a great time. It was organized by one of our student groups – the Asian Culture Club. There was a group from each grade that did dances. And in the middle, the teachers surprised them with our own dance. I mentioned in an earlier post that we learned and practiced our dance during our “cold days” last week. We had one last practice on Thursday after school. I think it’s safe to say that the kids were surprised and now have a different view of their teachers. And what value does it have? Building relationships with students is one of the great ways to boost achievement. Having them see their teachers as real people, willing to do something a little crazy for them, will go a long way.

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Wonderful Wacky Week

This week was weird. We started with not one, but two days closed due to the cold. This time the district had teachers report to work. In the 8 days we’ve had of second semester, I’ve now seen my kids five times.

What are teachers to do without students? It was weird. I wasn’t in a big rush to get to school. I could ease into my day. I had time to plan. I had time to catch up with colleagues. I had more than 20 minutes to eat my lunch. I could go to the bathroom whenever I needed to. I could do things that had been shoved down to the bottom of my to-do list. I set up my second semester grade book, did my yearly health assessment for insurance, took a survey about our PLC work, prepped for my re-scheduled math meet. For one week, I did not bring home work to do in the evenings. Even though the district technically violated our contract by having us come in, most of us were fine with it. We got stuff done.

In the 187 contracted days, we only have one day that the district allows for us to determine our own work. For senior high, it’s the day between semesters. We just had ours on January 21st. Finalizing grades and getting ready for new students, new classes is the purpose of that day. We work like fiends to get it all done on time so we can have a nice fresh start to the new semester without the old one hanging over our heads. So lots of us stay late and work throughout the prior weekend to make sure we’ve finished everything. In other words, we put in a ton of time even prior to having that one work day. And you still feel like you don’t get everything done that is needed. So when we had to come into work without students this week, most of us were already caught up since we had only had two days with them.

In the midst of planning ahead, we took a little time for some staff activities. We’re having a pep fest next week. We haven’t had a pep fest in years. As a fun little surprise, we’re doing a “flash mob” dance. There were at least 50 of us learning and practicing the dance both days. Now that’s a fun way to get to know your colleagues! On the second day, a few of us took a little time out of working for a quick game of volleyball. I hadn’t played volleyball in years. It was a blast! Then I went back to my desk and got more work done. So in these two crazy days, I really enjoyed spending time with my colleagues. We’ve really got a great group of teachers that work extremely hard and care deeply about our students and their achievement.

Wednesday the kids were back. I think they were glad to be back in school. My math meet went off without a hitch. The 100+ mathletes that came to my school and participated were great.

Thursday. Because of the lack of progress with our contract, we had a planned union action. My district doesn’t have a defined day. We are expected in the building 15 minutes prior and 15 minutes after students. We are not required to be in the building to prep for our classes and do the additional work that all teachers do. It is understood that you get the necessary work done outside of that designated time in the building to be ready for your classes. As a result of this policy, we cannot do a “work-to-rule” action. This is good. Teachers have one heck of a time with that. There’s no way you can get everything done in 8 hours per day. When districts do work-to-rule, teachers are torn about participating because it’s just not in their nature to leave work undone for the next day. Work-to-rule is a drastic step when contract talks aren’t going well. Our action was much different and has a much more positive tone.

At 55 sites, with approximately 2500 teachers, parents and students, we organized Walk-Ins. Thursday morning’s snow storm just made it more dramatic. With the worst commute of the winter thus far, we gathered outside our buildings, with signs and our colleagues to welcome kids to school, wave to drivers, and all walk in together, prior to our 15 minutes, required by contract. My building started at 6:50am. Considering how bad the roads were, our 40 teachers that made it in that early were fantastic! We had signs, red scarves, glow sticks, and a nice crowd on the main street in front of the school, waving at cars going by. It was actually really fun! The crappy weather just showed that we’re determined to fight for better learning conditions for our kids. What’s good for kids is good for teachers. Our signs were all about what our kids deserve. Smaller class sizes, school nurses, counselors, librarians, art, music, phy ed, special education, less testing and more learning. At 7:10 we all walked into the building together, brushed off the snow, and got down to the business of teaching and caring for our kids.

I don’t know the impact of our walk-in on the district. We did make the front page of the paper on Friday. The news media is always reluctant to side with teachers and unions. They’re coverage was pretty vanilla. But if you took the time to look at the photos from so many sites, you can easily the dedication of our teachers to students.

It was definitely an unusual week. But one of the most fun weeks I’ve had on the job in a while.

