The Reason Why

Nine years ago, many people wondered why I chose Lakeview Middle School for my practicum and student teaching. Some of my cohort members had not even heard of the school. A little over a year ago, when I first got the job that I currently have, many of the same questions arose. AT a summer training, someone said that they had seen the job opening but did not bother applying. “You’re welcome,” she said. Even before I started working at Lakeview, I knew well how everyone viewed this place.

Why did I choose Lakeview?

Originally, I chose Lakeview because I identified with the school. When I lived on East Decatur, Lakeview was the precinct location for my mom when she voted. Additionally, if I had attended public school in middle school, I would have attended Lakeview. Once I started my practicum, my heart knit to those students in a way I could never have imagined. I saw the immense needs each child brought with them, needs both physical and emotional. Though other circumstances prevented me from starting my teaching career at Lakeview, when I returned to teaching, I jumped at the chance to return to the school.

One week ago today, I returned from a trip with 24 of my students that proved exactly why I chose Lakeview and also grew me in a way I could not possibly imagine. This trip exemplified the reason why I teach and why I teach at Lakeview.

This process started back in late September when we held our first Youth in Government meeting. When my colleague asked if I would join her on this adventure, I said yes, having absolutely no idea what lay ahead. I left that meeting which had been chockfull of eager, prospective delegates, many of whom we specifically selected for this opportunity, riding high.

Each week the students gathered and we moved closer to completing bills and perfecting speeches. My colleague and I sacrificed precious brain power to edit and format bills to submit them before the deadline. My colleague sacrificed even more as she worked tirelessly to arrange all the details from arranging the donation of professional clothing to writing the placards with their name and delegation.

We got a small taste of just how amazing the trip would be when the YMCA brought over rack after rack of donated clothes for our students to try on. Two at a time the students selected from the clothes and tried them on. They walked back looking so sharp in their new Oxford shirts, pants, jackets and ties. I witnessed first hand the enormous effect clothing has on how we are perceived and how we perceive others. They looked as amazing as I knew they were.

Finally the day arrived. Chills went down my spine as I watched each student step out of their vehicles, dressed to the nines pulling a suitcase behind them, many accompanied by parents who looked more nervous than their kids. I waited nervously for the last four stragglers and sighed with relief when the last came inside to practice their speeches.

Things did not become real until we entered the Marriott, checked in and got all of our official materials. I felt almost as overwhelmed as the students. I did not want them to miss out on anything simply because I did not direct them correctly. From that point on we hit the ground running.

Our students were so nervous. We entered an already packed conference auditorium. Immediately our students noticed how rich and white everyone was. They looked at the tables already set for lunch and wondered if all they would get for lunch was salad. “Are we going to get any meat?” Several of them asked, severely concerned. They had no concept of an entrée or a multi-course meal.

They relaxed a little at lunch, providing us with plenty of laughs as we responded to their many questions. “Why are there two glasses on the table?” “These napkins are cloth. Are they the same thing that I use to wipe my mouth?” “Why did they put the dessert out if we can’t eat it yet?” “We have to wait until everyone gets their food before we can eat?” Adorable.

All levity vanished the moment that they heard that it was time for committees. All of our students nervously fumbled around, making sure that they had their placards, their folder with paper and their speech, and their pen. With thirteen different committees, we could not go with them all. Many of them went into committees where they were the only Lakeview delegates. As I watched them head out, I hoped that the brief advisor meeting would pass quickly so that we could get into those committee rooms to watch them present their bills. I thought that might be the only time we got to watch most of them at work.

Five hours never passed so quickly. My colleagues and I slipped in and out of committee rooms, watched our students at work, watched them nervously step forward and watched them succeed. We had no time to prep them to ask questions of other bill presenters or to formulate arguments in support or opposition of other bills. We had only briefly prepped them to sum up their own argument in their closing speech. Our students did not let that stop the,. They watched, learned, and executed. By the end of the night, ten out of our twelve bills passed out of committee. The joy on their faces when they posed for a “We passed!” picture? Indescribable. Most of them exceeded their own expectations.

These kids ended the day with completely different expectations. They entered the conference intimidated, believing in their inferiority to the other more experienced, more privileged delegates. They went to bed determined to succeed. They showed up the other delegates at their own game and knew it. Several of our students expressed their disbelief at the lack of good behavior they saw in many of the other delegates. A couple of them commented on the racism directed towards them in committee. Little did we know that was just a preview.

Monday we headed up to the Statehouse itself. My face could barely contain my smile as I took the picture of them standing together on the Statehouse steps. I knew that what we were doing was already making a difference when, as we passed the statue of Ben Tillman, their first response was, “we should write a bill next year to make them remove that statue!”

Things moved into high gear and started to get heated when our first bill pair stood up to present their bill. Their bill would extend eligibility for instate tuition to all South Carolina residents, regardless of documentation status. Lakeview certainly hit the ground running. The first delegate to stand in opposition to the bill started down the track of racism both covert and overt that directed itself against our students repeatedly throughout the day. She consistently referred to undocumented immigrants as “illegals,” claimed that this bill would give them something for free and spouted off that if they wanted to go to college they should have come here the right way or pursue citizenship because that’s supposedly such an easy thing to obtain. (Keep in mind that South Carolina residents affected by this bill would have immigrated as children, brought by their parents.) Our students rose to the occasion. The first, an eighth grader, stood and quite elegantly and passionately defended the bill, remembering several of the talking points we covered with them in the debrief session the day before. Then, in the second affirmative speech, one of the two white students on our delegation stood up in support. That was the moment our entire delegation united as a team. I felt so proud of all of them. The cherry on top came when the bill passed!

