I swear this story is true

Or: how not to speak around middle school students.

I was walking down to the office to drop off some paperwork when I saw one of the new teachers in the building having a conversation with one of her students in the hallway. Because this is relevant to the story, I will reveal that she is a relatively new teacher– second or third-year, I think– and is of an appropriate age for that, so early/mid twenties or so. Seeing her reminded me that I’ve been meaning to email her about a mutual student we have for a couple of days and I keep forgetting to do it, so I thought I’d take a moment and just talk to her in person.

By the time I got to her room, she and the student were back inside, so I just stood in the doorway until she noticed me and asked a question, using these precise words, which would prove to be her undoing: “Could I borrow you for a sec?”

You might possibly already see where this is going. To her credit, she realized mid-sentence that she was in the midst of making a terrible mistake and just … powered through it like a damn champion, not breaking stride or stammering and joining me in the hallway, where we exchanged a glance that said we will never speak of this again, other than when I run to the rest of the math team and tell them, then tell the entire internet tonight, and somehow only a small number of her seventh-grade (thank God she didn’t have any of my 8th graders in the room) class seems to have noticed.

Because the exact words that she inadvertently chose to respond to my question, in perhaps the single most awkward exchange I have ever had with a young woman in my life, were “For you, Mr. Siler, I have all the secs you need.”

Say it out loud, if you need to.

I have a silly job.

I am listening to REM and all is well

Well, okay, that’s probably overstating things, but today went pretty well after a not-great run of a few days. Helpful facts: my midday knuckleheads were tamed through a combination of fortuitous absences and a couple of notable suspensions, and on top of that I had an unscheduled observation by my principal during 3rd hour. After eighteen years of teaching I have lost all fear of these events; I’m going to keep doing what I was doing before you came into the room, and sometimes that’ll mean I teach a really good lesson and sometimes it’ll mean I’m not doing a whole damn lot if, say, the plan was to have the kids on one of the various computer programs we’ve got them working on. If it’s one of those days I might seriously just be sitting in my chair monitoring their computer screens and not actively “teaching.” I’m not changing the lesson; you didn’t tell me you weren’t coming in. Some teachers panic and feel like they Have to Be Doing Something when the boss comes in. Me? Fuck it, I’ve been highly effective two years in a row and I don’t see a lot changing this year. I’m going to enjoy the slight bump in cooperation and good behavior I get from having an administrator in the room and keep on keeping on.

My student observer starts tomorrow, and frankly that has me more worried than formal observations– mostly because I genuinely want this to be a useful experience for the kid (he’s a grown-ass man, but … whatever) and I’m a little nervous about that. It’s not going to change how I do things with the kids or anything like that, and I’ve told him to have no fear about challenging me on anything he has questions or concerns about, so I hope it goes well, but as everyone who follows this site knows very well, one determined kid can blow up a lesson any time they feel like it, and I don’t feel like having my dude exposed to that just yet. The notable suspensions will be continuing through the rest of the week, which is awesome, so at least his first day ought to go reasonably smoothly, but who the hell knows. Watch, there’ll be a fucking fire or a power outage or some such shit tomorrow.

(There can go ahead and be a power outage tomorrow. I’ve decided everything is on paper for the next couple of days anyway. So long as I have access to the photocopier. The outage can happen after I have my photocopies done. Or, fuck it, I can just write the damn problems on the board. It’ll be fine. Dude can learn teacherly improvisation on his first day. It’ll be fine.)

Anyway. It’s 7:00 already, so if I’m going to be ready for tomorrow I probably ought to get my lesson written.

In which I pass on my skills

Man, the images you find when you Google “student teaching” are kind of hilarious.

I am doing something this semester that, somehow, I have never done before in eighteen hours of teaching: I am hosting a preservice teacher for thirty hours of classroom observations in my room, and he’s going to teach a few lessons as part of that, which I will then be on the hook for evaluating him for. He came by the building today during my prep period, and we did the first part of the stuff he’s required to do in the form of a formal interview, along with lots of me waxing poetic about the joys of teaching in an urban school system.

