Private Schools Have Problems, Too

It’s human nature to complain about things. Even when situations are great, we complain. Here are some examples of ridiculous things that have been said in conversations (some of them said by me) around campus:

Classroom Chatter

  • I am so upset! I hate teaching in a classroom with only blackboards. I need a full wall of white boards and an overhead projector connected to DVD, VCR, and a Computer.
  • I hate when there are only a couple of colored markers for the board. I need at least 8 colors. So I just buy my own and leave them in the classroom for the year.
  • I don’t know how those professors teach in those upscale conference rooms. The wooden tables don’t even move. What do you do when you want to work in small groups?
  • It’s about time we had a workshop on flipped classrooms.
  • I hate it when the custodian washes my board. Sometimes I want to keep stuff up for the next day.
  • I have 25 students in my class??? *sigh* I really prefer having 14 max.
  • Oh I can’t teach in that room. There isn’t enough cabinetry.


  • Since we don’t get paid extra for all of this service, I make sure my Chair knows that when I place orders for texts and DVDs for my courses, he better approve them. Last week I ordered almost $2000 worth of instructional material.
  • The library sent the faculty in my department ‘choice cards’. They give us index cards with descriptions of new books in our area and ask if they should purchase them for the library. I just don’t have time to fill these out right now.
  • After 8pm, I have an automatic reply on my email for students. It directs them to contact the 18 hour a day librarian on call. I put the link right in the reply.
  • I use a purchasing card all the time so I might as well get my own. But then I have to sit through the 45 minute training. I don’t know if it’s worth it.

In the Cafeteria

  • Can you believe they raised the price of faculty meal cards from $50 to $60??? I mean, 15 all you can eat meals was a deal for fifty bucks, but sixty….
  • All of the food is natural so you don’t have to worry about hormones and stuff like that.
  • Of course there are gluten free options at the dessert station. Vegan too.
  • What happened to the fresh salmon they used to have at the salad bar?
  • They only have 3 blends of Starbucks coffee. I wish there was a barista to make a Mocha for me.
  • What’s going on today? Where are the real plates and silverware? Is the power out or something? I don’t eat with plastic utensils.
  • They never put out the cucumber water anymore.
  • Why don’t they have flavored ice cream cones?
  • I wish they’d have more than just 4 pie options.

In the Office

  • Who is catering the lunch meeting?
  • Soup and salad does not constitute ‘lunch’. And continental breakfasts belong in motels, not in academic departments.
  • Dang! My department is almost out of wine. I better let the assistant know.
  • The printer in my office is out of ink. Now I have to print to one of the machines downstairs.
  • The retreat was nice and all, but it would’ve been better if they’d given us spa gift certificates as well.
  • I used to have an upright piano in my office but now I have a baby grand piano. It’d be nice to have a grand piano, but this works.
  • There aren’t enough windows in my office so they tried to put up transoms on the doors to allow for some light. It just doesn’t work.
  • This furniture is just not my style. *orders contemporary furniture*
  • Who do I contact to get built-ins put up? Is it the same office who would get rid of this rug?
  • No I don’t want that printer. I need one that prints in color and is duplex.
  • Why didn’t they install my statistics software on my computer when they assembled it? I had to wait until the next day.

Private school problems.


Disclaimer: This list was comprised in jest. Private colleges have legitimate problems, but today I felt like focusing on the superficial ones 🙂

Am I in Middle School Again? Drama in Academia

Over the past 3 weeks I’ve been introduced to the ‘service’ component of being a faculty member (service is one of the three prongs that decide tenure). Though technically I am not required to engage in service just yet, I am doing so because I might as well get used to the balancing act that is professordom and I may be able to contribute something of value here and there.

Toward that end, I am doing 2.5 things:

1)      I have been tasked with leading a committee in my department whose responsibility is to revise a component of our graduate curriculum. I tapped two people to be on my team and we are making great progress toward our goals.

2)      I am also a part of a 15 person steering committee for a new initiative/center at the college. We had our first meeting today and let’s just say: that adage about too many cooks in the kitchen is very valid.

  1. Under that same umbrella, I am sitting on a search committee for a position in that new center.

Now, what has become abundantly clear to me in the last 3 weeks is that while in my teaching and research I have a lot of autonomy, in my service I do NOT. Working with other people has always been difficult for me because I am a natural leader, I work efficiently, and I work thoroughly. I don’t believe in wasting time, effort, or any other resources. Most of all, I detest the DRAMA that comes with ‘teamwork’. And yes Lord, there has been a boat load of drama surrounding my two measly acts of service (I mean let’s face it—I’m not doing that much in this arena).

