Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Teacher Voice

Teacher Musings:
I have not written a post for a few months, mostly because I have been on maternity leave. This means that I have not been teaching and have, in fact, felt rather out of the loop when it comes to my school. While I don't miss the school politics and difficult behavior issues, I have found myself missing teaching lately. I am looking forward to getting back to my classroom and my students in September, although I will miss the wonderful time I have now with my little one. There are a lot of changes going on in my school right now, most significantly a change in leadership. As I consider what this means for me and my career at my school, I have also started wondering about what larger changes in education are taking place, especially all that has gone on with Race to the Top in the last few months. I read a number of education blogs, and I have been following Anthony Cody at Living In Dialogue for quite a while and I have been especially excited by his rallying of teacher voices through Teacher Letters to Obama. As I read what he and other teachers have written it has really reminded me of what teacher's voices mean in the discussion about how society can re-shape our education system. Teachers are on the ground and we are the ones who see how policies play out on student's lives. Sometimes this means we can be almost too focused on our immediate realities, but in general I have encountered more teachers that are both able to deal with the urgent needs in front of them while simultaneously taking the long view than teachers who are stuck in their own limited reality. So when I heard Arne Duncan in an NPR interview (I think it was on Talk of the Nation) I was a bit pissed off when I heard him say he was a "teacher" ("well, really an 'educator'" as he put it, since he had been educating his whole life) even though the closest he got to actual classroom teaching experience was helping out his mom in her classroom when he was a kid. I'm not necessarily opposed to educational leaders who do not have classroom teaching experience, although I do think that classroom experience can be a huge asset for obvious reasons. What bothers me most about Ducan's response was the utter lack of respect it shows for teachers and the work they do. If you think that being in the education "field" in an administrative role (oh, and helping out in mom's classroom) makes you qualified as a teacher you really have no clue what it takes to teach - which is scary when you are making far reaching decisions that drastically impact students and teachers.
One of my good friends and I were recently discussing how frustrating it can me when you tell people that you are a teacher and people immediately launch into the their thoughts and opinions about teachers, their experiences as students and then - the final touch - give you advice about what you should do in your professional capacity as a teacher. I am happy to hear about people's classroom experiences but what I resent a bit is the idea that anyone is qualified to tell a teacher what to do if he/she has been a student. I have spent years and countless hours not only doing the work of teaching, but reading, writing, researching, thinking, meeting and engaging in countless hours or honing and improving my craft. When someone suggests that there is some easy fix to makes teachers and schools better (such as "fire the bad teachers," "don't assign busy work for homework - I hated that" or "be really tough with the kids - that worked for me!") it suggests that teaching is simple - and it is not. While I definitely need to hear the outsider perspective to keep me from getting to focused and blinded by my time in the classroom, it is important for those who are not classroom teachers to thoughtfully consider both what they can offer to help teachers and schools improve and what insights they need to get from teachers who have a wealth of knowledge and experience that is too often overlooked or barely touched.
I really didn't plan for this first post back to be a rant. Perhaps part of my frustration is due to the fact that recently I have felt like a bit of an outsider since I have been on leave. When I talk to teacher friends sometimes I have to keep myself from giving advice because I know that I am missing crucial context since I have not been in school for months. On my time away, as I consider new legislation on both the state and federal level, I do feel like the Race to the Top issue has the potential to be a positive step forward for our schools, but I have yet to see people on the federal level really tackling the assessment question. Like many others I am behind the idea of teachers being held accountable for student growth. However, the question becomes how that manifests itself. What I hope is that Race to the Top leads to an overhaul of our assessment systems that start to look at the assessment work that teachers do every day in their classrooms. Perhaps if we look to teachers first, before we look to testing companies, we can find more authentic assessment models (instead of standardized tests) and creatively think about how to use those models on a larger scale. But hey, this is just a teacher talking.

Yummy Stuff:
After my slightly snarky rant, I would like to provide something a bit more palatable - how about a yummy bean recipe! In my current post-pregnancy state I am trying to get back into shape and deal with my changing hormones, so that means returning to what I call my "beans and greens" diet - lots of veggies, fruit and legumes and little starch and very little sugar. This week for dinners we had lots of lentils and bean dishes, but one of my favorites was the black bean soup I veganized from the Easy Beans cookbook. After making it the G-man and I decided that we would like it a bit thicker and with more stuff, so we will add more veggies next time (another carrot and bell pepper) and decrease the stock a bit, but I will give out the version we made this time - it was quite good!
Classic Black Bean Soup (Vegan Style!)
2 cups dried black beans
3 TB olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
1 red or green bell pepper chopped
1 carrot, peeled and diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
10 cups of veggie broth
4 bay leaves
1/2 tsp savory
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp dried oregano
1/4 crushed red pepper
1/2 cup white wine
juice of 1/2 lemon

1. Soak beans for 8 hours (I started them soaking when I got up at 7am and then started cooking around 5 pm). When they are done soaking, rinse and drain
2. In a large soup pot, saute the onions, bell pepper and carrot in olive oil for 10 minutes. Then, add the garlic and stir for 1 minute
3. Add beans, stock, bay leaves and savory. Simmer 1 1/2 hours (90 minutes)
4. Remove bay leaves and take 4 cups of the soup mixture and puree in a blender or food processor until smooth. Return mixture to soup pot
5. Add cumin, oregano, crushed red peeper, white wine and lemon juice. Stir well and heat until piping hot.