February 19th, 2011

wish, hope, life

Of course, MY students are perfect....

There's been some news going around the teaching blog-collective about one Ms. Natalie Munroe out in Pennsylvania. The reason for this is that she posted on her blog a list of comments that she felt would be more appropriate to some of her students, rather than the canned "Lacks motivation" or "easily distracted." She came up with a list that she felt was more accurate, which included such comments as:

“Frightfully dim”
“Rat-like”
“Am concerned your kid is going to open fire on the school”
“I hate your kid”
“Seems smarter than she actually is”
"Just as bad as his sibling. Don't you know how to raise kids?"
"Dresses like a street walker."

Among other things.

It looks like basically a teacher who had reached her breaking point and decided to vent years of frustration all at once. Of course, she has been suspended from her duties as a teacher, and has become the center of a media circus, with defenders and detractors on both sides. Those who have her back say that there is too much of a burden placed upon teachers to be selfless, unflawed people whose only thought in the world is the betterment of their charges. When a child succeeds, the parents pat themselves on the back. When the child fails, they blame the teacher. Add to that the huge entitlement issues that come from a generation of kids who all got gold medals just for trying hard in gym class and you have a whole lot of pressure as a teacher just to keep these kids awake in class, much less to try and teach them anything.

On the other hand, there are those who wonder why, if she has such strong negative feelings towards these kids, she is even bothering to be a teacher at all? Obviously she's not enjoying her work, and the teacher who doesn't like what she does is not going to teach very well. Clearly she needs to find a career more suited to her temperament. Besides, perhaps the reason the kids aren't learning from her is that they can sense her disdain no matter how she tries to cover it up. They know she doesn't like them, and the feeling is returned in spades.

Here's where I come down on this: Every teacher has thought the exact same thing about their students at one time or another. Any teacher who says, "Why I just love each and every one of them!" is a liar. Maybe they've wiped their memory clean of the bad kids, but I guarantee there has been at least one student in their career who generated fantasies of a burlap sack, some bricks and a river.

But you just can't say these things. Not because you have no right to say them - of course you do - but because it will put you in a river of shit. Comments like this made by a teacher reflect badly on the school and on the other teachers who work there. After all, unless she's a lone sociopath, it's highly likely that there are other teachers in her school who think the same things about the same students, but still manage to slap on a fake smile before every class and pretend they care about how each and every kid is doing. Teachers are held to such a high standard that we are not allowed to air our true feelings in a public forum, lest those true feelings contaminate everyone else. And all it takes is one angry parent, one call from some kind of community group or - gods forbid - a lawyer, and the teacher who was just having a really bad day can find herself out of a job.

And you know what? It really isn't fair. Exhibit A: www.ratemyteachers.com

This is a site where parents and students can rate their teachers in terms of easiness, helpfulness, clarity and popularity, and then leave a comment. I looked up one of my old teachers, one that I rather liked, and found comments such as:

* "Can be a real jackass when you get on his bad side."
* "Okay teacher. Knows his stuff, but he's a little to into himself and doesn't seem to understand that students have lives too. He can put on a big tantrum and thinks his word is that of god."
* "...sometimes he's extremely disrespectful to students"
* "hes got an attitude he should drop it"

On another teacher I had and liked immensely:
* "Plays favorites like a 10 year old baseball coach."
* "Prone to little fits. Only really pays attention to kiss-ups"

On a teacher I picked randomly whom I have never met:
* "one of the most insanely idiotic classes I have ever had. At no point in his rambling, incoherent class was their anything even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought."
* a bullshit buddhist ******* who needs the stick pulled out of his ***"
* "creepy. went for extra help and he'd only talk to the girls..."

This, of course, is an egregious double standard. Students and parents are allowed to heap whatever kind of public abuse they want on teachers, who just have to smile and take it. When a teacher turns around and does the same thing, they get suspended, possibly fired. Thanks to the anonymity of the internet, people feel free to say the things that they would never say to a person face-to-face, and so have no problem loosing all kinds of vitriol against teachers. [1]

But gods forbid a teacher should let loose about what he or she feels. This is even though, unlike the teachers on Rate My Teachers who are being called out by name, Ms. Munroe stays very general and never names the students in question. As she says in a blog entry responding to this situation, "When my boss makes a general comment about something at a faculty meeting that is pointed at certain individuals but not all of us, I don't sit there and think, 'I can't believe he said that about me!' I know if it's directed at me or not. I ask myself, 'Are these things that I do? No? Then it must be for someone else.'"