I won’t get into specifics because anyone who attended middle school can imagine what’s happening: multiple people want to be decision makers but don’t want the accountability that comes with it; gossiping about who gets to do what and why that person was chosen; figuring out who is friends with whom so you don’t mess up and speak negatively about someone’s BFF; whispered conversations behind closed doors that make you think ‘are they talking about me?’; wondering if you should ask to sit with ‘your friends’ in the cafeteria because you may be interrupting a private conversation about you; befriending the most popular (read: most viscous) people because they (not so) secretly yield the most power; trying to stay one step ahead of the vultures so your body isn’t the one they choose to attack next.

You know…those sorts of things.

As junior faculty, I mostly put my head down, take a deep breath, and try my best not to shout ‘THAT MAKES NO SENSE!’ during meetings. Perhaps that’s the most I can expect of myself this early on.


Why are More Students Cheating? The Answer is Simple

Reading educational news is always depressing because most of the issues plaguing our schools are systemic and any resolution will require massive overhauls of not only our K-12 public schooling, but also a house cleaning of educational and social policies. But sometimes I read about problems for which there is a simple (albeit not easily implemented) solution. The solution is so simple, that when I asked young children (8 and 9 years old) what they would do about it, they gave a quick and confident response. And what’s more, their response was the same response thousands of degree-carrying educators, politicians, and researchers give: Get rid of the emphasis placed on standardized testing.

In the past 21 days alone, there have been three news-making stories about student cheating:

1)      Stuyvesant High School in NYC—more than 50 students allegedly cheated on the end of year exams in June  I’d Cheat Too if My High School was Named That

2)      Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO—78 cadets are suspected of cheating on an online calculus exam.  Don’t Worry about War; Calculus Can be the Death of You

3)      Harvard in Cambridge, MA—the co-captains of the basketball are implicated in a cheating scandal that could involve dozens of athletes.   I am so NOT surprised. Everyone knows REAL Ivy is GREEN!

(so the titles I gave these links are admittedly all me, but still click them for the stories)

What’s notable is that these are elite institutions of learning. The cost of attendance is high (not just financial cost, but emotional as well), but completely worth the prestige and notoriety these names carry on a transcript, resume, or curriculum vitae. The professional connections made at any of these schools are enough to land you summer internships, letters of reference, and to rush your name to the top of the interview pile.

But why are presumably bright students cheating? The admittance requirements for AFA and Harvard are very stringent, and graduates of Stuyvesant often attend top 10 colleges. These students don’t resemble what the general public believes cheaters to look like. These kids generally (note: generally) are from financially sound families, are active in their community, are leaders in school organizations, are enrolled in rigorous courses, have sound friend groups…wait. Go back one. These kids are enrolled in rigorous courses. Hmmm…

Are the classes too rigorous? Are the students unable to master the material in the allotted time so they resort to cheating? No. I don’t think so. Cheating is nothing new. I would be shocked to meet an adult who never cheated (and yes, copying a friend’s homework counts) on a school assignment. So why the big hoopla?

Because now, cheating in school is like the mob: organized crime. Read the stories. This isn’t a ruckus about one or two kids cheating. This is about dozens of kids cheating together. Our nation’s brightest are putting their genius to work. They are developing and executing complex strategies to maintain their high GPA. This takes a level of hypothetical reasoning and problem-solving that adults often underestimate in children. But as a developmental psychologist, I know better. Actually, I am not surprised, but rather impressed. We worry so much about teaching our students to ‘think critically’ and ‘think before they act’. Well they are doing just that. Happy now? *glares*

As an educational psychologist, I also know why student cheating is more common and more mob-like.

It’s really not that difficult to follow the cheating train of logic. I’d bet money there is a high correlation between college admittance/job attainment requirements and level of cheating. In other words, we’ve created a school-to-work infrastructure that requires too much to be the best. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should lower our standards. I am saying that we should tell our children to do their best, not be the best.

Because to be the best you have to be perfect at everything. You have to have great grades received in the most rigorous courses, high standardized test scores, a stellar record of community engagement, a long list of extracurriculars, letters of recommendation from the most notable professors and community leaders, and to top it off, you better have a winning personality!  You have to give everything 1000%

And no brain can handle that. So what do we do? We do what our brains have evolved to do: cheat. Cognitive psychologists call these heuristics—cognitive shortcuts. Stereotypes, mnemonics, assumptions, bias are all examples of heuristics. We use these when we don’t have time to fully process through new information and/or when we don’t have the cognitive capacity (i.e., the mental energy) to attend, select, store, and retrieve relevant information. Our brains have a finite amount of resources and we use them up quickly. It’s why after a long day of work, or a difficult meeting, or during periods of high stress you are mentally drained. Your brain needs a break. Time to reboot. Time to solidify neural connections and make sense of everything. But when we don’t give your brains time to rest and reboot, and we cognitively push ourselves too far, we leave our brain no choice but to cheat.

