Random Thoughts of a Second-Career Teacher

You can lead a horse to water, but…

In the past 24 hours there has been a LOT of discussion about the issue of “giving zeroes” as marks when tasks are incomplete. I’m still not convinced that zeroes should never be used.

I consider myself to be a good teacher.

I’m not a “chalk-and-talk” teacher at all.

I use best practices including cooperative learning and differentiated instruction. You’ll see students in my class regularly using think-pair-share, jigsaw, placemats, four corners, ranking ladders, mind maps, concept maps, etc.

I offer my students tons of choice in how they demonstrate what they know to me. Tasks almost always offer choice and, if they don’t, my students know that they can “float” other options of ways to demonstrate their learning to me at any time.

I use technology a lot and I let my students use technology a lot (ask anyone who has shared a sign-out sheet for laptop carts, computer labs, smartboards, projectors, document cameras, Senteos or CPS units, etc. with me). I have a classroom blog which I use to communicate with parents/guardians and students, but which I also open up to allow both partes to communicate with me and each other.

During the first week of school, we (my students and I) determine their key Multiple Intelligences (MIs) and preferred learning styles  and we refer back to that data throughout the year when planning tasks or activities. I also teach my students how to advocate for themselves regarding their MIs and learning styles (so that some of what we learn together about their preferred ways of learning move with them…not relying solely on pieces of paper like past report cards or IEPS to relay this vital information to their future teachers).

I communicate with parents/guardians constantly throughout the year (agendas are completed by my students and signed by me every day, our classroom agenda board is updated daily, agenda items are updated on our class website daily,  incomplete work is recorded and tracked in a log book and each student’s page from that book is sent home for signature regularly, student portfolios go home every two weeks for parent/guardian signature, calls are made regularly to homes both to discuss concerns and celebrate successes).

I make myself available regularly for students before, during and after school hours, for students who need extra help, time to catch up or maybe just a quiet place to work. I’ve been known to have students from other classes take advantage of these opportunities with me too.

I attend extracurricular activities and events of my students when asked; in fact, I recently spent 5 hours at a baton-twirling competition to watch a former student perform. I’ve been to hockey games, soccer games, dance recitals, charity bbqs…you name it. If they ask me, I will come.

I use multiple forms of assessment to determine where my students are at throughout the year….checklists, rubrics, peer assessment, self-assessment, small tasks, larger projects, tests.

I allow my students input into tasks, activities and assessment tools that are used in my classroom. Sometime we build these together. Sometimes I revise things “on the fly” based on student input received.

I use previous student feedback to “tweek” tasks, activities and assessment tools that are used in my classroom. It’s very rare that you’ll see an identical assignment, task or assessment tool used twice.

I regularly attend workshops, visit other classrooms and conduct research to refine my teaching practice.

I get to know my students as people. We talk about their lives, dreams, hopes, wishes, etc. …regularly.

I love to laugh and I love to hear my students laugh too.

I truly believe that school should be a fun place for my students and me. If we’re not having fun while we learn together, we’re doing something wrong….and we fix it.

I belong to an incredible PLN that inspires me each and every day.

And yet, despite all of my efforts, I have had classes recently where >=50% of my students remain disengaged and fail to complete the short tasks that I wish/need to assess.

In a perfect world, I could live with that too, because I would “chase” those students, and involve their parents/guardians and my administrators until those students adequately completed those tasks and celebrated their personal success.

“Mrs. Carl, just give me a zero” is something that I will never accept from a student.

There are many reasons (many of them valid) why students don’t complete tasks. Here are just a few that I’ve encountered recently:

- they don’t feel like it; they’re not in the mood

- they can’t find a pencil (10-15 students without pencils each day…you stop handing them out and their peers stop lending them too)

- they don’t see the point; “when will I ever use this again?” (because let’s face it folks, how often does a person need to create a parallel line, using a protractor and  a perpendicular bisector of the first line, in everyday life?)

