Sunday, February 27, 2011

What's for Sale, Part Two

The dad emailed the teacher to see if the information, as presented to him, was correct. It was. He then raised his concerns as politely as he could in an email: that the transaction seemed to take the focus off of learning and put it onto a purchase; that he knew from experience that teaching high school is tough, especially with 160 students a day, and that timely feedback and reteaching were essential; and that it was unwise and unfair to ask kids who could not afford the markers to self identify.

The teacher responded with an equally polite email that thanked the dad for being comfortable enough to raise his concerns. He appreciated the teacher acknowledging this, because several years before with a different child, the dad experienced firsthand the level of trust a parent must have in a teacher to raise an issue while being fully confident that doing so would not somehow negatively impact his child(ren). In that situation, sadly, the dad lacked such trust, felt as though he sold out, and took it up with the principal instead of the teacher.

Regarding the current issue, the teacher explained that many students seemed to grasp the concept when it was reviewed orally and felt frustrated that they had missed similar questions on the test, though the dad wished his daughter had been as convincing about the review and reteaching the teacher described. The teacher also explained that a different form of extra credit had been offered for students who might choose or need another option.

Again, as politely as he could, the dad typed out a response, thanking the teacher for the clarification, still expressing concern at the prospect of purchasing markers (or anything) for extra credit. At about the same time, he sent an email to the new principal of the building, advising him of his communication with the teacher, knowing that administrators like to be in the know. The principal quickly thanked him for the information. Then the dad saved his draft response to the teacher while considering whether to also address three words that were misspelled in the teacher's correspondence.

On one hand, he thought, pointing out the errors was a sure-fire way to be labeled an attack dog, nitpicker, and teacher-basher...some kind of condescending parent intent on playing gotcha. On the other, it felt like something he was bound to do as a fellow educator, knowing that many critics of education would lick their lips at the prospect of possessing smoking gun evidence of a "failing education system" and teachers who send error-laden messages to parents. Names of shrill acquaintances who would certainly arrive early to create a spectacle at the next school board meeting came to mind. And so, he made reference to the spelling errors, expressing his wish not to come across as a know it all or condescending sage, and hit send.

He was relieved when the teacher responded by thanking him for the heads up. He was surprised when, a couple of minutes later, a second email arrived from the teacher expressing the hope that people intent on criticism would have understanding for the many people who were raised in environments in which more than one language was spoken. The dad found himself nodding his head, reminded of friends who were raised in such rich environments--certainly a valid point. At the same time, he found himself thinking about how the spell check button works effectively at locations across the globe and for people fortunate enough to speak multiple languages.

A few days later, the dad and his wife both received a call from the principal explaining that the school planned to reimburse all those who had purchased markers and that he wanted to be sure that the school's practice supported high quality instruction and learning. The two had a pleasant conversation in which the dad thanked the principal for his follow through and leadership and again expressed his hope that raising the issues did not brand him as a teacher-basher or know it all.

As he hung up the phone, he remembered how principals' jobs (and indeed lives, sometimes) are often overtaken by things that should never have happened in the first place. He thought of how he had never been much of a fan of the old adage that said we have little control over what happens to us, but lots of control over how we respond. He never liked the adage much, maybe because it held so true when he had been a principal.

Finally, he thought of his conversation with the new principal, who had been working to catch up on a Saturday afternoon. Although the issue was one that should never have come up and probably felt like a management headache, it showed something important--that this guy is serious about instructional leadership. Nice. It reminded him of a point he often tried to make with aspiring principals: That, although management and leadership are different functions for principals, the two don't have to be mutually exclusive.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What's for Sale?

Daughter: Dad, you remember that test we took in my (second language) class?
Dad: Yeah, I think so. Which one?

Daughter:  Right before break.
Dad: Oh, that one. Well, kinda, but it was quite a while ago.

Daughter: Yeah, well, we just got them back last week. And nobody did very well and because it was so long ago, it's going on this semester's grade. So we were all asking if we could do some extra credit but we know (the teacher) doesn't do that.
Dad: Yes, well, how bad did you do?

Daughter (ignoring the question about the test grade): Well, (the teacher) said we can bring in some magic markers for extra credit. One point per marker, with a max of twenty.
Dad: (sigh) So, you bombed the test that was six or seven weeks ago and have moved on. Now the solution is to buy markers for the class. No reviewing or figuring out what you did wrong?

Daughter: Um, well, not really I guess. I don't remember a lot of it now anyway. But mom and I are going to run some errands and pick them up. The markers, I mean. Bye.

As the car pulls out of the driveway, the dad reflects. He remembers how, as a teacher and administrator himself, stories that students often told had little resemblance to actual events. He also knows that his daughter is a pretty credible witness on school matters. Maybe she's a budding psychologist or sociologist...or teacher. Maybe she just hears lots of talk about schools. Whatever the case, she's pretty tuned into the vibe she gets about her school and teachers...their priorities, enthusiasm, and relationships with students...who's a serious teacher, who's there to just to coach, who pushes, who inspires, who suffocates.

And then cynicism takes over.

It's really just about the grade book. Take the test, record a grade and move on. Forget reteaching, clarifying, revisiting or addressing what students missed. Scaffolding and the building blocks of learning...Zip. Go join the ranks of those who took ___ years of ___ but remember almost nothing about it. In this case, just get the grade and credit, hoping to not need to use that second language to communicate with someone who speaks it.

Should he just run to Dollar General and pick up the cheapest set he can find? If the story is accurate, from a purely economic standpoint, this is clearly the way to go: Cheap markers, maximum number of possible extra credit points. Cost effective. Run it like a business.

But then, the sociologist in him starts to wonder what might be the potential payoffs of sending a better set of markers to school? Say, a really nice set of Sharpies. The ones with the snapping case. Our family is serious about our child's studies. And the extra credit. Enjoy the Sharpies and let us know if we can do (buy?) anything else.

Or better yet, since it's a second language class, how about a nice imported set? Maybe some Staedtlers. That would show an awareness of globalization and that the family takes education so seriously that dad was willing to pop for a really nice set. Even if the daughter couldn't go beyond the maximum number of extra credit points, surely there might be some kind of payoff down the road, a good message to send.

Or the ultimate: Maybe the daughter uses the nice imported markers to produce an interdisciplinary art project that reads "Markers? Are you kidding me?" in the language being studied.

Then he remembers that his daughter said the markers were to be new and still in the package, so the project is out.

He wonders what else is for sale.