Saturday, November 17, 2012

Stop! It's Lotto Time!

We are in week 12 of the most dismal year ever. 

Our new superintendent (a member of the Rhee camp), wants to shake things up and has said he is quite okay with a 25% turnover rate. In a school district of 10,000 strong, that’s 2,500 teachers that would get fired, quit, or disappear (never to be heard of again).  Keep in mind that this bold statement is coming from a guy who has been unable to fill the 300 vacancies (which has currently grown to almost 400) that this school system has had since week 1. 

Every day I am looking over my shoulder. Just tape a big red and white target on my back. 

My grade level team decided to start a little lotto pool between ourselves. Yes, it has come to that. In my 16 years as a teacher, I have never had the serious desire to get out until this year. As one of my co-workers stated last week: “My joy has been stolen.” And like the Sting Soul Cages tour T-shirt that was stolen out of the laundry room of my apartment complex 20 years ago, I don’t think I’ll ever get it back. 

They just push and push and push. Threaten and threaten and threaten. They blame and blame and blame. It is my fault that my students come from poor single parent families that are on welfare, multiply like rabbits, and don’t value education enough to give it 10 minutes out of their day. 

I think we have all had it. I’m looking for a way out, and being that my degree is not exactly conducive to going into another field, I’m going to start playing some numbers. After all, you can’t win if you don’t play.

I think if I win, I just won’t show up the next day. No phone call. No email. No sub-plan. 

5 years from now, people will still wonder about me. “Whatever happened to Mr. Ed U. Cater?” they’ll say.  

It will become a story of legend. “The last time anybody saw him, he was leaving from his classroom in a daze, muttering to himself about DOL’s, Objectives, Spot Observations, and not being able to make a horse drink,” someone will respond. 

“I heard he’s living under a bridge….that he just snapped,” someone else will say. 

And, I’ll be sitting on the beach, sipping a Strawberry daiquiri, thinking sadly about the shit that my colleagues have to shovel through everyday.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

This month's TAKS testing is the first step to unfairly judging teachers

The TAKS test has arrived. In upcoming weeks, teachers will be trying hard to review concepts and clear up misconceptions. Some teachers have tutoring sessions before school or during lunch. Some continue tutoring during their planning periods or after school. Some may do all of these things.

Stress levels, no doubt, are high. After all, nobody wants to be the one responsible for an “unacceptable” rating at his campus. But are these ratings fair? What do these ratings really say about a school, and how does the average parent or concerned citizen interpret them?

I’ve been teaching for 15 years, and not once have I ever worked at a school that got an “exemplary” rating. What does that say about me as a teacher? That I am substandard? That I’m not as good a teacher as the one who teaches at “exemplary” Fill-In-The-Blank Elementary? It absolutely does not. But I have no doubt that this is the way many of Dallas’ public-school-criticizing citizens think.

I’ve always wondered what would happen if they moved the teachers at an “exemplary” school into a school that was rated lower and vice-versa. I suspect that results would pretty much remain the same at both schools.

The public perception does chip away at my morale at times. There are many great, hard-working teachers at my school, and I’m sure it probably bugs them, too. Who doesn’t want to be categorized as “exemplary”?

Some schools have more challenging populations than others. Are there oncologists out there with 100 percent cancer cure rates? No. Does this make them bad doctors?

If Top General Hospital boasts a 90 percent cancer cure rate while Average Joe General Hospital has only a 70 percent cure rate, does that make the doctors at Top General “exemplary” while the doctors at Average Joe are only “acceptable”? Of course it doesn’t. It all comes down to variables like biology and resources.

In the case of the biology variable, we are dealing with human beings here, not inanimate objects. We don’t have total control over what goes on in Johnny’s head, just as doctors don’t have total control over cancer cells. We can offer treatments, but not everyone responds the same. Perhaps Johnny can’t sleep because of late-night partying in the apartment next door. Perhaps Johnny can’t do his homework because he is taking care of his own siblings. Perhaps Johnny is homeless. Perhaps Johnny prefers to act out at school. The list of variables is endless.

In the case of the resources variable, not every school is the same. Some schools have exceptional PTAs and tremendous parental involvement, while others have none. Some schools are neighborhood schools, making it easier for kids to stay after school for tutoring. Other schools have to pay for late buses to take home a select number of after-school tutoring kids at the end of the day. Some schools are overcrowded, while others are not. The list of variables here is endless as well.

