Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Giving Thanks

What am I thankful for?

I imagine elementary school teachers across the country are getting their students to answer that question this Thanksgiving holiday week. My answer to this question never changed from year-to-year: I am thankful for my family, my house, my friends, school, food, money, and video games. Pretty standard.

Of course, I wasn't really thankful for my family, but I couldn't really say that without consequences. It would be quite awkward to be the only second grader in class who didn't put family on his "What am I thankful for" list. I knew better. I was aware of the things that raised flags in the eyes of others. And so every year, I announced to the world that I was thankful for my mother and father with a big smile on my face. No Mrs. Robinson, those aren't fingernail gouges on my arm. Surely you're mistaken. I just fell into some bushes playing basketball outside.  
What an idiot, I thought. You can't play basketball at my height.
It wasn't until my brother was born that I finally had something to be thankful for. In the black and white portrait of my life, his birth sparked something new: a desire to protect. I'm ten years older than him, so I've always considered myself a brother-father-hybrid. As my father slowly transitioned from an abusive alcoholic who could still earn a paycheck to an abusive alcoholic who could not, whatever positive presence my father had in his life diminished. My mother increasingly put more pressure on me to take care of him, because she was too tired. "I've sacrificed too much for you," she often said.
Note: To my future children, if I ever say that to you, a spirit has taken over my body. Call an exorcist immediately.
My brother's existence kept me from severing ties with my family after they refused to show up to my wedding or accept my wife into the family. For nearly three years after my wedding, my mother refused to talk to me or let me communicate with my brother, so we kept in touch in secret. Last spring, she gave me a half-assed apology for her behavior and absence at my wedding. I accepted it with the hope that she and I could work together to ensure my brother put forth his best effort in his final years of high school.

This Thanksgiving holiday, my brother was supposed to come stay with me in New York City. He's a senior in high school and I wanted him to spend some time working on his college applications with my wife and me. We'd planned this for months and even had my mother's approval, but as the departure date approached, things soured. My mother realized that my brother's college applications were my weakness and she threatened to not let him visit. For the entire week leading up to Thanksgiving, both my mother and my father (under the manipulation of my mother) avoided my phone calls.

On the morning of my brother's flight, I finally got in touch with my dad. "I don't know if I'm comfortable with him going to see you," he said. "I need to think about this. What if something happens to me? I need him to stay at home."

Clearly, he was bullshitting me. "Dad, he's visited me before. You even knew about it. Plus, he doesn't even stay at home after school, he works part-time. And if something happens to you, that's because you refuse to quit drinking. Why are you preventing my brother from seeing me? What the hell is going on?"

"You're a fucking bastard. I hate you and your wife. Go to hell. You've never done anything for me," my dad yelled.

I hung up the phone on him. I knew it was pointless talking to him when he was slurring his words anyway.

Trying to get in touch with my mom was futile, so my wife convinced her father to try to talk my dad into letting my brother visit. They talk on the phone from time-to-time, so it was worth a shot. Bad idea: my mom intercepted the call and her inner monster revealed itself. She screamed obscenities at my father-in-law for interfering with our family affairs. She called him some really nasty shit. Poor guy, he was only trying to help. Unfortunately, his call further fueled the fire.

For the next five hours, she repeatedly called me, yelling at me for getting other people involved, calling me a selfish prick, accusing me of being my wife's bitch, telling me I've never doing anything for her, forbidding me from communicating with my brother, the list goes on. Childish. I stopped picking up my phone and let her go straight to voicemail. I think she finally stopped calling after the eleventh voicemail.

The chances of seeing my brother diminished. The minutes passed. Incoming text from my brother:  It's impossible man. It really is. You don't know what's going on here. I'm sorry.

For the first time in an eternity, I cried. I think I really could have killed someone at that moment.

Still, I give thanks to you, my dear mother and father. Thank you for reminding me that I am still human. Thank you for showing me exactly what I shouldn't do with my children. Thank you for reminding me how important my brother is to me. I will never stop trying to protect him from you. For his own sanity at home, I won't let slip the dogs of war just yet. I'll remain radio silent. I'll wait.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

How to Not Run a School

Thomas Edison once said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."
I'm going to be honest: it's only midway through November and I think my school is on the verge of falling apart. Maybe that's an exaggeration, but it seems as if we're trying to go out of our way to make things more complicated, pointless, and ultimately, not fun. School should be a fun place for teachers and students. As it is being run right now, it is not.