Our students are being pushed too far. We require too much with too heavily weighted outcomes. We hang over them the threat of not being accepted into the college of their choice. Or being kicked off the softball team. Or not being able to spend time with their friends (the only time the frontal lobe gets a real break from its executive functioning duties). We tell them they better work hard and be great at everything or they will have wasted all of our hard work to provide them opportunities.

No wonder they cheat.

With the emphasis on standardized testing in schools, our students know they must do well because if not, they could be held back a grade. And wouldn’t that be an arrow through the heart after spending all academic year busting your butt to be the best? It all comes down to one thing: test scores. From a policy perspective, that single digit is an indicator of how much you learned and your potential to learn more.

For teachers, their students’ average scores are an indicator of their ability to effective do their jobs. And if that score is too low, they may be fired. Cue teachers cheating:

1)      Atlanta in 2011:  One of Their Own Told on Them

2)      Virginia in 2012:  These Teachers Just Gave the Answers

3)      DC in 2012:  They Used Statistics to Detect Cheating

(Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and California have also undergone state wide investigations of teachers cheating on end of year tests)

The stringency created by our heavy reliance on standardized tests is putting too much stress on our students and teachers. We are literally squeezing the education system so tight, people are buckling under pressure. So what do we do?

Implement assessment measures with more validity and less rigidity.

Being Invisible is Not a Super Power. Just Ask our Children

For some reason, people cannot pronounce my name. Though it is an uncommon name outside of Jewish culture, it is not a difficult name. It has 5 letters and no crazy punctuation. It is, for the most part, phonetic. It rhymes with a common American name so I use that comparison to explain the pronunciation. But still, people refuse to learn how to say my name. As if my name doesn’t matter. As if my name isn’t important enough to commit to memory. As if I am invisible.

“I don’t like it when they don’t say my name right”

This is the title of a chapter in a book I read yesterday entitled “Multiplication is for White People” Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit. While I was not impressed with the book overall (I read it to see if I wanted to use it for my Diversity and Equity in Education course. I do not), some sentences really stood out to me. That was one of them.

Four chapters later, she talks about the invisibility and disidentification many African American students (her area of expertise) face on college campuses. She quotes Ralph Ellison’s (1953) text Invisible Man:

I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone…I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me….They see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination.

This excerpt is powerful. It embodies what many students—many people—feel on a daily basis. I do not limit this experience to African Americans, but believe it is applicable to any person who has ever been the [ethnic, religious, sexual, gender, linguistic, intellectual] minority. The feeling of being invisible may be one of the most hurtful and devaluing emotions one could feel.

And this is what many of our students feel on a daily basis in our schools.

Many teachers, though well intentioned, ignore the students in the middle. The ones whose test scores are proficient, but not advanced or below proficiency. The ones whose IQ is average, not gifted or developmentally delayed. The ones who don’t raise their hands to answer every question, but will respond if prompted. The ones who don’t get straight As, but consistently earn Bs. They are the ones who ‘don’t need special attention’ because ‘they are doing fine’.

But are they?

Is it ‘fine’ to never have your teacher look your way? To never be chosen as the group leader because you are simply overlooked? To speak up and not have your statement affirmed or even acknowledged? To feel like people refuse to see you no matter what you do?

It is not fine. It is even less fine to know that what is visible about you is your background. Where you live, your parents’ education level and employment status, your older sibling’s performance in this teacher’s class three years ago, your assumed ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and aptitude derived from your skin color, style of dress, and speech patterns.

This is what our education system encourage us to see in our students, although these aspects are what surround our students. The way we aggregate and disaggregate data promotes the analysis of students as test scores representative of a segment of the population. Our policies, our instructional practices, and our assessment methods render our children invisible.

And in rendering them invisible, we veil their educational and emotional needs. Districts do not alter their curriculum to help those performing at mid-level proficiency to achieve high-level proficiency.  The government does not dedicate billions of dollars to programs aimed at turning C students into B students. Teachers do not invite the mediocre students to after-school tutoring sessions or to the student government informational meeting. Parents who hear no news from the school interpret that as good news. So what do we do for them?


We don’t even learn their names.

But we can do something. I am reminded of an Albert Camus quote:

It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.”