Many Dallas teachers work at schools that face many of these challenges every day. We work hard every day, and we try to reach as many students as we can. I have taught math to homeless children, abused children and foster children. I have taught math to refugees from war-torn countries such as Iraq , Burma, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. But how would anybody know that by just looking up my school’s rating?

In spite of these challenges, my colleagues and I are proud of our “exemplary” efforts every year, and we really don’t get any kind of recognition for it. We just get lumped in with the criticism. I guess this just makes us best-kept secrets.

Monday, February 21, 2011

When will we make education our top priority?

In the true spirit of getting all those extra special features on the DVD or the Blu-Ray, I am going to post my unedited column here (along with a link to the edited version). How exciting! It's like you're getting a behind the scenes look. So, without further adieu, my latest column in all of its unedited splendor.


While driving down to San Antonio to visit my parents for Thanksgiving a little over 12 weeks ago, a little pebble flew out from the back of a dump trunk and hit my windshield just directly above the inspection sticker. The damage was a 3-inch horizontal crack.

After a week passed, the crack was still there, and I had not made any attempts to have it repaired. From time to time, I would mention to my friends that I needed to get that crack fixed. But, my plate was full, and my wallet was thin. It was all about priorities. I was busy shopping for Christmas gifts, having the brakes on my car fixed, paying the dentist, and paying for my cholesterol and blood pressure prescriptions. The crack descended to the bottom of my priority list.

Today, the crack is still there, but thanks to the winter blast of 2011, it is now 12 times bigger, reaching almost completely across the span of the whole windshield. Needless to say, my priorities have shifted a little and the windshield is now near the top of my priority list.
Education (and the education system in general), it seems, has always been treated like the crack on my windshield. We talk about it a lot. We pay lip service to it all of the time. Some people speak of how the system is broken and needs to be fixed. Politicians speak of leaving no child behind or the importance of winning the science fair over winning the Super Bowl.
Unfortunately, there are going to be no winners when DISD (and other school districts across the state) start cutting teachers, counselors, and administrators. There are going to be no winners when classrooms sizes increase to fire-code-threatening levels. There are going to be no winners when entire campuses close and when fine arts programs are cut. Apparently, this seems to be okay with many of our leaders, too.

Teaching, as we know it, will change if these cuts occur (and not for the better). I can’t even begin to visualize student desks organized in any kind of way besides rows and columns. I can’t even see how there would be room for the 4 student computers that I currently have in my classroom. I have a hard time seeing how I am even going to maintain any sense of order and structure if my class size increases by 10. I am sure that many DISD teachers would agree with me in those assessments. I know many non-teachers out there don’t believe it, but teaching is hard. It will feel almost impossible next year when these cuts are implemented.

Does anybody out there even understand how this scenario could send a ripple throughout the country? The inability to successfully educate our children can only eventually lead to higher drop-out rates, crime rates, poverty rates, teen pregnancy rates, and the list goes on. This is not good for anybody, even people who don’t have children in school. Everyone is a stakeholder whether they like it or not. There is an old African proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Sadly, this village called the USA doesn’t seem to care too much about that. There will definitely be children left behind.

Like my cracked windshield, education is being taken for granted. True, there are many problems with the educational system in America. There are many things that need to be fixed and dealt with. We could say that there is already a small crack in place, no doubt. When these cuts happen, there will be a huge crack across the windshield when all is said and done. Will we deal with it?

It is all about priorities and education just doesn’t seem to be that vital. The government will bail out the private-sector banks and huge corporations in the best interest of the economy and its citizens. Who will step in and help out our children, teachers, and schools? Taxpayers will fund a 1.2 billion dollar stadium to have the Cowboys in their backyard. But, when it comes time to pay property taxes, will they complain about it because they don’t even have a child in the school system?

Weeks ago, people from all over conglomerated here in North Texas for the Super Bowl. Tons of money was spent, pockets were lined, business owners smiled (even if the weather put a damper on it). The 2 quarterbacks that competed make million-dollar salaries. Big time companies spent an average of $100,000 per second for an advertisement during the game. I like that Obama said it, and I never expected it to come to fruition less than a month after his speech, but we’ve got a long way to go before being the winner of the science fair will take precedence over winning the Super Bowl.

Link to the column as it appeared in the Dallas Morning News:

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Super Waste

Soon, people from all over will be travelling to North Texas to watch the great spectacle that is the Super Bowl. Arlington spent tons of money to update their local airport in order to accommodate the influx of private planes that will be landing there. Airlines have added extra flights to accommodate all of the Super Bowl travelers. Hotels are practically booked solid. Road improvements and beautification projects have been sped up and completed so that the visitors to North Texas can remember that this area was a nice place to visit.

