Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Snow Days

When I was a kid there was nothing better than a snow day. In my memory I can recall snow piled as high as the roof of my house and sledding down hills that seemed the size of a small mountain. It was great to wake up to KMA radio and hear Oakland or Council Bluffs schools included on the list of those that were out for the day. We were always early risers, so generally once we heard the announcements, we started planning for the day. There were a few times that a neighbor and I would go door to door in the late morning trying to earn a few bucks shoveling driveways. Mom would usually fix soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, which were a welcome break from school lunch. When the news would come on at six that night, we watched the weather hoping for more snow in the forecast and the potential for another day off.

The worst sound that you could hear after going to bed with the hope of a day off due to a few inches of that wonderful white stuff was the rumbling sound of the snowplow. We all knew that if the plows got out early in the morning, the chances of the longed for day off diminished significantly. The dad of one of my classmates in elementary school drove a plow and I remember that we would often shun him when we had to go to school and there was snow on the ground. Like it was his fault!

Thinking back to those days sledding down the hills on the Oakland golf course or the one on the side of Abraham Lincoln High School in Council Bluffs bring back a lot of memories. However, I no longer have that same warm place in my heart! Now I go to bed when there is snow in the air dreading the phone call that I know will come early in the morning. I also have to share the news with my wife who is sick and tired of kids being in the house all day rather than at school – where they are supposed to be! I am really tired of the color white because that is all I see outside. I am not opposed to going to school in June, in fact, just the opposite. I have maintained for years that I would rather have kids in school in June than in August. So it isn’t the whole “have to go to school in June” thing with me. No, I’m just tired of short weeks and the inability for our staff and students to get in the flow of school. And, did I tell you that I hate the color white!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Can We Do This Together?

At a town hall meeting for high school students on December 15, 2009, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan asked his audience what they are doing now to take responsibility for their own education. At that same meeting he pointed out that taking Advanced Placement classes, getting involved in extracurricular activities geared toward college majors or areas of interest, and volunteering are definite steps in that direction. The issue of taking responsibility for their own education is a topic people outside of the education field have also started to ponder as well, including Richard Doak from the Des Moines Register, who a little over a year ago basically told folks to back off on pointing fingers at the schools and level them at the conditions of poverty. As an educator, it was nice to read someone from the media who wasn’t blaming us!

In reality, the success that a student has in school is dependent on many factors, but basically, there are three: the student, the family, and the school. There are exceptions, but if all three do not contribute equally, then the chance of academic success is diminished. Or, in some instances, one or two of the factors have to compensate when another is not “pulling its weight.” I have seen some remarkable kids overcome horrible lives at home to become great students that give themselves the opportunity to live a much better life than their parents provided for them. I have also seen tremendous kids challenge themselves to be better when the school does not push them hard enough. But, I have also seen far too many kids that do not push themselves, and have dealt with more parents than I would like who do not hold their child accountable and find it easier to point their fingers at a teacher than at their own child. And, as sad as it may seem, I have dealt with parents who place a very low priority on their children and put up huge obstacles for them.

This working relationship is critical on a number of levels, but one that has me very concerned has to do with what our students today are going to face in their future. I know that part of my job is to educate parents and the community on things that are going on in this world that we are preparing their children for, and to some degree I question whether anyone is listening. Our children in school right now are going to compete with kids all over the world for jobs and yet why are we not making the necessary changes that need to be made to better prepare them for this reality? For instance, students in other countries are going to school 25 to 30 percent longer than we are. In a global economy, we are not playing on a level playing ground! Yet when are legislators and other leaders going to recognize that we have to have longer school years and compensate the teachers accordingly? However, it isn’t only them. I know that in this part of Iowa we still have a strong agricultural economy, but it is not the same as 100 years ago when school calendars were developed to meet the labor demands for farming. We must look at expanding our school year and get beyond the perceptions that have existed for so long that in our new information economy are terribly outdated.

From the perspective of a principal and a teacher, I know that we can continue to improve our instruction and the way we work with young people. It is a huge responsibility and mine to oversee on behalf of the students who attend our school. But I also agree a great deal with Secretary Duncan, an outspoken advocate of rewarding teachers based on student success, but who also has stated that teachers cannot do it alone regardless of the rewards. He made it clear that "students must be serious about their own education.” Honestly, on a daily basis this is what troubles me the most. I see kids every day that do not accept the fact that they must put forth their best effort to improve themselves, to develop their skills and expand their knowledge base. Many are only concerned with a grade or “passing” and do not seem to be interested in learning. We know from sports and the arts that in order to develop a skill it has to be practiced over and over again. The same is true for learning. Instead, many kids cram for a test to get a good grade, but do not internalize the important aspects of what they are supposed to learn. A recent Des Moines Register survey of nearly 13,000 educators showed that 79% of them do not believe that students want to learn. That is a troubling statistic! It is imperative that students listen in class, ask questions, make homework a top priority, put forth their best effort, get enough sleep, and take responsibility for their own learning.

Back to Doak’s position, teachers in Iowa also see the impact that poverty and life at home has on the children that arrive in their classroom each day. The same survey from The Register shows that 67% of Iowa teachers say that children in school are hungry or tired, and 88% stated that situations at home distract kids from learning, including anything from drugs to alcohol abuse by parents, constant moving, or a death in the family. What bothers me so much is that in some of these situations, parents are not making education a priority for their children. From the survey, it was stated, “Rich or poor, parents must instill in their children that it is their responsibility to get a good education.” There was a time in our history that parents living in tough situations wanted better for their children and knew that education opened those possibilities. Many parents must ask themselves what they can do differently to better prepare their children for school. According to The Register survey, “Parents have been let off the hook because we don’t want schools to use problems outside their door as an excuse.”

It seems that right now there is a lot of finger pointing, but the reality is that in order for my children, and other children, to be able to live the life they hope to live, we must figure out a way for everyone to be on the same page. There are times that schools are expected to solve problems that should be handled by parents. In some respect, we have taken the position that since it isn’t getting done at home, then we owe it to the child to take care of it at school. But when I really think about it, we cannot continue to do this. Where will it end? We have to communicate more with parents and in some instances help them so that we can all do a better job preparing children for their future. The idea of “it takes a village” is still very true today. Which brings us back to the question: Can we do this together?