work to rule: theory vs. reality

My school is engaging in a “work to rule” action this week. Basically, we are all supposed to clock in at about 7:50 am and clock out by 3:30 pm (classes go from 8:00 – 3:15), and do no work over our 45 min lunch, take no work home. The point of this is to highlight how furloughing “non-instructional time” and asking teachers to do more paperwork affects students in the classroom by showing how much work teachers do outside of the paid 6.25 hr school day.

Teachers from Northside College Prep also participated in a “work to rule” action recently, and one of their math teachers has apparently been taking data on how much time outside of the school day is required to keep things functioning at an “adequate” level (see the article in the Huffington Post). She calculates at least 12 extra hours a week. I’ll be honest, I’m way above that mark (and it sounds like there’s not an end in sight: “Ms. Sullivan’s data suggests that high performing veteran teachers work even more hours than their less experienced peers.”)

I regularly clock 10-12 hr days, arriving at about 6:30 am and leaving (if I leave “early”) by 4:30 pm. My “contractually obligated” work time is 31.25 hrs per week. I regularly work through my lunch, so I’m usually at school between 50-60 hrs per week (and this doesn’t count any work I do at home on evenings or weekends). I’m not productive 100% of that time, but I’d like to think I’m pretty darn close. I haven’t yet managed to leave before 4 pm without scrambling, so needless to say, this week has been a little rough to get out the door by 3:30 pm. Today was particularly hard- we were doing a lab and I had to make sure everything got cleaned up properly and that the supplies were set for tomorrow (particularly as I can’t come in early to clean or reset). I also had to move my laptop and other things to my classroom in the other building (yes, I teach in two separate buildings). This has been my routine all year long and it’s hard to change it now. There are things I take care of at the end of the day to be ready for the next day, and there are things that I take care of in the morning before class starts (either for that day or for something down the line). Tomorrow morning I have to remember to drop off a student’s exam in their separate location testing area, which is normally not a problem but will be a scramble to get done between 7:50-8:00 am.

I don’t know if I’m really sticking to the spirit of the “work to rule” action. When we heard that this was coming, both the physics team and chemistry team kicked into gear to get this entire week planned out and made sure that copies were made in advance. It helps a ton that we’re at the end of the unit for both classes, so things just needed to be finalized rather than planned fresh. (It also helps that next week is short and broken up by PSAT/SAT testing.) Still, I ended up staying late a lot last week to prepare for this week where I wouldn’t be able to do so. So the time was still spent on prep, it’s just a question of whether it was spent earlier or later. I can’t in good conscience really do nothing outside of the school day, because then my classes would be terrible and I just can’t let myself knowingly give my students a bad learning experience. And right now, I feel like I’m letting down my students because they have a test or a quiz or a project (or multiple of the above) coming up or due soon and I’m not available for them before or after school as I normally am.

I’m not going to lie, it’s nice to have more “free time” in the afternoons. I managed to run some errands on Monday afternoon and went to the grocery store yesterday; I had time to cook a real dinner in the middle of the week and I made it to a yoga class last night. But it’s also stressful to not be able to plan on my own time and have to cram things into my 90 minutes of prep every day, particularly as I felt like that time was compressed enough as it is. I prefer coming in early in the mornings because I can get so much done when not many others are around (and I’m also just more functional in the morning).

So I don’t know how I feel about the “work to rule” thing. Overall, it’s been stressful and I doubt that it will result in any real action or notice from those in power (the school district office, the school board, the state…) While it highlights for me how much time and energy I spend on school outside the school day, I wonder if it really lets those outside the teaching profession know how much goes into that 6.25 hr school day. And it’s not that I didn’t know how many hours I spent outside of my “paid” time doing work, or that I ever expected my day to start at 7:50 and end at 3:30. There’s no way to spend 4.5 hrs a day teaching and also have the classes be well prepped and assignments graded in a reasonable time frame. I just wonder what the best way is to drive this point home to those decision makers who seem to have no idea what teachers actually do

What teachers do

On Friday, I received an email from CPS about the four furlough days that they are putting in place between now and the end of the school year. The letter states that “we will do everything within our control to minimize disruptions to classrooms”. And yes, they are not furloughing any days with student attendance. But it makes me wonder- what do CPS administrators think that teachers do? For that matter, what do non-teachers in general think that teachers do?

I’m annoyed at losing pay, yes. (I think CPS effectively gains back the back pay they gave us after the new contract was put in place, and then some.) But I’m more annoyed by losing the time and place to prepare. How can we say that this type of cut isn’t disruptive to classrooms? Teaching goes beyond just showing up for class.

The furlough days are coming at the end of each quarter from here until the end of the school year. I’m not losing time in front of students, but I’m losing prep time. And let’s be honest, I’ll probably be prepping on those days regardless of being paid or not. But having access to the classroom is actually really important in being prepared, in making sure that the instructional time (which is supposedly not being affected) will be useful. Besides, I’m pretty convinced that just instructional time alone isn’t the big factor in student achievement, but rather the quality of that instructional time (supported by this research brief).

What do I do with those “school improvement” days? (And as an aside- if they cut “school improvement days”, what does that tell you about how the district values schools improving from within?)