Just because you don’t have children or your child is in a private school does not mean you are excused from participating in public education discourse. You are not. It is your duty as a thinking person to inform yourself about the experiences of your fellow community members; to understand their perspective not as an ‘other’ or a ‘deviation’ from what you perceive to be the norm, but as a valid point of view worthy of consideration. You have the right to vote in this country, but you cannot solely vote on issues pertinent to you. The marking of that ballot affects those not in your income bracket, your neighborhood, your church, your school, your life. So even if you don’t have student loan debt, chronic healthcare needs, concerns about job procurement, a desire to marry the love of your life whose sex happens to be the same as yours, a need for social assistance, aging parents who rely on social security, or children for whose future you need to plan. Even if you are not included in that infamous 47%, you still have a responsibility to not be on the side of the executioners; to not be blind to the existence of visible needs.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed Doesn’t Know You

I recently read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Location, Location, Location) that was a response to a previous column (Embrace Your Inner North Dakotan ) about PhDs’ willingness to relocate to new terrain to accept a ‘good’ job (versus a not-so-great job). The original author stated that relocating is a necessary evil in a specialized field in a struggling economy. The responding author stated that people should not compromise their personal preferences for the sake of a job, so in a tight job market PhDs should consider leaving academe.

At first, I was going to weigh in on that debate, but you all don’t care about the first-world struggles we academics endure, so instead, I will share my story.

I graduated from my PhD program fairly recently (May 2011). I’d spent the previous fall on the job market. I applied for around 43 academic positions (tenure-track, post-doc, visiting assistant professor) and about 12 non academic positions (government analyst/researcher, think tank researcher, university researcher, school district researcher). When it all shook out, I’d received 0 academic offers and 3 non academic offers. The salaries from my non academic offers were about 60k, 88k, and 96k. Needless to say, that is WAY more than any new PhD who’d planned their life to be a professor would ever expect their first year out of graduate school. But it wasn’t the salary that hooked me; it was the location. One of the offers was in my favorite city, Chicago. Another was in my hometown of Washington DC. The third was in Baltimore, MD.

My mother’s family is from Maryland. About an hour from my would-be new city lives my grandmother, four aunts, an uncle, four cousins, five second cousins, and all the love and support that comes with them. And because I am originally from D.C., we have family friends whom I call ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ living in the DC/MD area as well. Love from family is a strong lure.

Add to that, I was 25, a woman of color, and single. The odds of me finding a relationship in any of those three cities are high because of the sheer number of candidates. I called my mom and talked through the offers with her. I presented my argument for accepting the Baltimore position. With all the confidence my four degrees afforded me, I told her that it really boiled down to quality of life. I would be happy in that area. With a good salary, I could eventually buy a townhouse, visit family at least once a month, connect with old friends, meet new friends, and live the 20-something version of the Sex and the City life. I would have the carefree attitude of Samantha, the good decision making of Charlotte, the professional success of Miranda, and the banging wardrobe of Carrie!!!  Yeah, I had a plan. An unstoppable plan!

Then mom quietly said ‘I thought you wanted to teach.’

I hurriedly ended the conversation, sank to the floor with my back against my bedroom door and thought.

The next day, while at work, I thought some more. Then an email popped up in my inbox from a man I didn’t know with an email address from a school I’d never heard of. I deleted it.

Ten minutes later, I pulled it from the trash and read it. It was a job offer for a post doctoral fellowship. They wanted to fly me out in 3 weeks for an interview. He’d found my information in a job database (this must be one of the many things I did during the fall while searching for employment, but I had no memory of it). Like any good PhD, I researched the school. Turns out, even though I’d never heard of it, it’s a pretty highly ranked school. And it was private. And liberal arts. And the position was in the Education department (my degrees are in psychology, but my research is in education so I’d been applying to positions in both fields)—my preferred area. And the salary was decent for a new PhD. And it was on the other side of the country in a state I’d never been.

I took the interview and fell in love with the school. Everything about it was a good fit for who I am as a teacher and researcher.

But it wasn’t a good fit for my future personal life. Very few people of color, not a lot of young professionals, and even fewer single people. What the hell was I going to do when I wasn’t working?

While I thought about their offer, I received another offer. This time for a tenure-track position teaching psychology at a private HBCU in the city where I was currently living. For a host of reasons, I quickly declined that offer. While I would’ve loved to stay in the area, nothing about that job was for me.

But I was grateful. Within the span of a week, I’d gotten two academic job offers from institutions to which I’d never applied. These people had somehow heard of me, thought I would be a good addition, and contacted me. I am not sure how commonly that happens in academe, but I was honored nonetheless.

The feeling of honor faded as I continued to struggle with a major life changing decision: job satisfaction versus personal satisfaction. I decided not to talk to anyone about it. I didn’t need to hear their thoughts about what they would do if they were me. It doesn’t matter. You aren’t me. You don’t know how much I care about education, feeling like I can make a difference, being respected and valued at work, and truly doing what I set out to do: teach. You also don’t understand the complex perspective I have on ‘new friends’, my indecision about wanting children one day, nor my desire to be alone 85% of the time.

