It's Work Week on AOA. We'll be talking with people about their jobs and working. Part of that includes anonymous conversations with people about what it's like to do their jobs.
Next Up: The High School Teacher.
Or, to be more precise, the former high school teacher. The High School Teacher retired in 2011, but is currently teaching teachers in a UAlbany graduate education program. He taught for more than 30 years in Saratoga and shares some thoughts on how education, students, and the job of a high school teacher changed in that time.
Did the job, and the quality, of education change in the last 30 years?
Education, of course, is going to come back to the kids. And so I get asked all the time did kids change from 1981 until I retired in 2011.
Obviously, culturally, they did. We went from kind of a preppy generation back in the early 80s, and then survived to whatever that was in the 90s, and then we went to tattoos and piercings and things this century. But, except for those cultural things, I think kids are basically the same.
So, did education improve or change? The biggest change in education -- there have been two -- one is obviously technology. We went from chalkboards to smart boards. That can be a huge asset in the classroom and kids can relate to it more since they are so into the technology themselves . But I think whether you give somebody a piece of chalk or you give them the best technology in the world it depends on the person who is making the lesson and dealing with the kids. A good teacher is going to have good results regardless of what you give them. A good teacher probably can do much better work with the new technology. A bad teacher is going to be just as bad with the new technology as they would have been with a piece of chalk.
I'm really happy with UAlbany and the grad program there because there is a big emphasis now on what the state is asking teachers to do. Common Core, New York State standards, and these standards all have a good goal. The goal is to make kids more literate, to integrate technology into learning.
All the goals are good -- the problem I have with it is they dump too much on a high school teachers' plate. Teachers get so busy learning new technology and going through the checklist of what the state requires that the kids get moved to the side a little bit, because it's "I gotta do this, I gotta do this, I gotta do this." This APPR they have now -- it's the state's way of evaluating the teachers -- it's based on a pre-test with the kids and then a post-test to make sure the kids have improved. But in a way, to me, it's ridiculous. Because if you pre-test a kid in September on, say, economics -- they don't know anything about economics. But if you post test them in January -- the same test -- by god, I would hope they would do better.
How has all of this changed things in the classroom?
When I first started teaching, I could pretty much be as creative as I wanted with my lessons. I had great results on the regents [tests]. I don't think I ever had a student fail a state exam. But now with this checklist mentality that the state has -- to me almost justifying why they exist -- they've taken away from a teacher's ability to bring their own stuff into the classroom.
I think the state's goals are good, but I guess I think if I was the king of the world, and I could do things my own way I would say don't treat every single school district the same way. Saratoga Springs, for example, is a terrific school district. We have an over 90-percent graduation rate, kids do great on AP exams, state exams etc. We don't need -- I don't think -- the same strict guidelines and hand holding and demands of State Ed that another district, maybe in New York City, that is struggling, would. I mean maybe you need to bring struggling districts up -- that's a noble goal. But I think in doing that, the districts like Niskayuna, Shenendahowa , Saratoga -- I think it hurts them a bit.
A basic tenant of education and a new term in recent years -- it gets recycled -- is differentiated instruction. Every kid in your class is different, and kids learn differently so you need to be able to reach all the kids that you are teaching, and you're doing the best that you can. Well, to me the state is doing the opposite of that. This is not differentiated -- they are making every school district do the same thing whether that district needs it or not.
We have young kids who are so panicked over exams and, of course, parents. And now, of course, we start all the way back to elementary years tracking kids. You can almost tell before a kid reaches 7th grade what your future AP classes in high school are going to look like -- and I'm not really comfortable with that. I don't disagree with tracking, but I think there have to be entrance ramps and exit ramps. Kids develop at different ages and maybe a kid who was having trouble in elementary school or junior high -- all of a sudden a lightbulb goes on -- that kid should be allowed into the AP course.
There's a lot of pressure on kids now with all these state tests and regardless of what people say it takes a lot of time because any conscientious teacher wants to prepare their classes for whatever tests they have to take. And obviously you want your district to do well [on] the state report card and all that. Now in Saratoga we do fine. Shenendehowa does fine, Niskayuna does fine, Bethlehem does fine. But this goes back to my problem of treating all of us exactly the same. The problems that Albany has in -- you know, getting their kids to a certain level -- are different.