Yes, I grade. I use the time to make sure that all of my grades are accurate and updated, particularly at the end of a marking period. But that isn’t all I’m doing when I’m not in front of students. I lesson plan. I map out the unit, see if we are meeting the learning goals, see if the pacing makes sense. I modify, update, design activities to meet those learning goals. I write and modify assessments. I prepare my classroom for all of those activities- and the more interactive the activity, the more time and energy it takes to prepare (and I do a lot of interactive activities). And I do all of these things with my subject teams- I’m not working in isolation, I’m working with a whole team of teachers to improve instruction for all of our students. Needless to say, having time built into the school year for these “non-instructional” activities is actually quite important.

I’m particularly annoyed right now about losing the day at the end of first semester, because I was planning on starting second semester with a lab. And while I’m thinking about how to still make it work, prepping a lab is something I definitely cannot do out of my own classroom. I will probably still make it work- by staying late the day before, or coming in on the “furlough” day if our principal opens the building. I’m certainly not gaining an “extra” day off.

There was a poem going around the internet a while ago about “What Teachers Make” (beautifully illustrated by ZenPencils). I just want to add that to make all of those things happen, teachers spend an awful lot of time getting ready for class. The time I spend in front of students is a small part of what I actually do. I just wish that others, particularly those in charge of making district-wide decisions, knew exactly what teachers do.

Decision making

This space has been quieter this year, because real life has been busier. But now I’m finally on winter break and have a moment to relax and reflect, without immediate needs hanging over my head. (I still have things that are in the back of my mind and prevent me from falling asleep right away- such as, what should I put on the physics quiz review handout? How could I design an escape room-style review final exam activity for my chem students? When are we giving that quiz, again? What needs to be on the final exam? How can we sequence things better next year?)

I saw this quote on Twitter earlier this year, and I thought to myself, “well, yeah.”

When I mentioned this quote to a coworker, her response was that really, teachers probably make more minute-by-minute decisions than brain surgeons (because do you want your brain surgeon making a ton of last-minute decisions in the operating room?). Some of the Twitter responses suggest that teachers are more like ER doctors, which is probably more accurate. Some days, teaching feels like triage. I don’t know if the quote above is accurate or even accurately attributed (how do you measure how many minute-by-minute decisions are made by either teacher or brain surgeons? Who has that data?), but I do know I make a lot of decisions during the school day and also when I’m planning and prepping. And for me, the planning/prepping doesn’t actually end until late June, and probably starts up again in late July.

There are just so many things to do, and so many choices to make. Even what I end up spending time on is a choice that I have to make, how I prioritize things. And honestly right now, I feel like I’m not doing my best on anything and there are so many places where I could be doing more, could be doing better. I’ve talked before about how I want more time to do all the things that I want to do to improve my practice. And this year, I feel like I have even less time. I want to be more mindful of my student’s individual needs, I want to help my students reflect more on their own learning (I’m trying some different things, inspired by Kelly O’Shea). I want to really show my students that I care for them as both individual people and as learners of science. But then there’s all of the small or not-so-small administrative things that need to be taken care of (from tracking tardies to documenting students’ interventions), and I’m essentially leading or co-leading two subject teams this year. There have been a fair number of changes in our school and our department this year, which has made things more stressful as everyone’s trying to adjust. has an infographic (shown below) on how teachers are masters of multitasking. I would love to know where this data is from (particularly in light of all of the things surfacing about fake news and our inability to recognize it, so I hope I’m not perpetuating bad data), but I do know that I find myself in all of these roles in one capacity or another, often all in the same day and sometimes all in the same period: information provider, role model, discipline controller, foster parent, assessor, administrator, and facilitator. And some days I feel like I’m doing a terrible job at all of them.


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: teaching is intellectually intense. This is why I love it, why I find it so rewarding. But even though I love it, I recognize more and more that I need to find ways to balance my life better. I plan on taking time this winter break to do some recuperating from the stress of teaching, and enjoy some time with family and friends. And sleeping. (Today I slept until 9 am and it was wonderful.) But then I’m still doing some planning for after winter break/preparing for finals, and I also want to take some time to plan how to incorporate all of those other things I want to do. So it’s a break from students, but it’s not really a break from teaching. But my goal is to use the time to become a better teacher. It never ends, but I have to remind myself that this is a good thing- the possibilities for growth are endless, for both me and my students.

is anyone listening?

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories this fall. Earlier, I wrote for the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation on the importance of teacher stories. And I’ve been continuing to think about stories, particularly in light of what’s happening these days.

I still believe it’s vital to share our stories. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the danger of a single story in her TED talk, and I found the entire thing to be quite powerful. I highly recommend watching it – it’s only 19 minutes and gives a lot to think about. Some quotes:

The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity… I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.

So it’s important to share our stories, but these days I feel like I’m running into two issues: 1) it’s actually really hard to tell your story honestly and 2) who’s actually listening?

It’s hard to be honest about teaching. Teaching is personal, and a lot of my self-worth is tied into whether or not I believe I am a good teacher or not. And because of this, I want others to view me as a good teacher too. I surveyed the internet (ok, my Twitter and Facebook followers) back in August about what makes “good teaching”, and that analysis is coming out with the next issue of Kaleidoscope (which will hopefully be out soon!). But because I want to view myself as a good teacher, because I want others to view me as a good teacher, what I say about my teaching gets skewed a bit.