Day 4

This is unprecedented. Tomorrow is the 4th day school has been closed due to cold weather. In the morning it’s supposed to be -21 and it’s quite windy. I don’t know what the wind chill is expected to be. But the other three days that we’ve been cancelled we haven’t had gusty winds like what’s swirling around right now.

Last Thursday was an unexpected closure. I was at school, working a gymnastics meet when I found out. You should have heard the excitement of those girls! Yes, they won their meet, but they were more excited about their day off. What’s different about tomorrow? Even though our contract has a clause in it that says we don’t have to report, the district is making teachers report to work. We’ve always interpreted this as when we’re closed due to bad weather.

“SECTION 4. QUARANTINE/CATASTROPHIC DISASTER LEAVE.  Teachers will be provided up to a maximum of ten(10) days paid leave of absence for quarantine by a health officer due to a contagious disease. The same will be provided for a catastrophic disaster that occurs in the teacher’s school and/or community which causes the closure of the District or the teacher’s school.”

Since there isn’t time to grieve/fight this, we’re going in. We’ve also been told on a robo-call that the district wants us to be productive. When are we not productive? We’re teachers for crying out loud. We’re productive in our sleep! I’m productive while I swim and think about how I’m going to resolve an issue or teach a lesson. I’m very productive while I’m at home too. I certainly don’t have to be in that building, at my desk to be productive.

Many teachers will have child care issues since most districts in the metro are calling school off tomorrow. I’m not sure what they’ll do. And guess what? It is dangerous to be out in this weather. So why do we have to come in? One word. Control.

Racist?

A person who believes in racism, the doctrine that a certain human race is superior to any or all others.

In an effort to close the achievement gap, we are getting training on racial equity. So far the training has been a mish-mash of presenters, some more effective than others. So far, mine have all been district employees that have had some training from the consulting firm that was hired to help us out with this problem. We’ve been given these handy-dandy bookmarks to remind us about our “Courageous Conversations.”

Four Agreements: Stay ENGAGED, Experience DISCOMFORT, Speak your TRUTH, Expect/Accept NON-CLOSURE

Six Conditions: Focus on PERSONAL, local and immediate; ISOLATE race; Normalize SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION & multiple perspectives; Monitor agreements, conditions and ESTABLISH PARAMETERS; Use a “WORKING DEFINITION” for race; Examine the presence and role of “WHITENESS”

Years ago, we were told that we needed to be, in a sense, colorblind. Now we are told that we need to see color. I have always been interested in other cultures. I travel the world to learn about various places and people. I make a point to get to know my students. I’ve been invited to their homes for graduation parties, quincearenas, weddings, and various other celebrations. When I see a student, my first thought isn’t about their race. It’s about who they are as an individual and their distinct talents and needs.

I understand that it’s important to have a grasp of institutional racism and how I take for granted some things that I hadn’t realized. I am white. I can’t help that. I’ve grown up in a predominantly white culture. For the past 18 years, I’ve worked in a school that is not predominantly white. That’s what I like about it. I get to learn about cultures different from my own.

They tell me that the color of one’s skin seems to determine the success that one will have in our school district. They tell me that the socio-economic factors don’t matter. For example, comparing affluent white kids to affluent black kids, the white kids do better. And apparently the white kids do better than the Asian kids too. For some reason, I want to see that data. The ones that are at the bottom of the gap, what kind of supports do they have? What is their attendance record? Do they rely on the school for the majority of their meals? Have they bounced from school to school? Do they have supportive adults in their lives? There are so many possibilities as to why a student is doing poorly, that to narrow it down to the color of their skin seems an over-simplification. Maybe it’s just the logical person in me that can’t grasp it.

The thing that is most difficult about this “training” is that because I am a white lady, I am automatically labeled as racist. Do you have to call me a racist? I have done everything I can think of to NOT be the person in the definition at the top of this post. I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long time and haven’t written about it because I just don’t know how. But it is very disturbing to be assumed to be racist. I understand that I have had the benefit of white privilege. But does that make me racist? Isn’t there another word that could be used? The connotation of being racist is just so ugly. I see that according to the bookmark, I’ve supposedly agreed to experience discomfort. But did I agree to be a punching bag or a scape goat for the achievement gap? And this training seems to focus on just black/white issues. What about all of the others?

To me, this is a much bigger issue that can’t be broken down strictly by the color of one’s skin. There are so many factors that go into the success of a student. It seems trite to just say it’s a color thing. I can handle learning about what can be done to help narrow the gap. But do you have to call me a racist?

