Am I less valued because I teach low-income students?

Here’s another great voice for the need to support teachers of low socio-economic-status students in this EdWeek article. Bruce Hansen mentions that when he received the “golden apple award” his colleagues assumed that he would pursue an easier job at a school in a high-income district. He may feel guilty, but that’s exactly what he did. “There’s a perception that really good teachers work in schools that cater to students from wealthy families,” he writes. He recommends that teachers get special training “from university educators,” who develop specialized techniques and curricula. But the reason Mr. Hansen left his job has nothing to do with curriculum or training. He left because he did not receive enough support.

I’ve been teaching high-poverty English Language Learners for 15 years and it’s both rewarding and exhausting. When students are so needy every day, it can be emotionally and physically draining. We don’t need more university educators telling us what to do.  We need compassionate administrators who understand what it’s like to “work in the trenches.” We need a network of like-minded teachers and student counselors who can prevent us from being traumatized by the traumas of our students. At the end of the day, I can get in my car and drive back to my leafy suburb. It’s important for teachers of high poverty students to be mentally healthy.

Unfortunately many low-income schools are where new principals get placed to learn the ropes before moving on, where teachers involuntarily transferred land, and where there’s high teacher turnover and little administrative support. I’m proud to say that this practice is not prevalent in my mixed-income school. However, I definitely get a feeling that I count less than teachers of AP and IB students heading to Harvard. My administrator has never set foot in my classroom to give his famous Timeline speech, in spite of my annual plea to come for a visit. However, he is very supportive in other ways. And that makes all the difference.

I also have a union that backs me up at the district level, full access to excellent training resources, and local leadership that listens to teachers and gives priority to education. Now if they could just add back that hour of time that Daylight Savings took away, I could get a lot more done in 24 hours.




ESOL Activists Asked to Clear Out

On Monday evening dozens of parents, teachers, counselors and advocates for English Language Learners showed up at the Montgomery County (MD) Board of Education meeting to support testimony on the questionable restructuring of the ESOL Department.  We so overwhelmed the board members that they asked us to move into the overflow seating in the auditorium.

My concerns are personal. Yesterday I covered a regular 9th grade classroom while the teacher was on a field trip. I could see a stark contrast between these students and my own. The 9th graders entered the classroom in an orderly manner, got their laptops and began working on their assignments before the bell rang. I had to quiet them down a little to take attendance, but everyone was working or talking quietly for the entire period. Three students asked, one-at-a-time, for passes to the restroom, and one girl braided another girl’s hair. In contrast, students in my class entered the room jostling each other, pushing, mock fighting (one guy grabbing the other around the neck), throwing things, shouting loudly, and sitting down with earbuds at an empty desk — no folder, no book, no notebook, as is (supposed to be) our routine. One student turned the light on and off to get attention, another went directly to the heater by the window and sat on it, checking his phone. They didn’t hear me after the bell rang when I asked them to get their folders and sit down.

Social-emotional learning is one of the most critical areas of need for ESOL students, especially those with interrupted formal education. I teach high schoolers from Central America who have a 5th grade education. They do not know how to be students. In addition, many are dealing with family-reunification issues: They have just arrived in-country to live with mothers or fathers whom they haven’t seen in years. While they are adjusting to a new family, new food, a new house and a new country, it is my job to teach them academic language. But they need so much more. That is why I am worried about the changes in the county ESOL program. Who will guarantee that my students’ needs are being met? We need more bilingual counselors, more Parent Community Coordinators who can visit homes and meet with families. We need a sensible pathway to careers for students who may not make it to college. We need a serious drop-out prevention program, like paid job internships that also give course credit. (I would love to coordinate such a program!) We need less emphasis on graduation in four years. Many ESOL students require more time and direct instruction to become proficient in English. We need fewer standardized tests and less disruption to our weekly schedules. (Thank you state legislators — it looks like we won the Less Testing battle!) We need cultural competence training  like this program for regular classroom teachers.