Add on to that the audience. How I talk about my teaching to my family is different than how I talk about my teaching to my friends, which is again different based on whether that person I’m talking to either is a teacher, was a teacher, or has some other experience in education. I keep things pretty general with my family. “How’s work going?” “Oh, it’s fine. Nothing to complain about.” And yes, it is fine overall, and I recognize that I am fortunate to work in the school that I work at (relative job security and resources for an urban public school). But I tend to gloss over the nuances of teaching. My family does now recognize how much work a teacher puts in (my sister, several years ago: “Oh, now it makes sense why I got so many assignments back with just check marks in high school.”) It’s similar when I talk to my non-teacher friends. Rather than explain the nuances of teaching and educational policy (and I’ll be honest, I’m not as up-to-date on the latter as I could/should be), I keep things to what others can relate to- the funny and/or frustrating things my students said or did, the successes and challenges in interacting with coworkers and admin, the amount of grading I have to do… It would take much longer than a 5-10 min “how are things going?” conversation to unpack all that really happens in a school, and it’s exhausting. Talking about educational policy with people unfamiliar with the world of education gets complicated, and let’s face it- I’m tired.

Add on to that is the burden that I feel sometimes to present a positive view of teachers and teaching to the world at large. I am exhausted by aspects of my job, but when the prevailing sentiment seems to be “well everything would be fine if we just got rid of bad teachers”, I don’t want to give people more fuel to burn the teaching profession with. I want to defend my profession, even though there are aspects of my job that I don’t like and wish would change. I want teachers to have a voice in setting educational policies, in telling the powers that be what works and what doesn’t (because who knows better?). But to be taken seriously, I feel like care needs to be taken in how teachers present themselves to the world.

Which leads me to my second struggle. Sometimes I wonder if anyone is listening, or if this is just “preaching to the choir” and I’m stuck in the kind of echo chamber that apparently social media creates. I’m thinking about this particularly in light of the US election and the recent selection of Besty DeVos for Secretary of Education. Is anyone who has the ability to direct educational policies listening to teachers and their stories? Or are we all holding on to a single story about the other side? I can’t pretend to openly support charter schools, because I don’t. I think they have a lot of problems, particularly the lack of accountability. But I’m willing to acknowledge that some charter schools do quite well by their students, and I would love to hear about what makes those schools successful (it appears to be a balance between autonomy and accountability, where most public schools have too little autonomy and too much accountability, while most charter schools have too much autonomy and too little accountability.) I would like educational reformists to also critically examine where their reform policies work and where they don’t, and listen to the teachers in both contexts. Teaching and education are complex, but too often we (myself included) try to boil things down to one simple solution that should work for everyone.

NPR suggests reading the book that’s not for you to bridge the political divide. I’m willing to do that (also, I just love reading), but I wonder if anyone else is also doing that. You can’t force someone else to listen to your story. So I’m still wondering – how do I tell my stories honestly, and how do I deal with it when it seems like no one is listening?

But, because every time I think more about stories, I end up thinking about the Hamilton musical, I’ll leave you with the finale: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

pro sports – pro teaching?

Yesterday night, the Chicago Cubs won the National League pennant and are going to the World Series for the first time since 1945. Or so I’m told. (I might be a Northside Chicago resident, but I don’t actually know anything about baseball and I refuse to be a bandwagon fan.) But many of my friends are longtime Cubs fans and there’s been a lot of talk about the different players and what they did or didn’t do and how they got to the World Series. And it got me thinking.

Almost anyone thinks they have a right to critique what pro sports players do and suggest what they should have done (particularly when a team loses). Most of those people who critique sports have some background in sports- maybe they played baseball or softball when they were younger, maybe they’re part of a sports league right now. But I would guess that many sports fans don’t fully know what it’s actually like to be a professional sports player and all of the decisions and training that go into that one game.

I have a lot of sympathy for pro sports players who seem to screw up. The media attention and the replays must be hard to deal with, and I’m sure that they have to learn how to not let such criticism get to them. It must be difficult to be in a profession that’s under so much scrutiny all the time.

In some ways, teachers are not that different from professional sports players. Almost everyone has an opinion about how teaching and education should work in this country, because everyone has gone through one school system or another. And there is no end of critique for teachers and suggestions on what we should do to make education better. People are quick to point the blame to teachers when the schools seem to be failing (see Judge Moukawher of Connecticut’s criticism of “uselessly perfect teacher evaluations” and Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner calling Chicago Public School teachers “virtually illiterate” and principals “incompetent”).

But there are differences too- pro sports players are not as a whole disparaged, and there is always the chance that you’ll be highly compensated (not really sure what happens to players in the minor leagues). In general, people seem to recognize the amount of work and effort it takes to become a pro sports player (although I do think there’s a misguided notion that all you need is talent). There was a Comedy Central sketch by Key and Peele on ‘Teacher Center’, a “what if” teachers were treated like pro sports players? And, as a teacher, I found it kind of funny but also kind of off. I don’t really want the level of individual public scrutiny that pro sports players are subjected to. What I would really like is a general acknowledgment that teaching is a complex task that requires continued training and development, and perhaps the funding to teach students effectively (and not continually being asked to do more with less).

I put long hours and a lot of thought into my job. I’ve been told that baseball is more interesting if you understand the strategy behind the game, because apparently there’s a lot that goes into it. I wonder what it would be like if people understood that there’s also a lot of strategy that goes into teaching, and planning good strategy takes years and hard work to develop (hopefully, though, not as many years as it seems to have taken the Cubs…)

Year 3- reflections

Tuesday was the last day of classes, so I’ve been spending the past two days just kind of recovering mentally, physically, and emotionally from this past year. It’s been a long and kind of exhausting year, but in looking back I can still say it’s been a good year, and I’m thankful to be able to say that still.