I could talk for hours, and already have, about the many highs and lows of this trip in intricate detail. I could talk about the concerted efforts of entire delegations against our students for no other discernable reason other than racism. I could talk about the enormous smiles on those two students’ faces when their bill passed in the Senate. I could talk about the heartbreak four of our girls faced when their bills failed in the House, when the cards felt stacked against them. I could talk about my own frustration upon learning that our first bill had fallen victim to the Youth Governor’s veto, how as I encouraged those young men to continue the fight like those who fought for civil rights, I learned how many of them must have felt when doors kept slamming in their face for over a century. I could talk about how I made a giddy fool out of myself in the hall with the other advisors when another one of their bills passed out of the House. This happened even with other delegates telling their friends not to vote for the bill because “they’re Hispanic”

This day transformed our students. They became victors. Youth in Government is a learning process but just like in life, sometimes you learn how to lose with dignity and win with grace. How can you not love those who go through fire and emerge with love?

This day transformed me. I liked all of these students before the trip. After that trip, I loved them. I learned what maternal love feels like. I learned how difficult it is to battle injustice with dignity when I saw it directed at those I love. My heart nearly burst with joy when I watched them succeed. How could this day get any better?

The bonding continued through the evening. I took many of them on a CVS run and made a distinct impression as the teacher with the (cold-induced) croaky voice who should have brought her whistle. Also, I am that teacher that let them buy candy and Monster; I must have temporarily lost my mind. After supper I lead a small group back to the hotel, skipping the dance, and also became known as the teacher who let them stop at Starbucks. When we returned to school the next day, one of those girls hugged me tight and thanked me again; she’d never been able to go to Starbucks before. Once we got back to the hotel, I saw first hand the devastation that broken promises leave in their wake and experienced the sheer joy that comes from being able to keep a promise for that girl who had lost faith.

Despite all the ugliness, all the “polite racism” as one student termed it, our students exceeded our wildest dreams and their own. Several won awards. We did not expect that. Lakeview won premier delegation; people noticed their hard work. We returned home exhausted but exuberant and then my heart nearly exploded with joy. The entire school stood outside their classrooms to cheer and clap for their classmates.

This trip epitomized why I teach and why I chose Lakeview.

Education as an Educator

Sometimes I feel like I go to more classes or trainings than my students. If I were to go ask others in the education arena, every single one of them would agree.

Before entering the school district as a teacher, every person must have at least a bachelor’s degree. To advance in any sort of meaningful way, an educator must earn a Master’s degree. To move into administration, educators must obtain a degree in educational leadership. To renew and maintain a teaching certificate the educator attends a variety of professional development for recertification points the total of which depends on the individual state regulations. Throughout the school year educators attend in school day PDs designed, hopefully, to equip educators with the necessary tools and resources.

I understand the motivation behind the regulations. The creators and implementations have good intentions. (I try to give them the benefit of the doubt as far as intentions go.) A lot goes wrong when it comes to implementation.

My first encounter with this phenomenon came with my initial foray into the profession. I attended a challenging K-12 school and later graduated with a bachelor’s degree in which nearly every class challenged me to work hard to earn the high grades. I entered my graduate education program with the expectation that my classwork would challenge me beyond what I had experienced in undergraduate education.

I applied myself with full vigor to these classes, only to find that phenomenon where you push or pull too hard and find yourself flying because of the sudden release. I attacked initial assignments with my usual overachiever vigor. Then I looked around and saw the results of my work and the work of my classmates. I ended up being challenged in a meaningful way only in practicum and student teaching. I did not realize it then but much of that challenge came from inadequate preparation and training.

When I started teaching the first time around, I marveled-not in a good way-at how so many trainings and meetings devolved into vent sessions. I had support from my instructional coach but little to no training on how to transition from teaching social studies or language arts to teaching Spanish. Naive and inexperienced, I figured that the skills I had learned would easily translate to the new subject. I had no training in developing multiple lesson plans; my first year I had four distinct preps. I spent most of those two years so completely underwater, I have no recollections of faculty meetings or PDs.

When I returned to school, I received what I craved, challenging, stimulating education. I had to work to earn this 4.0. I worked far more vigorously than I ever had to in my first Master’s degree. I knew that graduate work was supposed to be difficult.

After my long hiatus from teaching, I yearned for as much training as I could possibly have. I wanted to equip myself with as many techniques as I possibly could so that I could give these students the best education possible. The phrase “utter frustration” approximates my feeling after each so-called training. I either knew all the information or the training lacked any depth or both. Additionally, many of these trainings contained “discussions” with colleagues about an inadequately explained topic or a hands-on demonstration of a particular technique that added nothing to my understanding of the topic.

I hoped for better when it came to the wonderful opportunity to take graduate TESOL courses from Furman for free, courtesy of the district. I thought it would challenge me, finally. Not even close. We held many discussions, postponed due dates, significantly adjusted assignments to make them work for the students in our class. I had hardly any outside of class work to complete. I hoped that this current semester would hold more applicable subject matter. While it does, I now feel a bit of frustration with the material and in class meetings and their lack of specificity regarding the teaching of English Language Learners rather than students in general.

The icing on the cake came with the two courses I took this past summer as required to add the Gifted and Talented Endorsement to my teaching certificate, a stipulation on my employment contract. I knew that logistics would be difficult with all the travel I planned. I hoped to also have a bit of a challenge academically as well so that I could grow as an educator. What came with these classes blew my mind but not in a good way. We met only twice, once at the beginning and once at the end of each class. The remainder of the class “took place” in Google Classroom. The assignments looked on the surface to be somewhat vigorous, so the Type-A student within me indulged in a brief panic moment although that quickly dissipated when I observed the incongruity of the copied and pasted instructions with the format of the class and ability of the “instructor.” I could fill numerous pages with many ridiculous recollections but I will limit myself to just two. One, all of our assignments for the entire first class were graded on one day, more specifically within two hours. With approximately twenty students in the class each completing six assignments, I’ll let you figure out the ramification. Two, due to a much longer story, I never obtained the textbook for the second class, the one geared for curriculum and instruction. I cobbled together responses for the reading reflection as well as a unit and lesson plan with zero additional instruction or support. I based my work solely on prior knowledge yet I earned full credit.

