Why I’m Glad I’m Not a Kid: Part One

Recent trips into the classroom at one public school where I work has inspired a series of blog posts. In fact, it’s reminded me to be thankful I’m not a kid these days.

My main job is to be a writing superhero. My alter ego works as a substitute teacher in local middle and high schools. There are plenty of things there to inspire my creative side, as many blog posts attest.

Unfortunately, all is not magic and unicorns in the realm of public education.

I’ve known this to be true for many years. It’s the main reason I decided NOT to pursue a degree in education when I went back to college in 2010. But in the final weeks of the school year, it was reiterated to me.

Why am I glad I’m not a kid?

Because education in the 21st century is all about meeting regulations and ranking well on state assessments.

Back in my day, school was about learning to read, write, do sums (and other math you never use in real life) in a social environment where you were expected to get along with everyone.

Learning at School?

Isn’t school supposed to be for the purpose of learning?


And not learning how to bully others. Or make excuses for late homework. Or perfect the art of doing as little as possible.

Believe me. Spend a few days in the average public middle school, and you’ll start to wonder.

Who decides what kids are taught in school?

Did you say the teachers? You’re wrong if you did.

Not even the school board has the ultimate power over curriculum.

Nope. Big Brother gets to say what will be taught in school.

Or else.

The fact they require kids to spend weeks and months learning things that do NOT help them understand their culture or prepare them to be an adult isn’t even the worst of it.

It’s not?

High school teachers and counselors in our school district have been heard to say, “Middle school doesn’t really count.”

So, what are they doing there? Why are we wasting six or seven hours of our time hanging out in classrooms?

Every day of school should be preparing kids to be responsible adults. Primary school should focus on the basics of reading. Once they get to third grade, throw in the basics of math. Without those two things, they’re not going to be able to succeed in the upper grades.

Nor will they be able to fill out a job application or make a budget.

Citizenship in School

I’ll be the first parent to tell you that it isn’t the school’s job to teach my kid to be a decent human being. Sorry. If you wait until your kid’s five to start teaching courtesy, discipline and respect, it might be too late.

It is NOT the school’s job to teach my child values or how to treat other people.

School needs to be a safe place to learn the complexities of social interactions.

How do I react if I have to work with a stranger? What if I get stuck with someone I don’t like? What should I do if my teacher doesn’t like me?
And the answer is NOT tell my parents and have them call the school to put me in an ideal situation.

That’s not life. School social settings should prepare kids to face the interactions they will have in the workplace. We’ve all had to work with someone we didn’t know or didn’t like.

I might be the only one who’s ever had a boss that I didn’t get along with, but I’d like to think it’s a common occurrence. And my mom didn’t rescue me from that person because that’s not what being an ADULT is about.

Staff at school should model ideal behaviors, sure. They shouldn’t tolerate bullying. Yes, they should keep kids from beating each other up because school is supposed to be a safe place.

Natural consequences should be allowed to fall on students in cases when it doesn’t mean bodily harm. For example, if you’re late too many times to work, your boss will fire you. There should be consequences for being late to class.

And I don’t want to hear your excuse. You either have a note from an adult…or you don’t. That’s all I need to know.

We’re only hurting the future of our society by failing our students in school. They deserve to learn to read, write and do math, and they should be held accountable for obeying the standard of conduct required in the schoolhouse.

Politics in School

I’m not saying that learning and citizenship don’t happen in schools these days. But those aren’t the priorities.

Government has their fingers in the U.S. educational system, and they like to generate red tape. Schools rely on the government for funding, so they have no choice but to march to the regulatory drumbeat.

Or they can shut their doors.

What happened recently to remind me of politics in school?

A teacher who taught both of my sons and I’ve worked closely with for a decade is transferring to a different position. I didn’t know asking her about it would open a can of worms.

The school has decided to combine language arts and social studies for middle schoolers. This isn’t a new or unusual thing. We had it before when the students could have a humanities block—two class periods for this class.

That isn’t what’s happening. Teachers will be expected to cover the learning goals for both subjects in one hour.