I think all the teachers -- the good ones, and I think it's the same in any profession -- are dedicated. They love kids and they want kids to succeed. The teachers, for example, that teach difficult situations in Albany High School or Schenectady or many urban schools in the country -- I have so much admiration for them. That in addition to the day-to-day worries about kids and problems kids might be having outside of school -- to also have the same directives and mandates on them that we have in the suburban schools. I mean, teaching, they say, is a noble profession -- and I really believe it is. And I think the people especially in the inner city schools really deserve respect -- and it really annoys me when I hear people putting down those teachers, you know, because you've got to be dedicated to stick it out for a long time in a very tough work environment and I just give them total respect.
Another thing that changed toward the end -- again, based on the state Education Department -- the state mandates mean a lot more meetings. Meetings take you away from after-school help with kids, and districts get put under a lot of pressure. The district has to keep up with the changes.
What are the highs and lows? The best and worst days?
I think every teacher will agree with this: the very best days teaching are usually unexpected and they are days when something you do in class clicks. For me it was if I could get a discussion going among kids and as they left my room they were still discussing. And I'd hear them go down the hall or I'd see them later at lunch still talking about it. It's weird, the reasons -- and if I knew I'd bottle it. But sometimes everything just falls into place and you feel so good because you planned something out and it even went better than your biggest expectation and you know the kids got a lot our of it that day.
The worst is the opposite. The worst are those days that you put all this time into planning a really amazing lesson and it falls flat for whatever reason the kids don't get it... they think its stupid. That's the worst.
The frustrating thing -- the highest priority would be for me -- is the kid you can't reach. You try and try and try and for some reason you just can't get to that young lady or young man. And maybe they drop out of school and down the road you see that they've gone to prison or died tragically in some way. That's the toughest part.
From a practical standpoint the hardest part is time -- the days aren't long enough. But I guess that's a good thing ... if you really like what you're doing you want the days longer.
And you have to be selective about what you're taking in. I teach social studies. When I started teaching, the present was the election of Ronald Reagan. Well, now you've got to add thirty more years onto that and you've got to cover it in the same amount of days.
And then lastly -- as I said I think the state's got to step back a little bit -- you can't treat every district the same way. You would never want us to teach every single kid the same way because that would be teaching right at the middle, which means you'd bore some of them and lose others.
Not a lot of states have a Board of Regents like NYS. I graduated from school in Massachusetts, and we didn't have a Board of Regents. We went to Harvard, Columbia, Cornell -- we did ok. I think one of the problems in any bureaucracy is if it's too top heavy it pushes things down. It raises taxes on people and puts, I think, too many demands on too many districts. And when it gets to the classroom, it isn't what you'd really want to be having happen in there.
I think teachers need a little more freedom.
What are the things you wish people knew about your job?
For the first 20 years that I taught, I taught summer school and also did other outside jobs. People say, "Oh, you get your summers off," -- well, not really. That didn't happen for me until the last couple of years that I taught. I think people also look at a teacher's work day and think, "I'd love to have a work day where I only worked 7:30 to 3:30."
It's not factory work where you can check in and check out -- your job is with you all the time. I coached for a while, but even in the season I wasn't coaching I'd leave around 4:30. You go in around 7:30 [am] and you leave at 4:30, and in the evening I'd be grading papers. It's the kind of job you live.
And you're literally living it because anytime you're out in the community, you know, there's the kids, there's the parents . (Laughs) I always thought it was funny when the kids would see you in the grocery store and go "Oohhh... you eat?" If you're dressed in your weekend dirty old jeans and t-shirt or something and you're roaming around someplace, sometimes it gets awkward with the kids. Sometimes it can be funny too because the kids are underage and are in places they shouldn't be. (laughs)
There are days people say, "I just don't want to go work today." But in this job, you're always on. What do you do to get yourself going on those days?
Luckily for me, I love teaching. I love my job. I went about five or six years without ever being out sick. That started to change a bit as I got toward the end of my career. It is tiring and you're on your feet a lot -- I think if you're doing it right -- you're on your feet a lot, you're moving around and you're engaged and it's mentally exhausting. But I looked forward to it. There was never a day that I can think of that I was dreading going in that day.
The cool thing with kids, you never know everyday what is going to happen. You just. Don't. Know. And I learned so many things from them, you know? As the language would change. I remember one time they were talking about something and they were teaching some new language and then in my second or third period class I was like "Welcome to my crib" because I had learned that word waaay back when. They were all like whooooaaa (laughing). What a jerk!(laughs)
But with technology, too, kids can teach me things. I would say, "Make a presentation for class." And they would do it. And then I would say, "Show me how you did that." It's not a one-way street. I don't think good teaching can be. You don't get up there and lecture with kids. You're dealing with human beings, you're not talking to a chair for 40 minutes.