All of these stories indicate a glaring discrepancy between perception and reality. Peruse the department of education’s website, specifically the certification requirement page. All of that looks good on paper. Require teachers to have technology proficiency while classes on the basics of Google docs provide points to satisfy this requirement. Require teachers of gifted and talented students to obtain an endorsement to show that they took classes to learn how to best teach these students while accepting credits from a substandard class. Require that teachers attend trainings outside contract hours so they can have a day off which results in additional time requirements outside of school. These teachers attend these trainings just to earn the hours which means they often bring things to grade or other things to finish, thus learning nothing from the “training.”

I struggle with the disconnect. It shouldn’t be this way. Something need to change. More requirements is not the answer. The problem is so endemic, I and others like me cannot change it on our own. A part of me wants to put something like “it might not ever change” into the discussion here. That would be giving up. I don’t do that. I also will not say that I have no answers. The reason that needed change seems so hopeless is that the solution requires a heart change. Educators on both side of the table need to adjust their approach. Right now the only thing I can do is change my own approach and advocate for change.

Prone to Procrastination

Recently I noticed a proclivity for procrastination and negativity creep into my daily routine. If only “recently” meant the last week or two. Weeks past, I opened the door just a crack or maybe I just forgot to close it all the way. Like a persistent weed, this proclivity took root. Half-hearted attempts to change have succeeded only in removing the above ground stem and leaves.

Enough of the botany metaphor.

Before I sink my trowel into the dirt and remove the weed by its roots (okay, that’s the last time) I must identify and locate these roots.

I talked about this before, but I know that some of the trouble started the day I came back to school. It’s present in many or even most professions but it appears to be particularly endemic to the teaching profession, especially for those teaching in Title 1 schools.

I won’t go into specifics here. That’s been done before by someone else and done well. (I will add a link to the post if I am able to locate it again.) In fairly vague terms, I will say that many of the things that have happened this year, unfortunately, are not unusual for many Title 1 schools across the country.

We deal with inadequate administrative support when it comes to discipline. That support comes instead in the form of increased expectations on the teacher. “Rigor” has come close to becoming a four letter word for us. We have to deal with entirely inequitable student distribution between teams. As an ELA teacher at a school on the brink of failure, extra administrative support from the school and district has been “given” to me.

That barely scratches the surface. On top of the involuntary time commitments and expectations given to me, I have placed other things on my plate. I am part of Bike Club and Youth in Government, both of which require extra after school commitment. I am absolutely passionate about both of these. Then there’s my homebound student. I initially took the job to make up for a lack of afterschool income. However, after meeting and working with hi, I have become passionate about providing all the help, even if it is limited, I can give him.

All of this plays into the procrastination I find myself so prone to. At school, I often find myself talking to colleagues during breaks and afterschool. Unfortunately, most of these conversations serve only as a chance for us to get things off our chests. This feeds the depression. At home, I often arrive after 7 with things like grading and other work still left to do because meetings or class consumed my afternoon.

Even with all that left to do, each night I pop a bag of popcorn (not the single serve kind) and then plop down on the couch with my iPad. I tell myself that as soon as I finish the popcorn, I will get to work. Then I finish and look at the clock. So often, 8pm looms. The amount left do do mushrooms.

I look at everything I just wrote and everything seems hopeless. It appears that I have written a recipe for burnout. Without God, this would be a recipe to create a burnt out, bitter, two times education quitting woman. I am so thankful that God has been working in my life lately to take what humanly seems disastrous and turn it into beauty.

The bring back the botany metaphor, what will serve as the trowel I will use to root out the negativity weed? To most, my answer looks like a cop out. That “trowel” is God. I know that I am not able to do any of this on my own. I want to start by asking God to change my words, to help me not only avoid complaining but fill my mouth with encouragement to my students and my colleagues. Step two comes with asking God to mold my heart into a mode of receptivity especially with regard to administrative demands. Third, I am praying for God-given reminders to put myself last. To help shed the “I need chill time mindset” that infects more and more of my days.

Even in the light of tremendous adversarial odds, I have faith that God will provide the necessary strength and wisdom.

Connotation versus Denotation

As an English teacher and an author, words are my area of expertise, my happy place. My love for words goes way back. I often revel in the rich texture and complexity of words, the layers of connotation added by culture and personal experience.

Recently, I once again delved into discussions of connotation and denotation with my seventh graders. This concept often flies straight over their heads, the first time at least. Each time I teach this concept, I learn how to convey the information a little better. This year I related to my opening monologue and current mantra, “words have power.”

How do words wield that power? From what source comes that power? Simply put, words wield that power through connotation, the source of its power. We each bring our cultural associations and personal memories. When wielding that power we also need to be aware of the context in which we speak, deferring to our fellow human beings, whose story we do not know.

When teaching this lesson I asked how we would know the connotation of the words people speak to us. They correctly identified facial expressions and tone of voice. I then asked how we would know if those words were written down, not spoken. They struggled with this but gradually figured it out. We discern the connotation of a word based on what surrounds it, the context clues.

So many people struggle with understanding connotations, even adults, some may say especially adults. The day I taught my seventh graders briefly about connotation, my dad posted an article about the gentrification of Greenville. I happened to see this as I scrolled through Facebook and stopped to read the comments after a completely egregious response caught my attention.

This man made blanket, sweeping statements, as he often does, about a people group concerning the cause of their poverty. As I responded, I pointed out the connotations of his words and the logical fallacy of his argument. Each time he responded, he persisted in devotion to a distorted interpretation of the denotation of the word “most.” Not once did he acknowledge that other people have personal memories and emotions tied up in those sweeping racist aspersions cast under the cloak of the word, “most.”

