Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Teachers, let’s face it. Most of the issues and predicaments that suck the joy out of the teaching profession are beyond our control.
Maybe you make barely enough money to live on, and there’s no pay raise in sight. Or the district changed insurance plans, and none of your doctors are “preferred providers.”
Or maybe your principal announced at the first faculty meeting to forget about purchase orders for classroom supplies. Your parent booster group can’t generate enough membership to have a full complement of officers. No one at your school is willing to collaborate with you on instructional units.
Your administration won’t back you up on the discipline plan. Your teaching assignment has you teaching back-to-back classes on opposite ends of campus. The new teacher evaluation system is a mystery to everyone. Your classroom’s roof is leaking…again.
Sure, all of these situations are real. In fact, during my 35 year teaching career I have experienced every one of them. Some predicaments resolved themselves over time. Other times I just had to move on to a different school. But in none of those circumstances was I in the least bit of control.
Yes, we can pinch pennies, cut-out box-tops, and establish classroom discipline in spite of a permissive principal. We can march for higher wages, attend workshops about the new evaluation system, and buy a bucket to catch rainwater. But our actions rarely solve the problems; we only make them bearable.
I call these problems Glass-Drainers.
Most teachers are optimists; we see the glass as half-full, not half-empty. But sometimes our emotional and professional glass shatters, the glass has too many leaks, and we simply run out of metaphorical fingers with which to plug the fissures.
Some teachers fight to solve problems at their school, and I guess there’s a place for that. They wave placards at the roadside in an attempt to gain public sympathy and support. They speak at school board meetings about insurance problems. The take photographs of decrepit school buildings and e-mail them to the local media. I’ve even seen teachers go to war with their principal over school policy. That didn’t end well, by the way.
What I will tell you is this: effort made to add more positive experiences to your teaching career will pay huge dividends, and provide you with a happier teaching experience. Adding to your glass will compensate for those glass-drainers.
Sure, the glass-drainers will be there. I’ve worked at some outstanding schools, and each one had its share of challenges and disappointments. But teachers and faculties that thrive in adversity have learned to focus on the good parts of their school, and supplement those parts with positive professional experiences. The bad parts don’t go away – but they do fade into the background.
Time to fill your glass! (Okay, I know what some of you are thinking. Giggle twice. Let’s move on.)
In this TeacherScope column, I’ll outline some glass-filling professional experiences that will keep your morale glass half-full, even if it’s springing several leaks.
Develop Your Curriculum
When do teachers feel their best? No, not Friday afternoon! (Some of you are still giggling about that “fill your glass” metaphor.) Teachers feel great when they teach an outstanding lesson! You can experience that success more frequently by developing excellent instructional units for your class or subject.
Here’s an example: let’s say that you’re covering tornadoes in your upper-elementary or middle school science class. Your current lesson plans involve reading the chapter, taking a test, watching an instructional video, and filling out a couple of puzzle pages that you downloaded from Teachers Pay Teachers (ouch, hit a nerve there.) Okay, you’re probably covering all of the standards, but is that instructional unit really a source of pride? How about inviting the local Red Cross supervisor to speak about disaster preparedness and relief efforts? Maybe the meteorologist from the local TV station will visit or Skype to explain how tornadoes impact the local area. Your assistant principal could pop-in to talk about how the school’s weather safety plan protects everyone. Integrate language arts skills with a novel unit - Night of the Twisters (Ruckman), I Survived the Joplin Tornado (Tarshis), Tornado (Byars), Runaway Twin (Kehret.) Are you thinking of your own resources? Great! Keep going!
I’ve been fortunate in my teaching career; I’ve taught classes that depended on my unit development. I didn’t have a textbook for television production, multimedia production, and digital photography classes that I taught. I needed to create units of study and projects for the students. Some of those units and projects worked really well, others needed a little tweaking, and a few were total failures. But after a couple of years – and very patient students – I began to have fun teaching those courses. If I can do it, you can too!
Become an Expert
As you develop your instructional units, you will probably become quite interested in one or two of the topics. Continue to fill your glass by becoming an expert in that scientific concept, historic event, math strategy, or literary genre.
Let’s say you teach US History at the middle or high school level. You’ve always been interested in the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but your knowledge involves only what your textbook teaches. You can continue to learn by reading books and diaries (yes, they exist), studying maps, and watching videos about the voyage. Even if those materials aren’t appropriate for your students, you can still use them to increase your knowledge base. Maybe your summer vacation plans will include a trip to the Museum at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis or the Lewis and Clark National Park in Oregon. You can even hike part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. Soon, you’ll be an expert about the Voyage of Discovery.
How long does it take to become an expert? Experts disagree (that’s a joke.) But really, your students will appreciate and benefit from all of your knowledge. Besides, you really hadn’t planned to write your own book or lecture at the university (but those things can happen, too!) You simply wanted to fill your glass. Mission accomplished!
Attend Conferences (and present)
There’s probably an educational conference in your state or region that you can attend. (And I’m not talking about a required summer workshop.) Ask your district curriculum coordinators, or search the Internet. At a conference you can learn about the latest teaching materials and strategies, and network with other teachers in your state. There’s usually time to relax and socialize, too! Start the conversation at your school, and gather a group of friends to attend with you. Even if you have to pay for your hotel and meals yourself, it’s worth the expense.