Over 100,000 people will attend, paying upwards of $600 a ticket for upper bowl to $900 for lower bowl (face value of course). More than likely, they will pay even more than face value for those tickets. And how much are luxury suites? Upwards of $250,000, maybe? I really don’t know for sure, but when I Googled it, that number appeared quite often as a low-end figure. I’m pretty sure it is safe to say that great amounts of green will be exchanging hands in North Texas for Super Bowl week. Just imagine. If each of the 100,000 people that attend actually only pay $600 for a ticket (which we know is a low-end estimate), that generates $60,000,000 right there. If you build it, they will come. Jerry built it, and they are coming in droves with their wallets open, ready to spend. It will be a great game I’m sure.

Companies will pay millions for their 30-second ads that will run on television during this grand spectacle. It is such a great exposure opportunity since millions of people will be sitting in their houses tuning in on their flat screen TVs, waiting for their pizza to be delivered, and for Stan to get back from his beer run. When Stan finally gets back with the beer, they will be able to rewind the DVR so that he can watch the spectacular play that he missed while he was out at the neighborhood grocery store that now has a permit to sell beer and wine, thanks to a recent city election. He won’t miss a second of what is sure to be a great game, I’m sure.

People will brag on Facebook and Twitter about how much it cost them. They will say it was worth every penny, though, and would do it again without a second thought. They will post videos of the Black Eyed Peas doing their halftime show and brag about how amazing it all was. OMG, That was a gr8 halftime show! And, it will be a great halftime show, I’m sure.
Afterwards, they’ll probably complain a little bit about the traffic situation after the game. They may even complain about $8 beers, ironically. But, deep down inside, that will just be a minor imperfection to what was a fantastic experience. They will get back in their private jets, their commercial airline, or their SUVs and travel back to wherever they came from, thinking positive thoughts of this very hospitable area. They will think to themselves, “Hmm..what a nice area. I should come back here someday.” And, the citizens and businesses of North Texas will truly be hospitable, I’m sure.

Come Monday morning, everything will be back to normal. The hotel, airline, retail and restaurant industries will be checking their ledgers and counting profits. The TV ads will be judged in all kinds of media, generating even more exposure. The NFL will start worrying about whether there will be a next year. Ted Williams will be on the news again. Diane Sawyer will host a new follow-up special to the “Congresswoman and the Astronaut.” And, school districts across the state will go back to work, trying to find ways to cut costs while still educating students. Some districts will decide to cut pre-k programs. Some will decide to cut school nurses, librarians, music teachers, and assistant principal positions. Some will increase class sizes and shut down campuses. Some may do all of the above, and more. And all of these decisions will lead to bright and successful futures for our young ones, I’m sure.

I’m as big a football fan as the next guy, but priorities are priorities, and something seems a little off center to me. Finland and Korea, watch out! Here we come!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Frustration Factor

Here is a link to my third column for the Dallas Morning News, which appeared in December of 2010.

Michael Haring: The frustration factor Dallas-Fort Worth Local Opinion Columns News for Dallas, Texas Dallas Morning News

Update 2/21/11 Here is the column in its original unedited format:

I have always had a pessimistic personality by nature. I have found that I am pleasantly surprised a lot more often if I’m pessimistic. So, as a teacher of elementary school students in DISD, I find myself having very hopeless thoughts about the future of the human race more often than I care to admit. I have worked with the “future” of mankind now for 15 years and they are suddenly starting to approach the part of my life when they start becoming my “present.”

Working with students in DISD has always felt like an uphill battle for me, like using a rock and slingshot to fight off an approaching tank. I am not just talking about academics either. I’m talking about character qualities such as love for your fellow man, respect, and citizenship as well. Please don’t get me wrong. There are many smart and intelligent DISD students with excellent character out there. But, in my pessimistic view, more days than not, the future looks bleak to me.

On my drives to work, I always find myself letting out a sigh and muttering to myself, “What am I going to do with these kids?” On my way home from work, the same thoughts penetrate my mind. It happens all of the time, whether I’m pushing a shopping cart collecting my groceries, pumping gas, or waiting in line in the drive thru window, the thought is always there with me. Even during the summertime, it can be continuous and intrusive. What am I going to do?