I came away from that conversation full of pity and sorrow for this man I have never met in person. I have no idea what it must be like to live in a world devoid of color and meaning. This conversation, that at times brought me nearly to baldness, deepened my own understanding of connotation. When a person takes the time to pause and examine the context in which he speaks or listens not only will that person derive deeper, fuller meaning, but he will also develop compassion for and empathy with the other conversation participant, a fellow human being also made in the image of God.

By slowing down to ponder the connotation another person brings to the conversation, I lower myself. I do not persist in the fallacious belief that I have all the right answers. I do not push down others in an effort to prove that I am right by hammering others over the head with a dictionary. “Christmas” means a whole lot more than “the annual Christian festival celebrating Christ’s birth, held on December 25th in the Western Church” to someone who lost a loved one on that day.

It’s hard to build a relationship with someone if all you care about is proving your point. It is even more difficult to share the amazing grace of the Good News to a person who believes that you care nothing for their struggles. In the end, yes, connotation is a literary term taught in schools from upper elementary school through college. I could memorize what it means and even how to “use” it on a test to guess the meaning of a word. However, when I slow down and ponder its power and implications, I come away challenged to put others first, to listen well.

Words Have Power

The night before the first day of school I had my second brilliant eureka moment concerning this school year. The idea turned into a monologue that set the stage for what will no doubt be my best school year yet.

During our last teacher workday my principal held up a handful of pencils and told us that we would find some in our box the next morning to give to the students. Although those pencils failed to materialize, that comment planted the seed of an idea in my mind.

As I attempted to calm my mind enough to sleep, I started to imagine what I would say to each class after I handed them the pencils. I often daydream like this, perhaps it’s my overactive mind’s way of burning off all the excess thoughts spinning circles up there. What started as a half-formed thought became one of the most amazing moments of my teaching career so far, an experience repeated in each class period.

I introduced myself with a few pictures and then told them that I was about to introduce them to ELA. I walked over to my desk and picked up one of my own mechanical pencils.

“What is this?” I asked.

“A lead pencil,” many of them answered, unsure of where I was going with this.

“It’s pretty ordinary right? I could probably break it if I wanted to but I don’t; I like my pencils. What if I told you this is the most powerful tool in the world?”

When I paused for effect, no one answered. I had them right where I wanted. The feeling was so surreal. That level of engagement, which continued to deepen, nearly overwhelmed me. I have trouble thinking of another time that has ever happened in my classroom before.

I continued.

“This pencil can be wielded to write words and words have power. Take for example, my name. I’m sure that most of you thought it difficult to pronounce when you first read it on your schedule. Who has ever heard of Armenia?”

Unsurprisingly, not a single student had. When I asked if any had ever heard of the Khardashians, it was a far different story.

“Armenia is a small country to the east of Turkey. Remember Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire from social studies last year? Well, back during the time of WWI, Armenia was part of the Ottoman Empire, an empire that was dying. A new group gained power and decided that the way to fix their country was to get rid of everyone who wasn’t Turkish or Muslim.”

I had literal chills at this point when I looked out and saw the connections being made in the minds of my students, connections to history or perhaps even current events.

“Over the next four years between 900,000 and 1.5 million Armenians perished in what is considered to be the first genocide of the 20th century. My great-grandparents came to this country mere years before this started but I grew up knowing this tragic history by heart. My parents divorced when I was 10 so I grew up with my mom’s family, the Armenian side. I didn’t inherit the looks or the name but I wanted so much to identify with my heritage. I went to a lawyer, paid several hundred dollars and then my request went before a judge, all to change my last name. That’s just one word, right?”

“But words have power!” many of them responded.

“Yes! Words have power. That’s what ELA is all about this year, learning how to wield that power responsibly.”

I get chills just remembering that moment, that moment that carried outside of class when another teacher told me that a student had talked about the fact that words have power.

As I step back and reflect on those moments, I realize that this may have been the turning point for me, the point when I became passionate about the weighty prospect of teaching English Language Arts to these amazing kids. This year will, hands down, be the best year yet.

These words have power.

Statistical Manipulation

On August 28, 2017, the Greenville News published an article on the salaries of many administrators in the Greenville County School District, my employer. I do not, however subscribe to the Greenville News and thus discovered the article two days later.

I will start this entry with a disclaimer. I hold no personal grudge against the Greenville News. Before reading this particular article, I have found their work to be as objective as a news organization can reasonably produce. In fact, not a single sentence written in this article could be considered opinion.

As a historian, however, I have spent years examining and evaluating sources. IN my current role as a 7th grade English teacher, I teach my students how to examine and evaluate that which they read. After all, words have power, even words which compose factual statements or are expressed in numbers rather than letters.

In this essay, I highlight a few examples of how statistics and numbers can be manipulated both by arrangement and by omission. These facts also carry additional overtones by way of word choice. I will quote the article heavily and will also include a link to the online version so all can see the complete edition.

The first line of the article also serves as the title. “More than 100 administrators earn six figure salaries in Greenville School District.” English grammatical convention expects that numbers ten and below should be written in words. Anything higher should be expressed in numerical format. Curiously, the author, Paul Hyde, chooses the connotation laden “six figure salaries” rather than, perhaps, “more than $100,000.”

Mr. Hyde then continues to add up the numbers of the salaries of the top 100 employees. Anyone capable of basic math could figure out that 100 $100k salaries would total $10 million. Obviously, a lot of money in the Greenville County School District is allocated for salaries, a foregone conclusion for a school district this large. The district employees 10,000 people. Next, Mr. Hide points out that none of the district’s 4,000 teachers make a six figure salary. This fact is also common knowledge based on the publicly available salary schedules on the district website. (I have included the link below.) By placing this fact directly after the statement concerning the $10 million total for administrator salaries, Mr. Hyde implies that administrators earn far too much money. Nowhere does he acknowledge the fact that the increased responsibility of administrators on all levels which should indicate increased compensation. The only caveat Mr. Hyde presents is that “teachers often work on 190-day contracts while many administrators are contracted for 245 days.” Even this fact obscures the reality that both teachers and administrators work far more hours than stipulated by the contract without additional compensation.