Pension Envy

I am a public employee. I have a defined benefit pension plan. I deserve it.

I have been teaching for almost 18 years. It has taken that long to get to a salary that reflects how hard a work and what I deserve. Fresh college graduates in finance and various other fields are starting out pretty close to what has taken me 18 years to work up to. I work hard. I am vilified by the public. Yet, they think that I don’t deserve my pension. And because they are taxpayers, they think that they have a right to this opinion.

As a public employee, I have taken a lower salary with the promise that when I retire, I will be able to live at a hopefully comfortable level until I die. This level would be approximately 72% of my average high-five salary years. Provided that I work 38 years in my current job. I do not get the benefit of EVER getting a bonus. I know of people whose bonus is more than my yearly salary. Is it fair? Who knows? But I’m not saying that they’re not going to get it. I chose this profession because I like kids. I find it stimulating. I am challenged. I am super frustrated at times. But that just makes me more determined to figure out a way to reach that kid.

There are thousands of teachers out there who are doing the same thing as me. On our nights and weekends we grade papers and plan lessons. We think about the kid who is struggling and how we can help them. In my vast years of experience, what has worked in the past? Is there something new I should try? What about that student who is living on her own? She has no parental support. Here I am trying to figure out how I can arrange for her to get bus tokens to get her to school and calling my mechanics to see if they do any pro-bono work on cars. What about the girl who has figured out that her mom has no business having kids with guy after guy when she’s not a good parent? How can I help her? How many of my kids don’t feel safe in their own homes? How many of my kids only get their food when they are at school? How many of my kids are in the position where I am the only adult that is checking on them and forging a relationship with them?

I am the person that makes a difference in the lives of kids. I’m at about 3000 and counting. Can you say that? We teach because we want to make a difference. It’s what drives us. It’s what makes this whole circus worthwhile. Do we do it for the money? Heck no! I’d bet that if you asked a teacher how much money she or he made, they wouldn’t be able to tell you! They’re so busy worrying about other, more important things, their students, that they don’t pay attention to that. And as a group, we are an easy target. We don’t pay attention to the bullies and don’t often fight back. We’re too busy worrying about your kids to worry about ourselves. So when the public vultures come to take away our pensions, we’re totally caught on our heels.

The fact of the matter is that we are lucky that someone put in place an automatic savings for us from the moment we were hired. We didn’t have to make any financial decision about which investment would be best or how much we could afford to set aside each paycheck. That was done for us. Speaking from my own situation, I put aside 6% of my income (and it will be moving to 7% in the next 2 years) for my pension benefit. The amount of money that I will be paying will pay for my benefit. The actuarial assumptions, based on life expectancy, expected rate of return, etc. all calculate to a solid plan. Because we are a defined benefit (DB) plan, the fees on the money management are much less than a typical 401(k) or 403(b) plan. I do have an additional 403(b) plan through my district to compensate for health benefits until I reach medicare age. Each quarter there is roughly $10 deducted in fees. I can easily assure you that the costs of my DB plan are way less than the fees for my defined contribution (DC) 403(b) plan.

What if we were given control to manage our own retirement accounts? What average person has the investment expertise to do that? What average person has the mathematical ability to understand all of it? As someone who teaches math, I’m afraid to say that not many people do. As someone on a retirement board that manages the assets of a pension fund, I’m even more convinced that the average person is ill-equipped to handle it. If there is a push to change DB plans to DC plans, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. The middle class will disappear. The public employees that have given their lives in service to their community will be cheated out of a retirement that they so well deserve.

A solid pension is a promise to public employees that their service to their community is valued. There must be a way to make it work and state governments need to step up to the plate and take responsibility for what they have promised. All public employees deserve a solid pension plan. Those who work in the private sector, you have been able to get bonuses and higher incomes for your lifetime. That is the trade-off. It is up to you to make your own savings plan. Do not penalize those of us who have dedicated our lives in service to our community. Do not act like I do not contribute and the pension is fully funded by taxpayers. It is not. I put away a portion of my income, it just so happens to be managed by a larger entity that can pay lesser fees than an individual investor and I don’t have to be a financial expert. Thank God for that!

If you’re jealous of my defined benefit plan, please, feel free to become a public employee. Take a lesser salary. Forego your bonus. Enjoy the feeling of making a difference in the lives of so many. Because you do. You do make a difference. Every day. And that? Priceless.