Likewise, if you're a parent and you don't know if your kid is probably one of the ones she's talking about, then maybe you need to start paying more attention to your kid.

It's absolutely unfair, and not just to the teachers. Students need to be told when they are screwing up. They need to know what kind of behavior is appropriate and what is not. They need to know that what they're doing is not going to lead in any way to a better life, and if that means a teacher resorting to direct language, then so be it. In addition, parents have to be relieved of this myth that their children are all perfect little genius angels. As much fun as it is to try and shift the burden of raising your kids onto the shoulders of a low-wage public school teacher, the fact remains that you are the parent and you are who is ultimately responsible for raising a decent human being. If someone has to slap you upside the head from time to time so that you remember that little fact, then that's what has to happen.

I would truly love to see a "Rate My Students" website go up, available only to teachers, where they could post candid comments about kids and their parents. It would make my heart sing.... [2]

All that said, however, I still think that Ms. Munroe did the wrong thing. Yes, it's not fair, but as Grampa said in The Princess Bride, "Who ever said life was fair? Where is that written?" The fact of the matter is that a teacher just can't say those things in a public place like a blog. The current educational paradigm, wherein all teachers must automatically be selfless saints whose only concern is for the betterment of their students, is harmful and unfair, but that's how it is. If you really can't get through the day without telling someone what schmucks your students are, that's what paper journals are for. Write down everything, put it in a drawer, and feel better.

Once you've done that, you go back to work and try to focus on those reasons why you chose to be a teacher. Take note of the kids who thank you for helping them, who improve with hard work, who come up with well thought-out observations and answers. I felt a warm glow in what passes for my heart when I saw that some of my students had added the books we'd read to their favorite books on Facebook. Cherish those kids and know that there are far more of them than there are of the bad ones.

Still, maybe we need teachers like Ms. Munroe to take one for the team so that people start to think about what being a teacher is actually like. In her new blog, she writes:
"While I never in a million years would have guessed that this many people would ever see my words, and I didn't even intend them to, I stand by what I wrote and think it's good that people are aware now. There are serious problems with our education system today--with the way that schools and school districts and students and parents take teachers who enter the education field full of life and hope and a desire to change the world and positively impact kids, and beat the life out of them and villanize them and blame them for everything--and those need to be brought to light. If this 'scandal' opens the door for that conversation, so be it."

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[1] As an aside, Ms. Munroe's page on ratemyteachers has comments ranging from "No respect for students. Evidenced by her recent blog post scandal" to "Props for speaking her mind. Aren't there more than our fair share of students here who feel and act a bit too entitled? Stop b****ing and start working with your teachers...."

[2] A comment from The Boyfriend made me wonder if we will ever see a TV drama about high school from the teachers' point of view. Other than "Welcome Back, Kotter," nothing is coming to mind....
wish, hope, life

2011 Reading List - A is for Armageddon

Book Seven

A is for Armageddon by Richard Horne

You should know by now that if there's one thing I'm really looking forward to it's the end of the world. I don't know why, really. Maybe it's for that feeling that all bets are off, all bonds are broken and you can remake yourself in any image you want. Maybe I really believe that I'll be one of the heroes of the story, who make it through the End Times not only alive but victorious. Maybe I just long to see the world scythed clean of humanity and restarted so the squid can have a go at running things, I have no idea.

For whatever reason, I have a soft spot for armageddon stories. Whether it's Good Omens, The Stand, Swan Song, Crisis on Infinite Earths, or any other story that promises the destruction of a world, I'm all over it. I can't know if they're good, but I'll at least be willing to give them a shot. So when I saw this, I thought to myself, "I must have this book."