Then there is the numbers presentation that first brought this article to my attention. As I mentioned earlier, the author presents the number of 4,000 teachers. Only a few paragraphs later, the author states, “[m]ore than 3,300 Greenville County Schools teachers and administrators make $50,000 annually or above.” This number unfairly lumps together two sets of employees paid on completely different salary schedules and thus implies that many teachers also earn too much. (I will address this further in the next paragraph.” In fact, a teacher with a bachelor’s degree would have to work 17 years to earn above $50,000, a teacher with a bachelor’s + 18 credits, 15 years, a Master’s 11 years, a Master’s + 30 credits, 8 years and a Doctorate, 4 years. Most teachers enter the profession with a bachelors. By comparison, an administrator almost always earns above $50,000. Only the administrators at the lowest level of responsibility with the least amount of experience earn below that mark. After three years, all administrators earn more than $50,000.

Mr. Hyde next presents median household income in South Carolina as well as per capita income in the state. These numbers, $47,238 and $25,627 respectively, are both invalid comparisons for the following reasons. First, the population sets compared do not match. Both numbers include all households in South Carolina, not just the households with earners that hold at least a 4 year degree, a requirement for all teachers and administrators. The per capita number includes ever person of working age, those 15 years and older. Per federal law, minors are not permitted to work full time jobs which dramatically lowers the per capita number. This population also includes those who do not work. All people employed as teachers or administrators obviously are gainfully employed.

The article concludes by listing each of the top 25 earners in the district by name also giving their job title and annual gross salary. I have long known that my pay as a government employee is public knowledge. Why do taxpayer funded positions not deserve the same right to privacy, should they want it, as anyone that works in the private sector? Granted, my personal salary could be discovered only if I either told the amount or someone knew my education level and years of experience. These 25 people did not even have that much privacy.

This leads me to my fundamental issue with this article. Why? Why did Paul Hyde write this article and the others focused on the other upstate school districts administrative salaries? In the Facebook responses to this article, when people asked this question, Mr. Hyde and the Greenville News repeatedly responded that they had a moral obligation to “shine a light” on the allocation of taxpayer funding. When anyone can access all of these pay schedules any time on the district website, I fail to see the need for anyone to “shine a light” This “light” ends up becoming a blinking strobe light in a fully lit room, blinding anyone who looks in that direction.

This article creates a distorted picture not through inaccurate or false facts but by careful juxtaposition and omission. I end with a two-fold plea. First, to Paul Hyde and the Greenville News, as journalists, please strive to maintain objectivity in your facts as well as in your presentation. Second, to the reader, read deeply. Examine the text. Ask why. Only then will you understand the whole story.

Salary Schedules
Greenville News Article

When Funding Falters

I teach in a Title 1 middle school. Those in education know the lingo. Others likely have little understanding of the label and its ramifications. Certain subjects hog the spotlight. Poverty, especially in a region of growing affluence, is not one of them.

Title 1 provides additional funding for schools with significant populations of students from low-income households. Title 1 was first enacted as part of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The program provides funds to the school district which are then distributed to the schools. Greenville County School District is the largest school district in the state of South Carolina and the 44th largest school district in the nation. Out of the 21 middle schools in the district, three receive Title 1 funding: Berea Middle, Lakeview Middle and Tanglewood Middle. All three of these schools are located in the area generally known as West Greenville, home to some of the highest poverty neighborhoods in one of the more affluent counties in the state.

Why does all of this matter?

This funding provides critical resources that benefit the students tremendously on many fronts: academic, social and physical. These funds provide for the salaries of additional teachers to lower the student to teacher ratio. It provides funds for afterschool tutoring sessions and summer programs to help bridge the summer brain drain. These funds enable the schools to host health clinics and vision screening so students can get glasses and see the board in the classroom. These resources, when properly administered, help bridge the gap that poverty creates.

This year, as I stated in the title, the funding has, euphemistically, faltered. Certain upsides and downsides come with living and working in such a large school district. The size of the district means that the schools within its purview have access to a wealth of resources that smaller districts lack. However, a huge downside comes from an ostensibly wonderful thing. Over the past few years, one would have to hide under a rock to miss all the buzz about Greenville’s revitalized downtown and impressive economic growth. What has been largely overlooked is the inequitable distribution of that growth. Gentrification has begun around downtown Greenville which has pushed and continues to push low-income households into areas they can afford, mainly the west side of Greenville. I suspect that this movement also spills into surrounding, lower-income counties. This economic growth means that Greenville’s median income has risen. When that number gets put into the Title 1 funding calculator, out comes a number $3 million less than last school year.

The funding faltered. Who pays the price?

The students.

The median household income of our student body did not increase in a commensurate amount to the six figure additional Title 1 funding our school and the other twenty Title 1 elementary and middle schools would have received. Our Title 1 facilitator now has the unenviable responsibility of trimming everything she possibly can without causing harm. It’s like she’s forced to play a game of giant Jenga with the blocks already placed in positions with just enough support to remain upright on a windless day. So far, we know that our afterschool program had to be cut. The summer programs will also likely face the ax. Few, if any, teachers and administrators will be able to attend professional conferences which enhance their skills in the classroom. I’m sure much more that I am not privy to, has also been nixed.

Lakeview, however, is immensely blessed to enter its second year of partnership with a local charity startup, the CURA Foundation. These wonderful people have stepped up in a major way to provide so much like extra uniform clothing for needy students, winter coats, local field trips and even prize giveaways for teachers during teacher appreciation week. They also provide intangibles like mentorships and this year a partnership with Greenville Tech to open the door to advanced manufacturing. Students will learn about the profession, training and scholarships for Greenville Tech. I ams o excited for my former students to be given this opportunity.