And if you’ve become an expert (as mentioned above) consider presenting a conference session. One-hour sessions are the main attraction at educational conferences, and you can add your knowledge to the mix. Whether you decide to present, or just soak-up the information, you will return to school with a full glass.
Maybe you’re more comfortable behind the keyboard than in front of an audience. Consider writing articles for you state professional journal. Although it may seem a daunting assignment at first, educational magazines are often interested in your articles and essays. Check a journal issue or their web-site for the process of submitting an article. E-mail the editor to determine the topics they plan to cover in future issues. You may just be the writer they’re looking for!
If you’re looking for a more informal writing experience, consider starting your own blog. Several online companies – Weebly is my favorite – offer inexpensive web space and a simple drag-and-drop editor. For a few dollars a month, you’ll be able to express your ideas about teaching, learning, and the educational system (wait, that’s my tag-line!) As your fellow-blogger, I encourage you to keep it positive and avoid ranting. Once you put it online, it’s out there for everyone to read.
Serve on Professional Committees
You’ve probably seen notices on the faculty bulletin board or received e-mails about opportunities to serve on educational committees at the district, state, or national level. Instead of walking-by or clicking that e-mail to the trash, carefully read the proposal and ask yourself if you’d be a good candidate. Professional committees establish educational standards, align curriculum to those standards, and write and evaluate test questions for student and teacher examinations. I’ve had the opportunity to serve on several committees, and I have enjoyed them all. This is a great professional opportunity to fill your glass.
Be Yourself in the Classroom
I’ve written about this topic before, but one of the biggest keys to teacher happiness – keeping the glass full – is sharing your positive personality and interests with your students. Gather and display items that reflect those interests on a bookshelf or in a corner of the classroom. I used to have the Mr. Kyker Shelf (actually two wall-mounted shelves) in the back of my classroom. I filled those shelves with my favorite books, vacation photos, and knick-knacks that illustrated my hobbies. I would exchange the items on the shelves every month or so, to keep it interesting.
Historic family photos of my grandparents and great-grandparents generated the most interest (I made photographic copies so as not to risk damage to the originals.) One middle school boy who always seemed to be on the cusp of a discipline referral asked me one day, “Mr. Kyker, are those your ancestors?” After I got over the initial shock of his mature question, I picked-up the photographs and named each person. He asked questions – Where did they live? Are they still alive? When was the picture taken? We talked for about five minutes before the bell rang. The next day he found me in the hallway before school. He had taken pictures with his phone-camera of the antique family photos hanging in his home, and he couldn’t wait to share them with me. Turns-out, his family was really into genealogy. And pardon the cliché, but he never gave me a problem in class again.
I’ve always preferred a subtle approach to such displays, as opposed to an all-out, in-your-face indoctrination. I’ve been in classrooms where seemingly every inch was decorated with memorabilia from the teacher’s favorite sports team, movie, or tourist attraction. I’d rather save most of my classroom space for interesting displays featuring student work and curriculum resources.
How does sharing your personality in the classroom help fill your glass? Because we’re most comfortable when we have the liberty to be ourselves. I spent the first several years of my teaching career trying to be someone else – wearing clothes I didn’t like, talking about things I didn’t know anything about, and trying to act a lot more sophisticated and worldly than I really was. In reality, I was a small-town guy from a lower-middle class neighborhood. Like most teachers in their mid-twenties, I was living paycheck-to-paycheck in a small apartment and driving an old car held together with prayer and baling wire. I compounded my dismal economic status with a self-imposed disguise, and I was miserable. Over the years, I slowly learned to be comfortable with who I was and to focus on the teaching. That’s when my glass became half-full, not half-empty.
Teaching is a human profession. It will be imperfect. There will be challenges – some ingrained and institutional, and others transient and unpredictable. And those challenges will drain your glass. Your best insurance: plan, develop, and create positive professional experiences so that your cup will continue to run over at the brim.
Technology is easy.
Okay, sure. Sometimes the Internet is slow and your web-pages don’t load as quickly as you’d like. Or maybe your Promethean board needs to be recalibrated. Or your printer runs out of ink in the middle of printing an important document. But those are quick fixes. Annoying, but easily solved.
Almost any educational technology task can be completed with resources readily available to most educators. Want to make a video of your science demonstration? Just whip out your cell phone and start recording. In fact, you can edit the video and add narration with several free apps. Teachers and students can create web-pages, blogs, and online portfolios with just a few clicks. The only “figuring out” part involves clicking around a bit, and maybe watching a YouTube video.
Like I said…easy.
It hasn’t always been that way. Back in the “Old Days” of educational technology – the 1990’s – we had to figure it out. The tools that we now take for granted – video projectors, the Internet, digital cameras - either didn’t exist, were prohibitively expensive, or didn’t work well with existing technology. We read magazine articles, attended technology conferences, and hung-out at the local computer store to learn about new developments. The seemingly simple task of replacing a mouse involved installing new software, along with fervent prayer that there wouldn’t be any “driver conflicts.”
