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Teaching With Heart in the New Millennium

February 12, 2012

[EDIT: see end of post]

Teaching is being redefined.

Sitting in recently for a detained LAUSD Superintendent Dr. John Deasy on KLCS Teachers’ Hour, I talked with a pair of teachers who represent the future of teaching – your future.  Dawn Cardon teaches at Locke High School, Paul Payne at L.A. River School; they are both respected colleagues who have contributed much to their students and our profession.  They discussed what is required to teach at today’s urban schools: unquestioning dedication; total collaboration; almost total self-sacrifice.

Los Angeles Unified School District and United Teachers Los Angeles have a new tentative agreement that says teachers can form their own schools and waive certain provisions of the regular union contract. (It’s “tentative” because it operates under a three-year Memorandum of Understanding). Both Dawn and Paul work at schools where the staff has elected to do this, with their students’ best interests, full accountability for all stakeholders and complete autonomy in mind.  Both have a significant voice in governance, curriculum, assessment and accountability and instruction in their schools.  They also serve in multiple roles that stretch far beyond the normal teaching day and the at-home grading and planning that we all do.  Each serves as a grade- or subject-level team leader, on their school site council and as a coordinator, mentor, tutor, counselor and quasi-administrator, as needed, in their respective small schools.

Dawn Cardon, Lisa Alva Wood, and Paul Payne

Dawn is in her fourth year as a math intervention teacher at her unionized charter high school.  Paul teaches math at one of five small high schools on a new campus.  Both schools serve low-income populations that are largely black and/or Hispanic, with small staffs.  Each describes serving the needs of children and their school communities by any means necessary.  Is this sustainable work?  Can we reasonably expect teachers to volunteer for this kind of duty?  Dawn and Paul both agreed – passionately – that investing oneself this way is part of establishing a committed and caring school culture.  It’s possible, they said, when we have strong principals who support us in our work and marshal resources on our behalf.  Both described a teacher interview process that includes a discussion of expectations, which may include an extended work/school day, professional development at $25/hour, and majority-rule decisions over such things as afterschool programs and Saturday workshops.

Both Dawn and Paul take this work for granted. They speak rationally and with passion about stepping in where they are needed because their children need them to do so.  We have to respect this kind of commitment and we would want it in our children’s teachers.  The new LAUSD/UTLA agreement gives any teacher group the ability to choose the configurations they deem appropriate for their own small school.  Teacher groups can now define their own duties. The tenets are fairly straightforward and can be viewed on the UTLA website.  But still, I worry.

I teach in a small school that is one of seven that were created from one comprehensive high school.  In the year and a half that we’ve been operating this way, I’ve seen human and material resources scrapped and teachers stepping into the breach. The work that was done by administrators and coordinators is now taken up by us.  While we know our colleagues and our children very well, the out-of-classroom duties are daunting and they have crept up on us until we scarcely have time to pause for a hi-how-are-you conversation.  Paul and Dawn, my hat is off to you.  I have managed dozens of projects while maintaining up to six classrooms and I always felt that my students and professional practice suffered for it.  I could not be the best teacher possible when I was also working on schoolwide tasks.  I cannot imagine having to coordinate the CAHSEE for my small school while also teaching four preps.  Maybe I’m just old.  Should I be cut from the staff roster because I cannot or will not coordinate, counsel, tutor and lead while doing my instructional best?  Under the new tentative agreement, if my school elected to take on the new autonomies, I would have a year in which to “transfer without harm.”  We haven’t even put test scores and value-added evaluations into this mix.

Many older teachers, who have seen reforms come and go at the whim of policy-makers, see the tentative agreement as a threat.  While I have always believed that the greatest classroom good comes from teachers making decisions together, I do see their point.  If 60% of teachers decide they want to reorganize, I’m likely to want to stay at my school because I love my children and now that I know them, I want to see them succeed. As the year goes by, I may discover that I’m not down with the duty roster or expectations. This happened to a girlfriend of mine who left a stable position to sign on with a pilot. The teacher-leaders, God bless them! were doing the best they could in the moment as they discovered layer after layer of new needs. Their principal, also a friend of mine, saw his duty as supporting his teachers – he is more a facilitator than a director.  The last time I ran an instructional program I had the same approach – teachers do know best. Give them what they need and let them innovate. So as my girlfriend’s teacher-leaders learned their jobs, they required more and more of her.  Sometimes, as a single mom, she couldn’t do the mandatory last-minute parent night or staff meeting. These things were not in the scope of her elect-to-work agreement, but they were definitely part of the school culture.

We all have treasures at our schools: the people who manage to find a way to teach multiple sections of Advanced Placement classes along with the “regular” ones; those who are always available to kids during breaks, and before and after school; those who coordinate trips to local venues and foreign lands; those who write amazing grants, and so on, and so on.  I watch them, love them, appreciate them, praise them, and then go home to face piles of dishes, laundry and dust, along with fiddle practice and my own children who have their own needs. And I am (hurrah!) a newlywed wanting to enjoy a mature relationship with a very valuable partner. Can I do it all? I have tried, and it takes more than 24 hours.