Furthermore, they’ll only receive one day of training on how to do this.

I hope the trainers are handing out Time Turners or some other magical device that will stretch one hour in to two (or ten).

How can students be expected to learn twice as much content in half the time? How can teachers be expected to teach twice as much content in half the time?

The biggest problem I have with this: the school is doing this because of budgetary constraints. They will use fewer staff to teach in this way.
Because money is what education is all about in our world.

I’m sure schools were funded the same way when I was a kid, but there weren’t common core standards and annual state assessments back then.

We went to school to learn how to be a productive citizen of the United States of America. That’s why the founding fathers pushed for public education for all people.

Kids these days are getting the short end of the learning stick. And our country will reap its dues when these under-educated people are running our country in a couple decades.

Are there things you’ve noticed about kids in school that make you grateful to have grown up in an earlier era?

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Back in the Classroom

Once upon a time there was a girl who loved to play school. She didn’t care if she was the teacher or the student, she just loved school. That little girl jumps for joy every time I get a call to substitute teach.

If you know me at all, you understand I have a LONG history of spending time in the classroom. My longest employment was with the St. Helens School District, where I worked as a classified substitute and temporary classroom aide for six years before getting a regular job.

My first two years were as a cashier in the cafeteria at a grade school (while still taking the temporary overload classroom aide positions). Finally, I managed to land a job as a special education instructional assistant at the middle school. I was there for seven years before leaving to pursue this writing gig.

Now I’m back in the classroom. Because this writing gig feeds my soul and keeps my hands and head flying in numerous directions, but it doesn’t pay well. Not with all my contracts being for royalties only. And I don’t push or publicize my self-published titles.

The Position

When I began pursuing my English degree, I planned to get a restricted substitute teaching license when I finished. That was 2010. At the time, there was a shortage of substitute teachers and some of our best subs had degrees in anything BUT education.

All that changed in 2012. School districts all over Oregon were down-sizing (had been since 2007). Suddenly, there were more licensed teachers than positions. The substitute pool became bloated with all these graduates who couldn’t score their own classroom.

Most of the districts rescinded their use of the restrictive substitutes. People who had these licenses were allowed to continuing working until the expiration. No new licenses could be issued.

When I graduated in July 2013, that was still the state of things in the substitute teaching world.

This fall, the substitute pool was depleted. Not enough people floated in the thing to cover vacancies.

The major school districts went on a recruiting campaign. They sent out a flyer to all the school reinstating their use of restrictive substitute licencees to fill classroom teacher roles.

The secretary at the middle school where I worked kindly forwarded the email to me. Her note: “There are plenty of people here who would love to see you subbing in our classrooms.”

Alrighty, then.

soitbegins

The Process

First step: Attend a half-day conference-like event at the NWRESD (Northwest Regional Education Service District). They supply subs to most of the districts in northwestern Oregon.

At this event, you found out how the process worked, completed an interview and filled out an online application form. They would notify you within a week or two if you were selected to continue in the program.

Hurray! I was selected.

Step two: Register for the ORELA Civil Rights examination and pass it ($95).

Then November happened. As you know, I was writing a novel in three weeks and taking a week-long vacation to the Oregon coast for Thanksgiving with my sister.

Step three: Attend a full-day training session at the NWRESD offices.

This is where we learned about the expectations of the job. Also, they gave tips and tools for surviving in a crazy classroom. The best part was acting out different scenarios.

Yep. I can still perform the role of snotty, rebellious teenager with pizzazz.

We also filled out all our employment forms and had our photos taken for an identification badge. I still have yet to see that badge, so who knows if the paperwork is even ready.

Step four: Complete the fingerprinting and background check process ($74)

I performed this step the Monday before Christmas, but the state never acknowledged it until a month later.

Step five: Submit the application with the appropriate fees and information (including certified transcripts). The fee had to include a $99 expedite fee or else you wouldn’t see your license until June. Just in time for it to expire. The application fee was $129.

Step six: Get a bunch of emails from the state acknowledging every slip of paper they get. However,the email stating what is still required – which is what the HR gal said they would send – never came.