But let me tell you – it was fun! There’s a certain excitement found in overcoming a challenging technology situation. I remember the amazement I felt when I first connected a computer to a television – using a signal converter, an RF modulator, and about a half-dozen cords. You just don’t get the same experience by attaching a single HDMI cable.
And sometimes my “innovative” use of technology resulted in a metaphorical hand slap. You see, there aren’t many signposts when you’re on the frontier, blazing new trails every day. Innovation requires experimentation and a certain degree or risk-taking. And risk-taking makes some people nervous. Especially administrators.
In this TeacherScope post, I’ll share my True Technology Confessions – five of the episodes that brought just a bit of trouble as I pushed the envelope a little too far. I can laugh about it now – and I hope you can too. That’s my goal here – to entertain, and to put a smile on your face if you remember the Wild West days of educational technology.
Here are my True Technology Confessions!
Note: all of these episodes happened in the late 1990’s when I worked as the educational media specialist at Addie R. Lewis Middle School. Pretty sure the statute of limitations has run out.
Confession #1: Dialing-up at School
Twenty years ago the Internet was rarely found in schools and homes. Sure, America Online had been around a few years, but that wasn’t really the Internet – just an online news service. Landline phone companies were beginning to offer Internet access in metropolitan areas, but most small towns didn’t have a local dial-up number, and we were still paying by-the-minute for long distance calls. When a local dial-up number did become available, the process of getting on the World Wide Web was still a little complicated. The phone company would mail you a floppy diskette with a rudimentary web-browser (actually an early version of Mozilla Firefox) to be installed on your computer, along with a username and password. You had to disconnect your telephone and connect the cable to the modem on the back of the computer. It was slow and cumbersome, but it worked!
In early 1997 I read a newspaper article about aviator Linda Finch’s plan to recreate Amelia Earhart’s ill-fated round-the world flight. She dubbed her effort World Flight 1997 (you can read about it here.) She planned to share her adventure with school children all over the world with a “Pilot’s Log” (today we’d call it a blog,) pictures, and even responses to student e-mails. Now it all sounds rather quaint, but back then it was groundbreaking. I decided to share this experience with my middle school students. The problem: we didn’t have Internet access at school.
I had purchased the Internet for home use a few months earlier, so I installed the software on a school computer, bought the longest phone extension cable I could find, and ran the cable from the phone jack in the library office to a multimedia computer in the middle of the library. Yes, I accessed the Internet from school! (*Gasp!*)
Mr. Payne, the 6th grade world geography teacher, brought his classes to the library daily, and we checked on pilot Finch’s progress. I connected the computer’s VGA output to the largest TV we had. Equipped with laminated desktop world maps, the students used their knowledge of longitude and latitude to track the flight path. We downloaded pictures (each photo took about a minute) and even e-mailed questions to the pilot. The students learned a lot, and the class was featured in the local newspaper with a half-page story with photographs…
…which, of course, was seen by the school district supervisors. Yes, I had accessed the Internet from school. Yes, I had been very careful about what the students saw online. No, nothing obscene appeared on-screen. Yes, I should have coordinated with the district technology department.
In the end, I didn’t get into any real trouble. I was scolded for creating a potential tripping hazard with my long phone cable. But my principal agreed to solve that problem by permanently installing a phone line to the library’s only multimedia computer. And that sets the stage for our next episode.
Confession #2: Big O and the Purloined Phone Line
Oscar, the school custodian, was assigned the task of mounting the phone line to a support column in the middle of the library. Better known as “The Big O," Oscar was the custodian that every school needs. A retired Air Force veteran, he stood at least 6-foot-four, was soft-spoken, and was always ready to serve the school, the students and the teachers.
Of course, this was before teachers had phones on their desks. The school had a limited number of phone lines, so if we wanted another phone line in the library we had to take one from someone else – or at least share.
And share we did. Oscar spliced the phone line from the faculty lounge, and ran the shared line to the library. (I held the ladder!) A simple switch was installed near the computer. Whenever, I wanted to use the Internet in the library I simply had to flip the switch to gain access to the phone line.
Maybe Oscar told me, and I didn’t understand. Or maybe I heard, and didn’t want to understand. But – as you’ve probably figured out – when I flipped that switch, the phone line in the faculty lounge was disconnected.
A couple of weeks later a phone company repairman showed up at the school to diagnose the faculty lounge phone problem. Phone conversations were being disconnected. Sometimes there was no dial tone, or a nerve-wracking squawking sound. Teachers were perturbed!
Thirty minutes later Big O and I stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the principal’s desk, like a couple of guilty schoolboys. The principal was holding an invoice for a phone company service call, and she wasn’t very happy. Fortunately, I benefited from Oscar’s enormous halo, and the boss wasn’t mad very long. I had to apologize at the next faculty meeting, and make a “Phone Line In Use” sign that I placed in the faculty lounge when my students wanted to use the Internet.
A few months later the school district installed three high-speed Internet drops in every school library. All was well … at least until I had another idea.