This year, my school was fortunate to be the recipient of many kind gestures from churches and other charities, giving back in more ways than I have ever seen as a teacher. They have provided needy students with clothing and school supplies and extra food for them to take home on weekends. They have provided a spruced up lounge for the teachers and new carpeting for the school auditorium. And, then for Christmas, one charity even adopted the school and gave wrapped Christmas gifts to the children. What a grand gesture!

It was so great to see the kids excited to receive their gifts. Unfortunately, the greatness for me, was short-lived. I soon had a sour taste in my mouth because in the midst of all the generosity, were trickles of ingratitude and ungratefulness here and there... more than I’ve seen before. Comments like “I didn’t get all of the things I asked for” just stabbed at my soul. Students who consistently make bad choices, went right back to making their bad choices. And, to top it off, a lot of the ingratitude came from some kids who have benefitted from clothing donations or extra food in the past. I sighed and thought to myself, “What am I going to do with these kids?” Sometimes, it just feels like an exercise in futility. I want to put my rock and slingshot down and surrender to the tank.

But, then I opened the card. It was a re-gifted greeting card. Underneath the standard holiday print and stock message, the signatures of the previous senders had been scratched out with pen. Instead, the signature of one of my students filled the space below (a student who has struggled with math since the day she walked in my classroom door, but a student that has continuously made progress throughout the year). There was also a personal note that anointed me, “Best math teacher ever” and notified me that I “rock.” What a grand gesture!

I realize that it is not just me. To reference a popular and current documentary film, I am not Superman. There are other teachers that have worked with her as well. Her older brother (one of my former students) has also worked with her. And I have no doubt that her parents have worked with her too. But, she was thoughtful and considerate enough to let me know that she appreciated me for what I do.

What do I do? I get up every morning at 5:45. I shower, shave, and get dressed. I think to myself, “What am I going to do with these kids?” I pick up my rock and my slingshot and I head out the door with the hopes of winning this uphill battle.

The Upside of Down Time For Schoolkids

Here is the second column for the Dallas Morning News which appeared in October 2010:

Michael Haring: The upside of down time for schoolkids News for Dallas, Texas Dallas Morning News Opinion: Viewpoints

Update 2/21/11: Here is the column in its unedited format

When I think back to my 6th grade year, one thing that stands out vividly in my mind is a tag game we used to play at recess called “Lions”. It always attracted a large group of players and it was always something that I looked forward to with great anticipation. The rules were simple. There were 2 bases at opposite ends of the rectangular playground. One person was picked to be the lion (usually through some version of Ee, Nee, Mee, Nee) while the other 10-20 players would be the prey. The prey would run back and forth across the Savannah grasslands (i.e. the playground) trying to reach base. The lion would try to tag them as they ran across. When one of the prey was eaten (tagged), in a true passing-of-the-energy down the food chain fashion, the prey would then become the new lion offspring. By the end of the game there would be a few prey left and 20 bloodthirsty lions waiting to tag them as they crossed the playground. It never failed that the final remaining prey were always the “fittest” ones that were incredibly quick on their feet, juking and jiving their way across the playground trying to make it to the other side.

Back then, we would have recess after lunch for at least a good 20 to 30 minutes. We looked forward to it without question. We relished that time. It was our time to interact with each other on a non-academic level. It was our time to problem-solve and find ways to get along. It was our time to get the blood pumping. As Forrest Gump might say, it was our time to run.

Now, flash forward to present day. Old Macdonald had a test. Here a test, there a test, everywhere a test, test. Teachers, schools, districts, states are all under the microscope for test scores. So, in the interest of filling students’ minds with all of the necessary knowledge they need to be successful on their tests, recess is going by way of the lion’s prey. After all, how does it look if a child is outside playing when they could be inside learning? There is not enough time in the day to fit recess in anymore. The urgency lies in getting test scores up. A new superintendent to any school district would say that his or her main goal is to get test scores up. Never in a million years would he or she say that the goal was to get heart rates up.

But, despite what people may think, recess is important. If you look in any education textbook, there is always a section in it addressing the importance of playtime in the development of a child. If you have any experience teaching, you don’t even need a textbook to tell you that. The exercise and socialization that goes on at recess allows the children to burn away their daily residue. It helps second-language learners aquire the new language. It helps all kids re-energize. And let’s just face it: kids need to run. Childhood obesity issues make the evening news at least 2 or 3 times a month. Some children don’t even have a safe place to exercise at home. What better place to do it than the school playground?

