Disposable heroes


John Owens’ CONFESSIONS OF A BAD TEACHER: THE SHOCKING TRUTH FROM THE FRONT LINES OF AMERICAN PUBLIC EDUCATION gave me flashbacks.  And not the good kind, either: the kind that lead to, the night you finish the book, having stress dreams about a school you left behind seven long years ago.   It is, in a lot of ways, a book that every American should make sure to read, because it is that very rare teacher book that isn’t about how the author Changed Hearts and Minds and Here is How to Do Shit Like Me.  The book is accurately named: the author isn’t a very good teacher, and isn’t really trying to pretend to be one.  There’s no Rafe Esquith-style smoke-blowing and ego-stroking here; in fact, the book is not only refreshingly free of ego trips, Owen is careful to point out that a lot of the Hero Teachers that get movies made and books written about them aren’t in the classroom anymore, and generally weren’t there very long to begin with.  It’s good to hear; I’m as tired of the Teacher as Martyr stereotype as I am the Teacher as Union Thug, and Teacher as Martyr is arguably the more dangerous of the two.

(There are stories about how much I hate these movies; I can rant about how much I hated that fucking Hilary Swank teacher movie for hours.  And then launch into a week about what an asshole I think Rafe Esquith is.)

John Owens wasn’t a very good teacher.  But John Owens was a first-year teacher.  With all respect to any first-year teachers who might be reading this, all first-year teachers are bad teachers– if nothing else, they’re bad in comparison to what they become after a few years on the job.  John Owens, unfortunately, got tossed into a school with a piss-poor, autocratic, paperwork-pushing principal who didn’t actually have any real interest in making him any better.  The book is honestly less about Bad Teacher and more about Shitty Boss.

You can find my-boss-is-crazy narratives elsewhere, I know.  What is harder to find is a more accurate picture of the bullshit that is drowning teaching as a profession more and more every year, and the sheer amount of obstacles thrown up in between teachers– of any quality– and actual teaching.  Also is the sheer negative impact that a bad principal can have on a building– as Owens points out, the principal is the single most important factor in the success or failure of a school; it is virtually impossible to have a good school without having a good principal, and a bad school with a good principal won’t remain one for very long.  Much of this is familiar from my time in Chicago; the main differences are the acronyms– luckily for me, my current district, for all its flaws, has yet to embrace the reliance on statistical tricks and impossible, contradictory mandates that are common in the nation’s two biggest school districts– and I am absolutely certain that Chicago has gotten much, much worse in this regard since I left.

True story:  upon being given a form at a faculty meeting detailing how many graded assignments we were expected to give in each class every day, I ran the math and pointed out to my principal that I was expected to give nearly eight hundred graded assignments a week– which, if I took only a minute to read, grade and record each one, would take over thirteen hours a week to grade.  Her response was to shrug and go on with what she was talking about.  I ignored the requirement, and– luckily for me– no one ever paid attention.  For Owens, however, each and every violation of these ridiculous rules, including absurd insistence on complicated bulletin boards that I remember well from Chicago– leads to a threat of a “U”, or Unsatisfactory, on his official evaluations.  Too many U grades and he becomes effectively unhireable ever again– and the system is set up to make receiving positive teaching evaluations virtually impossible.

(As a side note, any evaluation system that includes two levels that mean “fail” and only “satisfactory” as a positive descriptor– there is no equivalent of “exceeds expectations” or something similar, only “satisfactory”– is clearly setting the staff up to fail and people of conscience should refuse to work under such a system.)

You need to read this book to see what we are up against, people.  Because, yes, this guy was a bad teacher– but he didn’t have to be.

There’s something on a Sunday that makes a body feel alone


I’m actually having a lazy Sunday like a real person right now; I’ve spent most of the day with a book in my hand (short review of Doctor Sleep: you should read it; I didn’t think a sequel to The Shining was necessary but this is a worthy effort) and right now I am, crazily, considering a nap.  Usually on Sundays I’m freaking out about all the grading I don’t have done and thinking about how many thousand things I really ought to get done before work starts again on Monday, and while I just remembered I really ought to sign into my email and tell my boss something I’m wonderfully free of Work Shit that needs to be done right now.

(Stares at the screen for ten minutes)

(emails boss)

Yeah, I’m gonna go read another book.  Might be back later if the mood strikes me.

