School Problems

So my youngest is now out of public school, and I can at last release this list of problems that were seen (take notice: Walnut Creek and Acalanes School Districts).  Don’t get me wrong, there were some great, committed teachers. And then there were some that should’ve been committed (you can read that either way ;). So here’s an annotated list of behaviors reported over the course of two public school careers (note: these were observed as well as experienced, so not all happened to my kids):

  • Not using examples: one teacher presented the concepts, but never used examples that illustrated the concept in context. This violates what we know about the necessary prerequisites for learning!
  • In another instance, a teacher was asked to recommend a calculator. Later, that teacher was asked how to use it for a particular problems, and didn’t know!  Turns out that the calculator was just ‘recommended’.
  • In one subject, my kid was told that the couldn’t  use learnings from other classes. This was solving an engineering problem with a technique from a math class.  I’m sorry, but you shouldn’t be punished for creative solving. Classes should reinforce, not conflict!
  • Picking overly detailed semantics. This is one we’ve all seen (I remember getting in trouble in geometry because I’d do the right proof, but I hadn’t memorized the exact wording of the theorem).  Still, it’s wrong. By and large, rote memory isn’t what’s going to lead to lifetime success.
  • Too often, there were unrealistic expectations about what students could be expected to do.  These kids should have a life!
  • On a related note was teachers making assignments in violation of assignment guidelines with a wide variety of excuses.  Those guidelines are there for a reason. Other classes assign workloads too!
  • Then there are the teachers who don’t communicate the intrinsic interest. The setup is bad enough with forced classes (or even electives). Maybe it’s not your passion, but find it!  If you treat it as uninteresting, is it any surprise that your learners are turned off?
  • Psychotic behavior: at least once there was a teacher ranting about non-class related topics in class. This is inappropriate.  Yes, teachers are people too, but they are also professionals, and need to treat their role as such.
  • Then there was the lack of consistency within departments. Maybe two departments, English and Math say, would have the teachers coordinated, but the administration couldn’t force it. So Science would be idiosyncratic in what they covered and how.  I’m all for individual teaching approaches, but pity the subsequent teachers assuming learners come in with a certain basis but it’s not reliable.
  • This literally happened, a teacher gave a second test, but didn’t feel the need to provide  feedback since it was the same test. I’m sorry, but the point would be that they’d choose different (hopefully better answers), so there should be different feedback.
  • When I mentioned group assignments recently, I suggested that it was problematic if you don’t scrutinize the contributions. With no exploration of equal contribution (nor guidance on same), learners will experience the dreaded ‘one person doing all the work’.
  • How about keeping kids in the class and not allowing them to do something else even if they’re done? Yep, you can’t do other reading, or other work, if you’re done.
  • And you’re probably also familiar with the assignments given with insufficient notice. If it’s a big project, students have to assign time between multiple assignments, and a late notice can interfere with their ability.
  • A really horrible behavior is giving student abuse, denigrating or demeaning them.  It’s an unequal power relationship, so it’s hard for the student to fight back, and it can create real problems.
  • Even in an AP class, memorizing all presidents and years is just a useless exercise.  If you justify that it’s useful on the test, then the test is broken.
  • I’ve certainly seen this: padding quizzes with unnecessary and obscure material. Think it through: if they don’t have to know it, don’t test it!
  • And of course the ‘busy work’ assignment that has no relevance, no support is given, or feedback provided.  Why would you assign this? As punishment? Inappropriate Classroom management?  You should do better.
  • Another classic: teachers not adding value, just repeating textbook. My better half once took a college class where the professor literally read from the textbook they’d written. If you think they need another channel, record it and make it available. Use that precious face-to-face time to do something meaningful with the knowledge!
  • A heinous practice is providing private beliefs in the classroom. Again, teachers are people too, but there’s a line, and stepping over it is to tout any party line without providing the other side. Let the students examine it, but don’t tout opinions (or ‘fake news’) as facts!
  • Another insidious practice is testing on material not on the syllabus. How can you justify this?  It’s learner abuse!
  • In one class, all the marks were assigned to one particular form of assessment.  This doesn’t provide any triangulation on the learner’s abilities!  Some students, for whatever reason, don’t perform well in certain ways. Try to find a way to ascertain knowledge, not just ability in one medium.
  • Coloring! Too often there were coloring assignments that were for no other reason than to make the room look pretty on open house. You could make meaningful coloring assignments (color coding), but these weren’t those.
  • Oh, and if a student misbehaves, making them sit at the ‘bad kids’ table isn’t a viable approach. Reflection?  Scribing some thoughts? Yes.  Public humiliation?  No.

I note that I didn’t systematically collect these from the start, so I’ve regenerated some, and likely have missed others. But these were all observed, and all have pedagogical flaws. I understand that certain things have rationalizations, but there are constraints that make them contribute to learning, and these instances violate them. And again, this wasn’t even the majority of teachers, who are generally well-intentioned.  And even these ones were often well-intentioned, but mistaken. And that’s the problem: a lack of awareness of learning. By purported learning professionals!

These problems can arise when teachers get tenure, and then have no future scrutiny. I was gob-smacked when I was asked to help by a foresightful principal, but then found out that while the teachers were required to do a personal improvement  project, there was no mechanism for constructive criticism of classroom performance.  They didn’t have to change if they didn’t want to!  For instance, they could just send kids off to learn PowerPoint instead of incorporating technology meaningfully in the classroom. I understand that teaching is a low-reward pursuit (though the benefits are pretty good). Still, it doesn’t justify no ongoing development.  My father-in-law was a school teacher, and I respect those who exhibit professionalism (and those are many, even most).  But it’s a broken system.

Ok, another editorial rant, but this has been percolating for years, so it was time to get it off my chest. Thanks if you paid attention.

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