I started this year with a list of things I was going to try in my classroom and I was able to implement most things, though I’m already thinking of how to change things for next year.

Here’s how some of the structures I implemented this year in my classroom went:

  • Group roles were mostly successful first semester but definitely fell by the wayside by second semester. One student asked me the last few weeks of school why they didn’t have group roles anymore, and my reply was “because you don’t need them.” They acknowledged that, but one student also said “the only thing group roles did was let ___ boss us around”. So there’s that. It was the “Team Captain” role that students (mis)used to boss each other around… I’d like to keep with group roles, particularly for the start of the year, but it’s challenging when my groups have 4-5 students and I only have about 3 roles that I really find useful (facilitator, resource manager, and recorder/reporter). So I’m going to have to rethink this for next year.
  • Pseudo standards-based grading and spiraling quizzes were… honestly a lot of work. And I don’t know that their grades were that much different than if I had just averaged all of their quiz grades together because of all of the ups and downs. But, I did give each student an end-of-year printout with each standard listed and their quiz score on each standard. Most of them groaned when I passed this out, but I did hear some of them talking about how “ok, I need to focus on 5.4 and 4.1 for the final…” I think I’d like to bring them back to their quiz grades more often during the year (maybe before every unit exam? Although there was a brief discussion of not having unit exams at all next year if we continue to spiral quizzes). I did get my coworkers to spiral quizzes as well, and we agree that it’s nice to “force” students to revisit the content. (Some students disagreed and vocalized that on an end-of-year feedback form.) I will probably continue to grade quizzes by standard if possible next year, because it gives the opportunity for students to better assess their understanding of specific topics (if they’re given the opportunity/space to really look at their scores and interpret them).
  • Interactive(-ish) notebooks – need to structure this better. I think the end of class reflections I had students do was not useful because it was so rushed. I’m thinking of perhaps having them look at the list of learning objectives and figure out which one we’re one (which shouldn’t be hard because I go in order). I also need to rethink how to give students better access to work that is posted online but done in their notebooks, because I found some students didn’t ever do homework that had an online component.
  • Google Classroom Again, I found several students didn’t ever do their online homework, and the lack of turning in labs severely penalized them (not to mention that they also then didn’t get practice or feedback on their understanding, which led to low quiz/test scores as well). So I’m rethinking this. I’m thinking about having labs done in the notebooks only, but having students submit written lab application/extension questions in paragraph form. I got this idea from another colleague (join us in our Twitter/google doc conversation on chemistry stuff!). But Google Classroom integrates pretty seamlessly with Goobric and Doctopus and makes grading written work way faster, so I would like to keep this while still being mindful of making sure students have access (and not penalizing or embarrassing them in front of peers because they don’t).
  • POGILs– my colleagues and I worked to put a hands-on component to several POGIL activities (and I realize that whenever students have a hands-on portion, they think they’re doing a lab- are they wrong?), which lays a good foundation for next year and further modifications. I love POGIL but my students don’t, mostly because they struggle sometimes with seeing this as learning (I’m still getting the “please lecture more” and “please actually teach us” feedback at the end of the year…)
  • Whiteboards and class discussions- I still want to figure out better ways to run whiteboard discussions (and class discussions in general). I’m attending a conference by the Right Question Institute this summer so I’m hoping to come back with some good ideas of how to get students to generate the questions and lead the discussions.

There’s a lot of room for improvement for next year. And I was frustrated a lot this year- by my students, by my colleagues, by myself. It was exhausting working with the chemistry team to overhaul what I did last year to make it work better and for all of our different teaching styles. And it was strange to find myself in a leadership role among our co-planning team as a 3rd year teacher (our veteran chem teachers did not join us- one was only teaching AP chem so it didn’t apply and the other was focused on a new forensics course so didn’t have the time to co-plan, so I had the most years of experience among our group). I also started a 3 min observation club among my department, and we’re thinking of how to expand it to other departments (maybe math and engineering to start?), and it was again strange to be in a leadership/organizing role among more veteran teachers. I wanted to teach my students how to be self-competent, and I could have done a better job of this, both implicitly and explicitly this year. But a lot happened this year, and I believe despite the struggles, the frustrations, the venting sessions I had with friends to keep me sane, it was a good year. I want to keep all of these things in mind as I recharge this summer, so that I can start next year ready to change things up again to continue to improve.

And I will say (again) that the thing I love most about teaching is that it’s never the same. The students are certainly not the same, but I am also not the same teacher this year as I was last year, because I’m (hopefully) using these experiences to adjust my practice and grow. And growing (literally or figuratively) is a sometimes painful process, but so so worth it. So the exhaustion, the frustration is worth it (though I’m still trying to figure out how to balance my life so that maybe I’m just a little less tired and stressed during the school year…) I’ll just have to remember this post when I’m drowning in a sea of grading next fall…

on strike


Today, the Chicago Teachers Union is on strike. A one-day unfair labor practice strike, with the goal to bring attention and awareness to the funding issue. Lots of rallies are going on around the city in coordination with other groups and unions. I spent two hours this morning on a picket line, walking up and down the street in front of our school.

