Saturday, March 12, 2011

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Dirty Hands and Peanut Butter Crackers?

An elementary school in Florida has implemented a series of minor classroom policies to help protect a 6 year old girl in a first grade class who has a severe peanut allergy.  Peanut allergies, unlike many other allergies, can cause asphyxiation.  Meaning a 6 year old could die (yes, die) from the particulates and oils from peanut products including peanut butter.  We’re not talking about a tummy ache here.  In that light, the policies of the school district seem almost laughably fair—no food in the classroom, students must wash their hands and rinse their mouths twice a day, and the surfaces in the room are wiped down with Clorox wipes.  Some other parents in this district heard that their own kids might be forced to wash their hands as much as twice—Twice!—a day and went completely berserk. They picketed the school with signs informing the elementary school principal that their children were “special too” (‘cause really, this is a message we never hear in elementary schools these days—that every child is special) and encouraging other parents to demand their children’s rights.

Now, I’ve read the constitution (because I had one of those lazy, slacker teachers who wanted to be paid his exorbitant salary while not doing any work, so he made us read something someone else had written!) and nowhere in it is there a guaranteed right to have peanut butter sandwiches for lunch or food of any kind in the classroom.  Yes, I know what you’re going to say…implied rights and all that…but I still can’t seem to get from freedom of assembly and protection from unlawful search and seizure to peanut butter or Little Debbie snack cakes.  Maybe I’m missing something.  Nor have I found anything about freedom from cleanliness, which would cover the hand washing and Clorox wipes.

Let me set aside, for a moment, the fact that these parents (to be fair, most of them mothers)are upset that their children are being inconvenienced in the name of protecting another child’s life.  Has it not occurred to any single one of these parents that these policies are not only minor inconveniences, but that they might have some positive effect on the health of their own children?  There was a time not very long ago when we never allowed food in the classroom—not because of allergies, but because it was unsanitary.  Allowing kids to have food in the classroom and inadvertently teaching them that it was important to be eating at any moment they weren’t actively doing something else may very well have contributed to the current obesity problem we face.  The prevalence of obesity in this age group is approximately 20%.  None of these children will starve if they aren’t allowed to have pretzels and fruit punch during a Valentine party in their classroom.  They’re in the first grade; if these screaming moms hadn’t pointed it out with a neon sign, they wouldn’t have known it was strange NOT to have food in the classroom.  The CDC has done everything but send people to personally knock on our doors to plead with us to wash our hands several times a day to prevent the spread of the flu.  In an elementary classroom, even infrequent hand washing (and let’s face it, for 6 year olds, twice a day is infrequent to the point of absurdity) can help prevent the spread of not only the flu but colds, strep, and a number of other bacterial and viral illnesses.  Likewise, wiping down frequently touched surfaces is also an effective method of stemming the spread of viral and bacterial illness.  Do these folks think their kids have a right to be sick?  Personally, if the teacher had only insisted my daughter wash her hands twice a day when she was in elementary school, I think that might have prompted a conversation with the school personnel.

So even if you’re selfish enough to be outraged that your kid is being asked to make some adjustments to their day to accommodate another child’s well being, you might at least acknowledge that these adjustments actually work in your child’s favor.  And we really are talking about selfishness here.  I hear people complain quite often about the sense of entitlement and level of self absorption among teenagers and college students.  If that’s true, and I’m not entirely convinced that it is uniformly true, doesn’t it stand to reason that they learned such behavior from being taught that they should never have to accommodate anyone else’s needs and never be inconvenienced in any way no matter what the cause?  To scream that my child is being picked on because he’s not allowed to bring snacks to school and has to wash his hands, is more than a little like saying “I’m in a hurry; why should I have to stop just because the school bus is letting kids on and off?  Shouldn’t you people teach your kids not to walk out in front of cars?”

Maybe I shouldn’t give them any ideas.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Toddler Benchmark

My New Year's Resolution this year was to not accept any behavior from students that I would not accept from my own children.  This doesn't seem like it should be a very high bar to reach, given that my youngest child is not yet 2, but you'd be surprised.  Or maybe you wouldn't.  My sisters, Real World Skipper and Stacy, tell me horror stories about colleagues and subordinates who think "I lost track of time." is a legitimate reason for a 3 hour coffee break or that sharing the gory details of your last vodka binge with a virtual stranger is an appropriate work behavior.  So now I am on a quest: to do my best to make sure that the young people who pass through my door are at least marginally prepared to go out into the world and, if nothing more, pretend to be grown ups (which in reality is what most of us are doing anyway--pretending).

