Friday, January 27, 2012

The Terrible Twos

I can officially start throwing temper tantrums now that I am in my terrible twos. Two years ago, I wrote my first post on this blog with the intent to post at least once a week. Surprisingly, I have managed to  stay true (for the most part) to that intent.

Last year on this day, I wished my blog a happy first birthday and celebrated readership on six continents. Since then, this blog has gained quite a bit of new readers, but unfortunately, I still haven't penetrated the Antarctic blog market.
Heh, I said penetrated. 
Damn you Antarctica and your super selective readership...

On a more serious note, thank you (yes, you) for reading Yo Mista! You motivate me to continue documenting my experiences and mesh them with my own life and childhood memories. You let me get away with writing "penetrated" and giggling about it like a sixth grader, all while simultaneously being responsible for the development of teenagers. You somehow know when to take me seriously and when to not (I know this because I still haven't gotten fired yet). You humble me every time you tell me you are a fan and an active follower. I guess what I'm trying to say is, penis.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Conceived Over Mathematics

For my life skills class today (a.k.a. "Advisory"), we discussed best practices for studying. I figured this was an appropriate topic since New York State Regents Examinations begin tomorrow. Plus, it always shocks me how my students have no idea how to prepare for an exam.

Truthfully, the initial portion of this conversation depressed me and I started to wander down the, "Can I really make a difference with these kids?" route. In order to avoid emotional suicide, I decided to throw a question to the class, hoping active participation would lift my spirits.

"For those of you who have passed some of the Regents, what advice would you give to your fellow students? You know, if they actually decide to study."

After a few standard responses like "Avoid facebook dawg," and "Look over your notes, like, at least twice," a fairly vocal, but frequently absent female student blurted, "Don't go to y'all significant others' houses to study! How you think I had my son? I was 'studyin!' Whack. Hehehehehe!"

I really hope my students didn't leave the classroom with the idea that excessive studying may cause pregnancy.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Posters Don't Fix Problems

I teach high school mathematics to at-risk urban students in the United States. As I've discussed before (click here, here, here or here), that pretty much means most of them are not coming to school when it's [insert excuse here]. The current popular excuse is, "It's cold outside."

Historically, I would have to disagree with that statement, as NYC has really not been that cold so far. Whatever the excuse, the New York State Regents Examinations are next week and that is just bad timing. A failing grade in a high-stakes exam such as the Integrated Algebra Regents will prevent a student from graduating.

Pop quiz: How do you ensure at-risk students permanently become statistics?
Answer: As a state, require exams whose results determine whether a student will graduate.
What also isn't helping the situation is a poster like the one shown below. This gem of a motivational poster can be found on my school's hallway right outside the assistant principal's office.

Okay, obviously this looks grim. Let me make it worse:
  • This poster has read: "Our goal is to reach 80%..." every month for the past year and a half. We have never made it. Not even close.
  • September has always been our best month since the school opened (two and a half years ago). This is usually followed by a decreasing trend until around March when we can enroll new students. March breaks the downward spiral, but April, May and June usually plummet.
  • What is the point of the last "warning" in the poster? The students who aren't coming don't/can't read it. As a student, if my attendance is less than 50%, I probably lack motivation to come to school. So then, why would I care if the school I am enrolled in closes? Just nit-picking now, but why is "school" capitalized?..
  • If I want to show these results to students, why is there only one copy posted in a random corner of the hallway? Wouldn't it make sense to mass-print this data and hold an assembly to discuss?
  • My school has a dedicated team devoted to attendance. The team makes home visits, phone calls, sends letters home, etc. Even with this man-power, our attendance has always followed this pattern. 
The current "reform" movement in the United States would have you believe data like this means only one thing: teachers aren't doing enough to get kids to come to the classroom. If that's the case, then every single transfer high school must clearly hire incompetent teachers.

And that's where the reformers stop thinking. They refuse to think further ahead. Okay reformers, I'll play your game: if schools are truly hiring incompetent teachers, who is hiring these teachers? The principals! So, by their logic we actually have incompetent principals making very bad decisions at the top. And if that's the case, why aren't we making a bigger deal about incompetent people in charge of a large staff, a large budget, and most importantly, the overall outcomes of our children?

Stepping away from the "reform" movement's logic: what if it's not the teachers' fault? What if it's not the principals' fault? What about the parents? You know, the people who were supposed to instill the value of an education? What if it's the curriculum, as in, what we teach? What if what the state/country dictates is "most important" isn't meaningful to these kids?

Nah, can't be. Let's just put up some posters, use the word "data" somewhere and call it a day.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The $125,000 Question

I recently came across a very informative and well-written blog written by a 1991 Teach for America Corps Member by the name of Gary Rubenstein. In his most recent post, Rubenstein discusses the The Equity Project (TEP), a charter school based in New York City that pays teachers a $125,000 salary. TEP been featured a lot in the media over the past two years (check out this and this). Rubenstein's post (and blog as a whole) is definitely worth checking out if you're a teacher, former teacher, parent or simply someone interested in the world of education.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Couch Surfing

Yesterday, I was running at the gym and desperately trying to find something to watch on the TV connected to the treadmill. Somehow I ended up catching the very last few seconds of an interview on CNBC with Jamie Dimon, CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase. Normally, I would've changed channels immediately, but the headline under his name caught my attention: "Live in San Francisco from the 30th annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference."

