Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Exhaustion of the American Teacher

With the 2012-2013 American school year still in its infancy, it’s worthwhile to note that the people doing the actual educating are down in the dumps. Many feel more beaten down this year than last. Some are walking into their classrooms unsure if this is still the job for them. Their hearts ache with a quiet anguish that’s peculiarly theirs. They’ve accumulated invisible scars from years of trying to educate the increasingly hobbled American child effectively enough that his international test scores will rival those of children flourishing in wealthy, socially-advanced Scandinavian nations and even wealthier Asian city-states where tiger moms value education like American parents value fast food and reality TV.

The American child has changed, and not necessarily for the better. Many shrill voices argue that teachers must change, too, by simply working harder. The favored lever for achieving this prescribed augmentation of the American schoolteacher’s work ethic is fear, driven by a progressively more precarious employment situation.

But teachers by and large aren’t afraid; they’re just tired.

Meanwhile, no one is demanding American non-teachers change anything. Michelle Rhee wastes none of her vast supply of indignation on American public policies that leave a quarter of our children in poverty while, not coincidentally, the profits of Rhee’s corporate backers reach new heights. And no one but Paul Tough dares to hint at the obvious-but-politically-incorrect reality that a swelling army of kid-whipped or addiction-addled American parents have totally abdicated the job of parenting and have raised the white flag when it comes to disciplining their children or teaching them virtues like honesty, hard work, and self-respect. Americans have explicitly handed off character education to schoolteachers. Such a practice says a great deal about our nation’s expectations of its parents.

The problem with the American student of 2012 isn’t as cartoonishly simple as evil unions protecting bad teachers. Nor is it as abstract and intractable as poverty. The problem is as complex, concrete, and confront-able as the squalor and neglect and abuse and addiction that envelope too many American children from the time they step outside the schoolhouse door at 3:30pm until the moment they return for their free breakfast the next morning. Meanwhile, the campaign to understate the impact of devastating home and neighborhood factors on the education of our children has done little more than curtail any urgency to address those factors. “No excuses” hampers the development of a holistic wraparound approach that would foster education by addressing real needs rather than ideological wants, because it holds that such needs are mere pretexts and not actual challenges worthy of confronting.

Like many educators, I’ve smelled on my students the secondhand drugs that fill too many of their homes with bitterness and want. There is sometimes a literal pungency to low academic performance that remedial classes won’t scrub from our kids. But it isn’t kosher to declare that any parent is failing. And it isn’t okay to note that some families are disasters. So out of courtesy, the liberal says the problem is poverty and the conservative says it’s unions.

Truth is, the problem with the American student is the American adult. Deadbeat dads, pushover moms, vulgar celebrities, self-interested politicians, depraved ministers, tax-sheltering CEOs, steroid-injecting athletes, benefit-collecting retirees who vote down school taxes, and yes, incompetent teachers—all take their turns conspiring to neglect the needs of the young in favor of the wants of the old. The line of malefactors stretches out before our children; they take turns dealing them drugs, unhealthy foods, skewed values messages, consumerist pap, emotional and physical and sexual traumas, racist messages of aspersion for their cultures, and countless other strains of vicious disregard. Nevertheless, many pundits and politicians are happy to train their rhetorical fire uniquely on the teachers, and the damnable hive-feast on the souls of our young continues unabated. We’re told not to worry because good teachers will simply overcome this American psychic cannibalism and drag our hurting children across the finish line ahead of the Finnish lions.

Yeah, right.

Today, teachers across the land dutifully cast their seeds on ever-rockier ground. We were all told that a mind is a terrible thing to waste, and we all became adamant about education; but no one told us not to waste kids’ hearts or weaken their spines or soften their guts, and we long ago abandoned our traditional cultural expectations for children’s formation. I’m not calling for picket fences and Leave it to Beaver; I’m calling for childhoods that aren’t dripping with pain and disenchantment and a huge chasm where there should have been character-building experiences from the age of zero to five. That aren’t marked by an empty space where there should have been a disciplinarian. And a gap where there should have been a rocking chair and a soft lap waiting when the child was hurting. I am referring to missing ingredients that I now recognize as the absolute essentials, things I took for granted when I was too young to realize I had won the parent lottery.

Adults—not merely teachers—have caused these little ones to stumble, but journalists and nonprofits and interloping government experts offer not a hand to the young but rather a cat-of-nine-tails across the backs of their teachers. Injustice for teachers is confused with justice for kids.


TX: Crooked educators in El Paso

The El Paso Independent School District could risk additional sanctions if it does not discipline employees who cheated students out of a proper education, the state's top education official said Tuesday.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams, in his first interview about the cheating scandal at the district since being appointed to lead the agency last month, said he is outraged by the actions taken by former Superintendent Lorenzo García and his accomplices to rig the testing system that determines if schools are up to par. He said that interim Superintendent Vern Butler and the school board must make "hard decisions that relate to the people who were involved in this controversy" or the state agency will take action.

"The superintendent and the school board are going to be given some period of time to make the right decisions with regard to the people who were or could have been involved in this controversy," Williams said.

"At the end of that period of time -- I'm not going to tell you when it is -- but at the end of that period of time, I will make a decision if they have not."

Williams did not specify which decisions the district needed to make, but EPISD Trustee David Dodge said that the state agency last month provided the district with a list of names of employees who should be fired as a result of the cheating scandal. Dodge declined to name the employee at the state agency who provided the list of names or to say which employees were on that list.

"They wanted these people fired within one or two weeks," Dodge said. He added that the district has been disputing the measures because officials did not believe they had enough evidence to take such action.

Williams will speak about the cheating scandal in El Paso and about other education issues at a town-hall meeting today that is being hosted by state Rep. Dee Margo, R-El Paso. The event will be at 10 a.m. today at El Paso Community College's Administrative Services Center, 9050 Viscount.