It was clear that the best choice for me was probably not the best choice for many of my friends. They would have never taken a chance, moved 7 states away from their closest family member, packed the dog and clothing in the car, shipped shoes and coats on a train, and started a new life. Alone.

But I did. And I can’t say it’s been a perfect decision. I often crave the love and support only those who’ve known you most of your life can provide. The telephone isn’t always enough and plane tickets are not affordable. But I make it work.

Luckily, I knew better than to solicit outside advice on my life. I knew that two authors writing opinion pieces for a respected journal were well intentioned, but in reality, my reality fell somewhere between their polarized views.

I chose my choice and I’m happy with it.

Professors Can be Happy, Too

A friend told me yesterday my blog focuses too much on what’s wrong in education and academia (can you blame me?) so I am committing myself to at least three positive posts in a row. Yesterday I talked about my good experience with a group of middle school teachers. Today I am talking about the great parts about being faculty at a small liberal arts college:

  • Like most college faculty, I am expected to talk about my field incessantly. And I do. And people don’t get too annoyed
  • When I ‘take work home’ it doesn’t stress me. In fact, it is exciting to have a career you love so much you don’t mind thinking about it a lot
  • My schedule is very flexible. I pretty much come and go as I please. But like most PhDs, we love what we do so we ‘come’ more than ‘go’
  • I am trusted to do my job well. No one is looking over my shoulder micro managing my life
  • What I do actually matters. The things I say in class are not sent out in the universe never to be heard of again. Instead, they trickle into my students’ ears and hopefully find a place in the recesses of their brain
  • My students want to learn. And I want to help them learn
  • My colleagues are very smart. It’s wonderful to be surrounded by others whom you can admire instead of lament
  • I have friends across departments and disciplines. Which means our trivia teams kick butt at the local bars
  • Everyone in my professional bubble ‘gets it’. They don’t ask me about marriage and children because they know that those things aren’t omnipresent for us
  • I can eat in the cafeteria and the students all speak to me
  • I know at least one person in every office on campus. This comes in handy when the batteries in your office thermostat die, when you want to set up a community event sponsored by the college, or you simply need to change a word in your course description
  • There are plenty of funds for me to purchase instructional materials
  • And there are classrooms equipped to utilize instructional materials
  • My classes are capped at 25 (but the faculty want that to be 18)
  • I can teach pretty much any courses I want
  • If I make it through the tenure process, I have a job for life
  • If something goes wrong (professionally or personally), I have the support of my department, my division, and my administration (this is one of the things I like best about my particular institution)
  • People think I’m smart and have high expectations of me. This is great motivation
  • I know if I need help, it is only an email away
  • I have a realistic chance at meeting my scholarly crushes
  • There is so much to read that is well written
  • I can check out library books for 6 months
  • I get to see my name and thoughts in print

I could go on, but I think you get it. I previously wrote a few posts discussing the plight of personal versus professional (Love or Learning? ) in academe, the modest pay (The Price of Pedagogy ), lack of faculty diversity (I am Not My Hair ), and the arduous journey toward a PhD (Academia is a Lonely Place). My points in those posts still stand: obtaining a PhD and becoming faculty is not a gold-paved road to skip down singing ‘Ease on Down’.

But I am glad I took that road. Now, I have a career in which I am paid to think deeply and have intellectual discourse with qualified others. I have personal agency in my thoughts and actions, and go to sleep every night feeling like I took yet another step toward bettering someone else and myself. I am rewarded not by a paycheck (that’s not a reward; that is earned), but by course evaluations wherein students describe how empowered and informed they feel; by emails inviting me to lead workshops, present papers, or talk to a group of students; by my parents saying ‘I am proud of you’; and by knowing that if he were still with us, my brother’s bragging would be all the reward I needed.

Amidst a Strike, There are Some (Teachers) to Spare

(I wanted to share something that made my day a little brighter…especially during such troubling times with the CPS teacher strike)

For those who don’t know, I research parent involvement, particularly in low income schools. I chose these schools not because they allegedly have lower incidents of parent involvement (they do not; they have different incidents of parent involvement that often occur at home away from teachers’ eyes), but because these are the parents who are ignored, overlooked, devalued, and misunderstood by schools. These are the parents who often lack the navigational capital to advocate for themselves. So I help them gain the information they need to feel empowered and able to help their children learn.

I also help teachers realize that all parents—regardless of age, SES, race, native tongue, geographic location, employment status—want their children to do well in school.

Last school year, I began working with a Title I alternative middle school to design and implement a parent involvement program. At our first meeting, the assistant principal said ‘these parents don’t care. They only show up to stuff if there is free food. If they can’t get anything for free, you won’t see them!’  I don’t know much about her professional career in education, but I do know that she irritated the heck out of me that day. In the span of 46 minutes, she repeated a version of that statement 3 times. What’s more, she said it twice in front of her faculty.