My first battle in this war has been over cell phones.  Now don't get me wrong; I love my phone.  Well no, I love the concept of having a cell phone, but I'm not particularly enamored with my current model. That's not relevant.  The point is, I have no objection to the concept of a cell phone.  What I do object to is having to send messages like the following:

Just a reminder that cell phones/smartphones/Blackberries should be turned off during class time.  Midge (obviously not the TA's real name) and I have both received emails sent from a student's Blackberry during class time this semester, something that is not an appropriate use of classroom time.  From now on, emails sent during class will not receive a response.  If you have a question or problem related to class material or an assignment, please ask during class or speak to us afterward, otherwise please wait until after class to send emails.

What is troubling is that I'm not sure whether it bothers me more that this student was obviously way too busy texting during class to bother stopping to ask her question in real time, or that it did not occur to her that the message was going to come in stamped with both the time it was sent and the ubiquitous "Sent from my Blackberry" signature.

Then there was the conversation I had with an otherwise very bright young woman after I asked her to put her phone away during class.  She came up after class was over to apologize for texting during class and then added "but I was really angry about something and I couldn't stand it, so I HAD to get it out," which left me wondering what would have happened if she hadn't had a cell phone handy.  Would she have exploded?  Would she have suddenly jumped out of her seat during class and begun screaming about whatever made her so angry?  Probably neither.  She would probably have come to class, complained to the friends sitting around her briefly, and then either seethed about it during class or been distracted by work and forgotten about it until she left. 

And THIS is what it is that bothers me about cell phones--confusing immediate with imperative.  Just because you CAN broadcast every thought that wanders through your head at the nanosecond that it does, does not mean you have to.  Just because you don't have to wait to transmit whatever it is you've just now thought of, doesn't mean you shouldn't.  The idea that my phone is ringing, I MUST ANSWER IT NOW baffles me. Human ingenuity invented answering machines for land line phones to avoid this very idea!  Your phone and mine and pretty much every other cell phone traveling around in someone's pocket or bag came with this very cool feature.  If you don't answer it, a very nice lady will answer on your behalf and tell the person calling that you are unavailable and will record whatever it is they have to say for you to listen to at some more convenient time.  Preferably a time when you are not sitting in class, taking an exam, driving down the interstate, checking out at the grocery store, or sitting at the dinner table with your family.  And texting is even better, because there is no middle man (so to speak).  The message goes right to your phone and there it sits, patiently waiting for you until you get around to reading it, again, preferably not at any of the aforementioned times.  Honest.  I swear.  They do not have expiration dates.  I know this because I have text messages left in my inbox from 3 years ago, and they're still sitting there waiting to see what I will ultimately do with them.  They've go nowhere else to go.

Perhaps I should have mentioned all of this to the young woman who was called into my office to meet with me after she plagiarized not one but two papers and skipped two exams in class.  When she showed up in my office, a minor miracle in and of itself given her difficulty in making it to the classroom, she waltzed in and sat down while she was talking on her phone.  I instructed her to please go back outside and finish her call before coming in to meet with me.  She stood up, sighed, rolled her eyes, walked just outside the door and while looking at me said "I gotta go, Babe.  She's making me hang up the phone."  I considered telling her I was not making her do anything; she was welcome to go elsewhere and carry on her conversation.  I also considered yanking the phone out of her hand and tossing it out the office window.  In the end I did neither, because I recognized that someone who feels put out by being given the chance to salvage their college career after plagiarizing two papers and skipping multiple exams is well beyond the aid of voicemail.

Money For Nothing?

 The Dire Straits recorded "Money For Nothing" in 1985 in response to listening to a guy working in an appliance store complain about how musicians did virtually nothing and got paid a fortune.  I have to wonder if perhaps the song was playing in the background on some oldies station when Governor Corbett sat down to write up his budget proposal.  Three weeks after Wisconsin governor Scott Walker took his bizarre balance the budget by punishing teachers and nurses stance, setting off a history making public uprising in the state capitol, Governor Corbett apparently decided it wasn’t fair that he was getting all the attention.  His budget proposal cuts state funding to primary and secondary schools by 10% and appropriations to the 18 state run and land grant universities by 50%.  Governor Corbett’s budge would cut funding for programs that are designed to keep class sizes in primary grades (K-3) small in poorer schools—‘cause a poverty stricken rural or urban school is where you really want a class of 40 first graders.  He has also proposed changing laws to prevent local school districts from raising local or property taxes in order to make up for any difference in funding; a proposal directly “borrowed” from Governor Walker.  Apparently Mr. Corbett may have a genuine complaint with his own public school, as they clearly did not teach him that plagiarism is bad.