Over the past week, I've spent a considerable amount of time during my off-periods wondering what the hell happened. Three years ago, this place started with such a great culture and attitude. That feels like a long time ago. There's a long list of things that have been eating away at me and everyday, something new gets added on. Decisions are being made without foresight. Things that I thought would obviously be implemented have not been implemented. I thought we would have figured out at least something by now, but we haven't.

I hated investment banking for a lot of reasons, but dammit, those guys knew how to run their shit. And they were damn good at it. The BSDs knew exactly when to provide an incentive. They paid their monkeys just enough to the point where money wouldn't be an issue, and that's where they squeezed the most productivity out of us. They knew how to maintain talent. They gave us a chance to act like family once in a while: go out, dine on expensive dinners, abuse your perks, but most importantly: work together. And because of that, we monkeys wanted to climb to the top. That's not exactly how it works in education.

Leaders in education are either extremely ineffective teachers, or super effective teachers who eventually get so burned out they quit in a very short amount of time. I think what this industry really needs is a straight-forward list instructing potential and current administrators on what not to do when running a school. I will get the ball rolling:
  • Do not tell teachers to come up with "artifacts" of student work, but then ration out how much paper you are willing to provide. See next bullet for a follow-up on this.
  • Do not expect teachers to differentiate in classrooms if each teacher is given only one ream of paper per week for printing purposes. Different teachers use different amounts of paper as different students require different teaching strategies.
  • Do not ration paper to the staff while simultaneously buying expensive, brand-new furniture for all administrators. This includes brand-new and completely unnecessary conference tables, shelving units, and leather office chairs. It's a school, not a fucking corporation.
  • Do not buy new refrigerators and microwaves and expect the staff to not use them. As a follow-up, do not then move these appliances into your own office so as to passive aggressively tell the staff these appliances are off-limits. That's just low, man.
  • Do not run professional development sessions through the use of chart paper and sharpies and expect your staff to implement 21st century technology in classrooms.
  • Do not tell first-year teachers to avoid "fraternizing" with senior teachers. Collaboration does not come from dividing members of staff.
  • Do not "randomly" decide to "rearrange" classroom assignments in the summer by putting all new teachers on one end of the school, and all senior teachers on the other. See bullet point above.
  • Do not rate your teachers "unsatisfactory" simply to show them who is in charge.
  • Do not tell your teachers, "This may not be the place for you," due to a personality clash.
  • Do not provide a vague grading policy and then weeks later say, "Student X has a very high/low grade in your class. Can I see all of student X's work and your syllabus for the semester? Justify his/her grade for me."
  • Do not claim your school is a "21st-century technology school" without actually having a space for students to use computers, print papers, or access a physical/digital library. As a follow-up, do not spend ridiculous amounts of money on laptop carts for each classroom and expect teachers to sit around after school supervising students who would like to use the laptops after school because they do not have access to computers at home. 
  • Do not put brand-new, untenured teachers in charge of curriculum development for the entire school.
  • Do not reward mediocrity by putting up posters with student names on them with the title, "Only Failed One Class." If you do decide to put these up, please take them down before Parent-Teacher Conferences, or you will have parents asking, "Wait, what? You put up a kid's name even if they fail a class? What kind of school is this?"
Okay, so this was kind of a rant and I may or may not have been listening to Dashboard Confessional while eating Cookies n' Cream ice cream writing this. You don't know what it's like, dammit! Maybe my kids do.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Not a Shock

A recent study finds 8th grade math and science students perform better on tests when their teachers spend more class time lecturing rather than providing group-work or other problem-solving activities. More details about the article and study can be found here.

Well, this is not a shock. Factual material (and in particular, foundational material) is best presented through a lecture, especially with the content that's currently taught in middle-school math and science. Additionally, these students weren't asked to apply the concepts they were taught, i.e. the research was completely based on the results of a standardized test.

I guess this is breaking news to some people: if you desperately want students to pass a test, teach to the test. In other shocking news, hard-working teachers aren't paid enough.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

On Charity

"So like, what do you win?" a student in my class pessimistically asked last week.

My jaw fell to the floor. I was speechless. Some students raised their eyebrows, others snickered, and a few patiently waited for my witty comeback. Mista always has a witty comeback, they think. Any student in my class will tell you that it's damn near impossible to get the last word with me. But I was stupefied. This kid got me.

Of course, I was speechless because I had just finished explaining the concept of raising money for charity.