Confession #3: WiFi Before It Was Cool
Having Internet access in the media center was great – but honestly I felt a little guilty. We had an enthusiastic, innovative faculty, and they wanted to use the Internet too! Most classrooms now had a multimedia computer for word processing and displaying CD-ROMs. Those computers had a newfangled feature – a USB port!
So, I bought a wireless router and three USB receivers, and connected the system to a library Internet port. I handed-out those wireless signal-receivers like Santa at Christmas. (Okay, more like the Godfather at a family meeting.) It was grand and glorious! And it attracted attention.
A visiting district computer technician almost fainted when he saw the wireless router. Much to the disappointment of the science and social studies teachers, my wireless network was immediately disconnected.
I got in a little trouble for that episode. I got a stern lesson about network security, and I promised never to do it again. Of course, after a little taste of classroom Internet, the teachers were hungry for more! Less than a year later, we had at least one high-speed Internet tap in every classroom.
Confession #4: Web-building for the Masses
As the Internet gained a foot-hold in schools, students were encouraged to build web-pages to contribute to the ever-growing World Wide Web. And of course, the language of the Internet is HTML (hypertext mark-up language.) HTML is the computer code used to create web-pages. It's complicated and the learning curve is steep.
Technology philosophy of the day stated that students must learn how to write HTML. It’s a 21st century skill, right? How else can they function in the new millennium?
About that time, web-page creation software was introduced. Adobe Pagemill and Microsoft Frontpage led the charge. I decided to use these programs with students and teachers who wanted to make web-pages. I didn’t teach HTML.
Once again, I was called to the carpet. This wasn’t a serious infraction, as very few middle schoolers were making web-pages anyway. If the youngsters need this software crutch, fine. Of course, when they get to high school, they’ll be expected to learn HTML just like everybody else.
By the time those students got to high school FrontPage, PageMill, and their software descendants had taken-over web-design classes. Yes, it’s nice to know a little HTML – to troubleshoot web-site snafus and insert keywords. But the ability to create a web-page by typing lines like <body>, <img src>, and <h2 title> is an unknown skill to most modern web creators.
Confession #5: Staking-out New Territory
My last True Technology Confession takes place a couple of years later, when the Internet was becoming an important communication tool for schools and homes. Businesses, schools, and organizations were acquiring descriptive domain names so they’d be easy to find on the World Wide Web.
In the pre-Google era, search engines were primitive and limited. A few companies including Yahoo, Lycos, and AltaVista attempted to catalog the Internet like a giant library, but web-sites were added so quickly that no online directory could keep up. Magazines and newspapers would print lists, such as “Best Web-sites for Math Teachers,” and “Best Web-sites for Coin Collectors,” but of course these lists were inaccurate or incomplete a few days after they were published.
For businesses and organizations, selecting the best domain name was critical. Single-word domain names were snatched-up quickly, and sometimes became the source of heated competition. (Click here to read about the ugly development of Delta.com.) Savvy businesses added their domain names to their letterheads, their print advertisements, and their television commercials. The “.com age” had begun!
At first there were only seven domain top-level domain categories to choose from: .com for businesses, .org for public interest organizations, .net for computer networks, .int for international organizations, .edu for higher-education institutions, .gov for U.S. government agencies, and .mil for the U.S. military. Everyone obtaining a domain name was expected to fall in step, selecting the appropriate category.
Public school web-sites followed their own contrived pattern, that included the school district, the grade level, the state, the country, and the school name – often with a tilde ( ~ ) added for good measure.
So, when I took over responsibility for maintaining the web-site at Lewis Middle School in Okaloosa County, Florida, our domain name was: http://okaloosa.k12.fl.us/~lewisms. Unnecessarily complicated. Difficult to type. Impossible to remember.
So, I broke the rules again, this time with the help of my visionary principal. (She had long-since forgiven my previous transgressions.) We bought Lewismiddleschool.com.
“But you’re not a business!” So – when most people think the Internet, they think .com.
“How will people find your school on the Internet?” We’ll add the domain name to everything – the letterhead, the planner, the marquee out front. More importantly, people will remember it.
“What about all the other Lewis Middle Schools in the United States? Shouldn’t they get to use that domain name, too?” Well, there are plenty of other variations for them to choose from.
At first we got some serious blowback from the school district, but our web-site traffic jumped exponentially, and it was hard to argue with success. (Before the age of smartphones and Chromebooks, it was actually a challenge to get parents to access the school web-site.)
A few months later, the school district changed their domain name to OkaloosaSchools.com. I’m not taking credit for that development – but it is nice to be just a little bit ahead of the curve.
So there you have it – my True Technology Confessions. I did spend a fair amount of time in the principal’s office, and more than once I had to explain myself to my district supervisors. But as far as I know, nobody got hurt.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my confessions. And for anything else you might hear, I plead the 5th!
This TeacherScope post is dedicated to my co-workers at Addie R. Lewis Middle School in Valparaiso, Florida. Fifteen years later, I have nothing but fond memories of my time there. Thank you, all.
Summer is here! For most teachers, summer represents a chance to rest, regroup, and be restored. But many of us have work to do – the job of finding a job. Whether your new career takes you across town or across the country, you’ll probably participate in several job interviews. Been there, done that.