The book is based on an organizational system that has gained some popularity in recent years: The Periodic Table of X, wherein X is whatever topic you want to focus on. It was originally designed to accommodate the natural elements, but if you have a hundred or so items, you can probably make your own periodic table to sort through them. You've got the Periodic Table of Typefaces, the Periodic Table of Beer Styles, the Periodic Table of Superheroes, and even - prepare to have your mind blown - the Periodic Table of Periodic Tables of Things.

You never had it so good, Mendeleev....

This book is based on the Periodic Catastrophic, a listing of the many, many ways that the world can end. As with the "real" periodic table, this one is well-organized to keep the apocalypses in line. There are the Acts of God, Don't Mess With Nature, Universally Doomed, and It Was Like That When I Got Here, among other distinctions. Each disaster gets a couple of pages with a succinct explanation and an interesting or humorous illustration. Some of my favorites include:

Four Horsemen Motto: Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough. Direct from the Bible, the Four Horsemen of Conquest, War, Famine and Death will one day roll across the Earth, bringing down everyone in their paths. "Everyone," of course meaning everyone. You don't know when they'll come, but you'll sure know when they get here. Make sure you have your bags packed.

Ecosystem, if only for the picture of the panda strapped to a knife-throwing target. Those pandas have had a free ride for long enough, if you ask me....

Food Chain Collapse - this is one that I find pretty plausible, as far as some of these entries go. We all get mushy and sentimental about the whales and the dolphins, but what about the krill and shrimp and sardines? Without them, we run the very great risk of destroying an entire food chain just to have something to snack on during brunch.

The Gulf Stream Collapse is another one that kind of worries me, and it's my favorite card to play whenever someone comes out with, "Look at all this snow! So much for global warming!" canard. In a nutshell: The gulf stream brings warm water up from the Caribbean to the North Atlantic, which results in a rise in temperature for most of Europe. As polar freshwater ice caps and glaciers melt, all that cold fresh water will mix with the salt water, which could have the effect of pushing the upper end of the gulf stream south. This would mean a substantial temperature drop in Europe, and a general planetwide climate crisis up to and including a new mini-ice age.

Grey Goo is always fun, too. If we manage to build self-replicating nanomachines, which use the atoms around them to build copies of themselves, what's to stop them from just ripping apart every solid object they see? If they don't know when to stop eating and replicating, they could devour most of the world in pretty short order. Nasty, huh?

And of course there are sure-fire world-enders like The Death of the Universe, Sun (the death of) and the Collapse of Causality, the inevitable result of the invention of time travel.

It's an amusing book, with some educational points to make. Strictly speaking, not every one of the scenarios that it depicts has to do with the end of the world. Some of them, like volcanoes, earthquakes, and pandemics, are just natural disasters rather than planet-killers. Others, like obesity and an aging society, are more aimed at problems facing the human race that may inconvenience us, but probably won't destroy us.

And then there are the ones that I suspect were put in just to fill space - in The Solar System , Horne suggests that Jupiter could one day turn itself into a second sun, with disastrous consequences. But that won't happen - Jupiter is much too small to initiate fusion in its core. The same with Supernova - he suggests that Betelgeuse could go up (and it will), bathing us in gamma rays after "crossing millions of light years" to get to us. But Betelgeuse is only 640 light years away - much closer than "millions," but much too far to hurt us when it goes. So it's not so much that the scenarios are implausible - like Alien Invasion or Paradox or Satan, but that they're inaccurately implausible. It makes me wonder what other facts he fudged or guessed on just for the sake of making something sound scarier than it is.

It's got some good tongue-in-cheek humor, and is a clever reminder of all the ways that things can go wrong in this big world of ours. The pictures are very nice, often funny, and good companions to the text, which features helpful hints for surviving each scenario, as well as a guess as to when you should start to panic. All too many of them are labeled "too late."

An interesting note: there is a lot of British English in the book that may surprise readers of American English, such as myself. I had never encountered the adjective moreish (meaning so tasty that you want more of it) until I read this book and am forced to assume it's a British coinage. Also, some of the puns only work if you know the British pronunciation of words. Unlike the editors of Harry Potter, though, these guys did not bow to our American prejudices and re-edit the book. Kudos to them.

So, these are the ways the world ends. Now you know.

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"The only thing worse than a vengeful God is a fickle one."
- Richard Horne, A is for Armageddon