Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Bowl of Fruit

Education is like a bowl of fruit.  From a teacher's perspective, each piece of fruit represents a task, responsibility, or initiative, often on top of what one would assume are normal teaching duties. This bowl of fruit is endless; teachers always have more work than can reasonably be done in a work day, week, or even year.  And as soon as we feel like we're making progress on our bowl of fruit, well, another piece of fruit gets added to the mix.  With each day, another orange or apple gets added to the bowl... but what happens to the kiwi that rolls off the top of the pile?  How about the rotten banana buried at the bottom of the bowl?  With the number of programs and projects in your average public school, there is no chance that educators, as motivated and determined as they might be, can ever realistically accomplish all that is set before them.

Where does the extra fruit come from?  One of the main issues in education is that so many different groups have strong opinions and ideas for what public education in America should look like.  For this reason, schools are often susceptible to the influencing powers of various entities, most with good intentions, who are hoping to shape the future of education in our country.  Unfortunately, all of these separate groups, with their differing agendas and ideas (as good as they may be), end up competing for the little space, time, and energy that teachers have to give them.  Even within the structure of public education, there are influences felt from the US Department of Education, state departments of education, local school boards, individual administrators, and community groups - each with their own independent vision of what school should look like. 

Want to be a teacher?  How good is your balance?
To be fair, many teachers are gluttons for punishment; gladly taking on tasks and projects far beyond what they are paid for.  These responsibilities are often well-intentioned.  It might mean working late with a student who is struggling, joining a committee for an initiative that we feel particularly strong about, or stepping in to coach a team since no one else will.  Sometimes we're compensated for these duties; but even if we are, it typically doesn't compensate for all of the additional hours we'll put in to see this project through.

This dynamic presents a problem.  How many other "professions" offer their services for free?  Sure, there are pro bono law cases, or the Hippocratic Code in medicine, but there isn't the same expectation that lawyers and doctors will do more than they are paid for on a consistent basis.  Even if they do take on additional work, look at their salaries in comparison to your average teacher... there really isn't a comparison.

So what happens if teachers stopped performing all of these "extras"?  Schools and students would suffer.  Every teacher, administrator, and parent knows that school is about so much more than just the academic parts of the day.  Each student has their reasons for showing up each day, and, believe it or not, it most often isn't learning quadratic equations.  There are social, emotional, and physical reasons that students show up for school, and these are the arenas of childhood development that many "extras" specifically target.  So many of the responsibilities and initiatives vital to creating a welcoming, supportive, and engaging learning environment often pile up on top of the academic instruction that is the foundation of what most people think teachers do.

The functionality of our school system relies upon the exploitation of the good will of our teachers.  These programs and opportunities are important - to students, parents, teachers, and administrators- but they ask educators to consistently do more than what they are paid for, or even what is humanly possible.

And in taking on these additional projects, previous initiatives are cast by the wayside, effectively communicating to teachers that all of the hard work that went into designing, planning, and facilitating those efforts was discarded in favor of the newest vogue trend- a shiny new "piece of fruit".  This creates a dangerous dynamic in which teachers feel like they are doing work for work's sake, without ever seeing the projects come into full fruition.  This process is disheartening, leading to the frustration and disillusionment that drive many young teachers into leaving the profession. 

Now, you're not going to see me casting my additional responsibilities aside.  I will continue to stay late after school, hoping to provide support and opportunities for my students.  However, I hope that people are beginning to take notice of the changes that are necessary to the vitality of our teaching workforce.  Projects, programs, and initiatives need to be streamlined and teacher-directed.  We need to have a voice at the table when decisions are made about educational policy at all levels of government.  Ultimately, the future of American education should reflect the dreams, desires, and vision of our education professionals.  Remember, we are the experts.


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

DC Recognition Week - The Vice Presidential Mansion


It's hard not to wonder, when standing in the foyer of the Vice President's house, whose feet might have stood in the exact spot I am now standing.  What might they have been discussing?  Was it small talk or were they working to address some of the gravest dangers of their time?  As a fan of American history, I love imagining the past, creating images in my mind that evoke powerful feelings of patriotism, pride, and respect.  Mostly, I found myself in awe of the incredible opportunity to enjoy and appreciate this unique honor and opportunity.



As an educator, I also was impressed with the Second Lady's incredible personal teaching story.  After over thirty years of working in schools, she still makes the choice to teach.  Having moved beyond high school, she is now working in higher education.  But she doesn't teach at an Ivy League school, or even a state college.  Mrs. Biden teaches at a community college; working with immigrants, single parents trying to make it, and the underprivileged.  I came into this meeting terribly uninformed about my host.  I left feeling inspired and empowered by her story.

























Monday, April 28, 2014

DC Recognition Week - Opening Reception and Monument Tour

Did you ever look down upon what happens at the US Capitol Building?

Its a trick question... but after last nights reception with Education Policy, I can answer the literal version of the question with a definite "Yes!"  You see, myself and the other state and territorial representatives for the National Teacher of the Year Program were able to enjoy an incredible sunny afternoon from one of the premier hobnobbing spots in DC.  After eating delicious food and catching up with good (albeit very) new friends, we were escorted to the roof of the building, where a panoramic view awaited us.











The energy and enthusiasm of this entire group is incredible!  There are so many interesting, dynamic, and engaged individuals that it makes it hard to pull yourself away from conversation at night to make sure that you get the requisite sleep to be ready for all of the adventures of the following day.  Today, I get to spend the day getting a behind the scenes tour at the Smithsonian before heading to the Vice Presidents home, where we'll be received by Dr. Jill Biden herself!  Wow!







Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Skeptics Guide To Social Media: 5 Reasons Every Educator Should Plug In


Like many educators, I have always felt a bit skeptical of utilizing social media as an educational tool.  To me, it has always seemed to be, at best, a distraction for my students.  At its worst, it reminds me of the terrifying prophecies of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, in which futuristic societies are brainwashed by an omnipresent technology that monopolizes their time, kills their creativity, and destroys their human relationships.  With time, the unfortunate souls in those disutopian novels lose touch with reality, growing more and more dependent upon technology for survival, happiness, and connection.

Recently, though, I’ve been having a change of heart.  For a number of reasons, I am beginning to see the tremendous power of technology to connect, to share, and to reach people who normally aren’t interested in what is happening in education.  While I don’t ever intend to have a prolific online presence, I do hope to extend my influence beyond the walls of my classroom and of my school.  Social media, it seems, may be one way to do just that.

So, here it is, the “Skeptics Guide to Social Media: 5 Reasons Every Teacher Should Plug In”

1.  Go where your students are.
If even one of my students doesn’t have an online presence, I would be surprised.  Students these days are increasingly ‘plugged in’ and spend more and more time each year online.  By resisting the use of social media, we are essentially turning our back on the values of the generation we are trying to reach.  We are dating ourselves, as well as showing them through our actions, that we don’t care about the things that they think are important.  This is a great way to destroy relationships with our students before we even give them the chance to know us.
           
Now, I’m not saying to be Facebook friends with your students, or to adjust your days to make sure that you stay connected.  I am suggesting that teachers find a way to have an online presence through their classroom.  This might include YouTube channels, classroom Tweets, or a class blog.  While these may seem subtle, they will keep you up to speed with the world of our students, and the shift will bring immediacy and relevance to the lessons you are preparing.

2.  Tear down the walls of your classroom and share what you are doing with the world.
As educators, we are almost always on the defensive.  We are constantly being attacked by media, by the public, even by one another.  We know the value of what we are doing for a living, but we shrink away from the inevitable confrontation that comes with standing up for what we do and how we teach. 

Often, my colleagues and I are frustrated by the lack of awareness of what is happening in our schools.  We feel unjustly criticized, yet we don’t do anything to combat these criticisms.  By taking the initiative to share what we do with our communities, we give them a first-hand experience of the good work happening in our classrooms.  In doing so, they are more informed and less able to be critical of something that they don’t understand.

3.  Your students’ work will improve.
 I am amazed at the quality of work that my students produce when they know that they aren’t just writing an essay or making a video for me.  Once they become aware of the fact that their work will be posted for all of the world to see, they immediately put more energy and effort into their products.  Not only that, but they also take a lot more pride in what they do produce.

Even though the readership of my program’s blog is relatively small (but growing), my students are amazed that people are following what we do in all 50 states and several foreign countries.  It’s hard for them to grasp that people are really interested in what they are doing in school, but they take tremendous pride in the impact that they are having.

4.  It is a great way to connect with colleagues, to share resources, and to stay informed about changes in education around the nation.
 Fantastic educators around the globe are utilizing social media as an avenue to share their practices, spread quality resources, and network with other likeminded individuals.  I often look to social media to inform my teaching and collaboration.  I use Facebook and Edmodo to connect with other groups of educators and to bounce ideas around.  I use Twitter as a means for finding interesting articles that I can share with colleagues in my school to promote progressive education.  My personal and class blogs serve the purpose of expressing my teaching philosophies and sharing examples of my curriculum with the greater teaching community.
            
While this arena of social media doesn’t have a direct impact on my teaching, it does heavily influence the professional responsibilities of being a teacher.  I am more informed about what is happening in education around the globe, which helps me to have a broader perspective when thinking about challenges and issues in my school.  I get ideas on topics ranging from colleagueship and collaboration to community outreach and education policy.  My understanding of the teaching profession has grown tremendously with my exposure to resources I’ve encountered using social
media.

5.  If we don’t use social media, our critics will.
The reality is that they already do.  Many of education’s biggest critics actively use social media to attack our profession and to try to persuade the masses why they shouldn’t have trust in our education system.  So far, their voices are louder.  You only need to look as far as a Google Search of the word “teacher” to see how we are portrayed to the public.  It isn’t pretty!
           
Often teachers complain that we aren’t treated as the professionals that we perceive ourselves to be.  This is true, but it is also partially our fault.  It is time that we shift the conversation about education away from the failings and shortcomings.  We need to create a dialogue about all of the good things that are happening in our schools.  The more that we can share the positives, the more that public opinion of education will shift to reflect this.  If we don’t engage our critics on social media platforms, then we will simply surrender our message.

As someone who specializes in outdoor and  experiential education, the last thing I want is for my students to spend more time “plugged in”, becoming more disconnected from their peers, their families, their communities, and the natural world.  However, I do see the value in why we, as educators, need to embrace social media as a means for progressing our profession.  It is a tool, becoming ever the more popular with the world around us.  If we choose to ignore it, then we also choose to turn our backs on the generations, and the society, we are hoping to shape.

Luke Foley is the 2014 Vermont State Teacher of the Year.  He teaches at the STAR Program, Northfield Middle High School’s alternative program.  You can read more on his personal blog at http://lukefoleyvt.blogspot.com/ or about his program at http://nhsstarfrontiers.blogspot.com/.  You can also follow him on Twitter @LukeFoleyVT.