This video shows all the homemade signs we brought to the Board of Education meeting on Monday evening. They say, “I stand for students,” in the different languages – Spanish, French, Amharic, Vietnamese, Haitian Creole, etc. that our students speak. We are worried that the changes in the countywide ESOL program may mean that critical services will be cut.  I had no idea what to expect when Kristen and Margarita asked us to support them and their testimony. Our strong concerns were voiced. “I stand for students” was more than a slogan. We spoke up for the most vulnerable and at-risk students in Montgomery County Public Schools. Now it is up to our elected officials to take action.

I am proud to live in a state that takes care of its students and invests in their future. I am optimistic that our voices have been heard.


U.S. graduates are last place in technology education

America’s high school graduates look like other nation’s dropouts. Check out this NPR story about how we are failing our students, especially in Technology.

At my school, a public high school in one of the wealthiest districts in the DC suburbs, my students have limited access to computers. Sure we have computers in the school – something like 10 different computer labs, and three or four carts of laptops. But with 1,700 students in one building, it’s often impossible to get access. When testing season starts on May 2, it will be out of the question. I’ve tried to incorporate technology into my instruction, but if I rely exclusively on smart phones, there are always kids who don’t have them. My students are all English Language Learners. This is a serious equity issue.

A few short years ago, computer skills were not part of any curriculum. Now they are critical to being successful. Whose job is it to teach students how to use email, use a drop-down menu, and save and name a file? How is it possible that students can graduate from high school not knowing how to do these things? Many teachers assume that students are acquiring these skills outside of the classroom. Just because they own smart phones doesn’t mean they know how to use them for academic purposes. When I take my ESOL 1 & 2 students to the lab, it is clear that I have to start from scratch: how to log in, how to press the Return/Enter key to go down a line, how to click and drag, use a scroll bar, create a document, how to navigate a website. Over the last few years most high-stakes tests have moved online. Students learn quickly, but with limited access to technology many are at a serious disadvantage.

We were supposed to get Chromebooks last year (inexpensive laptops from Google), but Governor Hogan’s budget cuts made that impossible. So only Social Studies departments got Chromebooks. The problem is that they’re only available to students enrolled in Social Studies classes. My ESOL 1 students (newcomers) do not take any Social Studies classes their first year, so they miss out. This problem may just be more pronounced at my school. Colleagues at a recent district meeting all said they could get computers for their students; it just took a little Personal Persistent Operating. (One district administrator suggested that I write a grant or put out a Go Fund Me request. Why should I have to beg to get essential materials to teach my students?) Maybe I need to be more pushy. I’m writing this blog instead.

I have so many online resources at my disposal, thanks to MCPS. I’m feeling the pressure to get my students before a screen as much as possible before testing season begins.

Choosing Board of Education Candidates

I was privileged to be part of a MCEA panel that interviewed candidates for the Montgomery County Board of Education At-Large seat. I’m an Elected Faculty Representative at my school but as far as I know, this was the first time that ordinary teachers were asked to participate in such a forum.  It was tedious but thrilling work, and we all took it seriously. Somehow it reminded me of serving jury duty. Even with a light dinner and an opportunity for small talk with colleagues beforehand, it felt like an important obligation. I was impressed that we stayed well into the evening debating who to support.

Five candidates submitted answers to a questionnaire in advance, which we read and then scored, kind of like grading papers. Then we met with each candidate for 30 minutes, heard their prepared statements, and asked them the same questions in the same order. We made our recommendations to the Executive Committee, who then made recommendations to the Rep Assembly, which voted with more than 58% to NOT endorse a specific candidate for the April 26th race.

I’m reluctant to say more but I have to get it out there — teachers were wowed by Sebastian Johnson, the well-spoken young man who presented himself as an exciting, viable alternative to the incumbent. It is my hope that he’ll be one of the top two vote-getters and will run against Phil Kauffman in the fall.

This article in Bethesda Magazine says it all better than I can.

And now this post from the Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County about the MCEA Political Action Committee. I have no idea what this is all about. I’m just a classroom teacher interested in helping elect Board members who listen to me before making decisions. I feel that I’m taking a risk even posting this.