Unlike many other careers, teaching positions have “external qualifiers.” Your college degree and your state teaching license/certification have already established your qualifications for the job. Still, there’s a need to be interviewed – to jump through the hoops, to make your best presentation, to see if you’d be a good match for this teaching position.
The whole process can be a bit nerve-racking. There are books, web-sites, and online forums to guide teachers through the tasks of writing cover letters, preparing resumes, and anticipating interview questions. The object of this preparation is to make the interview … predictable. The best interview question is the one for which you've already formulated an answer. The best surprise is no surprise.
Yet surprises abound, and those of us who’ve interviewed a few times have experienced some doozies. Outliers. Abberations. Oddities.
In this TeacherScope column, I’ll share three of my oddest interviews. I don’t mean “odd” in a bad way, although some of these situations are happier than others. Certainly, no disrespect intended. But these interviews were definitely memorable. Maybe, in the midst of your job search, you’ll be entertained and encouraged, especially if you encounter your own odd interview.
When “I Don’t Know” is a Good Answer
Okay – here’s the scenario. It’s 1983. I’ve just graduated from college, and I need a job. I’m 22 years old. I have no experience. My resume is one-page long, in large type. I’m newly married, with no visible means of support. I’ll relocate if necessary. It’s either teaching or back to Burger King.
Back then “finding” a teaching job was an endeavor of Indiana Jones proportions. It’s 1983 – so no Internet. You go to the public library, and get addresses and phone numbers of school districts. Then you call – on your land line. If you’re lucky, you get connected with the human resources department. And if your heart is pure and you’ve lived an honest life, the person who answers the phone will mail you a job application. You complete the application on your thrift-store manual typewriter, attach your meager resume, and mail it back in the next day. Then you sit in the living room and wait for your phone to ring. I applied to 13 school districts that summer.
The phone rang. A district about 45 minutes from my apartment had a middle school English opening. Could I interview tomorrow afternoon? Yes, I could.
Skip the part about finding the town (no GPS) and finding the school (no Google Maps.) I’m ushered by a kind secretary into a standard 1980’s principal’s office – low ceiling, paneled walls covered with plaques, diplomas, and photographs. A chimpanzee-playing-golf figurine on the desk. The principal told me about the school, and how they were all one big team. I nodded eagerly, striving make a good impression.
The principal has read my resume, and there’s no teaching experience to talk about. So he goes straight to the philosophical questions. Of course, I’ve been out of college for 6 weeks, I made “A’s” in my education classes, and I know everything about teaching. I’m full of spit and vinegar. Ask away.
“What’s the most important part of teaching?” I answered something – I don’t really recall. But I remember his reply: “No, that’s not it. You want me to tell you?”
“Yessir.” And he proceed to tell me about the most important part of teaching.
Four questions later, and I still haven’t provided a correct answer. I’m bombing this big-time. So, I gave up. When the principal asked a question, I would respond, “Hmmm. I don’t know. What do you think?” And he would tell me. Again and again. There’s no way I was getting this job. At least I could salvage my dignity. After a few more questions, he stood-up, shook my hand, and thanked me for stopping by.
Two weeks later he called and offered me the job. Said he really enjoyed talking with me, and appreciated the fact that I was willing to learn from more experienced educators. I told him I’d already accepted a position at another school, and he was genuinely disappointed. He wished me the best, and told me to let him know if things didn’t work out at my new job.
Many times over the last 35 years I’ve wondered what it would be like to work for this principal who understood the importance of mentoring young educators.
The Retirement Reception Runaround
Flash-forward several years. I’ve established myself in my teaching career and earned my master’s degree. I’ve spoken at conferences and made some valuable contacts. Tired of city hustle and bustle, I’ve decided to move to another part of the state, and of course, teach.
It’s early June. My target area is a 6-hour drive away. I’ve got four interviews lined-up over a two-day period. My suit is dry-cleaned, the gas tank is full, and I’ve got a reservation at a cheap motel.
My first interview is with a curriculum supervisor at the district office. It’s a centralized hiring process; if I’m approved by the curriculum supervisor, she’ll immediately assign me to a school. The only thing left would be to shake hands with the principal and find out where to park my car.
Bright and early, I drive to the school district complex and find the curriculum supervisor’s office. Nobody’s there. I’m not totally surprised – this is a small district and they make do with a small staff. So, I sit down in the waiting area and wait…and wait…and wait. It’s 9:00 AM. 9:05. 9:10.
At 9:15 AM – fifteen minutes after my scheduled appointment, I decide the snoop around a bit. I follow my ears to a fairly-large room filled with about a dozen banquet tables. Five or six professionally-dressed people busily arrange chairs around the tables, cover the tables with white linen tablecloths, and arrange centerpieces.
No one seems to notice me, so I stand there and wait some more. 9:20 AM. 9:30. 9:40.
At about 9:45 AM – 45 minutes after my scheduled interview – a professionally-dressed woman whom I later learned was the curriculum supervisor approaches me. “I guess you’re Mr. Kyker, the man I’m supposed to interview.”
“Well, we’re getting ready for our retirement reception. Can you wait a few more minutes?”