It’s strange. I’m home now, and if this were any other day, I’d be using this time to get ahead on lesson planning, grade some late assignments, etc. Because I never stop working at 3:15 pm. I’m at school from at least 6:45 – 4:30 pm, often coming earlier and staying later. I work on weekends. I worked last Friday while I was at the mechanic waiting for my car’s oil change to be finished, even though it was a furlough day and I certainly wasn’t being paid. (I might have small issues with work/life balance- but teaching takes so much time.) But I’m not working today because I stand with the CTU, and I believe in public education.

I’m striking today, even though I personally feel conflicted about the timing and the issues that we’re striking for and whether this strike will really accomplish anything. (Does Gov. Rauner care? Will this convince him to put through a budget that funds public education?) It was also a confusing mess of communication from the union- first, the union was calling for a strike when CPS said they would pull pension payments on April 1. Then, it switched to a “day of action” after CPS backed down on the pension thing (for now). Which then turned into a “work stoppage”, which was then changed back to a “one day strike”, all within a very short time frame. But the House of Delegates voted for a strike, so here I am, not working.

My thoughts on all of this are also influenced by the recent news about the Supreme Court’s 4-4 split on Friedrichs vs. CTA. The Atlantic article that I linked mentions (at the very end) how states that have gotten rid of agency fee laws have seen declines in union membership, such as in Wisconsin and Michigan. And Illinois does have agency fee laws, which is why I joined the union in the first place- if they are getting my money (and bargaining on my behalf), I might as well have a vote in what they do. I was never very pro-union before I started teaching (I don’t know that I had any real views on unions at all), and I’m not 100% pro-union now. But I see the purpose and power of the union, and in a city that gives the public very little control over public education (the school board is appointed by the mayor, not sure how much control/power the local school councils actually have, they certainly have no real control over the amount of funding the school receives), the teacher’s union is the one very big voice that can advocate for teachers and students. And in a large, diverse but still somewhat segregated city, I can’t imagine what kind of a hot mess the schools would be without the union. When I think about the school systems in Wisconsin and Michigan- well, that’s not a road I want to see Illinois go down.

I was talking about the strike day with some friends over the weekend, and someone (who I don’t know very well and isn’t a teacher) said, somewhat flippantly, “oh, you guys should just get out of CPS”. I think my response kind of took him by surprise, because I was offended to be told to just leave the city. The implication is “it’s not your problem”, and that kind of thinking is what got us here in the first place. I don’t really fault teachers for leaving CPS, because it’s a messy school district to work for. There are a lot of problems in CPS, and there are no easy answers. But to just tell teachers to leave a failing school district is not a solution. There is no easy solution, because fairly funding schools is a hard issue to discuss. “Fair” does not always mean “equal”, but that’s easier to see if you’re the one with fewer resources. If you have plenty of resources, why would you give that up and risk having not enough resources for the sake of others? If one school can get by on the per-student budget given by the district, why can’t they all? (Never mind the fact that the funding deficits are often made up by parent organizations and facility rentals.) I work at a nice school, and I certainly don’t want to give that up. But I recognize the issues and the disparities, and I’m uncomfortable with the disparities. So I stand with the union, because the problems at other schools are my problem, because they’re the problems of my city.

I’d like to have a careful conversation about this, acknowledging both the difficulties and realities of the situation, but it’s hard. I’m often left with more questions than answers with these kinds of issues. So instead of working, I’m finally reading Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System“, which has been sitting on my bookshelf for the past three years. It seems like an appropriate book for today.

Urgent vs. Important: on reflection

Last summer, I came across a blog post by Peter Greene, “The Hard Part”. And still, I find myself thinking about this.

There is never enough time. There are never enough resources. There is never enough you.

A teacher friend of mine once said something about how we, as teachers, are often making decisions between urgent and important things. There are always things that must get done Right Now. We’re doing a lab tomorrow- this means making enough solutions for all the classes, making sure the lab bins are set up, labeling the cups and beakers in advance so that the kids aren’t wasting time (because we’re not just doing a lab tomorrow, we’re also doing a quick review and taking a quiz that many students are complaining they aren’t ready for). There’s always grading to be done (which reminds me, I was supposed to grade a student’s late lab notebook). And when it seems like there’s nothing to do, I’m looking ahead, trying to anticipate what’s coming down the line, creating drafts of documents for our team to look at so that we’re not scrambling last-minute to get things done (although let’s be honest, we are often scrambling last-minute to get things done).

Many of these urgent things are also important. It is (at least, to me) important to have lab prepped ahead of time. It’s important to have an outline of lesson plans several days in advance so that I have some time to think about what I’m teaching and how I’m teaching it. It’s important that copies are made on time. It’s important to grade the work that I collect in a timely manner, so that students get feedback in a timeframe that is useful for them.

But there are those things that are important but not necessarily urgent. And it is hard to justify the time for those things sometimes. I started a 3-minute observation club in my department this year, and I’ll admit that I’ve been a little disappointed by how it’s been going. We started with 10 teachers, but one only came to the first meeting, and every month fewer and fewer teachers have stopped by the open classroom to observe their colleague. I’ve had several people tell me that they aren’t going to continue with the club (at least, not this year), because they can’t commit the time. It’s ~15 min to observe the classroom (more if you choose to, I’m counting transit time), ~10-15 min more to type up your notes from the observation, and a 1 hr meeting, so total of about 1.5 hrs a month. 1.5 hrs doesn’t seem like a lot, but in teacher time it’s volumes. Particularly when it’s supposed to be “my” time. I can grade a class’s worth of exams in that time, or lesson plan. I can clean up my classroom, I can organize myself so that I’m ready for the next period I’m teaching. And at some point, I’d like to go home and relax so that I don’t burn out completely. So I understand why this club gets pushed to the end of my colleagues’ priority list.