Fast forward a year to today. That particular administrator is no longer at the school, but all the teachers remained, as did the principal and administrative assistant with whom I correspond frequently. Today’s meeting was a completely different experience than last years. So much so that I had to check my field notes from last year to make sure I wasn’t remembering that meeting in a biased fashion. I wasn’t. The teachers this year were READY for me. Before the meeting even started, the math teacher was sharing ideas she had to get parents involved in the curriculum on a continuous basis. The English teacher described a weekly computer program students were to complete with parents’ help. They had ideas for dances, recruitment groups, career days, college days, and monthly student-parent lunches. They volunteered to spearhead an event each, knowing they would be responsible for recruiting parental assistance. They devised parent involvement activities for those parents whose schedules and life contexts preclude them from coming to the school. They were excited, willing, and optimistic.

They were everything many teachers working with low income students are not.

These teachers know the benefits of parent involvement not only for students, but also for overall school climate. They know it is their responsibility to invite parents’ participation in students’ learning. They know that a lot of parents are unaware of the school’s desire for their participation. Most of all, they know that their students’ parents are loving, caring, devoted people who work hard to provide their children with opportunities to better themselves. These teachers know the parents are assets to the school that should be celebrated, not mindless drones who need to be told what to do. These teachers—my colleagues—view parents as funds of knowledge that complement traditional curriculum, not undermine it.

It is those last points to which I’ve dedicated my scholarship. No matter how much I read it, discover it, speak it, or demonstrate it, I never feel like teachers—people—get it: All parents have something to offer; it is up to you to ask them for it.

I am so proud of those teachers. I am proud of them for going above and beyond their daily instructional duties. For volunteering to help one another in addition to helping their students. For knowing that it truly does take a village to raise a child. And for being willing to put that village and that child ahead of themselves.

Shout out to teachers everywhere who remember why they do it.

Teachers Strike in Chicago: Is This an Effective Catalyst for Change?

As of 12am this morning, teachers in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) are on strike. Their last major strike was a 19 day strike in1987. In the intervening 25 years, many of the same issues driving the strike remain: pay raises, merit pay, and job security.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has been in negotiations with CPS since November of 2011. Rumor has it (because the negotiations are private) that CTU wanted a 30% salary raise over 2 years. CPS responded with a 4% raise this year. Then they took it back and offered 2%.

Teachers are demanding higher pay because of longer school days and longer school years. They are upset that their pay is tied to their students’ performance on standardized tests (I discuss this pay for performance policy in Romney on Education ). They are also alarmed by the fact that according to NCLB, if their students don’t score well on end of year tests, they could lose their jobs.

Historically, teachers in our country have been severely underpaid. The salary of public school teachers (non-Charter schools) in the US is highly variable ranging from $23,000 to over $100,000. Of course part of the variability is tied to cost of living, degree attainment, and years of experience. But some of the variability is due to state-level policies that allow local districts to determine teacher salary. The variables entered into that equation remains a mystery on which superintendents are unsurprisingly closed mouth.

While I thoroughly agree that teachers across the board need pay raises and other support, I am concerned that going on strike is not the way to achieve these goals. Here are questions I’d love answered:

  • What happens to students’ learning opportunities? Should students suffer because adults can’t get it together? How do we recover the missed instruction time?
  • Where is the money coming from to increase salaries 15% for all teachers in a single year? There is no magic pot school officials are hoarding; funding for schools is clearly a multi-level problem that a localized strike can’t hope to affect. (See Why Isn’t My Money as Good as Theirs? for a description on school funding)
  • Why do teachers expect to have everything at once? (I am not saying CPS teachers are asking for too much. This is a general comment) This is the problem with strikes: people get greedy and figure they might as well ask for everything. You can’t have pay raises, smaller classes, more texts, and more instructional support at once. Even if the district had funds for this, asking for it all at once will only incite their anger further thus making it even less likely you will get what you want.

Now here are 2 cautions for teachers on strike right now: a) these are bad economic times to forfeit your job. There are plenty of out of work teachers who will gladly accept your position because a salary is better than no salary; b) are you prepared for the accountability that comes with higher pay?

It is really that last point that has me slightly annoyed. I agree that teachers should be paid more, especially when asked to do more work. I agree that our current system rarely gives teachers the materials and support they need to effectively do their job. But, I also believe that teachers need to be held to universal standards with constant evaluation on them, not the students. This would look like principal and peer observations, student feedback (professors gather student feedback all the time via course evaluations. Why can’t K-12 teachers do the same?), continuing education (many states do require teachers to attend workshops/seminars), outcome analysis that is not limited to students’ test scores (what about teachers’ development?). In other fields, when you attain a certain amount of knowledge and skills, you get promoted. In public education, you are rewarded with continuing to do the same job for basically the same pay. It seems that the CPS teachers on strike want the reward, but not the increased expectations. Frankly, it doesn’t work that way.