García, the district's former superintendent, was sentenced last week to three and half years in federal prison after he pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, including scheming with six unnamed people to rig the federal accountability system. The scheme targeted students at low-performing campuses to boost graduation rates and sophomore scores on the test by kicking some out of school, preventing others from enrolling and holding foreign students in the ninth grade for a year no matter how many credits they had earned.

Investigating wrongdoing

District officials have repeatedly said they do not plan to conduct their own investigation into the cheating and do not expect to take action against any employees who might have participated in the scheme until the FBI and the U.S. Department of Education release the findings of their investigations.

Dodge blamed the FBI for the district's past decisions not to pursue its own investigation. He said the EPISD had been kept from conducting an investigation by the FBI but he said the federal agency gave the district the go-ahead about two to three weeks ago after the Texas Education Agency called on the district to fire several employees.

"We went back to the FBI and we said we're between a rock and a hard place now, what do you want us to do, and they said, 'Well, we think that our case is solid enough. We've got enough evidence. We don't think you're going to screw this up by bumbling around, so you can do the things that you want to do.' "

Dodge said the district is now beginning its own investigation, which will require interviews, record-gathering and building a case against some employees who "may or may not be of interest to the FBI but are of great interest to us in ensuring that we have educators that are following the ethics of their profession."

"We're getting started, but you've got to realize that we're a school district," Dodge said. "We're investigating, we're interviewing, but this isn't our only job like the FBI."

FBI officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

Debbie Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for TEA, said she is not aware of any directive from the state agency to the school district to fire specific employees. She said the agency has asked the district to investigate those employees who have publicly confessed to wrongdoing and decide what to do about them, but "as far as I have been able to determine, we haven't said here is a list of people to fire."

Butler, the district's third interim superintendent since García's arrest in August 2011, said he had not received a directive from TEA to fire employees.

Butler on Tuesday also seemed to contradict Dodge's comments about the school district beginning its own investigation into wrongdoing. He said he had received no authorization to conduct an investigation to identify employees who participated in the cheating, and he said he was still waiting on federal authorities to release findings before taking action. "I certainly don't want to go in and step into something when I don't have basically the authority at that level," Butler said.


How to encourage students' misbehaviour:  British Teacher who grabbed a pupil, 16, after he threw a banana milkshake over him was correctly fired, tribunal rules

A teacher who manhandled a student after the teenager hurled a banana milkshake at him along with a torrent of abuse has lost his claim for unfair dismissal.

Robert Cox, 59, was sacked by governors at Bemrose School in Derby after he was caught on CCTV aggressively pinning the 16-year-old's arms to his sides in March 2011.

Mr Cox claimed he'd been unfairly dismissed, but a Nottingham employment tribunal upheld the school's decision, claiming the teacher's reaction to the milkshake-throwing was over-the-top.

'The witness statements from Mr Cox's colleagues indicated that his behaviour had been inappropriate and excessive,' the tribunal chairman said.  He added that it was 'reasonable' for governors to believe he had 'escalated the situation'.

Headteacher Jo Ward said the school was thrilled the tribunal agreed Mr Cox's actions amounted to gross misconduct.  'We had no option but to dismiss him,' she said.

'Two different ruling panels of governors at Bemrose School, whose members included parents and trade union members, were unanimous in their belief that Mr Cox's actions went far beyond restraining the pupil.

'Mr Cox was observed on CCTV pushing the pupil down into the chair repeatedly with excessive force - enough force to move a large dining room table and chairs several feet.'

But the IT teacher, who claimed he tried to commit suicide after losing his job, said he wanted the decision reviewed and was considering a further appeal.  He said: 'It was impossible to walk away from a situation where someone was threatening to throw a chair and it would have been negligent to ignore it.

'There were plenty of witnesses to what happened and for some reason they weren’t called but I want to speak to them. 'I think this judgment sends out a message to pupils that they can do what they want to get a teacher sacked and this leaves staff in a very vulnerable position.

'The school has completely ignored the Government's guidelines, which start with the premise that a teacher should be supported in these circumstances.'

During the unfair dismissal case, the teacher told the tribunal that he had feared the boy was going to throw a chair at him.  After he let the teenager go, the pupil did pick up a chair and threw it, although not at Mr Cox.

Neither the boy or his parents complained to the school, but the governors decided the man had to go.

At a tribunal hearing in Nottingham last month, Mr Cox said he had now been left 'unemployable' and has twice attempted suicide. He also said he feared youngsters' behaviour was getting 'out of control'.

Married Mr Cox's 13-year teaching career has been ended by the episode.  He said during the hearing: 'It has had a huge impact on me. I can't get another job now and our financial situation is dire, to say the least.

'In all other public buildings you see posters saying abusive language and behaviour will not be tolerated. That is not the case at Bemrose. Senior management at Bemrose don't support staff in general at all.'

Today, Mrs Ward said every teacher employed at her school was trained in techniques aimed at defusing situations of conflict.  She said: 'Mr Cox had every right to feel aggrieved by having milkshake thrown at him but, instead of putting this training into action, defusing the situation and reporting the incident, CCTV footage shows he adopted a confrontational approach prior to the incident and allowed his anger to govern his actions.

'We are determined to uphold the highest standards of behaviour and in no way condone the pupil's behaviour towards teaching staff.  'The pupil involved was excluded for four days and a clear message was sent to other children at the school that this kind of behaviour will not be tolerated.'

The commotion occurred last March in the school canteen when some boys were 'acting up' in front of another teacher.  Mr Cox told one of them, a year 11 pupil, to sit down, at which point the teenager launched into a tirade of verbal abuse and then threw his banana milkshake over him.


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