- they’re exhausted or burnt out because quite frankly their home life and support system is atrocious

- they’re hungry and can’t think/concentrate properly as a result

- they’d rather socialize than do any work while at school

- they are masters of manipulating both their home and school environment…it takes months for things they haven’t done to catch up with them

- they’re exhausted or burnt out because they were up texting or chatting on Facebook all night….most of their peers in the class are too, because that’s who they were exchanging texts or chatting with until the wee hours

- they’re afraid to ask for help

- when they ask for help, they don’t get it

- they don’t like the task (it’s tough to keep everyone happy and engaged all the time…just ask a class what they want to do for gym on any given day and you’ll see what I mean)

- they think they’ll still likely move to the next grade, whether they complete any work or not

- it’s not cool to be smart

This list is not exhaustive by any means, but you get my point right?

There are lists of possible reasons why parents/guardians and administrators can’t always help with the issue of incomplete student work too.

All of this being said, when report card time rolls around and those students have not completed any or all of the tasks that I’ve provided to them, what exactly should I do to put a mark on that report card? (And for those who say they don’t use marks, or don’t give zeroes, what do you put on those report cards?)

I was just talking to a teacher friend of mine tonight about this whole zero mark issue. She has had a class recently, similar to the ones I describe above that I’ve had, where many students simply won’t do any work. She, too, considers herself a good teacher and would describe her teaching practice in a similar fashion to the way I’ve described mine above. At the end of our discussion,  she summed it up beautifully:  “In the end, Lisa, you can lead a horse to water, but…….”

I finish that sentence off with “….what if you can’t make it drink?”

And lately, she and I have had quite a few parched horses in our classrooms….

Thoughts?

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My Journey, Part 1

My journey to become a teacher began in 1986 when I graduated with an Honours B.A. in Urban and Economic Geography and Environmental Management from University of Toronto, Mississauga (it was known as Erindale campus back then). I had worked in various part-time and summer student jobs until then, but was faced with the “what am I going to do with the rest of my working life” question. I had always wanted to be a teacher…great teachers had inspired me… I wanted to inspire others.

So I filled out the copious forms and applications, requested reference letters from several of my employers and professors and even remember making a late-night run to a courier warehouse in Mississauga (I lived in Etobicoke) to make sure my applications got in on time. Then I waited….

Sadly, I was not successful in getting into any Bachelor of Ed programs to which I had applied. Time to change my plans. Now what?

I had worked the summer of 1986 as a planner with the Credit Valley Conservation Authority….in my undergraduate field…great resume experience. I discovered that not only were there few full-time permanent jobs in my field; they also paid poorly and were not what I thought them to be.

My older sister Karen was at that time dating a great guy (now my brother-in-law Mike) who was in the first year of his Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) at York University. Seeing me struggling with what to do with myself and my future, he suggested that I write my GMAT (the entrance exam for the M.B.A. program). I studied up and headed off one Saturday to write the exam. And guess what? I scored a high enough mark to be accepted into the MBA program at York University in January 1987.

Talk about a fish-out-of-water. I clearly remember my first-day first-class that January. “Introduction to Financial Accounting” with Professor Al Rosen. He methodically went student by student asking what they were expecting from his course. I vividly recall mumbling something about “debits and credits” to which he replied, “you obviously expect a lot from this class”. (More later about how this experience and these exact words resonate with me as a teacher today). I knew nothing about the world of business, including accounting. What was I doing?

I plugged along for 4 terms (took my two summers off to cut grass for the Etobicoke Board of Education (first female to drive a full-size tractor to cut school fields for the board) and to collect water samples for a blue-green algae study for the Ministry of the Environment (hired as the only female on a team of 4 because I was the one that could drive the outboard motor on the MOE boat we used…thank you childhood summers at our Parry Sound-area family cottage for that much-needed experience)).

When I graduated in December 1988 with my M.B.A. (double major in Public Policy and Public Administration) , I started sending out resumes. I had no business experience. My boyfriend at the time (now my husband Greg) kept me in stamps. He often jokes that it was an “investment in his future”. I applied to anything and everything for which I might be qualified. I answered an ad in the paper. CNCP Telecommunications was looking for 4 financial analysts to work on their latest project…a bid to break up the long distance telecommunications monopoly in Canada. I was invited to an interview (and subsequently hired) by one of the greatest bosses I’ve ever had, David Watt. He told me at the interview that an accomplishment I listed on my resume (being the first female to drive a tractor for the Etobicoke Board of Education) was what first caught his eye (more on this in a later post too).

