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Schools Monday: A Teacher, Giving It Everything

In all the endless jabbering about how to make the District's schools better, the voices least heard tend to be those of the teachers. Parents, kids, administrators, outside experts, politicians all have their say, but teachers--in part because they often fear speaking out, in part because they feel crushed by the demands of their bosses, parents and kids--often don't get their experiences and messages out to the wider public.

All of which is too bad, because I've always found in reporting about schools that teachers know more than anyone else about what works and what doesn't, what is best left in the dream world of reformers and consultants and what is reality only in the minds of elected officials who care most of all about test scores.

So it's always intriguing to watch teachers experiment with letting it all out on their blogs. Most teachers' blogs tend to be anonymous affairs, usually not revealing even where the teacher works. In the District, teachers' blogs tend to come and go fairly rapidly--it's often a matter of just not having an ounce of energy left at the end of a teaching day or week. Most D.C. teacher blogs tend to come from young people who are in the system thanks to Teach for America or the Teaching Fellows program--idealistic and energetic teachers who end up writing a great deal about how their illusions are demolished and how hard it is to make it through their two years in the schools.

Blogging teachers tend to be driven nuts by the District's unfathomable and smothering bureaucracy. They are desperate to connect with parents who seem not to care. They seem to spend a lot of their weekends with one another, wondering whether they can make it through. And almost always, they are deeply touched by their students, even those who sleep through their classes. Young teachers tend to see these kids as damaged goods, very much hurt by the schools that pretend to offer them a way out and by the homes and streets from which school is supposed to be a refuge.

Here's a new 5th grade teacher at the start of a year: "In only five days in the classroom, I can see notable differences in my children. I truly believe that I can and will change their lives, and my battle to do just that is more exhilarating and rewarding than I can possibly express."

And here's a second-year teacher, expressing the frustrations that come pouring out whenever I talk to starting teachers in the city:

"What's the point of shoehorning kids into AP when they're beyond caring? What's the point of dragging them into Physics when the whole point is to have a sense of wonder about the world and a set of critical thinking tools they can use to examine that world? That's what education means to me. I'm not achieving that. I don't know if it's possible for me to achieve that with these high school kids. They're curious, all right. They ask questions all right, when I give them the opportunity. But they're too used to being spoon fed the answers. And when the answers aren't immediately available, they give up. And maybe they should. I mean, what's the point of giving them a glimpse of [what] their white, suburban counterparts are getting? It's not like my students are ever going to live in that world. So why show them something they can't have?

The thing is, is that I do care about and respect my students. They are people. They are nearly adults, and their decisions make sense for them, in the world they live in. Who am I to try to press advanced math and science on them, when they're so convinced they don't need it? Who am I to tell them that now, at the end of their school careers, they should learn how to study when they did just fine without knowing how for so very long?

I want to serve these kids. I want to be useful to them, and help them to achieve what they want. The best thing I have to offer is Calculus and Physics. That's what I know. But is that really of any use, to more than just a few of them? Isn't there some way I could be more useful, rather than killing myself teaching these classes when most of them don't need or want them?

This is the teacher whose blog I return to the most. I don't know who she is, but I like her--I admire her spirit and intentions, her commitment and her honesty. She's upfront about reporting the petty nonsense that her colleagues get obsessed over, challenging the administration over scheduling disputes rather than engaging on the system's efforts at wholesale change. She's frank about her own failings and frustrations in the classroom. She sounds like she'd be a good teacher to have in class.

People's blogs don't necessarily reflect their actual personalities, but some of the teachers who blog are using the medium to reach out to colleagues and friends, but also to the wider world. In doing so, they add voices that are too often left out in the eternal search for answers about schools.

By Marc Fisher |  December 10, 2007; 7:03 AM ET
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In a site created for one Washington area elementary school this past September, teachers have started blogging to create a professional learning community. http://www.clairvoy.com is the website. There's a Teacher Support Team which is like a Dear Abby for teaching strategy. Individual teacher blogs and discussions as well.
The site is 2 months old and is now getting 50,000 hits a month from all over the United States and Europe.
As teachers share their thoughts, feelings and strategies about teaching through journals (blogs), discussion groups and wiki pages, everyone can learn from one another and the site is completely search able.

It's a good tool for any teacher looking for answers.

Yes, the site is "anonymous" but that leads to greater sharing and allows teachers (like me) to talk about what's really going on in their classrooms. It's hard to talk about a situation involving students when everyone knows your name, school, county ... at that point the cat's out of the bag and any reference (no matter how veiled) to a student is easily identified.

Posted by: smith | December 24, 2007 5:30 AM

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