I’ve got plenty to say about Mr. Corbett’s ideas for education and what I think of them, but they’ll keep.  After all, he’s not going anywhere for four long years.  I doubt very, very much that he’s got the chops to be tapped for anything bigger and better as was former governor Tom Ridge, so I’m afraid we’re stuck with him.  My more pressing question has to do with what seems to be the pervasive belief among Republican governors and employees of Fox News that teachers are grossly overpaid for what one Fox News talking head called “a part time job.”  Their stand is that teachers work only those hours when they are in class, and assume that teachers enter the building roughly 5 minutes before homeroom begins and leave 5 minutes after the last bus leaves, and do nothing but sunbathe from June through August.  It’s clear from their accusations that the last school teacher any of these folks has ever met was in the twelfth grade.  Nor have they ever met a college student.

Wait, a college kid?  What would a college kid have to do with how much a school teacher works or gets paid?  College students tend to fall into two camps with respect to choosing their majors and future professions.  The first group are enormously practical and choose a major based on what talents they believe (or often their parents believe) they have and how they can turn those talents into a paycheck.  These kids have a very clear vision of what college is costing them, what loans they will have to pay back, and what the best route to making enough money to be able to meet those loans and still eat more than Ramen noodles.  These are the students who come to me and want to know not only what jobs they can get with their degree, but what other training they might need to get that job, what does it pay, and how hard is it to get the job.  These kids are making very adult, practical decisions.  The second group is made up of the ones driven by passion.  They are the ones who come to me to tell me they’ve chosen their major because they want to help people.  They tell me all the things that are wrong in the world and how, exactly, they intend to fix them.  They never ask about additional training (although they usually know what’s required) and they never ask about salary.  They are under no illusions about what that salary is likely to be.  Guess which group the future teachers tend to belong to.

Has it never occurred to any of the people screaming for the heads of teachers, that a profession where people get paid a fortune for very little work should be one that’s EXTREMELY popular?  In many universities, including mine, some programs in engineering, nursing, and business are so popular the competition for the few slots available in the program every year is phenomenal.  Why are these programs so popular?  Because there is the widespread perception among students and their parents that these are areas where very good paying jobs are plentiful.  Even in nursing, where no one would argue that the job is easy, the widespread media coverage of a nursing shortage in this country has created a mindset where students believe they at least will be guaranteed to get a good paying job immediately after graduation.  Dozens of my students are desperately trying to figure out a way to get one of those coveted seats in a nursing program for a shot at a good paying job that requires long hours and hard work.  How many do you think would be lined up for a job where they would make a lot of money for short hours, two and half months of vacation, and very little work?  If they believed that, they’d be lined up around the block trying to become teachers.  They’re not.

Teach for America is a program that seeks to place successful college graduates, particularly in math and science fields, into disadvantaged urban and rural areas where graduation rates are typically low.  ToA trains these graduates in education methods and theory, get them temporary certification to teach in the state of their placement, and places them in a school that desperately needs them to teach for two years.  After two years, the students have the option of getting permanently certified to be teachers or move on to whatever else they’ve decided to do.  Teachers in the program are paid the same salary as other beginning teachers in that district, but also receive program benefits such as loan forbearance/forgiveness as incentives for graduates to join the program.  Every semester, a representative from ToA asks to come to my upper level classes to beg students to consider applying to the program.  Ask yourself this: why does a profession whose members are grossly overpaid for very little work need a recruitment program and incentives to join for only two years?  It has never once been my experience that the Actors’ Guild, the NFL, or any recording company ever asked to come to my class to beg my students to consider being performers or athletes for two years.  Despite the fact that many of my students are interested in medicine, never once has a representative from the AMA asked to come and recruit students into the field.  They don’t have to.  My students are not stupid and they know a good deal when they hear one.  Teaching may be a good many things as a profession, but given what it’s costing most of these kids to get through college (and it will only cost them more now in PA), it is not a good financial deal.

 I had a teacher once in middle school who taught me that if it waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s very unlikely that you’re looking at an elephant. A job that people have to be begged to join, where you're more likely to drive a Camry than a Mercedes, probably isn't the one where you get "Money for Nothing." It’s a shame Governor Corbett and Governor Walker apparently never had such teachers.  They might recognize what a “resource” a good education really is.