Sunday, January 22, 2006

Cafeteria in the Sky

This entry has been moved to the online journal, The Daily Poet, at
      http://journals.aol.com/sjanah/dailypoet
where it has become one of the two January 25 entries.  (No -- see below, please.)

Addendum (2013 September):  After AOL's web-hosting service was discontinued, around 2008-2009, I moved the website that I had built for my father (a photographer of the Indian subcontinent) to

http://suniljanah.org  -- where it still may be found.

AOL did provide for a migration of blogs on its servers to blogger.com.  So I moved the The Daily Poet blog (no longer at journals.aol.com) to

http://thedailypoet.blogspot.com -- where it still continues.

The poem, Cafeteria in the Sky, may be found at:

http://thedailypoet.blogspot.com/2006/01/cafeteria-in-sky.html

It was originally moved from the teaching blog, the Humble Subject Teacher, to the poetry blog, the Daily Poet, because I felt that its content was more appropriate for the latter.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Teachers' Lounge

Our lives are transient -- we are like leaves on a tree. But fresh new leaves emerge each spring. And we who teach leave part of our selves behind, with some of our students. Here are some reflections on this and other things.  
This was written on a foggy winter's day in Brooklyn, while  the writer was recovering from the strain of making a difficult life decision. He was sitting in a teachers' lounge, in an unusual state of calm reverie, while observing the teachers there -- some middle aged, some very young. They were talking with one another, and going about their grading and preparatory tasks, during their break from teaching.
The building was an old one -- yet sturdy, and still being renovated. And so it was that the ghosts of teachers past, and the shadows of teachers yet to come, seemed also to be present -- as did this teacher's own youth, in another city far away. He had been reminded of that distant time and place while walking through the misty streets earlier that morning. 
All of these things seemed to come together in that teacher's lounge, as though all time and place were one. It was as quiet and transcendant a moment as one can hope for in a busy teacher's life.

Teachers' Lounge 
In this, my fifth decade upon this earth,
I breathe this air, so often breathed before,
And yet as fresh, today, as it was when
Life first emerged from ocean's nourishment.

On this calm winter's day on Brooklyn's seaward edge,
As warming ocean mists caress stark city trees
And softly blur hard edge of street and sign and store --
I sit inside a city school, as warm as steam

Can make it -- dreaming, in the teachers' lounge,
Of streets and stores and signs 'cross seas far hence, \1
Bathed in the air and light of wintertime --

With smoke of wood-fed stoves, and morning mists
That cleared away as dawntime turned to day,
While tropic winter's sun warmed pavement folk,
And livelihoods, or deaths, were sought in city bustle...

Of her, indeed, I dreamed in subbing's solitude -- \1

That other, busy-languid town where we were born,
And grew up, taking in, through all our senses fresh,
Into young minds and hearts, all that was new
To us, and yet was old -- thus learning, day by day,

What those, who lived before, had learned, and changed, and left
For us to live, and learn, and change, and leave behind --
A  rippled, churning wake of feelings, thoughts and forms --
To flood, and nurture, growing hearts and minds.

And all we learned, though old, was yet as fresh, for us,
As 'twas to them, who went before, and will remain
As fresh to those who follow after us, as is this air
That I, right now, breathe in, retain, and soft exhale

In this warm teacher's lounge where teachers mill --
Where I perceive those teachers gone before, and those
Not born, all passing through, all flowing, like this breath,
On this calm winter's day, on Brooklyn's seaward edge.
 


Arjun Janah  < sjanah@aol.com >                    
2006 Jan 13 Fri
Brooklyn Studio Secondary School
Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York

Notes:

1. The writer is an immigrant, in his 31st year in this country, and in his 19th year of teaching in the New York City Public Schools. He is currently "subbing" while on family leave. 
  

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A Sample Bill of Rights for Teachers

Preamble

Teachers have the right to be able to do their job properly.  This enables them to succeed, be creative, take pride in their work, and enjoy job-satisfaction. They then feel and act like professionals. 

Only in this way can they become, and remain,  forceful, hopeful advocates for their profession, their colleagues and their wards. Only in this way can they expect to last the thirty years on the job, that it now takes to reach retirement, while remaining encouraged and hopeful about their profession.

At present, increasing numbers of teachers find that they are unable to do their job properly.  This results, often, in undue stress, cynicism, and burnout.  It results in many teachers abandoning their profession. For many of those who remain, this inability results in a lowering of professional and ethical standards, a basic insecurity, and an attitude of collective passivity.