Suddenly, I wasn't at the gym anymore: I was inside my old cubicle, drowning in mindless spreadsheets and presentations. I got a bad taste in my mouth. The human mind is a wonderful thing - it makes something difficult you went through in the past seem a lot easier than it actually was. Or it simply erases that memory from your everyday thoughts. I'd completely deleted the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference from my memory, and for good reason too. When I was in investment banking, that conference was the bane of my existence.

Back then, I worked in the healthcare group of a top-tier investment bank. That means I was in a group that focused it's M&A efforts on biotechnology, medical technology and pharmaceutical companies. Every January, J.P. Morgan hosts a healthcare conference in San Francisco that invites nearly every single god damn fucking healthcare company to one physical location. For managing directors within investment banking, this provided an opportunity to hit every single client with a presentation and/or meeting in one week. Sounds great for business. For analysts like me, this was the ultimate shit-show. This week (and the week before it, and the week after it) would test my stamina and patience level beyond anything I could ever imagine.

The investment banking business model is a numbers game: pitch to x number of companies, and eventually someone will bite. Eventually you'll find a company willing to run with your idea and pay you for it. At the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, there are normally 300+ companies present. Most of the pitches our managing directors make at this conference result in follow-up work through the month of April. So basically, I was fucked from January onwards. 

As my body continued to run on the treadmill, my conscious mind painfully relived my first ever J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference experience. I don't think I went home a single night before 3 AM for two weeks in a row. Yes, the conference lasted only a week, but presentation materials needed to be put together before-hand. Then reviewed. Then changed. Then printed. Then reviewed. Then changed. Then completely scrapped and re-worked. Then re-printed.

Unfortunately for east coast investment bankers, the healthcare conference takes place on the west coast, which meant life fucking sucked for monkey analysts like me. During that week, I got the most irritating e-mails from the top brass in the wee hours of the night:
"Hey buddy, what was x company's highest stock price in the past year?"
"Need you to figure out who was ABC company's M&A advisor for the ABC-XYZ deal last year."
"Hey. Can you e-mail me over a copy of their latest 10-Q? Need it as a PDF."
Every single one of those requests could've successfully been met through a BlackBerry or laptop: both of which every Managing Director had on them. But hey, why bother doing any sort of work on your own when you have a 24/7 monkey glued to a computer screen ready to jump off a bridge for you 3,000 miles away? That's what I went to college for anyway: how to copy and paste numbers from Yahoo! Finance into Microsoft Outlook.

The only positive thing out of the J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference was the fact that the big egos of the office were all out pitching their brand name on the west coast. That meant none of them were physically around the office for an entire week.

It was somewhere around the middle of the week during the Healthcare Conference, maybe a Wednesday or a Thursday, or maybe it was Wednesday night leading into Thursday morning. I don't remember. The only thing I remember is walking around the office without shoes on, my dress shirt untucked, and my belt on a very loose notch. I needed a nap, and the couch in the analyst bullpen was occupied by another monkey.  I turned the corner and walked past the VPs still lingering around the office - VPs not cool enough to tag along on the conference with the big guys. Poor bastards.

One of the managing directors on our floor had an amazing corner office. It wasn't the biggest office in the group, but it certainly felt cozy. I remembered the second couch in his office, the one parallel to the window facing the Statue of Liberty, was extremely comfortable to sit on while I zoned out during conference calls.

This is where it starts getting hazy. I went into that office. I woke up a few hours later on the couch because my chest started vibrating. My BlackBerry, of course, was in my dress shirt pocket. An alarm I'd set? No. I checked the time: it was definitely after 3 AM EST. I'd gotten a new e-mail. I opened it. I stared it for what seemed like an hour before I got started. It read:
"Hey. Need you to fax me over the latest presentation..."

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Two Bold TFA Critiques

For readers of the blog who work in or are generally interested in education, you've undoubtedly heard of Teach for America (TFA). In fact, TFA is the organization that prepared me for the teaching profession (as in, I transitioned from finance into teaching via TFA).

My experience with TFA was generally positive. I also generally believe in TFA's mission: I believe  young, talented individuals should give back (in terms of time and knowledge) to communities in need. I probably also had a good experience with TFA because I joined the organization to become a long-term educator, rather than simply use TFA as a step-ladder into business school, law school, etc. Most of my peers who went through the training process with me were not thinking about staying longer than the two-year TFA commitment.

Two friends of mine (thanks Janelle and Jaimie!) recently sent me two different, yet very interesting and honest critiques of TFA:

The first article, "Teach for America: The Hidden Curriculum of Liberal Do-Gooders" is written by Andrew Hartman, a history professor at Illinois State University. He also is the author of Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School. If you're going to read only one of the two critiques, I would highly suggest you read this one - it is bold, comprehensive, and makes a lot of great points.

The second article, "Why Teach for America is Not Welcome in My Classroom" is written by Mark Naison, a Professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program.

If anyone would like to post their thoughts, feel free to in the comments section.