To implement what I suggest would take a) a universal curriculum; b) scheduling flexibility that allows principals and teachers to spend time observing one another (which basically means a lighter course load for all teachers and more teachers); c) well developed measures to gather useful student feedback and the time and knowledge to interpret and use it effectively; d) free opportunities for continuing education that are rigorous and verified/tracked by school leaders; e) clear and consistent goals/standards for teachers across grade levels with valid and reliable assessment methods.

This list seems to only exist in Candyland. I am not naïve enough to believe that our country has the courage to implement such drastic change, nor the civility to devise unified goals and assessment methods. We are too caught up in our own selfishness, our intellectual and political territories, and our own perspectives, to recognize that our continual quests for self-preservation are occurring at the expense of those to whom we’ve promised a fair chance to achieve the American Dream: our children.


Meet Shawn: A ‘Real Urban’ Student

The other day I met a young man whom I can’t get out of my head (and heart).  I never caught his name, so we will call him Shawn. Shawn is about 22 years old, confident, and extremely funny.  Upon discovering I am a teacher, he embarked on a tirade about his own high school experiences. His diatribe/stand-up routine lasted about 40 minutes so I can’t fully recapture the essence of it, but I can replay some of the most illuminating statements:

  • In high school, I had three classes: A lunch, B lunch, and PE
  • After lunch, I needed a break to recover from eating
  • I was an athlete and my coaches were always writing excuses to my teachers
  • I would talk to an upperclass (meaning junior or senior) girl in the hall and tell her ‘Look, I will meet you back here in 30 minutes. I will need a bathroom break from class then’
  • We had school resource officers driving around in golf carts because the school was so big. We had around 4500 students
  • Man, you weren’t cool if you hadn’t been tased by the resource officers. When somebody was acting hard, we’d say ‘you aint even been tased yet!’
  • I stayed in ISS. All we did was sit in there and listen to sports center on the portable. The teacher wouldn’t turn it up if we asked though
  • Being suspended was great. It was like a vacation and I didn’t even have homework to do
  • We had a substitute who never taught, but she was always in the school. I think she made more money than the real teachers
  • We had another teacher who was like 23 and didn’t want us to call her by her last name. She said it made her feel old. So I would be like ‘Yo ______, bring your a** over here and tell me what you doing this weekend’
  • I was smart. I didn’t need teachers. All I needed was for teachers to give me my test
  • All teachers do is teach you to take the test

While I was thoroughly entertained by his jovial tone and reenactments of classroom incidents, my heart hurt for him. This young man had a schooling experience he thinks is a joke. And frankly, it was a joke. Coaches lying for him, teachers passing out review worksheets, students skipping class, discipline= ISS and OSS, and the list goes on.

Unfortunately, his experience is not unique. In fact, I’d argue that his experience is similar to the experiences of most high school students. No, every student doesn’t skip class, but almost every student witnesses others skipping class. Every student knows a story about a coach lying for a player. And in the era of NCLB, children from 3rd grade on are very familiar with review worksheets.

Is this our education system? Where we tase children to encourage proper behavior? Where we remove misbehaved kids from instructional opportunities to ‘punish’ them? Where we equate learning with passing a standardized test?

Yes. This is our system, our country, our children.

And for those of you who think his stories are ‘extreme’ or ‘abnormal’ or ‘exaggerated’, I invite you to attend my Urban Education class. In that course, we first define ‘urban’, then we dissect the context of urban living, identify recurring themes in urban schools, and analyze teaching in urban classrooms. We watch documentaries, read autobiographies, and follow case studies of real students. We also have guest speakers.

I invited Shawn to speak.

A Letter to Grad School Applicants

Dear Applicants,

It’s the fall semester, which means many of you will not be paying attention in class because not only do you have senioritis, your thoughts are on the 12 grad school applications waiting for you. And after you finish not paying attention in class, you will be asking your professor for a letter of recommendation. To make this process easier for us all, I’ve compiled a list of tips derived from my experiences 7 years ago as an applicant, and my experiences during the last 2 years on a graduate school admissions committee.