It is going to be very interesting to me to see how well I tread the line between being honest with this kid about what this job is like and preserving his continued desire to actually become a teacher. Y’all know me well enough to know that I’m not sure I think people should be teachers any longer. About half the time I feel like we should let the entire institution collapse and then see how society manages without us. But that’s neither here nor there, and if I’m going to be relentlessly positive with my students this year I’m sure as hell going to be relentlessly positive with him too. It’s not my job to talk him out of anything; it’s my job to model how to do it well.

I’ve also never had a student teacher, but I think that particular pleasure is one that I’m going to continue to deny myself. So long as my test scores are tied so closely to my evaluations, the idea of handing my classes over to a student teacher is going to be something I’m going to be very reluctant to do.

But yeah: between now and Thanksgiving, I’m going to have someone who, for three hours a week at least, is actually obligated to listen to me yammer on endlessly about teaching to him. Isn’t that going to be fun?

On giving up

My kids took the NWEA this week, which ate up my Tuesday and Wednesday, and will knock another couple of kids out of class on Monday while they finish up. I would, in general, prefer not to have to worry about standardized tests, but as such things go the NWEA isn’t bad. It hits most of my checkboxes for what I want for these things: first, it’s a growth test, meaning that it’s keyed to individual students and it’s possible for a very low student to demonstrate a lot of growth and have that treated as a positive thing even though they don’t do objectively as good as a more advanced student who stayed the same. Second, there’s no notion of passing the test. Their score is keyed to grade levels, yes, but there’s no cutscore where a student is arbitrarily determined to have “passed” or “failed” regardless of their grade. And while we administer it three times a year, any given administration doesn’t take very long– I was able to get most of my kids tested in a single block, and two blocks got basically everyone who was present to take the test in the first place done. That’s not that bad. Realistically, we’ll lose more days this year to me being sick or absent for training than we will to the NWEA.

The median percentile score (also: percentile scores are more useful than arbitrary scores, although the NWEA generates both) of my three groups, nationwide, was 19, 16, and 13. Meaning, in case you haven’t studied measures of central tendency recently, that if 100 randomly-chosen kids took the test, 81 of those kids would outscore half of the students in my first block, 84 would outscore half of my kids in 2nd block, and 87 would outscore half of my kids in 3rd block.

Eight of my students are in the 1st or 2nd percentile, meaning that 99 or 98 of those randomly-chosen kids would outscore them.

Let us, for the moment, simply postulate that there are a number of possible reasons for these scores including but not limited to that a large percentage of them effectively took 1/4 of 6th grade and all of 7th grade off and then lay that aside. I’m not especially concerned with why for the purpose of this post.

We are supposed to discuss these results with our kids, which for the record is something I support. If we don’t talk about how they did, the test becomes meaningless to them, and there is absolutely nothing that is more of a waste of time than a standardized test that a student isn’t taking seriously. So it’s useful to let them know how they did, what it means for them, and what they might want to do to improve.

Where I am struggling right now, though, is this, and forgive me for another post whose point gets boiled down to a single sentence after five paragraphs of lead-in:

I do not know how to tell a fourteen-year-old kid “99 out of every 100 people who took this did better than you” in a way that does not sound functionally identical to “You should give up.”

I can couch it as as much of a pep talk as I want, and I already know that at least one of those eight kids is going to work her ass off for me this year because that’s who she is, and if I have her at a third- or fourth-grade understanding of math by the end of the year it will be a triumph. And unlike many years, I think all of these eight kids are at least potentially reachable still. There have definitely been years where I had a kid at 1% who I was privately convinced was going to stay at 1% out of sheer spite for the rest of the year, and these aren’t those kids.

Similarly, it is difficult to communicate those median percentile scores to a classroom of kids without a number of them concluding that they’re just dumb and should give up. When the highest-scoring kids in the room aren’t past the 60th percentile (which is the case) they all need extra help, and I can’t provide “extra” help to 27 kids at once. One of my classes can barely get through a basic lesson right now because of the number of behavior issues I have. And that’s before I have to give them information that demoralizes the hell out of them for what are, unfortunately, entirely reasonable reasons. In most circumstances, if 99 out of 100 people are better than you at something, you are probably going to stop doing that thing! So what the hell am I going to do in a situation where not only are 99 out of 100 people doing better than my kids in math, but many of them don’t even want to be good at it? Remediating this would be a Herculean effort from someone fully invested in improving. And right now I just don’t know how the hell to ask for that kind of effort (and expect to actually get it) from people who, to be charitable about it, don’t have academic success as a high personal priority right now.


