Friday, July 15, 2011

The Demoralization of Unemployment

I moved to Colorado in September of last year.  I began the process of getting certified to teach in Colorado in March of 2010, as soon as I knew for sure that we were moving.  I finally obtained all the materials I needed for the complicated application process and submitted my application in May of 2010.  Even though I submitted the application well in advance of the school year, the process of certification in Colorado is so slow that it was only in December that I finally received my teaching certificate - and then it was only for one of the areas that I had been previously certified to teach in Alaska.  So, I had to begin again the lengthy process to get additional endorsements added to my certificate.

Meanwhile, the deadline had passed for most of the school districts in the local area to hire substitute teachers for the year.  Thus, I have been unemployed for over a year now.  At my age, this is simply no longer trivial.  I am 61 and people doing the hiring don't want someone this old.  They don't want someone with as much education as I have (too expensive) and all of my experience, unfortunately always seems to be in the wrong areas.

I am finally hired to sub in at least two local school districts, so I will be working some (I hope) in the fall.  But meanwhile, I have learned what being unemployed does to someone's self esteem.  In spite of a number of significant accomplishments over the years, in spite of really good recommendations from people I have worked with and for, in spite of knowing that I am smart and capable, it feels pretty terrible to be looking for jobs and not getting any.  Fortunately, my husband has good jobs and plenty of work, so I am not hurting financially.  It is only my ego that is suffering.

Friends of mine who are near my age have retired and I guess I could to.  But I WANT to work.  I feel like I still have a lot to offer, if only someone would let me offer it.

All this is a long way of saying that I am getting closer to imagining how difficult it is for someone whose family really NEEDS the income from a wage-earner, but who cannot get a job.  It is discouraging to apply for job after job after job and get little or no response.  People tell me that they have 100 applicants for this job or 300 applicants for that job.  But each time you apply and get nothing back, it is another blow to your self esteem.  How can you even get it together to tout your accomplishments if you do get that precious job interview?  After so many months of discouragements, I can hardly even remember the significant things I have done.

I will be OK, but I feel bad for many people who really won't be.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Subbing for Beginning Teachers

A number of years ago, I made the comment to a principal I was talking to that I thought that all new teachers should be required to sub for a couple of years, before they were given a full time teaching position.  There are quite a few reasons why this is a good idea.  First of all, it gives the new teacher a chance to get more experience.  The big advantage of this is that the teacher is typically encouraged to broaden his/her experience, in that jobs in the narrow range of expertise that s/he developed during student teaching are limited in number.  If s/he opts to sub in a broader range of areas, this can be advantageous in a number of ways:  s/he gets to see a broader view of the curriculum - both what might come before the age range s/he is most comfortable with and what comes after.  This gives added depth to his/her understanding of how the curriculum at his/her chosen grade level fits in with the overall curriculum.  S/he gets to know a broader range of students and their typical behaviors and needs.

Another significant advantage is that the teacher gets to see a broader range of schools and even, in some cases, different school districts.  I subbed several times at a Montessori school that had students in grades pre-K through 8th grade.  I had never had direct experience with Montessori schools before and I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this particular school.  Not all schools, even in the same school district, are run the same.  It helps to know what the teacher feels most comfortable with.

It is also interesting for the teacher to see different teaching styles - even within the same school.  Fundamental things like room organization, the arrangement and availability of supplies, and daily time scheduling are quite different from classroom to classroom. 

All of this experience can lead to more confidence for the beginning teacher once s/he has his/her own classroom.

The key drawback is that you can't live on sub pay.  Typically, subs get paid around $100 per day.  Given that the school year is (at most) 180 days, the maximum amount a sub would earn is $18,000.  Given that there are teacher inservice days, parent-teacher conference days, and other non-working days, the typical income is usually much less than this.  And, there are no benefits - no health insurance, no sick leave, no vacation leave.  This means the new teacher has to have some other way of being covered, especially in terms of health insurance.

I have just applied to sub in three different school districts near where I live.  I have no idea yet whether that is too few or too many.  But I do know that a LOT of the new subs at the substitute training sessions are new teachers.  Jobs are scarce this year and many of them are signing up to sub, hoping to be hired on as regular teachers eventually.  Meanwhile, they will get some good experience, even if they are grossly underpaid.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Follow-Up to Re-Framing Gifted Education

I suppose I should also add that we did, in the end, let some students who were borderline ready, but had good grades take the class.  They usually had to work very hard to keep up, but usually managed to do so.  We also put a few kids in the class, who were not good workers, but who were mathematically ready.  Most of them did just fine.  They still weren't good workers, but they kept up with the class. 