Ever.

Two month after I sent the application (does that sound like expedited service to you???), I got an email stating my license was issued. There would be no paper license mailed and I should print the email for my records.

The Payoff

When I wrote this post, I had been in the classroom four separate days. However, I haven’t completed a payroll cycle yet.

I’m hoping theirs a payoff. It seems like the figure was $150 per day (before taxes, of course), I haven’t seen any actual money.

If you do the math, you can see that I’ve spent close to $300 to get the license. And it expires June 30, 2016.

Here’s hoping the renewal process involves fewer hoops and red tape. The next license will be good for three years.

I’ve discovered a renewed ear for teenage dialogue already. Getting back among my target audience is one of the primary reasons for going through all this rigamarole.

The State sent me a questionnaire about the fluidity of the process. Do they really want me to complete it? I think my numbers will skew their data toward the negative end of the scale.

The good news: I’m out of my office and in the classroom, interacting with teenagers.

I’ve missed these guys.

School Begins: So will this argument about dress code

Is this really about treating girls like sex objects?
Is this really about treating girls like sex objects?

Most of the time, I just blow off the millions of memes I see on Facebook, especially when they’re obviously nothing more than a soapbox. For some reason, this one stabbed deeper than others. Because enforcing a dress code has nothing to do with shaming or promoting misogyny.

I worked in the public education system for nearly fifteen years. I sent girls (in 7th or 8th grade) whose breasts were hanging out of their strappy camisole to the office for a “real” shirt.

I am a die-hard believer of successful education, which means I support dress codes. AND there’s no point in having rules if they aren’t going to be enforced (state and federal governments might care to remember this).

Since I’m a woman, it’s obvious that I don’t hold these beliefs because I believe I’m nothing more than a sex object. Of course, I am from a pre-70s generation, so I’ve probably been brainwashed by societal norms *rolls eyes.*

Anyone who knows me is doubled over with laughter. Here, let me give them a moment to collect themselves.

This meme is a perfect example of the tendency in American society to blow every little thing out of proportion while claiming it has something to do with discrimination.

Alert: Dress codes exist everywhere

At the schools where I worked, guys were dinged nearly as often as girls for inappropriate dressing. Mostly it had to do with their pants pulled so low those boxers they wanted everyone to see were hanging out.

The rule: undergarments can’t be on display.

How many of us would go to work with our undergarments on display?

(Other than those of us who work at a home office where sweats and pajamas are part of the norm.)

School is about preparing young people for adulthood.

Unfortunately, some people are counting on the school system to teach their kids things that only parents should be addressing.

“Because what if those parents don’t talk to their girls about menstruation or birth control?”

Yeah, what if that happens. Because that happens quite frequently? Systems are being constructed around the exceptions in society rather than the majority.

And I probably just offended someone with that statement. Maybe even a multitude of someones. Please read on before you compose your diatribe for my comments section.

You can’t change physiology, folks. Teenagers are walking hormones. They’re going to be distracted by things like what a person’s wearing.

How can a teacher compete with that?

A girl who’s worried about being told to cover up her assets isn’t thinking about how her education was interrupted by this trip to the office. Do people really think that? Or is that just a reason they know will bring attention to their gripes?

In fact, most of these teenagers would go along and get along if media didn’t push issues like this to the forefront of everyone’s mind. I’m not saying they would be drones, but they’d learn. In this case, they could understand the point of enforcing the dress code.

It has nothing to do with discrimination. It’s not about reinforcing some perspective that women are sex objects.

It’s about teaching people to follow the rules.

I’m not going to bring in the statistics about the ever-increasing misdemeanor crime among young people. You live here. You know it’s a problem.

Maybe it’s because rather than telling kids, “Those are the rules. We don’t have to agree. We don’t have to like it. But we do have to follow them;” parents and media are encouraging them to defy the rules they disagree with.

As if teenagers need any additional incentive to buck the system.

The fact is, we do have to follw the rules. At school. Or work. In public. Otherwise, there are consequences.