As absolutely amazing as this is, these wonderful people cannot plug the gaping hole of a six figure funding cut. Few single individuals or charities have the ability to do so. That is one big reason that I have a huge problem with the Libertarian small government ideal but that is a topic for another post.

I have painted a rather bleak picture. Reality lacks rose-colored Instagram filters. I am not discouraged. If anything, I am energized, nearly overflowing with ideas of ways we could bridge that gap. Like I mentioned in my post on homelessness, the whole problem is not something I can tackle and solve as if I am Wonder Woman. I can, however, make the difference in at least one child’s life. I will, this year and all future years fight like Wonder Woman for these kids. I will not give in to pessimism and defeatism. I will set high expectations for them and do whatever I can to push them higher despite the faltering funding.

For example, towards the end of the year last year, my principal asked the English and math teachers to pick one of the bubble kids, kids so close to meeting state standards, to work extra with, motivate them to peak performance on the upcoming state tests. I chose a student in my lowest class, a student that several of us saw performing well at the beginning of the year but had subsequently struggled with attendance and self-esteem issues. I’ll call him Barry. So many times Barry told me that he know he was going to fail this test or that. He immediately dismissed any comment of mine to the contrary. I don’t know how many people, if any, ever told him that they believed in him.

As soon as I saw Barry’s name on that list of bubble kids, I knew he was the one I would target. I started by pulling him aside one day and telling him that I believed in him. No matter much he tried to deny it, I believed he could and would succeed. I kept reminding him, even when he decided to act all embarrassed or try to shush me before I could say it.

We got the state test scores back a couple weeks ago, the day I originally wrote this post. Barry popped that bubble. He met state standards. My heart about burst when I saw that. I cannot wait to find him once school starts and tell him, with a smile, “I told you so!”

This is why I continue to teach, why I am so passionate about education. This is why I will fight for my students and pay out of pocket for things when the funding falters.

This budget cut will not spell failure for our students. Why? I am just one member of a team full of people with the same or similar drive and passion for these amazing kids. Each of us will fight like Wonder Woman or Superman for them.

Back to School

Today marks the first day of my fourth year of teaching or year two of my teaching career reboot. I am excited for what this year will bring.

For the first time I feel confident. This time around I know the curriculum and the school. Every positive lesson I documented in my reflection provides incredible benefits for the upcoming year.

Last week I walked back into the building, ready to get things started. I greeted everyone I saw with a cheerful “Good Morning!” I headed to my new room with all of the things I took home back in June. I couldn’t wait to get my book cover posters laminated and up on the walls. I had to make a couple trips to bring everything in but I didn’t mind; I needed the steps.

Normality opened the door about half an hour before we met as a staff in the cafeteria. A fellow teacher walked over to my room with me and shared some information gleaned from the previous day, a day when many chose to come in to start the preparation process. Nothing she shared breached any written or unwritten codes of conduct. The conversation simple reminded me of habits I formed last year.

That cracked open door swung wide open during that afternoon’s department meeting sending cynicism careening through the open doorway. I realized with alarm and a bit of shame that my first reaction to a change in lesson planning or a new requirement was negativity. I, the all-knowing, knew without a doubt that whatever it was would not work and would simply add undue burden to our already overworked workload. (Sarcasm. obviously.)

Each time these thoughts intruded, I caught myself with a sharp, silent, “stop that, Jen!” I prayed for wisdom and strength from God to battle the all-powerful temptation. That night I went home and prayed extensively. This school year would not start out on that foot.

Wednesday dawned, a brand new day. We started with department meetings where my new cohort partner and I dug into planning the first unit of the year with one of those tools I had too easily dismissed the day before. God blessed me with another partner eager and willing to collaborate. Once I set aside the negativity and doubts, I started to get excited.

With Thursday came our back to school event where I met many of the children who will no doubt change my life over the next school year. I greeted a few of our old students, no “big men on campus” eight graders. I nearly finished my classroom preparation when I fired up the hot glue gun and hung forty book cover posters that I DIY-frugal-weirdo produced for the win. After I placed the last poster and stepped back, I felt like the room had gone from simply a room with some desks in it to my classroom. I feel more at home in this room than I have in any of the other three rooms from which I have taught.

I know that things will not always be easy. I know that administration will hand down weighty directives. I know that our test scores are low and with that comes increased pressure. I know that this year I will undergo ADEPT formal evaluation for the second time and with that comes additional workload and pressure.

Most importantly, I know that the almighty, omnipotent God who holds me secure in His hand, will provide all the strength and wisdom I need.

When Reality Intrudes – Homelessness

Every time I travel to San Francisco for the marathon, I encounter homelessness on a scale that I have not encountered any where else in my travels. Obviously, San Francisco is not the only city in the United States with a significant homeless population or even the city with the highest population. However, I see it prominently displayed in San Francisco, especially as we walk down Market Street.

At first this made me uncomfortable. I did not know what to do when I walked down Market Street the first time in 2012. Every few feet I saw another person lying huddled against the wall with a mound of belongings beside them. I did not know what to think about seeing a person pick through an overflowing garbage can. I had never encountered homelessness on a level like this before.

I wish that i could say that simple ignorance caused my discomfort. That certainly contributed. However, a large part of my discomfort came from many of the most common fonts of prejudice. I could list all of the individual fonts but they all stem from the fact that I did not view these people as individual people with unique stories. I saw them as “the homeless,” one large amorphous group where every aspect applies to everyone in the group. For instance, all homeless have drug problems or mental issues. All homeless are lazy and don’t want to get off their butt to pull their own weight. Even writing that now makes me cringe.

All of those terrible stereotypes have something in common. Each one of those statements places responsibility on the shoulders of the other person, the “homeless.” Those statements absolve the speaker of the obligation to help his fellow man. They give permission for the speaker to walk on the other side of the road like the religious leaders in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Over the past several years, God has used various circumstances and people in my life to help me learn how to value each person. Every human life has value. When you believe that, you can no longer view any person as an amorphous label. Labels cannot withstand such scrutiny.

