657: Teachers make all other professions possible

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I teach. I don’t talk about it much. When I was a new teacher, there was craftsmanship. It was an art. Computers took all of that away.

The policies under which I now work are absolutely NOT helping to produce productive, mature, responsible human beings. I am not proud to be part of the current process. I do not believe being able to retake a test is helping students prepare to take tests. I do not believe it is helping to require a teacher to put 50 points of academic credit in the grade book for NOTHING – no student effort expended whatsoever, other than breathing (not an academic activity last time I checked), not even including non-attendance as a factor – NO – I am told to award academic credit for NOTHING. How is that helping make a responsible human, employee, citizen?

Yes, I am doing all that I can do (and still keep a job) to properly, carefully, and competently educate and guide my students, working diligently, helping them become better young humans. Still.

There is only so much I can do in an hour a day to offset what they have (and have not) learned at home, and from the media, and their peers. Teaching responsibility is often a fairly painful process, and that isn’t allowed in schools anymore. People make mistakes, often painful ones, that cost them time, or money, missed opportunities, points, and other things they want. It is not getting those things when a mistake is made, and learning from the pain of losing out on something you wanted, that helps teach responsibility – and it isn’t allowed anymore. The rule used to be “no pain, no gain.” Now the rule is “no pain, no pain.”

Now, all that occurs when a student makes a mistake is that a parent calls and complains. Then I am told that an exception will be made. Nobody is learning to be responsible in school anymore, AS IF they are miraculously just going to achieve that state when they walk across that stage at graduation. Yeah, right.

When I am old and feeble, and cannot care for myself any longer, just shoot me. It would be kinder. I do not want to depend on the youngsters we are producing in American schools today when  I am unable to care for myself. I have seen what they think is a good job. Worse, I have seen what they think is “good enough.” Nope. Just shoot me.

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649: College Pathways

You didn’t kiss me when I left.

I traveled two and a half hours over two-lane roads to arrive at this University, where I will spend six days a week this summer working on a research project, attending class, conducting research, and returning to my youth as a responsibility-free college student.

Except…. I’m not. I am not a college student, even though I feel very much the same as the teenager that I was then. The outside does not match the inside, and hasn’t done so for at least the last thirty-five years. Inside, though, inside – that’s pretty much the same person that walked the shaded footpaths at the University of Georgia, Athens in the late 1970’s. But this is Georgia Southern University, Statesboro in 2018, and the silver sparkles in my hair aren’t glitter, and I didn’t add them on purpose just for the wow factor, either.

The sidewalks don’t seem to be as shady as I remember they were, and the South Georgia sun is hot on my neck and shoulders, making me grateful for the travel size sunscreen I slathered on the back of my neck and the cheap sunglasses I’m wearing. Heck, everything I’m wearing is cheap. I visited Goodwill today for a pair of closed toe shoes and another pair of jeans, instead of the old lady teacher clothes I brought with me fully intending to wear while I am here. I probably will wear them, even though they make me stick out from the fresh-faced millennials like the sore thumb that I am.

The trees and shrubs that have been planted along these university walkways have been strictly pruned – this far you may grow and blossom, and no further. The flowerbeds contain lush profusion, all the way up to the edge, where a military haircut neatly ends the clipped foliage like an invisible force field. The expanses of mulched bed beneath the evenly spaced young trees are flawless. No weed seed would dare sprout to mar the unblemished field of uniformly aged, dusty grey-brown chips.

There is remarkably little human detritus to be seen, either, in the twelve minutes it takes me to purposefully walk from the student residence apartment I have been allotted to the imposing brick stateliness of the College of Engineering building. The paver blocks (two shapes, three colors) that make up the walkway I’m on were meticulously laid in a deliberately decorative pattern that required a concrete saw’s precise cuts to match up the paver blocks’ disparate shapes and colors at the edges to produce this ornate and ordinary walkway that borders this ordinary and unimportant side road.

I imagine the thoughts of the stonemason laboring in Georgia’s heat and humidity as he cut, set, and fit these walkway pavers so precisely that so few people will see and use. Perhaps he was missing his wife, like I am missing my husband. And then, why am I so sure that the person was a he? I chide myself on my thoughtless sexism. Probably was a he, though.

It occurs to me, after two days of College of Engineering workshop sessions and research laboratory tours, that these men (and most of them are men) are a lot like professional athletes. They come to work every day and pursue their own very narrow interests, playing at deriving better numbers in the same way a professional athlete seeks to shave a place value off their previous best number. Their projects have impressive sounding names (my brother and I christened one of our backyard forts “The Impregnable Kingdom of Fuller,” even though the rain later proved it not to be). Some of those research projects are probably going to be useful (some day), and maybe even affordable (one day quite some time after that). At least, unlike the athlete or the stonemason who paved the pathway to their building, they mostly work on improving their numbers inside in the air conditioning.