Pictured: Not my school

I have never been under the illusion that it would be difficult to find me if someone combined the desire to do so with a decent amount of time, this website, and some small ability to search for clues. I have never named any school I’ve worked at and rarely specifically name my district, but I’ve never hidden the fact that I teach middle school and frankly there are only a limited number of middle schools to search through. Finding my name would be a touch trickier, but my teaching license– which is under my real name– is public information, and many schools post staff lists. I have always figured that, given that making myself impossible to dox is probably impossible, I would make it require a bit of legwork and not worry about it too much beyond that. I’ve never said anything here that I wouldn’t stand behind were my name attached to it, frankly.

That said, occasionally shit gets specific enough around here that my inability to talk about it without giving too much away gets on my nerves. My district is going through a spate of consolidations and closings right now, and … well, lemme see if I can find this comment real quick.

I do not understand why my local newspaper’s website even allows comments, frankly, because every article and I mean every single fucking article will generally have one or two spam comments about working from home and one or two blatantly racist comments from the same three or four local Nazis and nothing else. Like, there are clearly people who spend a substantial portion of their day reading articles on this site and then leaving racist comments. It’s like a job. So I was surprised to see this comment, which goes on in a similar vein from here, and is from someone who is at least trying to be fair.

The thing, though, is that bit about the students being a “normal mix of average, below average, and above average.” I’m going to leave out the word potential, because I do genuinely believe that all of my kids have potential even if they either choose to or are unable to rise to it. And this is always a tricky conversation to have, because I don’t want to look like I’m shitting on my own students. But my district’s schools, particularly at the middle school level, are not normally distributed; not remotely, and it’s not just because of the neighborhoods the schools are in either.

Because, see, we have a middle school honors academy, and if that’s not bad enough, the honors academy is the biggest middle school. I have talked about this before, but not for a while; honors schools are great if you are looking at the individual student level for benefits. But they are toxic to the overall community of the district they’re in, because they hoover up the top (making up this number) 20% or whatever of students from each of the other schools at their level, and then those schools are expected to perform at the same level as they were when they had those students.

You see the problem here? Let’s imagine that Honors Academy houses 50 students that otherwise would be students at my school. Chances are that of those 50, 45 are going to be passing their standardized tests. Those 45 would still be passing their standardized tests at my school. I promise you, the teachers at the honors school are not any better than the teachers at any other building; first of all because I know a lot of them and second because I know how the hiring process works, and it’s not like you need any sort of special training or a number of years of experience. The staffs are functionally the same. Those kids, provided with competent educators and no massive family crises, are going to pass their tests. And good for them! They can take classes with other like-minded students, probably have fewer disruptions and quite possibly less violence at their school than at ours, and they’ll do just fine.

(Certain kinds of disciplinary issues are less prevalent at the honors school, which is to be expected to some extent. Fascinating thing, though, is they have a much bigger problem with drugs than any other middle school, so read into that however you like.)

The point is, one way or another, those 45 kids would still be passing at my school. But they’re not. They’re passing at some other school, and instead I’m expected to produce average or better results– because no school can ever be below average, even though that’s mathematically impossible, all of our children must be above average– with the bottom 80% of the students.

In other words, if we were to get the same results they got, or even close to them, it’s because we’re doing a better job.

Sadly, we are not. And does the state care? No, not one whit. We are expected to pass X% of our students, period, and if we don’t, it’s our fault, even though they have literally stacked the deck against us by siphoning off a substantial number of our kids to this other school.

What do you think that does to the culture of the building, by the way? And forgive me for pointing out something that’s probably obvious, but the fewer examples of success the kids have around them to see, the less reason they have to be successful, and the kids who do care about their grades find themselves in a small and shrinking minority.

So, no, sir, the students are not a normal mix. The students who are most likely to pass standardized tests are all concentrated in the same place. And that is absolutely 100% on purpose.

You want to improve the rest of the schools? Close the honors academy.