Now when I go to San Francisco and walk down Market Street, the sight of each person both breaks my heart and makes me think. I wonder what their story is, what happened to them and what choices they made.

On this most recent trip, we walked past something I have never before seen in person. We walked down Market, heading to Honey, Honey Café for breakfast. I looked ahead and saw a small cluster of people sitting on the street side of the wide sidewalk. One girl had her arms raised while another guy leaned towards her. My first thought was that she needed some sort of medical help. Then we walked closer. You could say that the help he prepared to give could remotely be considered medical. As we approached and then walked past the pair, I watched him hold up a syringe filled with a dark liquid. I saw no more than that yet I couldn’t help but think about the stark contrast between the blatant middle class privilege we exerted as we headed towards brunch and their life, a life that clearly robbed them of dignity for their own life leaving them with nothing but that dark liquid.

Later that same day, we kept walking past people fast asleep, completely in the open. Mom commented several times that she could never do that. Ellis asked why. Mom stated that she would never be able to fall asleep out in the open like that with no security. That provoked serious thought. I’ve never thought about what it would take for me to be able to sleep. I remembered a time when I did not feel secure while trying to sleep. The first time I traveled to the UK, I ended up staying overnight on the last night of the trip in the Heathrow airport so that I would not miss my flight. One café remained open all night. Several other travelers hung out in this café for the same reason. I tried to sleep using my bag as a pillow with all my things bunched tightly under the bag figuring that if anyone tried to take something, I would wake up. I dozed periodically but slept anything but deeply or for any length of time. I had no security. I cannot imagine what it takes to lose that need for security.

We also encountered people suffering, in addition to a lack of a home and the security it brings, from some sort of mental illness. I often struggle with my response in these situations. Sometimes I am literally scared such as a few years ago in San Francisco. Mom and I stopped at a Subway on our way to packet pick up. At one point Mom left the table to use the restroom. A homeless man entered and wandered towards our table. He mumbled something about money. I never carry cash so I told him, “I’m sorry. I don’t have anything.” He cursed at me and walked away although he did not leave the restaurant. Mom returned. The man still did not leave. He continued to shout and curse at me. We hadn’t finished but we immediately got up and left, looking over our shoulders multiple times. We had no idea what we would do if he followed us. Thankfully, he didn’t.

On this trip, we observed a man sitting on a bench outside the Starbucks on Embarcadero. He carried on a vociferous, colorful conversation that made no sense to outside observers. This conversation drove away anyone else who thought about sitting on those benches leaving the man all alone. My heart broke for him. Mom observed afterwards that so many people say that “the homeless” need to be willing to realize that they need help yet some life that man, have no idea that they need help. How could they be the ones to seek aid? We need to go to them, to see their need and extend a hand.

While I know this to be true and want it to be true of me, I struggle with the application. While in San Francisco, I thought about this. I thought about the needs of the people I saw and how to possibly help them. I have no idea how to apply any sort of practical solution.

Perhaps, in the end, this is not my crusade. One human cannot solve the whole world’s problems. That’s God’s job. No, I go back to the observation that compassion begins with viewing each person as valuable; every human has value, created in God’s image. This is what drives my passion for the immigrant, for my students. At the beginning of the school year, this serves as a powerful reminder for those times when that particular student seems to have no redeeming value.

Bottom line, every human life has value. We should acknowledge, respect and promote that value.

A Toe into the High Stakes Waters

I am by no means an expert on the topic of high stakes standardized testing. However, as an educator, I have on the ground experience and an opinion based both on that experience, my own education and solid-research based theory. This post, as evidenced by the title, will barely scratch the surface of the topic even though it may end up being one of my longer posts so far.

First, I want to share a few personal anecdotes, examples of both good and bed experiences with school-based assessment. The first clear recollection I have of what I considered to be an unfair assessment came in fourth or fifth grade. I craved the A honor roll yet kept being foiled by my reading grade, ironic for a girl who read books as frequently as she breathed oxygen. While I do not remember the story or the exact question, I do recall expressing frustration at a question that asked what color the main character’s shirt was. I could not figure out what on earth that random fact had to do with comprehension of the text.

In high school I succumbed to the peer pressure of taking the easy language class, Spanish. (That choice had a significant impact on my life but is for another post.)That easy class did not adequately prepare me for college level courses. I almost did not get to test out of the first semester of Spanish in college. Why? Half of the grade in that high school Spanish class came from homework which was a completion grade. We did not even check over the answers. My teacher walked around the room, casually glancing over the assigned page. I saw that many times some of my classmates wrote nonsense words in all the blanks and still earned credit. We could also earn 10 extra credit points for going to a local Mexican restaurant, 20 points on “Mariachi Night.” My learning suffered from poor assessment.

In college I took a basic chemistry course and managed to earn an A despite my non-existent chemist skills. That’s because my professor crafted appropriate assessments, assessments based on the curriculum he taught that unit. Beyond that, before each test he allocated a significant amount of time to reviewing the topics that would be on the test. As he reviewed those topics, I went through my notes and marked that information. My classmates, for the most part, groaned about how difficult his tests were. I did not understand at the time why they thought that when he lai8d out the test so clearly to us beforehand.

As far as high stakes testing is concerned, I remember those tests being administered far less often, maybe once a year. Yes, I did attend a private Christian school. However, I also attend pre-No Child Left Behind era. This piece of legislation grew out of good intentions but led to a harvest of unintended consequences. That one test was administered over one or at the most two days. My students endured five days of testing spread over three weeks. That was just the official state tests for each subject. My students also had testing in the fall (to show how much knowledge they lost over summer break, I assume) in math and English Language Arts, benchmarks at the end of the first three quarters, testing again in the spring and a field test for the writing portion of the state ELA test. Anyone with half a brain can see that that is beyond excessive.