I am here at this university this long hot summer to narrow my own far-flung interests down to an Engineering research project on renewable energy, to construct a prototype, and to derive some numbers of my own that I can take back to my impoverished school district to perhaps ignite some youngsters who can dream and maybe believe that the world does not end at the county line the way their lives have shown them, repeatedly, is true. Perhaps some of them might then set their sights on achieving better numbers in air-conditioned comfort, instead of trying to win the professional athlete lottery against their own genetics, or instead of simply opting to labor outdoors in the hot sun, which they all know is a possibility, however unwelcome.

First, though, they have to believe such a future exists, that it isn’t just another fairy tale like the stuff they see on the TV screen and in the movies which they all know is just make-believe, of course. Then they have to believe it is possible, seeing beyond the effort it will cost and the money they don’t have. Then, the biggest stretch of faith of all, they have to believe they maybe, just maybe, they could do it themselves, instead of watching someone else do it who had more than they had to go on. Faith isn’t easy, and changing your beliefs isn’t encouraged, where they come from.

638: Award

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I am one of ten teachers in my state that has been selected to take a seven-week-long energy symposium with a respected university in my state that is a few hours’ drive away. I will be in the dorm Monday through Friday for my entire summer, reliving the years of my collegiate youth while participating in research into alternative energy cooperatively with the graduate students and professors at the university. I have agreed to create a unit of study for the high school engineering students at my school, implement it, be observed while doing so, collect data, and present at teacher conferences in the academic year to come.

The university also is paying a stipend of six thousand dollars for this learning experience, which I only learned about during the finalist interview. Heck, I was willing to eat the costs for the opportunity, but I do admit that getting the money is better. It will allow me to pay for some things we did remodeling this foreclosure home we bought that would’ve taken me the entire next year to finance month-by-month in the usual fashion. So, I have a stake in doing a good job at the symposium, both professionally and financially.

Plus, the students will be learning what I learn. Win-win for us both.

Wish me luck.

624: Standards and Expectations

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Organizations of people (schools, businesses, etc.) have expectations for their members. Many of those groups have codified those expectations into standards which are actually written down and distributed, to be sure that everyone who is a member (employee) of that group is on the same page, regardless of what is accepted behavior for them outside of their participation in that group, at home, or in other aspects of their lives.

This is completely aside from those professions whose expectations bleed over into private life, like teachers and politicians, to name just two. There, the expectations of professional life are also expected (by the public) to be scrupulously observed in one’s private life, too – despite the freedom enjoyed by others who are able to behave as they see fit outside of work hours. Still, that is a rant for another place and time.

This particular diatribe is for organizations which publish and distribute their expectations and professional standards for their members, in this particular case employees, and then deliberately flout them.

See, professional standards are written down so that there is a clear understanding of what is expected of an employee, regardless of upbringing, culture, or previous practice. Generally, these correspond to a visual and behavioral image the company wants to portray to their “customers.” This includes such common things as what is considered to be professional dress for that workplace, not being under the influence of intoxicating substances while on the job, and others.

Frankly, I don’t care what aspects of professional behavior a company feels important enough to commit to paper, but it they ARE important enough to commit to paper, they need to be followed and enforced. If they are not that important, don’t write them down as rules to follow and distribute that information to everyone. Common sense – which isn’t actually very common (another rant, another time and place).

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Well. The bee in my bonnet today is over the professional dress. It is explained in our employee handbook that employees are expected to dress in a manner which reflects good taste and a professional appearance. This is so that a teacher or other employee LOOKS like a professional to be respected – someone with authority – whether they actually HAVE any authority or not (that, too, is yet another rant for another time and place). So, wearing denim jeans are prohibited, because jeans don’t project that “professional” aura about their wearer to the “customer.” OK. Message received.

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Then, we are instructed: Wearing jeans is prohibited except for Fridays (if worn with a school spirit shirt) or other specified days. Wait a minute. Jeans are prohibited because they are not professional, but you can wear them every Friday if you pair them with a school/company logo-imprinted T-shirt. So, if that Friday clothing is considered professional enough for every week, what’s wrong with being comfortable Monday through Thursday in a pair of blue jeans and a school logo T-shirt, too? Or, is it that you are only allowed to be unprofessional in front of your customers (in this case, parents and students) on Fridays? Does that extend not only to dress, but all those other professional standards, too, where all those other things are prohibited (in writing) that might also make you more comfortable at work? How about a tension-relieving shot of Jack Daniel’s? Why wouldn’t that make the work place more tolerable and comfortable, too? Heck, how about a NAP? There’s actually some research to back that one up for improved employee performance on the job. Other comfortable (and questionable) things come to mind…….