I personally had high hopes for this 3-minute observation club, because I wanted time and space to reflect about teaching with my colleagues. But reflection is one of those things that seems to be important but not urgent. In our chemistry team, we started an on-going google doc where each person can type in their thoughts and feedback about specific activities we tried this year, so that when we look back on it next year we can remember what went well and what didn’t (instead of trying to dig it out of our brains). I’ll admit, I also haven’t kept up with this google doc. There’s often too much to do on the “urgent” list, and when I’m done with the “urgent” list, I often forget about this doc.

There is just not enough time. In my perfect world of teaching, there would be time built into the school day for reflection, for conversations around teaching and learning with my colleagues who are working with the same population of students. But because reflection is so important to me, so vital to my development (and also my sanity) as a teacher, I take the time for it, formally and informally. I want more time for reflection, more time to process what happened that day and how to really move forward in a way that best benefits my students. And I want more time to reflect with other teachers, particularly those at my school who can help me really reflect (rather than offering “quick fix” solutions).

Our 3 min observation club is down to about 6 people. At the moment, I believe that these 6 will stick it out for the rest of the year, because we seem to value the development of a reflective teaching practice. I’ve had thoughts before about the importance of a reflective teaching practice, and more and more I believe that reflection really is essential to developing as a good teacher.

There’s been a NY Post interview/promo going around the internet (at least, among my teaching internet circles) about this new book by Ed Boland, who left a job as an executive to teach at an inner city school. There’s a lot of outrage against Mr. Boland, with good reason (in my opinion). He seems to have a White savior complex and was perplexed as to why his students didn’t appreciate all that he was doing for them (confession- sometimes I’m also angry and frustrated that my students don’t appreciate all that I do for them. But I get over it). I wonder how much reflection Mr. Boland brought to his teaching practice. Peter Greene, again (coming full circle in one blog post) wrote eloquently about this, pointing out that Mr. Boland probably had no idea of the power of gentleness in the classroom. And I wonder if part of that lack of gentleness is a lack of a reflective teaching practice- rather than demand control, what else can I do? What is really going on in this classroom? Are there underlying issues (that perhaps I am not responsible for, exactly, but am inadvertently aggravating)?

So how do we find time to reflect? And how to do we convince others- colleagues, administrators (at the school and district level), legislators, anyone who dictates how my time as a teacher should be used- that this reflection really is valuable for developing teachers, for helping teachers grow in their practice and become better and more responsive to students? I believe that reflection is important, and perhaps more urgent than it often seems to be. How do I convey that to others, who only see the immediate needs and the outcomes? (Can you tie teacher reflection to student outcomes? That would be an interesting study.)

All I can do right now is make sure that I am taking time to reflect, even when that’s getting cut out of time that I could be spending on other things. I’m thankful to be among colleagues who do care, who are willing to take the time out of their day to talk about things (in more than just a venting session, although those have their place too), to think more deeply about their practice.  But I hope that, as a profession, we see the importance of reflecting, and somewhere down the line, space is made for it in meaningful ways.

the stakes for public education

In Chicago, public schools started the strike authorization vote today. It’s stretched out over 3 days because the union wants to make sure all members actually vote (abstaining counts as a “no” vote).  We would need 75% of the overall membership to vote “yes” to authorize a strike, but even so, a strike couldn’t start until March at the earliest. (And honestly, every day pushes this timeline back a bit, because as far as I’m aware, we still haven’t started the “fact finding” stage of the process.)

Before I got into teaching, I didn’t think much about teacher’s strikes. As a student, I missed the days of constant teacher’s strikes. (The 2012 teacher’s strike was the first Chicago teacher’s strike in 25 years. I went to school in the suburbs but still don’t remember any actual strikes.) But 2012 was also the year that I was student teaching, and I remember being conflicted about whether or not to picket with the teachers at my assigned school. I ended up not going to any of the strike rallies, etc., because honestly I wasn’t comfortable with it. And right now, there’s a part of me that’s still not personally comfortable with the idea of a teacher’s strike, the idea of being out on a picket line. But I believe in public education, and right now it feels like there’s a lot at stake.

Just working in a Chicago Public School has been an eye-opening experience for me. I grew up in the suburbs, went to a very white, very male, small engineering school in Indiana for college, then went to an Ivy for grad school. There’s always been a lot of privilege around me, although I never personally felt that privileged. But you only really know what you live and see, and I only saw the nice, clean, touristy parts of the Chicago. And I can’t say that I see a lot of my city even now, because I work in a very nice school that CPS can point to and say “look at all the great things we do!” and therefore has reason to keep well-resourced. My student population is also not really reflective of the city of Chicago, and we have a very active parents’ group that fundraises and has filled in the gaps when the school district cuts funding. Our “Friends of” organization is one of the top 10 fundraisers in the city. But nevertheless, working in urban education, I see the disparities in education, and it bothers me. And I see the disparities in how public funds are being used, and I wonder why those in charge make conscious decisions to not fund schools.

