Friday, February 13, 2015

Size 12 Foot, Size 7 Shoe

So I am preparing my students to take the SAGE test which is a standardized test that all high school kids take. It will determine my salary at some point - though I don't know which point but I will proceed I guess. What choice do I have? Scary to entrust a high school teacher's salary on a student's knowledge bank over 10 - 12 years. I had a tenth grader ask me last week what a semicolon looked like. Has he never used a winky face emoticon?


Utah's education needs are a like a size 12 foot crammed into a size 7 shoe. It is during this time every year that I say a special prayer for the legislators that will be buying this year's shoes for education. Can we at least buy a size 8...wide width? Year after year we have been asked, as teachers, to do what we can with what we have. "Keep cramming your foot into that shoe!" For many years it has felt as if the shoe gets smaller and smaller because the foot is getting bigger; this I know for sure. Yet, rather than decrease the size of Utah's classes or build more schools or give us more technology in the classroom, they keep changing the testing requirements; I was just getting used to the CRT's and now we're doing the SAGE. What happened to the UBSCT? They keep asking me to write to my legislators and I DO - every single year - and I'm now on so many mailing lists for politicians I'm looking for some size 12 shoes to throw at politicians.

I wish they would just spend a week in my classroom. In fact, I wish they would just spend the 7-minute passing time in my classroom between classes. "Jan, I need...Jan, you marked me absent...Jan, why do I have an F...Jan, are you going to be here after school...Jan, I wasn't here for the semicolon quiz...Jan...jan...jan..jaaa...a...n

And that's just the easy stuff.

According to the most recent educational census, Utah ranks third in highest student to teacher ratio. 48th Place.

Thanks California and Oregon.

The good news is the average teacher salary is no longer on the bottom! Based on the cost of living, we have elevated our teachers salaries up from last place to fourth from the bottom in the last ten years. 47th Place!


The U.S. average per student expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools in 2013 was $10,938. Vermont is highest and spends almost twice that - $19, 752! Their teacher to student ratio is also 9:1. New York is close behind, spending $19, 523 per student. Utah? $7, 223. Only one state spends less than we do...

...Thanks Arizona.

49th place.

Update - 2014-2015 - Utah is now in last place.

It's embarrassing. Who wants to take 49th out of 50? I guess it doesn't bother anyone holding the purse strings. I wonder what would happen if there was a trophy involved? Maybe we should take the example of the high school debaters, basketball players and wrestlers that clearly understand the concept of competition. You work hard, you get creative, you learn the moves of the opposing player, you fix your weaknesses and you get a trophy. There is personal pride involved.  We have been educating kids for eons and I feel like we don't learn very quickly from our mistakes. Or we keep changing our minds about what is good for kids. Somebody comes along with the snake oil of the day and and we pledge our allegiance to it faster than you can say "standardized testing." We seem to constantly try a new data gathering system without landing on it for a while in order to develop enough data to disaggregate it over time. I'm in favor of trophies. It works for me.

We are constantly saying that we need to study the data and plan curriculum around the data. They give us a CORE set of standards and objectives from which we are supposed to teach the masses and the masses are human beings. Not machines. Case in point: Today during the state standardized SAGE test I had two kids slide into whopping panic attacks right in front of me. I felt so bad. They didn't type a single word and will probably FAIL miserably. Where is the disclaimer where I get to write "don't dock my pay for that score - the kid had a panic attack and had to be taken out." There were two sluffers that got put in detention and will have to take the test later (which will take them out of class again). Then there were three kids that finished in about 20 minutes...the entire test. They were no Doogy Housers. They just "didn't understand the question."

There was only one question.

They just didn't want to write the essay. I can't fight that. I gave it a go and I don't like to fail anything - but I did... miserably. You can lead a horse to water....

I believe we Utah teachers have endured our 49th Place trophies (for decades) because we are a conscientious culture in general. We are hard workers. The symbols of the state is after all, the worker bee. We are, naturally, a people that rolls our sleeves up and perseveres. Most of us come from a line of people that walked across the United States to get here. We have a reputation to uphold. Why then, I wonder, in a state where the majority of its people believe that education is the only thing you will take with you in the next life, don't they roll up their sleeves and figure out how to get more money to its teachers and their classrooms?