At home, dress how you want. Watch what you want. Drink it, do it, knock yourself out. At home, you make your own rules.

But rather than bashing the school’s standards, support them as necessary for that time and place. Fight them through regular channels if you truly feel they’re unfair, biased, or out-dated.

For the next two weeks, I’ll post on this topic again. Next up: a letter to the teenage girl referenced in the meme that started this fire under my feet. The third post: a letter to the teenage boy supposedly being taught to regard girls as sex objects.

What do you think? Feel free to disagree with me. All I ask is that you use the same amount of respect you want when people argue against you.

Banning Unrealistic Expectations

Unrealistic expectations about body image

In a society where expectations rule decision-making processes, it’s past time to understand the difference between those that are realistic and unrealistic. We owe it to ourselves and our families to put a ban on setting unreachable standards.

Beginning on March 10, a series of posts about expectations has been featured on this blog. The links will be provided here, but for those of you joining discussion today, let’s recap.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize unrealistic expectations are dangerous. They derail dreams and avalanche over hopes. Not just for young people either, but the danger to them is greater because they are still forming their values and personalities.

One expectation that seems to be gaining momentum is the idea that everyone needs to go to college. Even human resources department feed this fiery craze by making a college degree required for an entry-level position. Nothing is more damaging to a person than to have a boatload of student loans for a costly degree that doesn’t net a career placement.

A high school diploma is essential. Unfortunately, bureaucrats making exit exams a requirement to attain one have boarded the crazy train. Too many courses required for a high school diploma have no practical value. It’s time to return to the basics of education rather than making high school all about preparing for college (see previous paragraph about college expectations).

Another thing that discourages many teenagers is the push toward knowing what they want to do as an adult. Some high schools build four years of education around what a 14-year-old says he wants to be after he graduates.

How old were you when you knew what you wanted to do for a living? Are you doing that thing you first dreamed was so awesome? It took me right at 40 years to finally follow my dream.

Along with all these unrealistic expectations, I wrote a post about things we should expect. None of these have to do with the economy; all have to do with character. Every human on earth should be expected to work hard, be responsible and accountable for their choices and actions, and show respect to others.

Unfortunately in our world, decisions about graduation requirements and acquiring a college degree to sort mail are above our pay-grade. In our push to have everything handed to us, we’ve handed the control to government and industry.

If we really want to keep unrealistic expectations from ruling our lives, we need to take back control. I’m not talking about a revolution. Let’s start small, bucking the system by becoming involved.

Maybe attending a school board meeting to share your views about ridiculous standards is a start. Everyone pushes you to write or call your congressman. How many do it? How many have well-constructed, reasonable arguments to present?

If you’re a parent, you can start by teaching your kids about responsibility. Theirs. Don’t perpetuate the fallacy that government will fix all their problems. Those bozos on Capitol Hill have demonstrated how to make mountains out of molehills and accomplish very little that benefits the average citizen.

Don’t let the media convince you to look a certain way, buy certain clothes, or drive a certain car. Check out those Hollywood icons and athletic superstars. An unhappier bunch of people you may never find. These are the trendsetters we want marking the path for us to follow?

 Can we ban unrealistic expectations in our world? Share your thoughts. Let’s talk it over.