My school is replete with 20- and 30-something teachers who are on fire with collaborative projects, experiments, project-based learning and social justice.  “Where’s the heart?” one asked me recently. “You are such a good teacher, Lisa. You know how to get students to read better, learn grammar, and write well. But where’s the heart?”  Yes, indeed, my beautiful teaching friend, where is the heart?

The real question in front of us now is, is this the future of teaching?  Is this what new teachers, who have a discouraging attrition rate, have to look forward to?  It will take a truly selfless person – truly selfless – to look at this new landscape and want to step into it.  The LAUSD/UTLA Tentative Agreement aside, our rigid and pessimistic budget environment dictate these new terms to those of us in urban schools, regardless of our management model.

Are you a Millennium Teacher?

[Note: This blog post was originally posted as an ACT Guest Blog Post.  Lisa has since become a regular contributor to InterACT, and her old "guest" posts have been modified to reflect her authorship, and have had the original introduction removed.  - David Cohen]

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 12, 2012 9:06 am

    Lisa,
    I appreciate your insightful comments on what it takes to take on some of the changes that some schools are making. As I was reading, I was anticipating for you to address the toll all of this takes on one from a personal standpoint. The teachers you described are definitely exemplars for the public and policymakers who only are exposed to the negative aspects of our profession. I work with teachers who make home visits, work on Saturdays, lead field trips, and put in countless hours after school in order to provide opportunities for students from impoverished families and whom would never have exposure otherwise to the world outside of school. As a teacher of twenty-five plus years who is fully dedicated to the betterment of the profession, I have learned that there is a fine balance between the challenges of our field and one’s personal life. As you stated we only have 24 hours in a day and that requires us to be selective in what we decide to take on.

    I can identify with our teaching colleagues who view much of the proposed changes and new programs for teaching change with skepticism. However, I see hope in that we have many teachers young and old who are bursting with out-of-the-box ideas for reform and innovation in our field. Hopefully this will continue to fuel the change and not take a toll on those so dedicated to providing opportunities of a lifelong education to our students.

  2. goodnough permalink
    February 12, 2012 12:03 pm

    I agree with Lisa, and Chris who commented. This is something I have been struggling with for years. As an educator I want to pave a path of opportunities for my students and teach them to love learning. I want my efforts to make a difference.

    I spend countless hours on governance, curriculum, tutoring, grading, working with parents and advocating for education in the face of clueless (or so it seems) politicians who also want a voice. My family and friends pay an awful price for this and so do I. On the other hand, I do not want to feel helpless when policy or economics get in the way, so I stand up and fight for reform. The amount of energy I put into my job is not sustainable. It takes a toll on my health. I could not possibly expect others to be working this hard or reducing their salary to minimum wage based on the hours they put in. After all, they are all college educated. I also believe it shouldn’t be expected. It should be a temporary measure while we work to fix the support systems. At some point, parents and voters are going to have to stand up for public education along with us (hopefully before we all burn out). We need student advocates. We need policies, both economic and administrative, that support education and children’s needs. Less people just trying to look good or move up a political ladder would help also.

    Thanks for your post. It was thought provoking and meaningful.

  3. Lynne Formigli permalink
    February 12, 2012 4:31 pm

    As I read this excellent and thought provoking blog, I had two somewhat different thoughts…
    1, work/Life balance is critical to maintain. There are times when things get busier (right after the first set of grades come out) and times when things are easier, the ebb and flow of the work place. It’s fine to push harder to get through the busier times, but the key is making sure you can sustain it. We do everyone, including our students, a disservice when we expect a level of effort that is unsustainable of our educators, support staff and administrators.
    2. Everyone contributes in different ways. Some teachers make it to every sporting event, others open their classrooms after school for tutoring, others spend their own money on supplies, some are unable to devote time to school after hours, but may be the person that keeps the school website up and running. Some spend time and effort on political change which will have great impact on all of our classrooms. Not everyone does the same thing and it is important to acknowledge the variety of ways we contribute. we also are able to do different things at different times in our lives/careers.
    I believe an excellent school culture takes into account both of these ideas, and shows an appreciation for the diversity of the people who make up the school. Fresh ideas, energy and enthusiasm are great, so is the voice of experience which may help channel the energy productively so we are not constantly reinventing the wheel. We all have different experiences and attitudes at different times of our teaching careers, that should be a good thing.

  4. Cate K. Schroeder NBT permalink
    February 12, 2012 9:48 pm

    Am I a Millennium Teacher? I don’t know. What will the new millennium require of us as educators? Will it require teachers to teach those skills such as collaboration, communication on a global scale, to access and analyze information, to adapt and change, to think critically and problem solve? In which case, will the new millennium meet us? Will teaching in the new millennium be met with the resources, the reflective practice, the compensation and respect commiserate with the kind of work being asked of us?

  5. Lisa Alva Wood permalink
    February 13, 2012 8:49 pm

    Will teaching in the new millennium be met with the resources, the reflective practice, the compensation and respect commiserate with the kind of work being asked of us?

    Cate’s hit on a central question. I’d encourage all of us to take every opportunity to ask this in public. And to demand it from our administrators.

    Thank you for your insights, colleagues. Thanks for the cameraderie! Tomorrow I am seeking out as many of us as I can nail down; I want to shake hands and tell my fellow teachers I appreciate them and the work they do. It’s probably been a while since they’ve heard it.

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