General Advice:

  • Have an actual plan. Know what degree you want and why. Grad school is not for you to find yourself; that’s what college was for.
  • Research careers associated with your intended degree. You may discover that you don’t need an advanced degree to do what you want to do. Or you may find you need a different degree.
  • Research the program, not the school. Pay close attention to funding options, graduation rates, graduation timeframes, faculty research and teaching interests, internship opportunities/requirements, and course scheduling. These details are the ones that make or break your graduate school experience
  • Only apply to programs in cities in which you would like to live long-term. You can’t predict the future so you truly don’t know how long it may take for you to finish the program or what may happen after. What if you get a job offer through the internship? What if you meet the love of your life and he/she lives in that city?
  • You may consider talking to current students and graduates of the program. They will have insight you can’t find online, in brochures, or by talking to faculty.
  • Drop your ‘I know it all’ attitude at the door. Grad school is a whole new world. You have no idea.

Letters of Recommendation:

  • Please pay attention to deadlines. If your completed application is due October 31st, do not ask for recommendations on October 15th. Give your writers a minimum of 4 weeks (I gave my writers 6).
  • Choose your recommendation writers very well. You need someone who has worked with you beyond merely being your professor. We see a lot of students every day. There is no guarantee I will remember that one witty thing you said one time in my course 16 months ago.
    • Be sure to include a professor whose courses are relevant to the work you will do in graduate school. Committees want to read about your applicable knowledge and skills. Not what you learned to do in Basket-weaving 101.
    • If you got below a B+ in a class, you may not want to choose that particular professor (unless you have a strong personal relationship that extends beyond that course)
    • Present well-rounded letters. If you have 3 letters, have 2 professors and 1 supervisor or coach. If you can include a personal reference, do it. But don’t choose your bestie from way back; choose an upperclassman, a family friend, or the person with whom you volunteer. Just be sure that person is literate and actually likes you.
    • If your program requires 3-5 letters of recommendation, try to send 4. That fourth letter may be the tie breaker between you and another candidate. Or it could be the letter that pushes you into the ‘accept’ pile.
    • Please provide your writers with a portfolio of pertinent information to aid in their writing process. This includes but is not limited to: your transcript, a resume, your personal statement, information about the program, a stamped and addressed envelope in which the writer can place your completed letter, a cover page with clear instructions and due dates.
    • Feel free to send your writers reminders about due dates. Be sure to phrase these emails or conversations graciously. And please do not send them a reminder every 3 days. If you allot them 4 weeks to write the letter, check in after 2 weeks. Then give them the 5 day reminder if necessary.
    • Please don’t be rude and ask to read the letter of recommendation. If you don’t trust the person to write a good letter, don’t ask them.

Personal Statement

  • Read the instructions!!! Every personal statement does not ask for the same information. Practice those middle school skills and number each detail of the prompt to be included in the essay.
  • WRITE AN OUTLINE. I can’t express this clearly enough. No one wants to read the hodge podge mess of ideas you threw on the paper with no prior thought.
  • Provide specific, relevant examples. Don’t just say ‘I loved science as a kid, so my interest in the field is long lasting.’  Instead, give examples of ways you demonstrated your interest in science from high school and beyond (or college and beyond if applying a few years removed from college). No one cares that you held a magnifying glass over ants when you were 6.
  • This is your opportunity to tie together disparate aspects of your resume. Explicitly state how your internships, volunteer work, major courses, independent study, and extra curriculars relate to one another AND to the knowledge and skills you’ve developed that will help you be successful in that program.
  • Please write your essay specifically for each program to which you apply. Committees recognize a ‘form essay’ after two sentences.
  • This is not creative writing class. No one wants to read fiction or your autobiography. You are not telling a story; you are advocating for yourself with the use of honest evidence.
  • Proofread your work. Microsoft Word is not your editor; you are. Have a friend read it. Read it aloud to yourself. Send it to a parent. (do all of this before you give it to your recommendation writers)

Test Scores

  • Unless you are genius, it would be a good idea to take a refresher course before you sit for the actual GRE/MCAT/LSAT/GMAT. If you’re anything like me, you haven’t looked at geometry since 9th grade. If you can’t pay the ridiculous prices for the review courses (first off, decide if you truly can’t pay it or if you’d just rather spend your little bit of money on shoes, alcohol, clubs, and clothes), find sample tests online. It’d be best to look for these on the test publisher’s website.
  • Taking a review course is not enough. You need to actually study for these tests. In silence, with notes, regularly. Try to create the testing conditions when you study. When you encode information the same way you are required to retrieve it, retrieval is faster and more accurate.
  • If the tests are entirely electronic, please take practice tests in this format. Time yourself using the same time allotted during the test.
  • Know to which schools you will apply before taking your test. Sometimes, they send your scores for your (included in the testing fee) to the schools. If you don’t know where you are applying, you can’t choose the schools on testing day.

This list is by no means exhaustive. Applying to graduate school is a serious decision that should be given more thought than I myself gave it. I am one of the fortunate few for whom it all worked out well. ‘Don’t trade places with where I been’ (Miss Sophia, Color Purple).

Good luck!