“Okay, just go to my office. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
10:00 AM. 10:10. 10:20.
At 10:30 AM, the curriculum supervisor enters her office, disheveled and exhausted. “Listen, this reception starts in thirty minutes, and we’re still not ready. Can you come back tomorrow?”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t. I have two interviews scheduled in another district tomorrow.”
“Well, I’m not going to be able to interview you today.” And she spins on her heels and walks out of the room. At that point, the only thing to do was return to my car, drive back to the motel, and regroup for the rest of my interviews.
Don’t worry – it all ended well. My three remaining interviews resulted in four job offers. I accepted one of the jobs, remained at that school for 11 years, and never regretted the decision.
A couple of weeks after my interview trip, the curriculum supervisor called me. She apologized earnestly, and explained that another district employee had resigned the week before, dropping the retirement reception in her lap, last-minute. I told her that I understood – no hard feelings.
Then she offered me a job. Actually, she offered me a choice of three vacancies. I declined.
Epilogue: a few years later, that district hired me to conduct workshops for their library media specialists. The curriculum supervisor visited the workshop and sat in the back. I enjoyed watching her slowly realize where she’d seen me before. On a break, we chatted for a few minutes and had a good laugh. It all works out in the end.
When Is an Interview Not an Interview?
The final episode in this narrative occurred when I was living in the western Alaska bush, about six miles from the Bering Sea. I was teaching high school (all subjects) in a native-Alaskan village of 250 people. No cars. No paved roads. A general store, and a post office. It was an interesting experience, but one year was enough for me. By April I was scouring the job boards for a library media position in the lower 48. I’d notified my boss several weeks before, and had his permission to participate in Skype interviews using the school network (the only unlimited Internet connection in the village) before and after school.
I received an e-mail from an east-coast district with elementary and middle school library media openings. I’d enjoyed working at both levels in the past, and was open to all opportunities. The interview committee requested a 9 AM interview. Alaska time is 4 hours behind, so I’d need to begin the interview at 5 AM. I had a key to the school, and let my boss know that I’d be in the building the next morning.
Realize that in late April in western Alaska the early-morning temperature will be about 30 degrees. Of course it will be dark at 4:30 AM, and in my village the sea breeze always blew at about 15 miles per hour. The standard form of transportation in the bush is an ATV, and I lived about a mile from the school. I gently packed my suit coat, dress shirt, and necktie into my backpack, lashed it to the front of my ATV, and began the cold, dark journey to school.
No problem. The front door lock wasn’t frozen, and the heat had already kicked-on. I was alone in the building. I made my way back to my classroom, booted-up my computer, and changed into business attire (from the waist-up, anyway.)
The interview began on time. The screen displayed the interview committee – a group of five – seated semi-circle around a table. The principal introduced herself. The other committee members doodled disinterestedly and drank coffee. The questions were as expected, relating to working with teachers on research projects, building a library collection, and motivating students to read.
And I was nailing it. At that time I had 15 years experience as a library media specialist. I’m not bragging – but I was telling them everything they needed to hear, and then some. As the interview continued, the somnolent interview committee woke-up! A few members – I believe they were teachers – began to ask follow-up questions. Side conversations among committee members became a group discussion about library media. After an hour the interview ended. The principal looked at the committee and said, “Well, we certainly have a lot to talk about.” She signed off with the promise of a decision later that week.
I was naturally excited when I opened the principal’s e-mail a few days later. She was requesting another video conference, and she wanted to talk specifically about my reading promotional program. (At the time I was putting the finishing touches on my book Rewarding Your Accelerated Readers, so the information was fresh on my mind.) The next morning I repeated my pre-dawn ATV ride to an empty school, made the wardrobe change, and settled-in for my second interview with this district.
This time, only two people appeared on-screen – the principal, and a lady I hadn’t seen before. The principal began by asking me to describe my reading program. I conducted a mini-workshop on motivating students to read. The principal nodded supportively. The other lady scribbled frantically on her pad.
Twenty minutes later, I’d fleshed-out the topic. The principal thanked me, and said they’d be in touch. That wasn’t what I expected to hear.
I never claimed to be the smartest person in any group – the sharpest tool in the shed, or the brightest light-bulb in the box. Couple that with a sincerely optimistic personality, and sometimes I’m a little late catching-on to situations. But I caught-on to this one.
I took a breath and asked the principal. “Are you considering me for this job?”
“Well, we’ve actually got someone else in mind for this position,” replied the principal.
“And is it her?” I asked, pointing to her silent note-taking companion.
I would say that the next 30 seconds constituted the most awkward silence in the history of videoconferencing. The principal eventually nodded in the affirmative. Oh, I get it. They wanted to "interview" me about my reading program. I remained professional, but quickly ended the videoconference.
A week later I got an e-mail from the principal. She told me that the note-taker was indeed the new library media specialist, and had been informally selected for the job before the interview process had begun. (Many districts are required to interview a certain number of candidates before hiring anyone. As a 50-year old teacher in bush Alaska, I was the perfect “third guy.”)
She also told me that - upon her recommendation - another principal in the same district would like to hire me. I courteously declined.