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And, what about those other ‘specified’ days? At my work place, we were just given an ENTIRE WEEK to wear our jeans – and nothing was ‘specified’ about the school logo T-shirt this time. Does that rule still apply, or does that mean all bets are off on the chosen topper for those jeans?

I do understand about giving employees a treat (especially a treat that costs the management not a single penny), and has it crossed their minds that not everyone considers being allowed to wear jeans, contrary to the published dress code policy, to actually be a treat? Apparently not.

So, you are thinking, jeepers, lady – just don’t wear jeans, and shut up. OK. I suppose I can be pleased that we were given the opportunity to show up to work looking unprofessional, not the REQUIREMENT to do so.

598: Failure

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Nobody likes to fail.

Nobody likes ADMITTING that they failed, much less the painful process of actually FAILING.

The constant mental re-plays…if only I had done THAT instead, it would have changed the outcome……why didn’t THAT occur to me at the time, so I could have done something differently……why did I not recognize that as a RED FLAG? Heck no, at the TIME, that red flag was a glowing, rosy PINK flag……..sheesh. Gotta get rid of these glasses.

And then comes the sneaking, stealthy, sly subconscious. The DREAMS about failing. Not necessarily the specific thing I failed at, oh, no! These are horrible, inventive fantasies; dark, macabre imaginings of all the OTHER ways I could possibly fail at something.

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Such as – dreaming of being a waitress (yes, I, too, did this in college) at a pizza-cum-sandwich shop – and getting ALL the orders wrong, having to apologize profusely to all the incensed customers, take all the blame, and give them their food for free – which I know is going to come out of my miniscule paycheck, of course. FABULOUS dream. Can’t WAIT to have it again. The groveling, you know, that’s what excites me the most.

EWR TERMINAL B CUSTOMS AND IMMIGRATION, CSR & AGENTS 7/6/07

Then there’s the nightmare about the trip – I get to the airport, after having meticulously packed (and pre-weighed) my bag for this international flight, and discover my purse (with the passport, of course), is missing. Instant panic. WHERE did I leave it on my journey to the airport? On the train? In the taxi? OMG! The flight departs in an hour! Or, (alternate variation on this theme), the bag I carefully packed and weighed to comply with all the myriad regulations for flying (which I looked up online prior to getting started packing, just to be sure), ISN’T in compliance, after all. And now I must choose, standing at the inspection table surrounded by harried passengers, which items to discard so they will actually let me get on the flight using the ticket I have paid for. Should I ditch the shampoo? The tampons? The evening gown? The sandals? The sunscreen? AAUUGGHHHhhhhhh…………! Meanwhile, the clock is ticking down to the time they will close the boarding gate, and I will be…..LEFT BEHIND. With no refund of monies paid.

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Or the teacher dream: supervising a field trip and having something go wrong when I am responsible for twenty something (or more) students and chaperones. I am scrambling to fix whatever thing has gone awry, and doing a perfectly miserable job of it, because, of course, this is a FAILURE dream, and nothing I do in one of those dreams works out to my advantage. Ever. And usually, it involves a copious amount of my favorite thing – groveling to all and sundry as I meekly confess my culpability.

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Or my personal favorite – I am fleeing a menacing, pursuing presence through all the halls and rooms of an infinite decaying, crumbling mansion….for hours and hours, all the while knowing that the terrible pursuing menace is going to corner and catch and murder horrifically. Yup. Personal favorite. I usually wake up trying to scream from that one, panting like I’ve just run the Boston Marathon.

Bad enough to fail in real life, when I am conscious. Failing in my dreams is infinitely worse – the dream failures seem every bit as real as the real-life failures, and I can have more than one of them per night. Subconscious self-torture. Whoopity doo.

579: The dumbing down of America

My brand spanking new hubs has obtained a job managing one of two employment agencies in our tiny south Georgia town. I have taught high school and middle school (some) for 26 years in Georgia (all over the state). What he is reporting is a confirmation of what I have been observing for decades.

Employment agencies offer their services free to job seekers. Companies contract with them to vet their potential employees, but the company ultimately gets the final say in any hiring, and the employment agency gets a finder’s fee for vetting candidates on behalf of the employing company.