On being smart


One of the things that’s really hitting me with my Algebra kids this year is just how unused they are to having to work in class.  These kids are smart, right?  And they’re used to being the smart kids, and with only a couple of exceptions they’re used to thinking of themselves as smart kids; it’s part of their self-identity; something they’re proud of.

Smart kids are supposed to get stuff.  School’s not supposed to be hard for smart kids.

Literally the first thing I said to these kids when they walked into my room on the first day of school was “Welcome to high school.”  I’m walking a fine line here; I’m trying to push them as far and as fast as I can without breaking any of them, and it’s an interesting and delicate dance to be involved in.  I’m thinking about this because I graded a mid-chapter quiz today, and I’m trying to figure out what to do with the kids who didn’t do well– some of them are clearly smart kids (remember, I’ve had everyone in this group before except for about three of them) who are so unused to having to ask questions in class that I think they’re actually ashamed to have to do so.  I gotta work on that.  By and large, considering the volume of stuff I threw at them in the last three weeks, they did well.  It’s just the handful that didn’t that I need to figure out how to handle.

Getting a new student on Monday.  I can pronounce neither of her names, and I only know she’s a she because I looked her up. My wild-ass guess is that she’s Kenyan.  This should be interesting.  (Kenyans speak, what, English and Swahili?  With maybe French as a distant third?  Hopefully there’s not a language issue.)

So, yeah.  Smart kids.  Then there’s whatever is going on in that picture there, which I took in my classroom on Friday after a student volunteered to do that problem on the board.  Now, this is my special ed group– don’t get me wrong, I’m not in any way trying to make fun of this kid, just to give you an idea of the range of abilities I see throughout the day, because after this kid leaves my room I get the Algebra kids, a group that contains a kid who got a perfect score on his math ISTEP last year.  I was trying to demonstrate the various algebraic principles; the problem on the other side of the one on the board is 4x(6×5) and the idea is that they’re supposed to notice that both equal 120 regardless of where the parentheses are.  Note that this does not represent multiple attempts to solve the problem.  He did the green part first, where rather than multiplying four by six (or adding it six times, which would have been fine) he raised four to the fourth power.  Then he switched to a blue marker, getting into an argument over whether it was “his” marker in the process, added six to itself four times and got 24.  What caused him to privilege the 24 over the 32, I’m not sure, although this kid is prone to giving me multiple choice answers on assignments– he’ll literally write “3 or 30 or 4 or 17” next to a problem.  The blue squiggle next to the 2 under the actual problem is supposed to be a 4; there are also huge handwriting issues.

Then he switched to a red marker and tried to multiply 24 by 5.  Note that he’s first tried to add it, but only four times, and that the presence of a tens digit has utterly confounded him– he’s added the two pairs of fours to get two eights, then added those and gotten six instead of sixteen.  This isn’t forgetting to add a digit; I was standing behind him watching this performance and he actually said “four plus four is six” while he was writing.  He then turned around and told me that the answer was six, at which point I took this picture, erased the whole mess, and walked through everything with him.

I do this often, by the way– letting a kid dig himself into a hole can frequently be useful because it gives me insight into how they handle mathematics.  Unfortunately, for the second time this year, I’m looking at this and getting the “holy shit, I can’t fix this” vibe that I get from writing sometimes.  The kid can’t handle basic multiplication on his own, and even with other adults in the room I can’t get around to them often enough to help him with everything he needs help with.  Luckily, he has involved parents; I can’t imagine what he’d be like otherwise, as this is what he is like with help at home.

I’ll figure it out– I’ll figure him out, I always do– but Christ, do I have a headache right now.


Today was actually a pretty good day, all told. For some reason, my first and second hour class was in a behaving sort of mood today– or at least they entered a behaving sort of mood just as soon as the first kid to act up had his parents emailed on the spot– and the rest of my classes more or less followed suit. My main plan right now has to be to come up with a way to get through Monday without losing my soul to despair, which has been the pattern set by the last several Mondays.


Holy crap, is it the last warm Friday night of the year or something like that?  For the last several Fridays I’ve been able to write and/or read and/or grade more or less in peace at OtherJob because we haven’t had enough customers to keep me away from the laptop.  We got killed tonight starting two hours ago and just calmed down about twenty minutes ago.  And it was a crazy group of people, too– one group of Juggalos, one group of about fifteen Mennonites, and the local center for severely and profoundly disabled people had a crew out.  All at the same time, plus the usual assortment of families and couples on dates.