Well, there you have it. My three oddest interviews. Writing this blog post has been somewhat therapeutic, allowing me to revisit these situations through a different lens. Here are my take-aways:
Best wishes for your success in interviewing this summer!
Are you a good co-worker? Sure you are.
Just last week you let another teacher make “a few quick copies” on the copy machine, even though you were next in line. You pay your hospitality dues on time, and you always bring your famous green bean casserole to the faculty luncheons.
You help rearrange the cafeteria tables after the school dance. You share your lesson plans and exams with the new teacher down the hall. You covered a class during your planning period when another teacher had an emergency. You smile and greet your co-workers with a hearty “good morning” every day. And you never, ever ask a question in a faculty meeting after 4 PM.
Am I minimizing or making fun of those qualities and good deeds? Of course not! Most teachers would enjoy working at a school with kind, considerate co-workers. And personally, I’m quite fond of sumptuous luncheons and short faculty meetings.
But in this TeacherScope column, I’m going to mention some teacher behaviors that are probably irritating and irksome to your fellow teachers – things that you probably don’t even realize you’re doing! Because you’re nice and they’re nice – and we’re trying to keep it professional – your fellow teachers don’t mention their irritation.
These are five things teachers need to stop doing, now!
And before I begin this list, I must confess that I have been guilty of all of these annoying behaviors at least a few times in my teaching career. I’m not standing before you as an innocent role-model. Rather, I’m sharing my experience as a repentant violator. Sometimes I was corrected by a more experienced colleague. Other times I realized my past transgressions when I was on the receiving end of the inconvenience. Either way, I learned my lessons. And - like a good kid in the assistant principal's office - I vowed to never, ever do it again!
#1 Stop Letting Students Break the School Rules
Your school probably has a Code of Conduct that describes expected student behavior, and the punishment for violating those standards. Chances are those rules were put in place to ensure student safety and maximize learning. Allowing students to violate school rules tells students that the rules aren’t important, making it harder for other teachers to enforce those rules.
Here’s an example: let’s say your school has a policy prohibiting student cell phone use in class. But one teacher allows students to use their phones to send texts, play games, and check their Facebook pages during class as a reward for completing their work. As the school day continues those students will expect to have the same privilege in each class. That permissiveness makes it harder on your co-workers who follow the school policies.
A few years ago I took-over a class mid-year for a teacher who didn’t enforce school rules. You can imagine my shock on my first day when the students entered the room, pushed the desks together, and started eating snacks and listening to music on their mp3 players. It took me several weeks to align student behavior to the school rules, and I was forever known as the “mean teacher” to that group.
Allowing students to violate the school rules in your classroom may establish you as the “cool teacher” in your school, but it sure makes your colleagues’ jobs harder.
#2 Stop Blowing-off a Class on a Regular Basis
“Do we have to do anything today?” Every teacher with more than a couple of years’ experience has fielded this question many times. You’ve planned a great lesson, and you’re disappointed that your students would rather just sit around for an hour. Where did they get that idea?
Chances are, one or more of your colleagues can be persuaded to cancel the day’s activities and provide a “free day.” While this down-time during the school day may seem benevolent, it really hampers the efforts of your fellow-teachers. If you think your students need a little relaxation, introduce a creative curriculum-based activity or game. “Doing nothing” shouldn’t be an option in a classroom.
#3 Stop Making Students Late for their Next Class
You’ve probably experienced this if you teach middle school or high school: a few minutes after class begins, one or two students rush into class and hand you a pass from another teacher. Or an announcement comes over the intercom asking teachers to admit all students from a certain class without a pass. Your fellow teachers will tell you, “Really, it’s not a problem." But really, it is.
The art students had to stay late to clean up. The math test took longer than expected. The science students were at a critical point in their experiments. There are several reasons that teachers keep students after their scheduled class period, and they're usually legitimate reasons. But the situation could have been avoided with better time management and/or better classroom management. Sure, sometimes it’s hard to just stop a great classroom experience. But with respect to your peers, you need to understand that the students’ next classes are just as important.
Once I was in a faculty meeting where this issue exploded (and I do mean EXPLODED.) The volcano of frustration erupted. Fingers were pointed, and accusations were made. The principal wisely ruled that no students should be held after class – EVER! That ended the problem, and fortunately our professional friendships withstood the episode. Consider instituting this policy at your school.
#4 Stop Being Careless with the Schedule
Secondary schools run on bells, but elementary schools run on clocks. In elementary school classes go to lunch and to “specials” (PE, computers, music, etc.) en masse. Teachers who miss their scheduled times – even by a few minutes – can cause a breakdown in the entire system and topple the schedule like a row of dominoes.
Imagine a teacher dropping-off her class for music five minutes early. It’s just five minutes, right? Well, the music teacher probably has another group she’s working with during that time. Or perhaps that’s the last five minutes of the music teacher’s planning period, and she’s preparing the room for that class. Maybe that five minutes represents the music teacher’s only opportunity to go to the bathroom before lunch!
A class that remains five minutes late in the cafeteria at lunch is probably occupying a table needed for the next lunch shift. A class arriving at the computer lab five minutes early means that the computer teacher won’t have the chance to troubleshoot a malfunctioning computer. The cafeteria supervisor and the computer teacher will probably say, “Oh, it’s no problem,” because they want to be professional. But trust me, it’s a problem.