This in turn often results in acquiescence to misguided or malevolent actions that harm both teachers and students. Teachers who try to do their job properly often run into abuse from miscreant students and adults, and frequently get little or no support from their own colleagues. All of these things contribute to further de-professionalization of our profession.

While some are still able to function and even do well, they often can only do so in little niches of their own or others' making. This is not enough. It should be possible for sincere teachers to function, and flourish, anywhere in the system, and anywhen. 

Individually, most teachers are diligent. Some are still able to succeed, in various ways. Consequently, some teachers still retain strong professional self-esteem.

There seems, however,  to be an overall lack of collective respect for our profession and our colleagues. A profession that lacks this -- that does not take collective pride in its work, that cannot nurture its own young and shelter its own besieged -- cannot remain whole for long. A profession that does not stand up, collectively, and fight back, when injustice is done, cannot be strong.

There is often no established professional core that sits as an equal partner with local administrators or legislators, makes alliances with the small number of these who are still sincere, and grounds others to the reality and vitality in the schools. We have not empowered ourselves -- practitioners, working classroom teachers -- to  make practical, progressive suggestions, and act as a brake on misguided, expensive and destructive fads, whims or crusades.

We have thus effectively forfeited our professional rights, as well as our responsibilities, when it comes to the making of educational policy and its implementation. We have left others to do this, and the consequences are everywhere evident.

To rectify this, we suggest that we start doing the following things.

First, turn towards making the classroom a place where teachers can find some job satisfaction, and be happy, in all circumstances. 

Or, what is the same -- turn towards an optimistic, compassionate, can-do attitude, grounded in reality, and powered by genuine collective pride.

What is the basis for this attitude and this pride? And what are some of the difficulties  that we can anticipate, and how can we overcome these? Let us explore this briefly. (We will not detail, here, the negative attitudes and work habits that children increasingly bring to the schools. That will be discussed, along with other problems, in a separate piece. We are focusing, for now, on our own attitudes, and that of the public.)

Learning a foreign language, gaining proficiency in writing, becoming adept at mathematics, and many other accomplishments that we take for routine, are, in truth, amazing feats. They involve the effective transfer, over a short period of time, of a tremendous amount of complexity and subtlety accumulated by our species over many millennia. That this is still proceeding, in what is, too often, an extremely difficult and hostile school environment, is a tribute to the persistent effort and ingenuity of many teachers and students. This remarkable fact should always be borne in mind.

Teaching is a field that is as diverse and rich as life itself. It is also, like homemaking, a job that is taken for granted, and can be as exhausting of physical and mental energy. Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to do one-on-one work, be it in  tutoring or counseling or in special education settings, know both the struggle andthe satisfaction of helping children in small ways -- be it by giving them the attention, encouragement, continued presence,  and real faith in their abilities that they need to gain confidence, or even, in the case of extremely autistic children, just by establishing eye-contact. These things are frequently undervalued. Children put their trust in us, but we are often prevented from fulfilling our own obligations stemming from the bond that this trust naturally creates.

It will take many years to undo the damage done by decades of neglect and top-down fixes to the school system alone. We are powerless, moreover, to directly influence pathologies prevalent in the society at large. These have their own tangled roots. Given the realities of power, many of us may not see the full fruits of our efforts in our working lifetimes. But things will not get better by themselves. Judging from past experience and present trends, they will only get worse.

Experience also shows, however, that thoughtful, directed effort usually results in some progress in the direction chosen. And if this effort is a collective one, minor miracles can be wrought. As educators, we know that our students cannot succeed unless they are sincere. But we also know the strong effect, on our students, of our own regard for their potential. It is the same for us and our colleagues. Individual effort is key, but cannot be sustained without collective support.

To sustain this positive attitude despite the obstacles we face, we must be able, periodically, to taste of real success. We mean the quiet happiness that we teachers get when we find that our students have worked, learned and grown -- helped, hopefully, by our guidance and our supportive effort.

From this, it follows that we must work, first, towards creating conditions that optimize the chances for achieving these small, quiet but meaningful successes. The classroom -- any classroom, in any school -- should be where teachers want to be, where they can find some happiness, even some joy.

This happiness is necessary, not only for the teachers, but for their students, their colleagues and their families. Teachers who are unhappy in their classrooms cannot really continue, for long, to give of themselves. They cannot stand up to those who have fled the classroom into positions of power over working teachers, and have no real long-term interest in making things better, for teachers and students, in the classroom. Nor, at the end of the working day or week,  can they function, in other spheres, as effectively those who can enjoy, and are energized by, the basic joy of teaching.

Without this, we cannot prevail. With this, we can and will.

