The Challenges of Working With Children With Serious Issues

That title is a mouthful, but I couldn’t figure out how to shorten it.  There was a sad and thought-provoking story published in the Baltimore Sun about a child with behavioral issues who died in Baltimore last week.  It raises questions about–as the title of this post states–the challenges of working with children with serious issues.  The story is about the aids and the bus driver whose jobs are in limbo, but I felt a definite connection with my own experiences teaching, and the difficulty of preventing challenging students from taking actions that harm themselves.  The original story is here:

Questions raised as family prepares to lay student to rest

My reaction:

The issue of trying to control multiple students with severe behavioral and/or emotional issues is very fundamental to what is challenging about urban education, and it’s something that doesn’t get enough press.  The mere act of discussing the fact that kids from low-income settings tend to have a higher incidence of these sorts of issues brings up feelings of classism and racism.  Yet, the truth of the matter is these issues have a huge impact on a teacher’s ability to do their job.  I’m going to get politically incorrect now and get into my thoughts on this hot-button issue.

If severe emotional/behavioral issues are prominent enough and go unchecked by the management systems a school has in place, they start to affect the entire climate of the school and the behavior of students that don’t even have the same sorts of issues.  Actions and behaviors that should seem really out of place become commonplace and you start seeing a lot of copy-cat behavior.  I’ve experienced situations as a teacher where a class that seems out of control returns to order with the removal of a single student.  Once, a girl I taught actually remarked, “there goes our ring-leader”.

The fact is, classroom teachers not equipped to deal with some of the issues that the children can bring in the door.  Public education with low-income populations can work, but there needs to be an understanding that the needs of the students as a whole are greater and consequently, there need to be more resources allocated.  Children with emotional/behavioral issues that cause disruption to the general ed setting need very small settings and interventions, and they can be gradually be integrated into larger settings as their issues are resolved.  In most cases, they can and should probably be integrated with general ed students, as long as the group size is kept very small.  And obviously, they need the highest quality teachers.

Just imagine how much Baltimore City life could be changed if the most difficult students could be effectively educated?  It can be done, but not without the resources.  The question is, do we have the fortitude to make the necessary investment?

We’ve Got It All Figured Out

According to some dude from the root, the answer to inner city education has been right under our noses for several decades, and it’s a technique known as direct instruction.  Check out the original article here:

We Know How To Teach Black Kids

My thoughts:

In my teacher prep classes, I was taught that kids have different
learning styles, hence they need to be able to learn and engage the
material using different modalities. We were given countless ways to
structure learning activities in ways that were supposed to be engaging
and multifaceted. Yet, I had my greatest success as a teacher when I
cut out the frills, and relied on direct instruction–basically a very
structured, stripped down form of teaching. That’s not to say that I
stopped using multiple learning modalities, but I cut out a lot of stuff
that I thought was actually distracting from my teaching objectives. In
DI, at its most basic, there’s not a whole lot of discourse or
open-ended assignments.

I taught a lot of kids who were between -7 to +1 years of grade level,
yet they were all lumped in the same high-school level math class.
Eventually, I saw some big successes with some kids that had come in
with severe deficits. I had a girl who didn’t know how to multiply and
a girl who had immigrated from rural El Salvador, not speaking a lick of
English, factorizing monomials and understanding complicated
terminology. I was able to facilitate this by very meticulously
breaking down my objective into very finely differentiated component
skills, down to the most basic level, assuming zero prior knowledge. I
spent as little time as possible lecturing on necessary information and
terminology, then we started doing problems as a class, then they worked
independently. For the kids who could do things in bigger chunks, they
could work ahead, and I had extension assignments for them to work on.

But DI isn’t the magic bullet, though. Despite my success stories of
the kids I was able to strongly motivate, across ability levels, I don’t
think I was successful as a teacher overall. No matter how finely you
break down the skills you’re teaching, it doesn’t help the kid who has
75% attendance, let alone the kid who has 30%. It also doesn’t help the
kid who, at a basic level, is not invested in learning and doing the
work. And if your school doesn’t have a strong framework for
discipline, a handful of uncooperative students can torpedo the whole
proecess. These are just a couple examples of what can go wrong. Of
course there are strategies for addressing these types of issues, but my
basic point is that DI is not the end-all, be-all. Also, although I
think it is great for teaching fundamental skills, I think DI needs to
be augmented with critical thinking and problem solving tasks, once the
fundamentals are mastered.