I worked for CNCP Telecommunications for 15 years (and through 5 company name changes: CNCP Telecommunications, Unitel Communications Inc., AT&T Canada Long Distance Services, AT&T Canada Corp. and Allstream Inc.). I even consulted for them briefly when they were MTS Allstream…name 6. During my first year with CNCP, I worked on the long distance (LD) bid in front of the CRTC and built a business case to maximize margin from their dying telegram product. We had rotary dial phones in the Etobicoke office when I started. After 5 years as a financial analyst (read “spreadsheet jockey”), and a successful outcome to the long distance bid (the monopoly was broken!), I moved into product management. I managed the business long distance, calling card and toll free portfolios in various capacities over the next 10 years at the company.

In July of 2004, I quit my job (no severance as a result) after deciding I still wanted to pursue my dream of becoming a teacher. In December 2004, I filled out the application forms and documents, sent in my transcripts and waited. I was called for an entrance interview at York University (York), the only school to which I had applied for September 2005 . I was by then married, living in Barrie, Ontario with three elementary-school-aged children. York offered a Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) program at Georgian College in Barrie. I needed to go to school locally I thought. I paid my $40 to be interviewed, had what I thought was a good interview at the main York campus and waited. I was devastated to find out that I had not been accepted. I called the university for feedback. They said I didn’t have enough classroom experience. I had been working full-time from home for Allstream for 5 years so that I could actively volunteer at my kids’ school…going on field trips, reading to kids, supporting kids in classrooms, even spearheading an epal (email penpals) progam in my son’s grade 5 classroom. It wasn’t enough they said.

So, I got a part-time job at the Hallmark (card) store in Barrie, continued to do some contract work for Allstream and continued to actively volunteer in local schools. I judged speech and poetry contests wherever I was needed. I supplied as an uncertified teacher when local schools couldn’t fill jobs.

Time to widen the net….in December of 2005,  I applied to three B.Ed programs for September 2006 (York, OISE (U of T) and Nipissing University). I was called for an interview at York again, paid my $40 again and was again turned down. I was accepted by Nipissing for  junior/intermediate (although not for intermediate/senior as they would recognize geography as a teachable subject based on my undergraduate courses but would not accept business as a teachable subject based on my two-year M.B.A. courses…more on this later too) and for two scary days I was looking at mature student residences in North Bay. I was 42! Then I received the great news that I was accepted at OISE. I accepted immediately. Toronto was a lot closer to Barrie than North Bay!

I went to option night at OISE and found the Doncrest Option taught out of Doncrest Public School in Richmond Hill and never looked back. I spent four glorious days each week at Doncrest with instructors such as Krista Walford, Charmain Brown, Barrie Bennett, Garfield Gini-Newman…the list goes on; and one day in downtown Toronto each week with Lew French for geography (my teachable) and my optional course (Technology for Teachers…it was inspiring!). I spent two great practicums in York Region District  School Board (Grade 8 at Glen Cedar PS with Jeff Toogood and grade 6 at Bogart PS with Kim McDonald). I then did my internship in Simcoe County District School Board (Grade 4 at Killarney Beach PS with Sue Collins). I created and presented my portfolio at OISE in May 2007…its theme?…perseverance…I had tons of personal material and experience!

I have now been an occasional teacher with the Simcoe County District School Board for 5 glorious years. The elusive contract has so far escaped me, but I have been gainfully employed in various LTOs over the 5 years and have filled in the “between-LTOs” time with supply teaching. Do I regret leaving a six-figure income-paying job for a teaching position with a salary grid based on years of teaching experience? Not for a moment!!! I love what I do now. I’ve forged relationships with students, colleagues, administrators, authors, parents…and most importantly, I’ve fulfilled a lifetime dream of mine. Has it been easy? Rarely. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

Now, I look forward to sharing my thoughts as a second-career teacher in today’s teaching profession. Lots more to come. Stay tuned!

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