I cannot deal with Juggalos and Mennonites and Logan Center folks at the same time.  My brain can’t cope.  The Mennonites are all on Rumspringa and trying to buy weed from the Juggalos and the Logan Center kids keep asking who smells like pinecones.  Brain: broken.  At one point I was so frazzled I called a grown man “sweetheart;” I’d just been arguing with his daughter about which of us had had a longer day.  She was about seventh or eighth grade which tends to trigger my teacher vocabulary.   Luckily for me, he took it in stride– he turned to his daughter, said “He wins,” and then told me he was flattered but I wasn’t his type.

I may need to go home and get to bed soon.

Let me know what you think of the new site design, by the way.

Parenting fail of the day


True fact:  George H. W. Bush is my favorite Republican president of my lifetime.  Which, I admit, isn’t saying a whole lot, but unlike Ford, Reagan, and Bush II I at least feel like the evil old nut-cutting CIA sumbitch had a little bit of a soul.    (Well, OK, I’ve got nothing against Ford.  But he was only president for a couple of months of my life anyway so I can safely disregard him.)  “George H. W. Bush is witness at gay wedding” means precisely nothing meaningful to anybody who wasn’t at the wedding.  It doesn’t really signal any change in the zeitgeist that wasn’t already happening no matter how much I want it to– Republicans have always been for rights for their people, and some of them– like, say, Satan— are pro gay marriage because there are acknowledged gay people in their family.  This has been true for a while.

I really only posted the picture because I want someone to explain the socks.  There is no way the former President of the United States leaves the house in mismatched socks unless he wants to, and I want to know why. Someone tell me.

Long intro to a very short anecdote, but I think it’s funny anyway:  I had to put the boy in his high chair earlier, and decided before I did so that I would lift him way above my head.  He loves this, like all little kids do.  I’m never doing it again, because this time he chose to take advantage of his added height by kicking me in the chest with both feet.  For which he was nearly dropped on his head.  Which would somehow have been my fault.  I think I have bruises.

Pointless griping time– As anyone who knows me IRL is already aware, I started a stupid little project on January 1 where I decided to keep track of all the books I read for a year.  I’m using Facebook to track everything– in fact, book posts are the only thing that I let stick around on Facebook for more than a couple of days.  I’m also keeping track in a spreadsheet, which you would think would make Facebook irrelevant but it’s not.

You knew I was a data nerd, right?  So of course I have numbers.  I have, as of right now, September 26th, reading my 145th book of the year.  That’s not a typo.  145 books, at an average of 336 pages each.  Sometime in the next few weeks I’ll cross 50,000 pages on the year; I read approximately 175 pages a day.  This does not count comic books (at least four or five a week, sometimes more) or anything online, although it’s included a handful of ebooks.  That’s every day.

I’m not bragging.  I suspect this may qualify as mental illness.

At some point, it became clear that it was within the realm of possibility for me to read 200 books in 2013.  I am, right now, five books off that pace– I’d need to have read 150 by the end of September; there are four days left to read those five books– which is actually possible if I’m careful about what books I choose, but probably won’t happen.

Here’s the problem:  As soon as I realized I could conceivably read 200 books in a year, the list became about reading 200 books in a year, and despite my respectable per-book average, I’m really starting to tilt my reading toward shorter books and rereads that I can get through quickly so that I can get “caught up” to this meaningless goal that only I know about and absolutely no one cares about so that at the end of the year I can brag to no one at all about how I read 200 books a year.  This even though I could easily justify telling people I read 175 books a year without fear of contradiction and without altering my reading habits.  The median number of books read by Americans?  Six.  The average is twelve, but that’s inflated by psychotics like myself.  Either way, right now I’ve squared the number of books the average American read last year and I still have three months left in 2013.  200 is not more impressive than 175; it’s just rounder.

I have a problem.  I have four or five hefty nonfiction books and Gone with the Wind (did you know that book is a thousand goddamn pages long?) on my shelf waiting for me and I’m not reading them because I know I can’t finish them in a day or two.  That’s fucked up, and the fact that I want to do something about it but apparently can’t is weird even for me.