I have realized, starting with the work I did at UIC for my Master’s in Education and continuing with the issues I see arising in CPS, that teaching is an inherently political act. I do not consider myself a political person, but I realize that education really is something that can equalize and change the status quo. But education can also easily be used to keep the status quo intact. And honestly? I don’t exactly teach my students how to challenge the status quo with chemistry. But I want them to learn how to think critically and realize that they are, in fact, capable human beings. I’m sure those in power know what education can do for the otherwise poor and disenfranchised. Why else would the mayor and members of the Chicago School Board not send their children to CPS schools? They have no incentive to fix the problems in our school system because it doesn’t affect them directly. And they may actually have an incentive to not fix the public school system because that gives their own children an edge up. Given a choice, I think most parents will do “what’s best for their students”, resulting in segregation and inequality (more eloquently put by Jose Vilson).

And so, even though my job personally is not really at risk, even though my school has been fine despite all the budget cuts, etc. (overall; this isn’t to say that we haven’t felt the effects of CPS policies, but I am fully away that because of the school that I’m at, my job has been more secure and the daily issues I deal with less of a problem than many of my colleagues in the CTU), I voted yes to a strike.

Sure, I’d like a raise. I’d like to have a secure pension. (Although in all honesty, with the state of Illinois being the hot financial mess that it is, I’m not counting on a pension at all- but the older teachers who have put in sweat, blood, and tears into this job deserve what was promised. I haven’t heard anything at all about cutting the CPD’s pension fund.) And I’d like to not have to worry about my healthcare. But really, I would like as a city and as a nation for us to wake up to the disparity that exists, in education and everywhere else. To understand that there is so much more holding some people down than others, and that a solid education can counteract some of that. (By no means all of the problems can be solved via education. But it’s a step. And cutting public education is like kicking someone who’s already down.) And I would like the powers that be to realize that education cannot be run like a business (Who is the consumer? What are you selling? Why are you selling what you’re selling? Who is paying for what you’re selling? Who decides whether the product is “good”?) but rather should be a basic human right. And I’d like the city of Chicago to understand that there’s more than raises and pension and healthcare on the table. Keeping class sizes manageable (I say I have classes of 28-30 students, which seems fine to me, and my non-teachers friends are shocked), having classroom aides and support staff for students (nurses, counselors, psychiatrists). Reducing the amount of testing that our students are put through. Making the evaluation process both manageable and meaningful. Things that really are in the best interest of children who are supposed to be learning. Things that many suburban and private schools take for granted (I am sure that the University of Chicago Lab School has all of these things and many more “amenities”).

I don’t want a strike. None of the teachers I have talked to are actually looking forward to a strike. And I admit I dislike some of the antagonistic language put out by the teacher’s union, because I personally do almost everything I can to avoid conflict. But as much as I would like to just stay in my classroom and teach and wish that other people would leave me alone, I believe in public education and I believe we owe more to the students of this city than they’re getting. And honestly, although both the CTU and the school board claim that everything they do is “for the children”, I’m more inclined to believe that of the CTU. So I hope that we don’t get to the point of an actual walkout, I hope that the school board and the teacher’s union can actually come to an agreement before it gets to that point, I hope that the state of Illinois can find a reasonable solution to the financial mess that we are in (which is not the fault of the teachers, yet they continually ask us to bear the financial brunt of the problem). But if it comes down to it, I vote yes to public education and all that it stands for.

On Race, Gender, Education

This post has been a long time coming. And what’s finally prompting me to hit the “publish” button is the recent events in Chicago around the release of the Laquan McDonald dash cam video. I don’t quite know how to fully articulate my thoughts, because this is the result from many months (perhaps even years) of thinking about race, gender, and my role as an educator, but this is my attempt to make some sense of all of these things. There are lots of links to many articles that have pushed my thinking on these topics.

On race:

An article that surfaced on my Facebook feed earlier this year was “The Harsh Truth about Progressive Cities” (from Madison 365). And reading about how most progressive US cities are some of the worst when it comes to racial segregation and racial disparities reminded me of “I, Racist” (from Huffington Post) that I also came across. It’s not easy to talk about race when the listener assumes that you are calling them racist because we live in a racist system. I find it very strange to talk about race and racial disparities as an Asian American who grew up with all the benefits of the mostly positive stereotypes. I fit right into the positive stereotypes, for the most part- quiet and compliant with most authority figures, hard worker, good at math and science. My family was able to fulfill the American Dream- my parents came to the US with a few suitcases and little else, and now they own their own home, are retired after two successful careers, and have 3 kids who are by most measures, quite successful. My parents, as they will sometimes remind me, still faced racial discrimination (although honestly, as a child/young adult and sometimes even now, I was/am often woefully oblivious to instances of racism against my family). My dad’s approach was to teach us to work twice as hard to prove that we were just as good, which strikes me as an untenable solution. And until recently, I was really unaware of the story of Asians in American and how the narrative has changed so drastically in such as short time (from the New Yorker).

I am hesitant to step into or start conversations around race because I fear that people will tell me that I don’t know what I’m talking about because I haven’t experienced the same level of racism. Something that I have noted is that many conversations around race seem to focus on the White/Black divide. I still remember the blowup over the use of the phrase “a chink in the armor” in an ESPN article about Jeremy Lin in 2012 (was it really that long ago?) and how angry my Asian friends were about how so many people defended the phrase, its use, and were upset that Asians were upset by the phrase (but I can’t remember the race of those that defended this phrase). What’s the big deal, aren’t Asians a “model minority”? Asian stereotyping doesn’t really exist, right? But did you know? Asian Americans went from being seen as poor, dirty, uneducated laborers to upstanding middle class citizens in less than a century. (I didn’t know this until a few years ago. Probably because I wanted to believe the stereotype, because it’s a nice one as stereotypes go.) Stereotypes, even “good” ones, prevent us from seeing each other as we are: people, and not that different from one another. And, as one of my professors at UIC said, is it ok that Asians benefit at the expense of other minorities in this “model minority” narrative? Consider that the “model minority” myth was a deliberate change in the narrative to counter the civil rights movement.

