Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Despair and Frustration

There is a cycle of teaching that happens every year. You start out excited, motivated and enthusiastic. Then the kids come in and you remember that where you left off last year is NOT where you are starting this year and things go downhill from there. According to the chart above, I am right on track. I usually follow this chart pretty closely, despite the fact that while I have a dark sense of humor, I do tend to stay pretty positive about most things. But this year I am lower than usual.

While most of my angst is tied to the usual suspects - too much grading, not enough time, endless re-teaching, lazy students, paperwork, issues with special education and so on - this year it is a bit worse. This year I am working towards my National Board Certification. It is a long and difficult process, but an amazing reflective tool. I've been working hard, but one of the things motivating me was the incentive program in Washington state. Here, becoming a National Board Certified Teacher results in a yearly stipend that while not large, is quite helpful living here in one of the most expensive cities in the US. Especially since on the other side of the scale is the fact that Washington teachers rank at #42 on the pay scale. There are only 8 states where teachers make less than I do, and I teach in one of the most educated cities in the United States.

But all that changed in November, when voters here refused to pass any new taxes, and repealed several existing taxes. On the one hand, I totally understand. The government (and not just here in Washington) is far too used to spending what they think they MIGHT get rather than what they actually have, and the only way to stop that is to take away what they have. But on the other hand, those taxes pay for social services - and not just education. Taxes pay for health care for kids who can't afford it, social services for the elderly and mentally and physically challenged, drug intervention programs, parks, public transportation, and hundreds of other services that help everyone. Today, Governor Gregoire proposed a budget that makes $3.31 billion in cuts, and almost 1/3 of those cuts are from education. Here is an excerpt from the article:

The biggest reductions are seen in K-12 education, through both the suspension of teacher pay and class size Initiatives 728 and 732, as well as a 10 percent reduction to a state scholarship and student outreach program. Combined, they save the state $2.2 billion over the next two years. Also missing is $600 million that would have gone into additional spending on public education, the first phase of a multiyear plan that was dictated under a bill passed during the legislative session earlier this year. Gregoire also suggests a 6.2 percent reduction in levy equalization payments, which help K-12 school districts that have lower levels of property-tax support.

I'm not really angry so much as frustrated. I'm frustrated that people who have never been part of the public education system, or who haven't been part of it since they graduated from high school, are presuming to tell me that they know better than I do how to do my job. I'm frustrated by politicians who can't get along and who are so divided along party lines that they make decisions that go contrary to everything they truly believe in, simply because they vote with their party instead of the people they were elected to represent. I am frustrated that money has become such a driving motivation in our society that the most valued and respected individuals are people like Bill Gates; a man who is probably perfectly nice but is respected and valued for his money, not his beliefs or even his actions. I'm frustrated that no one talks about the elephant in the educational room; the fact that kids whose parents do not care about or support their education have a much more difficult time in school - no matter WHO their teacher is. I'm frustrated that no one recognizes that the charter schools that do work tend to require parent involvement and can both admit and expel students based on rules that no public school could get away with. I'm frustrated that the myth that teachers are overpaid and underworked STILL floats around today....I saw it this morning in the comments on the article linked above.

Yesterday I had an IEP meeting for a student in my 2nd period. IEPs, for those of you reading the blog who aren't teachers and are still reading (Hi dad!), is short for Individual Education Plans and are put in place for Special Education students. They are supposed to set individual learning goals for students dealing with issues like ADHD, dyslexia and other learning disabilities, or physical issues that prevent them from being able to do what is expected from other students. It's one of the beauties of the American public education system....our firm belief that all students can learn, that all students can be successful, and that all kids should be allowed to come to school for free. We do what it takes to make that happen.

The meeting yesterday was for a student I'll call Levi, who is unmedicated ADHD, and has ADHD so severely that he is almost unable to function. Having ADHD is like being on that old game show where you tried to catch money flying around a plastic box you were standing in. It was almost impossible to catch any of the money, and what you did catch was almost as impossible to hang on to. That is what an ADHD kid's brain is like. The money is the thoughts. They try desperately to catch those thoughts flying around their brain and it's really hard. If they do catch a thought, they can't hang on to it. The higher the fan is turned up, the harder it is to catch those thoughts. Medication turns the fan down, makes the thoughts slower and easier to  catch, and easier to hang on to. Levi's dad doesn't believe he has ADHD and refuses to medicate him. In his words, "well, I was a little hyper when I was a freshman, and I grew out of it."

Levi's condition is so severe that he literally cannot do work unless a teacher is standing next to him pointing at the question. If someone does that, he can read and answer the question, but then has no capability to move on to the next step. He does not have the capability to work independently. Levi is in one of my smaller classes, but there are 24 kids in that class.The only way I can give him the one on one attention that he needs is to devote all my time and attention to just him and completely ignore the other 23 kids, including another high needs special ed kid. One solution is to put Levi in a different special education history class. But so much money has been cut from education, specifically from programs for struggling learners like special education and English Language Learners, that there is no money to do that.

I do not believe that money is the solution to the problems in education. However, I do believe that this is one case where more money would directly benefit my students. I want Levi to succeed. But it is not going to happen in my classroom. I hate myself for accepting that, but have no idea what to do, since the fact of the matter is that Levi does not have supportive parents, does not have access to a doctor that would deal with his medical issues, and does not live in an area where money is spent on special education services. And those points bring us back to the cuts that were made in the budget. Every cut will directly affect Levi.

All of this is the reason for my frustration, despair, and general malaise. I know things will get better, but it would be nice if something good happened soon.


The Reflective Educator said...

Sorry to hear about that. Here's hoping things get better and that National Boards end up being worth the effort.

Rikki said...

I absolutely feel your pain.

What I fail to understand is how then people can complain and point fingers when our students cannot compare to other countries. What, exactly do they expect us to do?

As my daddy used to say, you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Taxpayers, parents, government officials do though - they expect us to the miraculous with handcuffs on.

The frustration is horrible - to know my kids could do it, if we had the time to do it right.

jrenman said...

I think you might be an answer to my prayer!
I am a Canadian Grade 3 teacher and it sounds like our educational systems have similar ideals and similar budget problems. I have an unmedicated (diagnosed) ADHD student in my classroom of 18. Most days I feel that I have had little sucess in meeting his educational needs and those of the rest of the class and that he has had great success (though unpremeditated) in causing me to question my abilities as a teacher.
Recently I attended a meeting held at the end of a long and challenging day with no breaks either at recess or lunch and was presented with a list of 13 suggestions as to how I might ensure my ADHD student's success at school. This list had been drawn up by my Administration and a Board "expert" who did not speak to me or my student and did not do a classroom observation.
My response after listening to the others' comments on the list was a respectful and despairing "I can't". What I have done to date is implement sn Individual Program Plan, set up and carry out a system of one-on-one (positive) time with the Principal and spend countless moments throughout the day explaining, reasoning, reinforcing and praising my student to the best of my ability.
Can I trust you graph? Will I move into a rejuvenation phase shortly?
My next step is attending a follow-up meeting with my Union Rep included (standard procedure, not my idea) with a view to establishing where we go from here.
I would appreciate any further wisdom you might have - even that you understand has lifted my spirits.