More specifically, I was explaining why most of the male staff and some male students were growing moustaches for the month of November (i.e. Movember). I had pulled up our team page on the SMARTBoard and was going through all the contributions people had made from around the world. It was a proud moment for me. Well, until the "what do you win?" question. What the fuck do you mean, what do you win? Thank goodness for brain-to-mouth filters.

Over the past twelve days, I've felt like most of the students in my school just don't get the concept of charity. Maybe it's an urban youth thing, but in my limited experience bringing up Movember, their first instinct has been to ask, "You runnin' a scam?" or "How I know you ain't just gonna pocket all dat bread?"

After explaining the legitimacy of the charities involved, these questions are usually followed up with the statement, "Well, I would pocket dat shit." My kids are too honest, not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. 

When I was young enough to be in elementary school, my parents and I would often go to Woodfield Mall in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg on Saturday afternoons to shop and waste time. Woodfield Mall, at the time, was probably the largest shopping center in the Chicagoland area. My father could never save money, my mother loved spending my father's money, and the only way my parents could show me love was by buying me video games. Woodfield Mall and my family were a match made in heaven.

On the way to Woodfield Mall, right before the left turn on Higgins Road, there was always a homeless man dressed in rags holding up a sign that said something depressing about his situation. Every single time we would drive by this homeless man, I begged my parents to give the poor guy some change. After much crying, I usually convinced my dad to give the guy a dollar, and this made me feel better. At least he can go buy something from McDonalds, I thought.

My mother still brings up the time I tried convincing them to go to Foot Locker and buy the homeless guy a pair of new sneakers. Of course, she's laughing when she brings this up. This irritates me. I know the only reason my mom donates anything is because Islam requires a 2.5% wealth contribution every year and she's pretty religious. What's the point of doing something good if your heart isn't into it? We take away intrinsic motivation whenever we make something a requirement.

I often relate to my students' upbringing: many of them did not have positive role models in their life to "show them the way." I grew up emotionally stunted, but something in me burns when I see someone in need. There are a few students in my school who are growing up with a familiar case. These diamonds in the rough just need guidance.

One such diamond is Arnold. Arnold was the first student on board with the cause. Since we've started, he's sent e-mail blasts and Facebook updates about the Movember campaign. As of right now, he's raised more money than some of the staff, which is simultaneously impressive and sad. His enthusiasm and dedication is both contagious and noteworthy. So keep it up Arnold. You won't regret it. You might not win anything in the physical sense, but sir, you have won my respect.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Make-Up Work

I'm twenty-six years old and in my third year of teaching. I can hardly say I know anything about the profession or make broad generalizations about my student population. It's very tempting to try one-size fits all strategies and assume they will work for everyone all of the time.

Lately, my teacher colleagues and I has been trying to figure out why our students as a whole do shit throughout the semester, and then expect a "make-up packet" at the end of the semester that will save them from failing the course. Every semester, shit tons of students (most of whom I haven't seen all semester in school) decide to show up to class and ask if there's anything they can do.
"Seriously? Like, what do you mean, if there's anything you can do?" I ask.
"You know, like, make-up the work yo." 
Exhibit A: My response.
FYI-I do eventually stop laughing.
Since the beginning, I've instituted a no make-up work policy. Well, technically I do let students make up the work they've missed within a week. Once the week is over, it's too late.  I think this helps them stave off the temptation to start cutting my class. Obviously, I make exceptions for extreme cases (e.g. "My mom kicked me out and I've been living in a shelter for the past two weeks."). My policy has been working great for me, and I actually get a kick out of denying make-up work.
I know what you're thinking, and you know what? Screw you, don't judge me. Nothing wrong with having fun in the workplace.
Yesterday, a teacher in my school tasked the students in his Advisory class to e-mail the teachers of classes they are failing or potentially failing. They were to ask for any work they could make-up. Gina, a student in my 5th period Algebra class decided to e-mail me:
from: Gina Thomas (
to: Yo Mista! (
date: Thu, Nov 3, 2011 at 11:35 AM
subject: (no subject)
Hey, i know i havent shown to much interest in ur class and stuff but i will like for you to send me a syllabus with all the missing work that i can actually make up and get some credit trying to get my things together.
My response, two hours later during 5th period:
from: Yo Mista! (
to: Gina Thomas (
date: Thu, Nov 3, 2011 at 1:11 PM
subject: re: (no subject)

How are you going to send me this e-mail during 3rd period and then not show up for 5th period today?!
That's right: she actually didn't even show up to my class. This is why I'll take a laugh I can on the job.