Embarrassment: An Effective Teacher

Some people have embarrassing moments.  I tend to bypass those and move straight for the humiliating.  As an example, imagine breaking down into tears in the middle of teaching a classroom full of teenagers. Embarrassment? I think even humiliation is a kind euphemism.
The first time it happened to me was my first year as an instructional assistant.  The teacher assigned me three reading groups, each reading a different novel aloud and then discussing it together.  Everything seemed fine until I saw the title of one of the books: Where the Red Fern Grows.
“I can’t read this book,” I tell her.
“What?”
“I can’t read this book.” Repetition is often the key to understanding.  For emphasis, I shake the book at her.
“Why not?”
“The dogs die.”
Blank, non-comprehending eyes stare back at me.  What part of “I can’t read aloud a book in which dogs die” is so difficult to understand?
With a heavy sigh, I admit with unapologetic sharpness, “I cry every time.”
She nods.  “I know.  It’s sad.”
That’s it? It’s sad? I think heart-rending, painful and guaranteed to induce tears is more accurate.  My stunned disbelief must be apparent because she asks, “Would you like to take a different group?”
“What are the other books?”
She gestures to the stacks of novels on the round table behind her.  I step around her to peruse the other titles.  The Outsiders featuring gang wars and a boy who burns in a church.  Not really any more appealing.  Next to that is a stack of red paperbacks:  Number the Stars about the Nazi occupation of Denmark.  Not a very exciting story, but at least it has a semi-happy ending.  The final book is The Bridge to Terabithia.  I have recently read this since she hinted that it would be one of the novels we were using.  Do I think reading about a best friend dying will be more palatable than the dead dogs?
“I guess I’ll stay with this,” I tell her.  As unappealing as the thought is, I comfort myself with the fact that it will be weeks before we get to the sad part of the book.  I’m pretty sure I feel a sick day coming.
Instead, the day we read about the coon hunt gone awry is such a summery spring afternoon that we sit outside beneath the tall evergreen trees.  Wind ruffles the pages.  The fresh, pine-scented air brings the reality of the woods at night clearly to mind.  I try to cover up my emotions, but there’s just something about a clot of mucus in the throat that makes speaking impossible.
Three young teenagers are aghast, practically gaping while my tears threaten, unwilling to be quelled.  Understatement:  I feel mortified.  However, their attention has never been so completely focused on my face or words.
“Are you crying?” one girl asks.
Gulping down the infernal throat-frog, I admit, “This part is so sad.  It always makes me cry.”
“I hate when animals die.”
“I cried when we had to put my dog to sleep last fall.”
Who knew overly dramatic, hormone-driven teenagers could be compassionate and empathetic?
The next time, it wasn’t quite as horrifying.  Reading one-to-one with a student decreased the audience.  The scene described a heart-to-heart talk between a misunderstood daughter and her recently remarried dad about the mother’s passing. A few tears fell.
“Are you crying?” my student asked, turning to stare at my face with wide eyes.
“It’s really sad,” I choke out.
Afterward, she tells the whole class how sad her book is and she’s not sure if she likes it anymore.  When she whispers to her friends a few moments later, is she telling them how weird it was when Mrs. Hughson started crying? I refuse to feel ashamed.  My tears prove that effectively written prose can evoke deep emotions.
Today, however, was a completely different ball game in front of the entire class.  How I managed to read about the notification from the army of the young soldier’s death without even batting an eye, I’ll never know.  Stymied at last, the clog begins to form while reading the reflection on the unimpeachable character of the recently departed.  Why is it that “Only the Good Die Young”?
Of course, I must appear strong, so I attempt to struggle through it.  I swallow, blink rapidly and even try to clear my throat.  I look toward my feet so I won’t see 24 eyes staring at me expectantly.  Waiting to hear the rest of the story? Or waiting to see me break down and sob like an over-emotional, pre-menopausal, middle-aged woman?
It’s no use.  I can’t go on.  The teacher who I assist steps in and I have to step out.  Red-faced and red-eyed, my emotions ooze from every pore.  One Kleenex, and then another, before I’m also red-nosed.  What is wrong with me? Did I break down this way when I read the book at home a few weeks ago? Maybe.  It seems the tears have fogged my memory banks.
When I return, the classroom atmosphere is akin to a morgue.  All eyes once focused on the teacher, turn to follow my progress across the back of the room.  I take a seat next to one of the boys.  He’s writing, or doodling, but he looks up.  His eyes are wide, his lips slightly parted, a question obvious in his eyes, “Are you okay?”
“They were as good as gold after you left,” Mrs. Tayler tells me later.
We’re talking about the last period of the day. On any normal day, this group could enter a chat marathon. Today, every one of them understood the seriousness of a single moment.
Just call me Confucius, I guess. I’ve created a new proverb: A teacher’s embarrassment is a great teacher.