So where do we stand? To paint an accurate picture, I have to step back and look at the purpose for high stakes testing. At its roots, testing is meant to evaluate schools and hold them accountable to the high standard of excellent education for every student. Every student deserves an excellent education. Schools should provide this. Teachers should be well equipped to prepare and present that education in the form of daily classes in particular subjects. These teachers should strive to continually learn and grow through professional development that each district should provide for its employees. Local governments should provide adequate funds to compensate teachers properly and provide students with any and all resources each student needs to succeed. Parents should engage in the schools of their children and their local communities to hold educators and lawmakers accountable.

That’s a lot of “should”s.

The rubber meets the road when it comes to translating the “should”s into reality. How does every person in this process execute their jobs as prescribed? For many, the answer is testing. This testing, ideally, provides data on the effectiveness of the application methods implemented at every level of the education process. I am a huge believer int he use of data for analysis and application. If you don’t learn what works and what doesn’t, you run the risk of insanity caused by repeating the same action expecting different results. I also firmly believe that, just like words, data can be misappropriated, taken out of context, or simply be faulty. If the data does not actually measure what it is being used to evaluate, it has been misappropriated. If the data collection process falls prey to flaws whether intentional or accidental, any analysis based on that data is invalid and should not be used for decision making. Furthermore, data can be manipulated to produce desired results, especially if the flaw is introduced at the time of collection.

Here is how these flaws play out when it comes to high stakes testing. First, I teach middle school. Countless verified studies have proven that developmentally, the students are not physically capable of performing at an optimal level while also sitting for several hours each day without talking. There are outliers, of course. However, this developmental factor should play an important role in creating accurate assessments.Second, teachers are not, for legal reasons, ever given access in any way to the assessment. The reason behind this is obvious. With such enormous stakes leveraged on the results of each test, the pressure to cheat weighs heavy on many teachers and administrators. However, the extreme crack down on security has consequences that reach far beyond cheating prevention. The most significant is that teachers are unable to prepare their students for this all important test. I am talking about a concept fundamental to accurate assessments. When a teacher creates an assessment, she should create one that gathers data on what the students mastered after competent instruction. It should not be designed as a trap ready to spring on unsuspecting victims. After experiencing this round of testing, even without seeing any of the questions, I am drawn increasingly to the hypothesis that the questions on these tests lean towards the completely invalid method of assessments, those designed to trick the students, however inadvertently.

For example, ELA testing started with a writing test. Several weeks before that test, students took a field test. That field test consisted of one writing question. That made sense to me for an assessment of writing. Then came the actual test. That test contained way more than one question. Obviously, I do not know the content of the questions; I like my job and want to keep it. However, logic dictates that those questions must have concerned grammar and/or the writing process. This troubles me because the information given to us early in the year was that unless grammar errors interfered with understanding, said errors would not factor into the students’ scores. Thus, after receiving this directive, as much as it pained me, I modified my instruction accordingly. When it came time for the assessment, imagine my surprise and that of my students when more than one question appeared on the writing test. I felt terrible. I want so much for my students to succeed. That test, however, if it in fact looked like what I hypothesize it to have looked like, would have made the students feel less than. When a child continually fails, they internalize the belief that they are failures. When the student faces this sort of failure again and again in a short period of time, this internalization crystalizes and takes root.

A third flaw comes into play with regards to teacher evaluation. Most people realize that a teacher should not be evaluated solely on the test scores of the students. Some, however, persist in this terrible avenue. Charleston County Schools has recently dealt with something that could become a crisis. Rumors circulate that teachers are being evaluated on the test scores, the sole criteria. This potential crisis has reached the point of causing a principal to resign and publish his resignation letter in which he explained that he refused to evaluate his teachers on that sole criteria and thus was reassigned to a new school before he resigned.

Don’t misunderstand, I firmly believe that teachers should be evaluated and routinely held accountable. Test scores, if the test is valid and measures applicable data sets, can be used as one measure amongst several in teacher evaluations. Those sterile numbers do not factor in the child who forgot to take his medicine that morning after staying up all night on Snapchat. He just wanted to sleep so when faced with the prospect of part two to the test, clicked random answers for the remaining questions and presented the review page a mere 30 seconds after starting the second part. Those scores do not account for a student so new to the country that he has no paperwork in place to provide the same oral accommodations that some ESOL students who have been in the program for years. Those scores do not account for the student who decides, for no apparent reason to have a temper tantrum, shut off his computer mid test and lay full out on the floor.

If you wanted to play devil’s advocate, you could argue that good data factors in the inevitable outliers so that the average score is what is used for the purpose of teacher evaluation. That might work if these examples were outliers. I could, unfortunately, continue to list student testing behaviors that should not reflect on the teacher. Simply put, at least a the middle school level, students are not capable of sitting without fidgeting in complete silence for more than two hours, sometimes three.

Fourth, the high stakes nature of these tests comes from weighty purse strings and increased pressure from district personnel. My school, which I love immensely, ranks extremely low in terms of test scores. Because of these low scores, my district has allocated increased funding for reading and math as well as pressure to bring the scores up because the district has shelled out the money. Those purse strings and the responsibility that comes with them, comes at the expense of science, social studies, music, art, world languages and everything that helps complete a student’s education. Bills have recently come before the South Carolina congress eliminating or reducing testing in science and social studies. Every science and social studies teacher’s gut response is “Don’t cut testing! Our subject matters too!” Most of those teachers would also, if able, point out the flaws and shortcomings of those tests. Thus, their argument for continued testing of their subject succumbs to logical fallacy. The ends, adequate promotion of critical subjects like science and social studies, does not justify the means, ill-designed tests that gather invalid data.

After all this, where do we stand? The thing that is clearest to me is that the system is broken and in need of a fix. That fix will require hard work, political capital and the magic it-factor yet to be discovered.

These kids are worth it.