On gender:

I read “Still Failing at Fairness” with KSTF a few summers ago. Gender is something that has been on my radar far more than race, simply because it’s been more unavoidable for me as a woman who was always interested in science. I majored in chemical engineering at a school that was all male until 1995. Nevertheless, my undergraduate chemical engineering classes were about 50/50 male/female (my friends’ computer engineering classes, on the other hand, had maybe one female student in a class of 30). I then went to graduate school to get a PhD in chemical engineering so I could teach at the college level. In my entering class of about 15 students, there were 4 women. At least two of us never finished our PhDs. Among the faculty, there was only one woman at the time (they hired a second woman while I was there), and there was always conversations at the “Women in Engineering” things about “work-life balance”. A part of my severe disappointment in quitting my PhD program with “just a master’s” was tied to the feeling that I had somehow let down my gender by leaving the research world, even though I hated most of the time I had spent doing research.

In October, I came across this NY Times piece about “What Really Keeps Women out of Tech”. I found this particularly fascinating as a female science teacher- science is, still, a very male-dominated field (where issues like Geoff Marcy’s continued, persistent sexual harassment of female students went unchecked for years before blowing up this fall); however, teaching is very female-dominated. Pollack’s NY Times article suggests that women stay or drop out of tech because the fields just don’t seem to be welcoming to them. I found this statement particularly intriguing: “young men tend not to major in English for the same reasons women don’t pick computer science: They compare their notions of who they are to their stereotypes of English majors and decide they won’t fit in.” But did you know that women pioneered computer programming? I kind of did, but was fuzzy on the details, until “A Mighty Girl” posted an NPR story about “The Forgotten Female Programmers who Created Modern Tech.” Women created computer programming because men didn’t think it was important enough. (I feel like this exemplifies how the female gender is viewed: women do things that men don’t think are important enough, until they do think it’s important and then take over.)

My friend sent me an essay by Claire Vaye Watkins called “On Pandering”. Watkin’s experience with an experienced male writer made her see that this man didn’t see her as a writer, but just a girl (specifically, a drunk girl). Even though English majors are mostly women, then, “real” writers appear to be mostly men.

On education:

I teach in a Chicago Public School. Earlier this week, our principal sent out all-staff emails about the upcoming release of the Laquan McDonald dash cam video. I had to look up what happened to him, because I had never heard his name before this week. And what happened is heartbreaking, particularly with the narrative around his story, recasting him as a thief and a druggie instead of just stating that a police officer shot the boy 16 times. I’ve been sent the official statements from the district, and told explicitly not to show the video in my classroom, as “the students will have ample opportunity… to see the video through the media”. And it makes me wonder- how many other black youth are being killed without my knowledge? It brought home to me how different my life is compared to some of my students- I can ignore or brush aside a news story about a police shooting. For others, this is their life.

So how do I, as an Asian American woman, understand and work with other groups to combat racism, to promote social justice? How do I have conversations around race and social justice in a science classroom when I am not really sure of the history around race and social justice in America (despite covering the civil rights movement in my AP US History course, sorry, Mr. Huff), when my lived experiences are often so different from both White and Black/Brown experiences? And when my lived experiences are so different, even, from other Asian Americans? How do I have conversations around what it means to be a woman in science when I chose not to stay in a hard science and instead teach science? (The phrase “those who can’t do, teach” comes to mind…) I read this Washington Post piece about how a white teacher responded to her students of color who told her that she couldn’t understand because she was a white lady. But I don’t even know how to start bringing issues of race, gender, social justice into my chemistry classroom.

Issues of social justice are an inherent part of education in general. Not acknowledging these issues inadvertently perpetuates the problems, because the status quo does not promote social justice. My curriculum is pretty sanitized and I honestly have no idea how to talk about social justice because I’ve never really had to think about social justice in a chemistry classroom, so I wonder- how can I be thoughtful?  How can I listen to my students and take the opportunities when I see them? Surely there is a place to talk about the Laquan McDonald shooting and subsequent video release. But where does it come in when we’re talking about periodic trends and electron configuration?

I got a pretty big compliment from my students on Tuesday. They were talking about another teacher (who is no longer at our school), calling her “crazy”. My response was “well, I’m crazy too” because not 5 minutes earlier, they were gripping about how I was making them do work the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. And they told me, “no, you’re not crazy, you actually care about us learning chemistry. It’s not all about discipline.” So then, while I was so happy to hear that my care for them learning chemistry has come through, I wonder- how do I go even further and let my students see that I care about social justice? How do I let them see that while I care, I’m still figuring it out and I certainly don’t have all (or really, any of) the answers?

I don’t know what it will be like in my classes on Monday, if my students will even be talking about what happened to Laquan McDonald. Some of them come from very privileged backgrounds, and the ones who don’t aren’t always comfortable bringing things like this up. And my chemistry class is not really a place where we talk about current events. But I want to be open. I want to not be desensitized to these kinds of events. And I want to learn how to respond.