on blaming: 5 real problems we could be addressing instead

It’s just easier. Isn’t it?  The politicians blame us, the government blames us, the students blame us. But really, our classes continue to grow larger, our pay remains stagnant, and our support remains limited. Blaming and disrespecting teachers is not a solution. In fact, blaming doesn’t solve the problem at all.  Instead, let’s start solving the problem. I can identify 5 issues in the classroom that concern me as a parent and an educator. By addressing these 5 issues, I believe we could potentially see enormous gains in student learning and public education.

1) Students don’t value education. Yes, this is a broad statement.  High school students value the aspects of education they are passionate about, but the other subjects are just a waste of time.  Daniel Willingham explains it clearly in his article, Why don’t Students Like School.  Basically, we are not designed to want to think, because it is uncomfortable for our brains.  We only engage in thinking when we feel successful.  Teenagers are not mature enough socially or emotionally to understand this, and I have a feeling that the enormous amount of assessing happening across the US might be leaving them feeling unsuccessful at thinking. I also feel like we ask students to use specific reasoning skills long before the brain is ready, which is actually damaging student progress over time. Wendy Bradshaw articulates this problem in her open resignation letter.  As a society, we must ask ourselves why we are pushing students to think like adults before they are ready.

2) Administrators are afraid to discipline students. Teachers feel powerless to handle the situation without the help of their administrators and administrators are powerless due to policies.  Again this leaves eager students wanting to learn, while their teachers ineffectively deal with classroom management. And these kids aren’t dumb.  They know we are powerless to change their behavior. New York Post reporter Paul Sperry found that many classrooms may be seeing fewer suspensions due to non-punitive policies, but are actually finding more classroom disruptions and violence nationally.  Honestly, if we don’t start adulting up and teaching kids the reality of consequences, we are going to have greater problems societally overall.

3) Students cannot set aside their smartphones. First off, let me remind you I have a M. Ed. in education technology.  I love using smartphones to engage student thinking.  The problem lies in that students don’t understand when it is appropriate to use their phone and when it is time to set them aside. This creates multitasking inefficiency. An article by The Atlantic reports that “using phones for learning requires students to synthesize information and stay focused on a lesson or a discussion. For students with low literacy skills and the frequent urge to multitask on social media or entertainment, incorporating purposeful smartphone use into classroom activity can be especially challenging. The potential advantage of the tool often goes to waste.”  I know from experience. I use up 10-15% of each class period dealing with cell phone issues.

4) Class sizes are too big. In Arizona 25% of teacher positions are going unfilled, and this is causing classroom overflow.  http://theshow.kjzz.org/content/370242/survey-many-open-arizona-teaching-positions-went-unfilled-yearAccording to the STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio) study,  “large reduction[s] in class size (7 students, or 32 percent) was found to increase student achievement by an amount equivalent to about 3 additional months of schooling four years later.”  4 of the 5 High School  English classes I teach are well over 30 students. This is making it physically impossible to give efficient feedback or necessary one-on-one instruction.

5) Teacher pay is stagnant and low. Teachers have very little quiet in their day. They attend to the social and emotional needs of hundreds of children, prepare engaging lessons and have endless grading.  It is an emotionally exhausting job, and every year I have to ask myself if there isn’t something else I could do for the same pay.  Of course there is.  The crisis of teacher vacancies only continues to rise and it has everything to do with salary.  We are struggling to pay our bills on the salary provided and are forced to buy our own classroom supplies due to lack of funding. During the  economic decline, the cost of living increased, yet salaries were frozen and continue to remain stagnant in many areas of the country.  I know many believe this is a fair wage due to the  “vacation time” myth. But bills don’t take vacations, and neither do most teachers.  US News reports that 67% of New Jersey teachers work over the summer and the average teacher salary for an educator with ten years experience is just under $40,000. The same as a truck driver and less than a carpenter (both careers that require little to no formal education). My degree costs the same or more than other degrees. I challenge anyone to find  an employer who will pay me over 20$/hr for 2 months of work. Shoot, I’d be happy with 15$/hr. After 13 years as a licensed educator with a masters degree, I make a little over $40,000 and have had little success finding a summer position that paid more than 12$/hr.  I assure you my student loan company does not care about such trivial matters.

My hope, for the sake of my profession and all that I’ve invested, is that we can find solutions. I don’t want pity.  I want change.  We have to change our national rhetoric involving teachers and schools.  We all have a part to play in raising our children, and we are losing master teachers at an alarming rate. Let’s address the issues that are eating away at our schools instead of pointing fingers and finding blame.

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