I think one of the best tools you can have as a teacher is your eyesight because you can look at their eyes. And I can kind of tell by the look in their eyes that these kids get it, and these kids are not sure, and these kids have no idea what I 'm talking about. And I think over the course of the first two or three months of class you find your barometers. I know this kid will always raise their hand and is always going to get it and this kid will never raise their hand and never engage. I think one thing teachers do that they've got to be careful of -- I taught social studies -- and a lot of teachers think every kid in their class, this is their favorite subject. Well, there's kids in your class, their favorite subject is math. You probably hated math. Well, these kids hate social studies. You can't just teach to the choir you gotta bring them all.
Kids, as you say, are different -- and you've got to reach a lot of different kids. How do you do that?
I always ask the graduates students at UAlbany to rank three areas -- and I used to ask this when I interviewed candidates for teachers. I'd say, "Which of these three things is more important: The respect of your colleagues, rapport with the students, or content knowledge." I didn't really care what their answer was, but I was looking for their explanation as to why.
I think the number one thing is rapport with your students. We all had that college professor who was brilliant and won all these prizes and wrote all these books -- but he couldn't teach. No one understood what he was talking about. You're much better off with a teacher who can relate things to kids so they understand them. So the number one thing with a good teacher I think is you have to be able to teach what your content is to the level of the audience.
I think very early on, before they mandated the term differentiated instruction, it's what I believed in. Not all kids are the same and if anyone thinks about their own life, you don't treat everybody you know the same. You treat your family different from this group of friends and your work people. And kids are like that, too. And they learn differently. The worst thing about high school from a kid's point of view is cliques. I couldn't stand cliques from year one all the way to the end. So I would never look at kids as jocks, nerds, preps, stoners -- that kind of thing. We all have to go from here to here -- how I would get there would change based on the makeup of the class. But always the same problem.
From day one try not to treat kids as a unit of measure -- differentiated instruction. If you have a kid and she's got a field hockey uniform on, ask her about field hockey. If you have a kid that's in the drama club, go to the play and then talk to them about the play later. I think one of the toughest things -- especially for middle school and high school kids -- is that everybody pays attention to the football quarterback, but a lot of times the rest of the kids kind of get put off to the side. All kids go through a period when they feel ostracized and lonely, and I think we can play a huge role in making them feel part of the community. I used to love to go to the plays. And I went to field hockey games -- I never understood it, but I went (laughs). I would go to band concerts because it was important to the kids. I would have a kid that was struggling in my class but they were brilliant with the violin... because that was their niche.
Also, teachers would ask how you handle class management. If you have a kid who, after a few weeks, is not a great student -- talking, coming in late, not passing things -- and the kid's average, let's say, is 44 out of 100 -- and that kid gets a 50. Well, they're still not passing, but they've gone up. I would call their home -- and not email -- I would call and talk to the mother or father and say how great it is that Johnny went from the low 40s up to the 50s and I was impressed and I'm encouraged that he can do this. That parent for ten or twelve years has probably only gotten phone calls about how bad their kid is -- now they get a positive phone call and it fakes them out. (laughs) They're like, "Really?" And what happens is they then relay that to the kid, and the kid feels like, "Hey, here 's a teacher that doesn't hate me." And the kid will behave better in class. They'll try better in class and if they are the ring leader of a little group, they'll be the ones to say "Hey, hey, shh."
You seem pretty positive about the profession. So you encourage people to do it if they feel they're called to it?
I am. I know there are naysayers out there. I just think we have to be careful of dumping too much on teachers' plates.
I think one of the reasons I feel good is my experience at UAlbany. Because I'm seeing the next group of teachers
I think really good teachers are exceptional people. I don't think we could ever pay them enough. A good teacher has such a long-lasting influence on how many kids over the years? You play such an important role whether you're teaching in kindergarden or first grade or a doctorate in college. You play a huge role in what is going to happen in somebody's future, and that is a great responsibility.
The happiest thing for me after 35 years of teaching is to see people who I'm so proud of who I've seen through their awkward years -- through middle school and high school when they're all kind of "ho-oh" and goofy -- and I see them blossom into these wonderful human beings who bring all sorts of great things to the community -- who become good citizens. There's nothing more rewarding, and I would take that reward over a higher paycheck anytime.
This interview has been edited and lightly condensed.
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