For one reason or another, DI is not well respected by many. My
principal always used to say that if he came by your classroom and the
teacher was driving the instruction, something was going wrong. There’s
this dream of student-centric, Montessori-esque learning that every
principal wants to achieve, and I can’t count how many
“needs-improvement” comments I received for my rigid teaching style.
But for me, it was what worked (relatively), so I stuck with it.


The Underappreciate and Unresolved Problem of Teacher Retention

The New York Times recently profiled what’s going on in education in Baltimore.

(P.S.  As part of their analysis, they visited Green Street Academy, where my girlfriend and former roommate teach.)

A Mission to Transform Baltimore’s Beaten Schools

My thoughts:

It’s an interesting piece. I most people agree that Alonso has had a
very positive impact, with respect to what had gone on in the city prior
to his arrival. He’s ruffled a lot of feathers, but overall, he’s been
much more successful navigating the politics and gathering consensus for
the sweeping changes he makes than Michelle Rhee was in DC.

One thing that caught my eye was how they mentioned that old black
educators are getting pushed into retirement. I think the author missed
something there. I don’t think it’s just old black teachers that are
getting pushed into retirement, I think everyone is getting pushed into
retirement. The system has become very high-stakes, and there is
immense amount of pressure to perform. In my experience, teaching was a
60-100+ hour per week job, and I still wasn’t able to actually
accomplish all the work I was technically supposed to be doing.

As a result, there is massive teacher turnover in City schools. Teach
For America gets a bad rep as a program that produces teachers for two
years who then leave the district they were placed in to do something
else. This isn’t precisely true, because many TFA teachers stay for
several years beyond that, although I’m sure the vast majority leave
within five. But I think if you look at the population non-TFA teachers
within the same schools TFA places teachers, you would see almost the
same statistic. You’ve got a diminishing group of older veterans, a
constantly flowing group of new teachers, and not a whole lot of
classroom teachers in their 30’s and 40’s.

I think a fundamental problem with education is that the general public
has no idea how intense the job of K-12 teaching in a low-income,
high-pressure setting is. I have friends who have left teaching for law
school, business school, banking, engineering, and just about every
other job under the sun, and for 90% of them, it’s not because the money
wasn’t good enough in teaching in the city. With little exception, they
are happier and less stressed out after leaving teaching. Yet, to the
general public, teachers are a bunch of bums that couldn’t get real jobs
and have too much vacation time.

Unfortunately, this means that rather than building a solid, experienced
teacher corps, new teachers constantly have to be trained from scratch.
Many K-12 educators say that it takes about 5 years for a teacher to
really approach peak effectiveness, but few people reach that level in
inner city schools.

Yet, I don’t hear a lot of talk about the retention problem directly.
The closest people usually come to talk about retention issues is when
talking about compensation and the currently fashionable movement toward
of merit pay. And although on the face of it, paying teachers more
seems like a worthwhile idea, I don’t think it’s the answer. I think
it’s going to provide a moderate bump in recruitment, but that it will
make little to no difference in retention. I think this because of all
the people I know who left teaching, not one of them left because of the
pay. At least in Baltimore, teachers actually do get paid reasonably
well, compared to the cost of living. People leave because it’s just
too intense for the vast majority of even the elite group TFA recruits.

The current direction is to try to recruit, train, and retain a corps of
highly paid superhumans who can actually handle the job stress. I think
the real answer is to find ways to split the jobs of classroom teachers
and administrators so that they can be taken on by teams of normal
people, who can pool their talents together–even if it means they don’t
get as much. Until the expectations of the job become more reasonable,
poor retention is always going to be a major impediment to any
meaningful improvement in K-12 education.