There’s a running joke among “specials” teachers: she dropped her class off early, but made up for it by picking them up late! Don’t be the punchline of that joke.
#5 Stop Inviting Students into Teacher-only Areas
Schools are made for students, but really there are a few teacher-only areas: the faculty lounge, the teacher workroom/copy room and the faculty cafeteria come to mind. Students shouldn’t be allowed to enter these areas.
So, you’re sitting on the couch in the faculty lounge, enjoying a casual conversation and a cup of coffee with your peers. Feet up, shoes off. You hear a tap-tap-tap, and you see your student peering through the glass in the door, holding her completed homework. What do you do? The correct answer: walk out into the hallway and talk to the student. Don’t wave them in to the faculty lounge.
Years ago I worked with a teacher who regularly sent students into the faculty lounge to buy sodas for him. Then there was the teacher who invited her son – who was a student at the school – into the faculty cafeteria to eat lunch with her once or twice a week. And there was the teacher who sent students to the teacher workroom to use the letter dye-cut machine (okay, that was me.) You get the idea.
One of my college educational foundations teachers, Dr. Harrow, shared this bit of wisdom to all of his eager future-teachers. The first rule of teaching: never jam-up another teacher. As teachers, we should strive to conduct ourselves in a way that shows respect for our fellow teachers and to the teaching profession.
Although they’re probably resisting the urge, your peers won’t mention these transgressions. No need to apologize at the next faculty meeting, or make a big deal about it. (A box of Krispy Kremes in the teacher's lounge would be a nice gesture.) As I wrote earlier, we've all made these mistakes. At the time, we didn't realize that we were making life difficult for our coworkers.
So now you know. Smile. You will now be more beloved than you are already. Maybe they'll name the new building after you. Or at least the faculty lounge...
As 2017 draws to a close, I decided to revisit the most popular TeacherScope columns of the year.
I'm basing my ranking on web-page visits, Facebook "Likes" and "Shares," and the e-mail generated from each posting. Of course, that's decidedly unscientific, but when you're the author, editor, and chief financial officer, you can make these decisions without asking anybody else!
The plan is to add to the list each day, revealing the top column on New Year's Eve. Make sure to check back daily!
And before I forget, Happy New Year!
#1 Five Things New Middle Schoolers Need to Learn....Now!
"Success in middle school carries a unique set of expectations, and requires skills not necessarily taught and reinforced in elementary school. Fortunately, these skills are quite teachable. Think of it as a “mini-curriculum.” Wise elementary and middle school teachers spend a few hours helping their students in this endeavor. The time spent will pay dividends throughout the year." (click here to read.)
#2 Setting the Record Straight: Teacher Pay and Teacher Schedules
"I’ve endured this good-natured ribbing for many years –from high school and college friends, from the guy who services my car, and the cashier at the grocery store. From the family doctor and from the men who delivered my washing machine. From the tree trimmer, the convenience store clerk, and the attorney. Seems like everybody has an opinion about teacher work schedules and teacher pay. Typically, that opinion is “you’ve got it easy.” (click here to read.)
#3 The Truth About a Teaching Career
"This blog post is targeted at students considering the teaching profession. I am certainly not trying to persuade or dissuade anyone about a teaching career. That’s an individual decision that you have to make for yourself. The purpose of this article can be summarized in three words: Eyes Wide Open." (click here to read.)
#4 Helping the New Teachers at Your School
"Teachers are the life blood of the educational system. New teachers represent the infusion required to keep the system alive. Good schools encourage, support, and nurture their new teachers. Review my suggestions above, add your own, and create a welcoming, supportive environment for your new teachers." (click here to read.)
#5 The Best School Volunteers
"But teachers know that there’s another level of volunteerism out there. These are the solid gold, one-of-a-kind volunteers. They may help every day for several hours, or they may show-up at the school once or twice a year. But they possess qualities and characteristics that are especially valuable to the school. They are golden. They are the best volunteers." (click here to read.)
Mrs. Lily, Multiplication, and the Importance of Insisting continues to be one of the most popular TeacherScope columns. Because it was posted in 2016, it doesn't qualify for this year's list. Take a few minutes to read my tribute to an outstanding teacher, and one of her most endearing traits. (click here to read.)
My favorite column of the year - The Most Important Question In Your Classroom - didn't crack the top five, but it's worth a look if you haven't read it already. (click here to read.)
Keith Kyker (M.Ed)
is a career educator with 34 years of teaching experience. He has worked with every age group from Pre-K to college. Keith's experience includes stints at suburban mega-high schools, neighborhood elementary and middle schools, and a tiny K-12 school in a Yupik village on the Bering Sea.
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Keith's new book helps students and parents make a successful transition to middle school. Click here for more information.
Ditch the candy and toys. Reward your dedicated readers the right way. Click here for more information.
Interested in teaching a digital photography class? Here's your full-year curriculum. Click here for more information.
Book reviews for teachers and library media specialists working with upper-elementary and middle school readers. Click here.
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