As part of the candidate process, there is a drug screening, an employment application and interview, and a screening employability skills exam. Sort of a very low-level SAT. VERY low level. The questions include: how many inches are in three yards. How many is a half dozen. What is 50% of 150. Plus other similar mind-blowing, difficult, major league, scholarly questions. Most applicants (teens to adults) fail the screening exam.

I have taught high school in my state for 26 years. His results absolutely do not surprise me. And we are getting worse, not getting better- I do not care WHAT the government pundits are telling you about improving test scores.

Our schools took out career/life classes like shop and home economics. They replaced them with curriculum that presupposes all of our students are headed off to college. Yeah, right. The governor of Georgia just released his new “mission goals” for Georgia schools. It includes the statement that ALL Georgia students will earn college or career credit before they complete high school. “•Every child in Georgia will earn college and/or career credit before they graduate high school.” Yeah, right.

Our school’s students get multiple, multiple chances to complete work, including retaking major tests. Try that in real life – unlimited do-overs. Only GOD is that kind. And, as a teacher, I am forbidden by my school administration to assign a score of zero when a student turns in nothing for an  assignment. I have to assign them points of credit – for NOTHING. Last time I checked, breathing was not an academic activity.

What I am allowed to teach in the courses I am employed to teach is mandated by the state government. I cannot teach reading to a child who cannot read. LITERALLY, not my job. I am teaching pre-Engineering. ONLY. Even though I am also state certified in English, grades 6-12.

I try. Invoking the overarching academic goal of literacy skills, I  require my students to write reflection essays in MLA format over their Engineering assignments. I have high school students who cannot write ONE correct and complete sentence, much less a coherent essay. Some cannot even to this day capitalize their first and last NAMES on a paper. I wish I was lying. And this, from native speakers of English. Our Spanish native speaking kids are blowing the American-born kids out of the water. Let’s not even discuss the MATH. I have taught how to figure the square yardage needed to replace the carpet in a room EIGHT SEPARATE TIMES, and still have high school students in the class who cannot compute it correctly. Carpet sellers, you may freely rook customers in south Georgia, because they have no clue you are going to cheat them. Have at it.

And the beauty of this? The government, and most parents, will tell you it is the teacher’s fault, all of it.

Yeah, right.

4 more years.

4 more years.

My mantra.

549: School

Jennifer Johnson, a teacher at Evergreen Campus of Health Sciences & Human Services High School (HS3) in Seattle, WA, works with students in her classroom on May 20, 2014.

Jennifer Johnson, a teacher at Evergreen Campus of Health Sciences & Human Services High School (HS3) in Seattle, WA, works with students in her classroom on May 20, 2014.

Being a teacher is a very mixed blessing. Yeah, I know what everybody says about teaching, how we are not paid enough, and how the job expects you to basically perform at God level, and how everything that happens in somehow your fault (as if you can control the choices that other people make on a daily basis). Yeah, I know.

Actually I went into teaching because I like teaching, because it was steady income, and because of the time off. Considering how much time off there is in a year’s contract, the pay isn’t horrible. Few other jobs get as much time off. No, we are not paid for our time off. We are paid for approximately (depending on the school system and their instructional calendar) 190 days of work. To keep us from starving during the summer, school systems now divide our 190 days’ worth of pay into twelve payments. THAT equals a fairly mediocre income, considering all the certification and licensing requirement hoops that teachers must jump through to qualify. But for approximately 246 days of the year (190 plus the weekends) of work time, it’s still not too bad.

Still, no teacher works a 40 hour week. If you are a teacher working 40 hours a week, you suck as a teacher. Period. Efficiency be damned, there is far too much to get done in that 190 days for you to be able to do a quality job in 40 hours a week. EVERY teacher worth their salt works far more than 40 hours a week during the months that school is in session, and often works even more days during their ‘vacation’ during the summer for certification purposes – or chaperoning student groups on summer conferences.

It is no fun being the world’s scapegoat. I know intimately how the USA feels, accused of being the root cause of all evil on the planet. Apparently, in my dedicated career quest to make a difference and improve the lives of countless people, I am considered just an inept, bumbling fool, ultimately responsible for everyone’s poor choices, and certainly not a professional educator striving mightily each day to inspire and motivate other people’s children to be and do better than they were and did yesterday. Ministers, missionaries, and priests are nodding in rueful acknowledgement of that truth. Let me ask you this – how am I supposed to fix in one hour a day what the rest of the world has screwed up in the previous hours (and years) before this kid walked into my classroom? The fact that I work on it again, and again, and again, each day, is a testament to my dedication and stubbornness. Or my complete and total idiocy – I am not sure which some days.