Second, turn away from a collective state of denial or avoidance, and face up to the truly hard problems.  We have collectively avoided these for too long, while allowing ourselves to be distracted  with minor issues. We need to examine these hard problems, formulate solutions, and begin to implement these solutions, carefully and collectively -- supporting one another. 

Third,  establish certain professional rights. These, if implemented, would enable teachers to be much more effective.  This would unleash the true potential of sincere teachers and students.

The drawing up of these rights is a vitally important step in shifting from a defensive position, where we must constantly react to others' agendas, to a pro-active one, where we have an affirmative educational agenda of our own, with common long-term goals that we believe in, that give us direction and that help to keep things in perspective. 

All of  this will reduce the chances of getting sidetracked, bogged down or bamboozled.

The implementation of these rights creates the conditions, alluded to earlier, that optimize the chances of the very important, frequent, small successes that we and our students need to enjoy our work and keep going.

Fourth,  systematically raise awareness, both among teachers themselves, and among the public, of the importance of facing up to the hard problems collectively, and of working towards the full implementation of these professional rights.

Fifth, create robust feed-back structures and viable media outlets that allow classroom teachers and others to provide, both within and outside the educational system, direct, unfiltered reportage and feedback about conditions in the classroom -- and thus to influence and modify, in a relatively rapid fashion, the formulation and implementation of educational policies.

At present, these feedback structures are absent or dysfunctional, both within the educational hierarchy and within the union. Also, much of the media -- the major newspapers and TV and radio channels -- do not accurately portray the situation in our schools. They perpetrate clich├ęs, seek after sensationalism, and are quick to find scapegoats for the system's ills -- teachers being most convenient for this purpose. 

Much of this is not surprising, given the ownership of the media. What is alarming, however, is the failure of working men and women to find common cause, pool resources, and finance commercially viable media outlets to systematically counter this continuous propaganda.

Sweeping the dirt under the rug will no longer work. Truth will out. It is better that we do the "outing", in our way, than others, who bear us ill will, in their way.  It is the unions, with their considerable resources, who could best pull this off. But if they do not, others must. We really have no option if we seek to survive as a respected profession.

Sixth, establish, at each educational level, from schools up to state and federal boards, a core of experienced, independent, term-limited, working professionals -- an experienced and dedicated core that can guide the operation of the business of education -- our business, our profession -- as an equal partner with those who now make the decisions for us.

Below, we make an attempt at starting on the third of the six tasks listed above.

=========================================================

Sample Bill of Educational and Professional Rights for Teachers

Teachers have the right to be able to do their job properly. For this, they need to:

1) be treated as human beings, and as professionals worthy of respect for their knowledge, experience and dedication;

2) work in a safe environment, free from fear of physical harm,verbal abuse,  intimidation and psychological stress;

3) have an  instructional environment conducive to study and attention -- free from noise and other distractions; and, in particular:

     a) be assured, of the temporary removal of those few students who persist in disrupting instruction, for at least the duration of the period, without exception;

     b) know that it is recognized that this (3a) is necessary so that teachers can teach and all the other students can learn -- and especially necessary in classes where students need quiet -- either to achieve deep focus or to obtain full individual attention -- such as, for example, in mathematics, which employs complex arguments in a concise, precise language that is best learned in sequential fashion, and in special education, where students have to struggle with physical or mental difficulties; 

      c) and also be assured  that such temporarily removed students receive counseling from sincere, qualified and experienced adults, who can give the individual child the time and full, focused attention needed to determine the roots of the problem, work towards its solution in cooperation with parents and teacher, and make sure that this problem does not manifest itself in any further disruption of  other students' focus and waste of precious collective class-time; 

4) exercise  individual professional freedom, especially regarding methodology, and collective professional influence, especially regarding content; and, in particular:

     a) be involved, as working teachers, especially if experienced,in the formulation of syllabi and the detailing of curricula at the departmental, district, city and state levels; and be assured that proper feedback, correction and implementation structures are in place; with these being designed to give careful attention to the input of active classroom teachers, with feedback from these being directly solicited, both during the planning and during the implementation of changes; and with modifications for effectiveness being made, in as close to a real-time fashion as possible, based on the unfiltered aggregate of this feedback;

     b) while working towards a small set of reasonable, objective, collectively agreed on long-term instructional goals, arrived at as in (4a), with strong input from working teachers, be free of micro-management regarding how to work towards these goals -- thus unleashing teachers' innate human powers of creativity and ingenuity; 

     c) in particular, be free to choose the methods, including time-tested ones such as the interactive chalk-board lecture, as well as other ones of  their own or others' creation, that they deem appropriate to the subject and grade level -- free from criticism except within the context of the chosen method -- or, at year's end,  through failure to reach the small set of reasonable,  objective, collectively agreed on, long-term instructional goals;

