Sunday, May 29, 2011

Office Space

I haven't written in my blog very much during this school year, and with good reason. The stuff I would have written about probably would have gotten me fired, and while it might have made a good point about how tenure really doesn't give a teacher a job for life, I didn't really want to put that to the test.

Suffice to say that the turnover in our main office this year is now complete. At the end of last year, we lost our principal, our only assistant principal, and one of our two counselors. We also lost our head custodian to retirement. During the course of the year, our head secretary/office manager retired. And now, with the end of the school year coming, we're losing our other counselor to another school system. The writing, it appears, was on the wall. So now, we go into the 2011-2012 school year with an entirely different administrative/counseling staff than we had a year ago, when our test scores actually improved so much that we jumped up two levels in Indiana Public Law 221's ranking model. It's probably not a coincidence. One staff member (not me) was heard to say, "They've taken what we've built over the past five years and destroyed it in nine months."

I've felt what others have felt, that I have to look over my shoulder. Things have been reported about teachers in our building that are patently untrue as if they were documented fact. When the teachers in question were confronted about it, the source of the information was quickly deduced and confirmed by an independent source. Then, another backstabber was identified through direct quotes. I was also singled out in a most unprofessional way earlier in the year for, heaven forbid, raising my voice.

The curricular changes that we have experienced this year in tandem with teacher accountability models approved by the state haven't helped, either. Let's put it this way: We are supposed to be using these new curriculum materials to support the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), but the evaluation tool being used to determine our pay is based on the Indiana Academic Standards (IAS), and that will remain the case until 2013-2014. So, we were told to teach to standards that won't be tested for two more years, and to not worry about the IAS that are not included by the new curriculum. I mean, our evaluations will be based up to 50% on test scores yielded from an entirely different set of criteria. It's only our paychecks and our job performance rating. What's to worry about? The textbook series that was adopted last year is so egregious, that it has actually driven innovative teachers to retire. In one meeting last year, a math teacher I greatly respect was told that an activity that he had created, very similar to the one presented in the new text, could not be used and that the textbook material had to be used verbatim, like it was some sort of holy writ. This was his last year, and he could have retired some time ago.

Meanwhile, at mid-year, our new principal made our school part of the 8-Step Process, by which windows of standards are taught and assessed every three weeks. This three week schedule was made without communicating any detail to the staff. Unfortunately, the curriculum we were handed is made up of eight books that take at the minimum, four weeks to complete. The 8-Step Process aligns with Indiana Academic Standards, and the curriculum doesn't. We ended up reteaching one of our 4.5 week units for three more weeks before the high-stakes test, and left out a lot of critical instruction that students needed to move on to high school.

Just a short while ago, I posted how happy I was to be getting free of that curricular nightmare with a new opportunity for next year to teach problem solving. The joy was short lived. The next day, I attended a meeting where I was essentially handed three units of the new curriculum to teach to each semester class. I was warned I might have to teach "one or two" units of it and I agreed to it. That turned into a hard number three in less than 24 hours and was told that I could simply deal with it. When calculated using the suggested timeline for those units, that left 10 days each semester to implement my grand plan to really teach kids math that they could use and would enjoy and remember. That's not in any way what I signed up for.

I don't know when it happened this year, but at one point I just wanted to watch "Office Space." When my brother first introduced me to this movie almost 10 years ago, I remember thinking how lucky I was not to have a job like that. When I watched it again this year, I thought, wow, now I have a job just like that. No one listens. Screwups advance, while people who toe the line and work hard go unrewarded or even punished. The people to whom teachers report contradict themselves and each other with alarming regularity. There's no motivation to work harder, because all it will lead to is the promotion of the administration. Let me put it this way: I've had six principals in my building in 14 years. Many of us feel like we have footprints up our backs. We're just a stepping stone to high school administration. It's made me as cynical as Peter Gibbons and on Friday I was about ready to start cleaning fish on my collaboration reports. I even went so far as to put a
red Swingline stapler in my Amazon wish list to put on my desk next year. It was really frustrating to feel that way about the career that I've loved since the first day in my classroom.

These feelings all came to a head last night. I was at Barnes and Noble with my friends Eric and Rob, and as we were leaving the store, I spotted it.
The Office Space Kit. It comes with a little red Swingline stapler, an Initech coffee cup just like Lumbergh carries around, some flair, and TPS report cover sheets. I thought about it, decided against it, and walked out to the car. As I sat there, I reconsidered it. I could just see myself, thumbing my nose at authority, my private little in-jokes mocking the situation. And then, believe it or not, the words of Yoda came to me: "Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny." I started up the car and went home, resolved not to do that.

I'm not going to break. Not now, and not ever. I am going to do what I set out to do next year. I'm going to teach kids how to solve mathematical problems. I will adhere to both the Common Core State Standards and the Indiana Academic Standards, but I'm not following slavishly the poor textbooks with which I've been saddled. I found a little passage that Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett sent me in an email yesterday that opens the door:

Due to the emphasis on the Standards for Mathematical Practice, the cluster design of the standards, the increased depth of the CCSS, and the grade-level content shifts from IAS to CCSS, curriculum planning teams will need to evaluate their current instructional materials. This is true for schools who have already adopted instructional materials, as well as those who will adopt materials aligned to the CCSS. In either case, chapters and lessons may exist that do not meet the full expectation of the CCSS, and others that do not meet the full expectation of the IAS. School corporations will very likely need to exclude certain lessons or chapters in order to focus on what is required of the standards. They will also need to determine which chapters or lessons should be used to teach the required content to ensure coherence in the curriculum. This will likely require teachers to teach out of order from the textbook and only use the lessons needed. It will also likely require teachers to develop gap lessons and to adapt lessons to meet the full expectation of the standards.
Yes, you read that right. If the book doesn't do the job required by the state, we have to pare it and supplement it. And that's just what I plan to do. I'm going to approach this next year with renewed vigor. I'm going to create "gap lessons" like you wouldn't believe. I'm going to Lowe's tomorrow to get a big sheet of bulletin board to mount on my basement wall to organize the lessons around the standards that the awful textbook doesn't hit. And every one of those lessons is going to be my flair. And there's going to be a hell of a lot more than the fifteen minimum pieces of it, let me tell you.

Next year I'm going to express myself, and I'll never, never have a case of the Mondays.


Lowell Francis said...

You once again set an example I aspire to. I don't think I could possibly express the respect I have for you and the effort you put into your work.

Jim McClain said...

Thank you so very much! That really means a lot to me.

Kaiju said...

Public school teachers like you and Dave have my utmost respect. Thanks for all that you do.

Martin said...

Jim, I really respect all you do and your dedication to education. There are not enough teachers out there that care. Many just go through the motions. You should be proud that you love your job and care about giving these kids practical skills that they can use.