But the most interesting student, for me, was one who was more than mathematically capable, but who couldn't be bothered with homework.  He struggled a bit, because, in algebra, you really do need to work the problems in order to understand them.  But he also became fascinated with a piece of software we had called Green Globs and Graphing Equations.  The algebra class was held in the computer lab, since I was also the computer teacher, so we had easy access to the computers.  I used several computer programs, but Green Globs was the one that fascinated him.  The idea was that the computer would put several green globs on an x-y coordinate system and you had to write equations that would hit as many globs as you could with the fewest equations.  Your point score was higher the more globs you hit with a single equation.  As far as the class went, we mostly did linear equations, but I showed him some more types, parabolas, sines, etc.  The equations could be adjusted with parameters and once I showed him how to do that, he was hooked.  He loved tinkering with the parameters on the equations.  And I enjoyed watching him, the kid who in the past wouldn't have been in the class.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Re-Framing Gifted Education

I have been thinking about this idea for a long time and I am still trying to work out whether and how it might make a difference.  It began, I think, when I was teaching algebra to gifted 8th graders in a tiny public school in Illinois.  Before I was hired, a few students each year were identified by the 7th grade math teacher as being ready for algebra.  She based her assessment on their mathematical understanding and their grades in math class.  Grades in math class were heavily dependent on doing homework as well as doing well on tests.  I was interested in finding out if there were a more objective way of deciding who was ready for 8th grade algebra and found that there was an algebra readiness test - a fairly short test that would indicate which students had the mathematical understanding necessary for success in algebra.  I guess already I was thinking that grades don't always indicate whether a student has the appropriate mathematical understanding and readiness.  Perhaps it was from personal experience.  I have not always been the hardest worker, partly because I usually didn't need to be.  I got good grades up until college without having to work much.

At any rate, I did begin giving the tests to students who the math teacher thought were possible candidates for the class, including a few "lazy" ones, who seemed to understand the math she taught, but who were less than diligent in doing their homework.  And, as might be expected, the students exhibited quite a range.  Some were clearly ready, had good mathematical understanding, good grades, and good work habits.  Some were clearly not ready.  Either with or without good grades, their mathematical understanding wasn't good enough for taking algebra what was then "a year early".  Then there were those in the middle: two groups (no clear dividing lines, though).  There were some who were mathematically ready, but whose grades were less than stellar; there were some whose grades were solid, but whose mathematical understanding was shakier.  What to do with them?

I argued for including the kids who were mathematically ready, whether they had good grades or not - and this is where my thinking about the issue really took off.  The math teacher argued for letting those borderline students choose whether or not to participate in the algebra class.  With the kids who were hard workers, but only borderline ready for algebra, I could see letting them try.  But why should we let the kids who were mathematically ready for algebra take the easy way out and stay in 8th grade math? 

In general, we often allow gifted students to choose whether or not to participate in gifted programs (in the lucky instance that such are actually available).  But even in the regular classroom, activities that are differentiated for gifted students (again, if they are lucky) are often presented as options.  A tic-tac-toe of activities for a given unit, where students can choose which activities they want to complete in order to fulfill the requirements.  Gifted students are rarely required to do the harder options.

But why not?  When we send a student off to the special education teacher, that student is not given the option of not participating.  That student is not given the option of not working.  The student is, on the contrary, urged to work as hard as s/he can.  In the regular classroom, average students are not allowed to choose not to do the assignments, just because they require them to work hard.  Why do we let the gifted students choose not to work hard?

Working hard is a life skill.  Struggling, failing, persevering, and finally succeeding are the keys to achievement, especially once you get beyond secondary school.  Why do we let the students with the highest potential fail to learn these skills?

What would it be like if we re-frame gifted education to assert that ALL students need to learn to work hard?  They need to learn to struggle with difficult material; they need to learn to persevere in the face of setbacks and failure; they need to get the satisfaction that comes from working hard at something and finally succeeding.  This is a fairness issue.  It isn't fair to require that most kids learn these skills and not require that gifted kids learn them.  It isn't fair to let the smart kids goof off and make the rest of the kids work hard. 

So when the teacher tells you your gifted child is doing great without really seeming to work very hard, you can say: oh, really, I would like to see you require my child to work harder.  Is there a way we can make his/her work more complex, in more depth?  And the teacher can say to the parents who wonder why your student is getting harder work, we wanted to make sure that all students in the classroom are working hard.  Do you think your child is working hard enough?  Would you like for your child to get harder work in some subjects?