Most of us adults went through our elementary school years with more recess than today’s children. We also went through our elementary school years with less standardized tests. We turned out okay, didn’t we? Yes, I understand that the world is getting more competitive and it is not the same as it was when we were kids. But, surely countries like China aren’t skimping around when it comes to the physical well-being of their young students, are they?
But, what about corporate America? Out of curiosity, I went to the Fortune magazine website and looked up the 100 best companies to work for. Is it a coincidence that a lot of these top companies offer on-site workout facilities for their employees? Wouldn’t exercise time in the company workout room decrease employee productivity? Obviously, it doesn’t, or such perks wouldn’t exist.

So, maybe there really is something beneficial to having the opportunity to blow off steam or burn away stress. Maybe there is something beneficial to making our children into lions. Or should we just settle for making them into prey?

My Teacher Could Have Protected Me

I've been writing some volunteer columns for the Dallas Morning News. Here's a link to the first one that appeared back in September 2010:

Michael Haring: My teacher could have protected me News for Dallas, Texas Dallas Morning News Opinion: Viewpoints

Update: 2/21/11: My unedited version of the column has been added below.

Spaz… Spaz…. Spaz…. Spaz… Spaz… The chanting continued in an audible whisper. More voices joined in. The chanting grew louder and quicker. SPAZ..SPAZ..SPAZ..SPAZ.. Finally, the teacher interjected with an, “All right everybody, get quiet.” The interspersed giggles and chuckles in the classroom started to subside as I continued my walk to the front to make my presentation. I don’t quite remember what that presentation was about 27 years ago. But, I can never forget that incident leading up to it.

All it took was one voice.

A good friend of mine had started the chant. It was from a scene in the movie, “Meatballs,” which I had only seen small portions of on cable. I was familiar with that scene then, although I can’t quite remember it now. Spaz was the nickname of a nerdy, socially awkward character in the movie. Of course, there was a chanting scene in the movie as well. That day, in my 7th grade Language Arts class, it was truly a case of life imitating art.

I was not pleased, but I took it in stride. Don’t let them know that they got to you, right? I read my report and sat back down. But, the damage was done. My confidence was shaken. I had always been a smart kid, but equally as shy. Getting up in front of a group of people and speaking was always a challenging task. But, on that day, I was silenced for good.

Each school year thereafter I always got a seat hidden in the back of the classroom, with my hand firmly planted by my side…never in the air for fear that the chanting might start again. I only spoke when I absolutely had to or when I was called on to answer a question. My A’s and B’s suddenly weren’t making as many public appearances anymore. I grew proficient at always being able to find just the right moment to “feel sick and go see the nurse” or “go to the bathroom.” My 7th grade teacher had taught me how to be a ghost.

I blame my teacher’s inaction for the spaz incident. I don’t blame my friends. They were all just ignorant 7th graders who didn’t know any better. But I do wonder from time to time, what kind of person I would be today, if my teacher had maybe laid into them just a little bit more. Would I have become more confident and outgoing in my future life? Only a DeLorean with a flux capacitor can answer that question now. One thing however, is certain: a safe environment would’ve at least given me the courage to volunteer again. A safe environment would’ve kept me out of the nurse’s office or the bathroom. Regardless, my teacher chose not to address it directly.

Back then, I wouldn’t have thought of that ordeal as a bullying incident (just as today’s kids may not be able to recognize their own experiences with bullying.) I’m still hesitant to call it bullying today, but the more I think about it, the more I believe it was. Bullying exists on another plane besides the physical one. The physical one is the one we, as a society, tend to address the most (and sometimes not enough at that). The mental one is the one we tend to ignore the most (after all, sticks and stones can break our bones, but words will never hurt us.) We as adults know this to be false, yet we continue to spout that off to our children and our students because we don’t know exactly how to deal with it.

But, deal with it, we must. If we don’t defend our children, we will be emboldening them to do something more harsh. 9-year-old Montana Lance of The Colony was being bullied. It bothered him enough that he decided to end his life. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were frequent targets of bullying, before they decided to end their lives and the lives of many others. You can Google the words “bullying suicides” and see the names and the stories for yourself. It’s an epidemic and it’s getting worse. It is time for society to truly address it and come up with a solution.

Some people have thicker skin than others. Some people can fight through it, but they don’t come through unscathed. For me, my wound is my apprehension of sharing myself, my thoughts, and my ideas. When the ghost appears, everybody loses. I don’t put myself out there often enough. People who don’t know me, may actually think I’m stuck up and aloof. And, sadly, I never get to know them.