I also think it comes from that old "teaching is a calling" cliche and how dare we say no to a calling, right? I knew I was going to be a teacher when I was old enough to set up "school" in my mom's basement. I think I was about 7. I have always been addicted to "turning the light on" in a kid. So, as any self-respecting addict does, they find any way they can to feed their addiction, even if the shoe is only a size just keep cramming you foot into it again, and again, and again...until your toes bleed. But you don't care because this is your "calling."

One more excuse: I complained about a job once to a charter board of directors. I was told to shut up and "be grateful you have a job. You chose this profession, so shut up and live with it." First of all, I work in Utah. There will always be children in Utah. I'm a certified teacher with 24 years experience building schools. I will always be willing to work for the kids because I like kids and truly its the only thing I know how to do well. Secondly - I chose to teach, but I can also choose to fight for change when I think things are unfair. I am an American and we are allowed to fight for equity in these United States.

My first year teaching in Utah, my take home pay was just over $900 a month. My sister and I shared a tiny apartment in North Salt Lake next to an oil refinery. It was the high life, let me tell you. I taught debate at Davis High for two years and spent nearly every weekend of the year schlepping angry cats to debate tournaments and then crying every night when I had to make 6 different lesson plans before I could sleep. O! (Ecphonesis) Those were such bad years but I didn't quit; I took up the Spring play, the student council and everything else I could get my hands on to be able to support myself.

Its been 23 years since those lean, back-breaking days in North Salt Lake. I've gone from school to school looking for a bigger shoe. Since then, the State of Utah has allowed groups of disgruntled people to try building shoes on their own. Millions of dollars each year is given out to parent groups, like Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts and business groups like Tuacahn, to think outside of the box and educate kids outside the traditional paradigms of the district schools. The problem is, when you give millions of tax-payer dollars to a group of non-educators, it works only part of the time. We drive by an abandoned charter school each morning on our way to school and I am reminded of how hard it is to attract (and keep) students to a "school of choice."

I've now done 14 years in the traditional districts and 10 years in charter schools and you know what? It's all the same gig. Especially in the arts. The kids that want to take your classes, will, and you can create a little family of artists no matter where you go. That's been an eye-opener for Andy, who is spending his first year at a traditional school and loving it. He thought the fantastic kids would go away and guess what? There are fantastic kids everywhere!

We used to tout at our charters that the classes were small, but that went away. We have smaller classes here. We used to say that all the teachers had masters degrees and were "professionals in their field," but that was a stretch. We all did community gigs and taught classes outside of our charter school jobs, because we had to. Contrary to popular belief, charter school teachers and administrators are the lowest paid in the state. Granted, many of them teach at much smaller schools, but they still lack the support of the "people at the district." They have no district. They ARE their district, which makes the charter school business back-breaking as well. Most people in traditional schools these days carry Masters Degrees because that is an excellent way to earn more money. Most charter schools do not have a career ladder pay schedule and you aren't rewarded with a yearly pay raise if you stay at that school longer. This is definitely a bonus in the traditional districts. So when asked what the difference is between charter and traditional, I always say: Not much. We are all doing everything we can with what we've got. Charter schools have to spend a great deal of money on marketing and traditional school don't. That's really about it.

It isn't all bad news though.

Having spent the last ten years in charter schools, I have now gone back to teach at an amazing traditional district school that is constantly thinking "outside the shoe."  We have a "5 X 5" schedule, which means that the kids go to five classes on "A" day and 5 different classes on "B" day. The classes are about an hour and 15 minutes long. This allows the kids to take more electives which I think is great because they find out what they love to do and most often that turns into career choices and a college path. It also allows the general education classes to be smaller. My classes average about 20 kids. And this is NOT a charter school, folks. The attendance policy is unique and makes kids come to school. The technology is VAST and accessible. I would say this is a big difference between charters and traditional. I've never seen so many resources for students and teachers alike. Andy has a giant 1100-seat theatre at his disposal, a black box, a classroom complete with an I-pad for each student, real dressing rooms, storage rooms and a huge costume shop (well that's for me actually.) I feel like Andy and I are reaping all the benefits of a big traditional district with charter school-sized classes.

A.T. L.A.S.T. Somebody thought outside the shoe.

My kids are finishing up their test. They were asked to read a long passage of information, annotate it, then write a three to five paragraph essay about what they read. Times have changed since the bubble sheets and #2 pencils were sharpened 30 years ago...but worry not! The multiple choice part of the test in coming up in April. They will just take it on an I-pad and it will float away to some cloud to be corrected, and then I will study the results and see where I failed. We have to prove that we're worth getting some bigger shoes I guess.