5) have clearly stated sequential requirements for students entering standard classes, with these prerequisites being publicly available on Department of Education publications and web-sites, and followed in letter and spirit during programming of students in the schools;

6) expect that students entering high schools have ongoing counseling towards setting realistic goals for themselves, based on which they choose, around 9th or 10th grade, streams which lead towards these goals, so that students know, at high school level, their purpose in taking a class, and therefore feel more motivated; 

7) teach in their license/certification areas, with classes being assigned based on teacher request, license/certification, seniority and rotation;

8) have the time needed to teach the subject in a thorough and systematic fashion, paced so as to enable their students to assimilate, practice, master and apply the skills and knowledge pertinent to the subject and level; and to have time also, within the curriculum, to experiment in a creative way, drawing on one's own strengths and those of one's students, institution and environment;

9a) have strict limitations on workloads that ensure that teachers have time, at work, to interact with and learn from colleagues, as well as time, at home, to learn, reflect and fulfill family and health obligations;

9b) and, in particular, to spend no more than three hours a day,at most, outside class teaching hours, in preparation and grading work; it being understood that:

   i) for a teacher teaching a class for the first time -- or with content, methodology or average student skill level that has been substantially modified since last taught -- a minimum of two periods of study and preparation are needed for each subject taught properly;

  ii) for all teachers, a minimum value of  1:20  must be maintained as the ratio between the time spent by a teacher in properly grading a written student answer, and the average time spent by a student in writing out the answer -- for classwork, homework, projects, lab reports, term papers, essays, book reports, examinations or whatever;

  iii) the total number of students taught by a teacher in a week must not exceed 306, without exception -- not even for laboratory classes that do not meet daily; while  the number of students for which a teacher must grade work and/or produce marking-period grades must not exceed 170; it being understood that these are current figures that accommodate our city's exceptional needs, but that every effort be made, in pursuit of quality and reasonableness, to allocate resources and recruit more qualified teachers so as to halve these numbers within a decade; 

10a)  have, at least two weeks prior to the start of the term, a detailed D.O.E. curriculum for each of their classes, plus a textbook and review book whose topic coverage and level correspond to the curriculum ; along with, for beginning teachers, a set of sample lesson plans covering the first two weeks of the term;

10b) with exceptions to this requirement (10a) being allowed for non-standard classes offered at the teacher's initiative, for which he/she should be granted either a term'sworth of professional period time in which to draw up the syllabus for the proposed offering, or be granted an equivalent amount of per-session hours for this purpose;

11) have access, both during their regular class hours and for at least two hours before and after these, to basic office facilities -- including, outside the classroom, a desk, filing cabinet and locker, a computer with Internet access and printer, paper supplies, and both high quality, low volume as well as mass (high volume) duplicating machines for preparation of classroom handout sheets and overhead transparencies; 

12) have access in the classroom or other instructional area, to instructional materials appropriate to the subject and level of their classes, including, in the case of academic classrooms:

(a) a class set of appropriate textbooks, workbooks or review books;

 (b) room-width chalk-boards or white-boards; and working overhead projector and screen;

 (c) at least one working computer capable of efficiently running current educational software, with broadband Internet connectivity; and either a monitor screen large enough to be read by all students, or projection capacity;

13) have, ready at the start of the term, for distribution to students, student materials appropriate to the subject and level, including especially textbooks and review books for home study;

14) be consulted on decisions and policies that affect the education of their own students, and have voting rights that ensure meaningful participation in such decisions and policies; with the understanding that teachers and administrators will be expected to take the long-term view of what is in the best interest of their students, in preparing them for college, work and life; and will have faith in their students' capacity to learn academic and vocational skills, and to mature into responsible, principled and caring human beings, given an environment where the adults' thoughts and actions embody these expectations;

15) be thought of as valuable long-term resources, whose educational, work, life and cultural experience can be utilized for the benefit of students and staff, not only through the standard sequential classes, but also, at the teacher's initiative, through offerings tailored to this experience; and to be regularly granted not only educational but also work or experience sabbaticals, through which they can bring back new skills and other experience from the rapidly changing world that can enrich the institution and benefit the students;

16) expect that their colleagues will realize that these rights can be won only through the exercise of individual humility, collective pride and patient, united, effort; and can be retained only through vigilance against their erosion, and through fulfillment of the professional responsibilities and fraternal duties that accompany and safeguard these rights.

Arjun Janah < sjanah@aol.com > 2006 Jan 11