Does the suit make the teacher?

January 28th, 2011 | Filed under: Opinion, teaching

Not in The Netherlands it doesn’t. I’ve not had a great deal of exposure to Dutch work environments other than the few times I’ve visited the immigration office and the time I’ve spent with the curriculum team developing a new international school. Working from home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But even after a few visits to real workplaces, something is startling clear: Casual apparel is okay in The Netherlands, especially in the workplace.

In America, as most Americans can attest, your work attire is taken very seriously, particularly in offices. As a newspaper reporter I only dressed up when heading to a cushy office to interview someone and the rest of the time I rocked jeans and casual dresses. In a workplace where people (used to?) smoke and keep bottles of bourbon in their desks, this is an improvement. But when I became a teacher that all changed. I needed to “dress respectably to be respected,” as one principal told the staff during a meeting. Apparently dressing respectably meant skirt and pants suits like the administrators wore each day.


Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to begin training in the MYP curriculum. It was an all-day session that challenged me and my new colleagues to move away from our previous experiences as educators and think within this new curriculum focused on authentic, project-based learning and interdisciplinary collaboration. I’m still reflecting on the experience and writing about it, which I’ll share soon, but as invigorating as the experience was it was also a chance for me to chat casually with these teachers. Usually we’re cramming a lot into our meetings and have little time for chit-chat, but we had lunch together and tea breaks and I shared a lot about myself, the true outsider on the team, and learned more about them. Photo by semuthutan.

The most glaring difference I found while hanging out in the personeelskamer (teacher’s lounge) is that seeing people “dressed up” was a rarity. Now, these educators weren’t rolling into work in sweat pants, but here are just a few examples:

– Older gentleman in jeans, flannel shirt, suspenders, sneakers.
– Younger woman in cotton dress, tights, Ugg-type boots.
– Administrator in khakis, button-down shirt (no tie), and a houndstooth jacket.
– Younger man in khakis, loafers, and an untucked polo shirt.

It may seem that I’m being overly superficial, analyzing the wardrobe choices of the teachers I encountered, but it affected me so much that I knew there had to be a reason. I realized that this casualness toward dress code was indicative of something deeper in the culture of the school and the attitude toward the teachers. They are considered professionals and treated as such. It’s as if someone said “Yes, I know you’re a professional and I don’t need you to wear black pumps and suit pants to prove it.”

I met a young teacher who had the opportunity to do her student teaching internship in Pennsylvania as part of an exchange program. She said she was told she had to dress up and spent the first few weeks buying new clothes for the entire experience. She told me that in The Netherlands people dress down at work – wearing “work clothes” – and save their dressy attire for events and nights out. Makes sense to me. Teaching is hard work and I don’t know how many days I came home from my internship with my toes nearly arthritic from being crammed in fancy shoes for eight hours.

As a teacher in Virginia I’ve been frustrated with the discussions surrounding a potential ban on virtual communication between students and teachers. The state’s board of education is considering banning teachers from chatting with students on Facebook, Twitter, and through text messages. The reason? To protect the students. At first blush that sounds like a good idea. We all want to protect the students! But why would we want to protect them from their teachers? Yes, there have been the few cases of teachers and students sexting, but with nearly half a million teachers in the country that’s a small drop in the bucket. The education system paints with a wide brush and often does so to the detriment of innovation in our tired system. In this case, rather than deal with the inappropriate teacher-student relationships as they arise, the board is treating all teachers as potential predators than the professionals the majority of them are.

Yes, there are things online that I’d prefer students not run into – predators being the main one. But those dangers are everywhere, not just online. And to take away the one connection to responsible adults that kids may have in those spaces is truly irresponsible. Wouldn’t it be better for us to hold their hands crossing the road than to say “No, holding hands might lead to a sexual relationship, so we’ll just let the kid cross the six-lane highway. Alone.”

I’ve heard familiar gripes about teachers here – that it’s so easy and they get the summers off. Dream job! But overall the school culture itself seems to lead toward a mutual respect among colleagues and an understanding that no, whether one wears jeans or a suit doesn’t mean one is a better or worse teacher. Effectiveness isn’t tied to your tie. Leadership isn’t lost by leaving your collar unbottoned. Seems a little ridiculous when we think about it this way, don’t you think?

It’s small thing, but it means a lot. It has me wondering what other small differences might go a long way to change the entrenched culture of schools in America.

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January and my month of free learning

January 18th, 2011 | Filed under: professional development

January seems to be the month for virtual and online professional development in the education world. Maybe it’s the beginning of a new year and everyone is hopeful and in need of new ideas to see it through, but I’ve been swamped with plenty of free opportunities (I ain’t complainin’.). I’ve signed up for two asynchronous workshops through EVO (Electronic Village Online) on digital storytelling and podcasting for ELL students. The workshops last for five weeks each and I’ll emerge on the other side with lots of new ideas for how to enhance learning for my future ELL students. If (ahem, when) I end up working at an international or bilingual school these skills will be crucial. While in America my work with ELL students was limited, in a foreign country it becomes the rule. I need more teaching strategies in my quiver and I jumped at this free bit of PD. I love conferences just as much as the next person, but when I’m far away on another continent with mere pennies in my bank account, I thank my lucky stars for the generosity of others online.

While those workshops are going on I also participated in the English Companion Ning winter webstitute “Work With Me,” which focused on collaboration. I’ve also registered to virtually attend EduCon 2.3 later this month, but for the moment I’d like to reflect on my experience with the ECN Webstitute. Photo by Mark Brannan.

I’ve been a member of the English Companion Ning since it’s inception. I was quite active in the beginning and relied on the encouragement and help of the educators there greatly during my student teaching. When I got my first teaching job I was swamped and struggling to stay afloat and I disappeared for a while. I’ve been slowly getting back in, reading posts, and thinking about how to help the teachers that meet there with ideas or just a pat on the back. I knew that the people I worked with in those spaces would welcome me back no matter how long it had been since I dropped off the grid. Such was the case last weekend when I dove into the Websitute.

The first session was with Penny Kittle. I’ve just started reading her book Write Beside Them, so I was stoked about this one. She shared a video of her students collaborating on a project focused on analyzing the craft of the author. Quite a few students who read The Hunger Games were working together and since I’ve read this book I can understand the excitement of the teens that came across in the video. But more important than the enthusiasm was the authentic analysis and discussion of the book bubbling forth at the table. A later interview with one of those students seemed like perfect justification of the hands-off, fellow learner/facilitator role I like to take in my classrooms and which I describe in my philosophy. The student, Amelia, said she was thankful Penny didn’t give her the answers – that she and her classmates were able to uncover meaning on their own, allowing them to delve deeper into those ideas and come to their own conclusions. She went on to say how difficult writing a paper about a book, or about anything, was if the ideas weren’t her own. (Yes!) The discussion that ensued in the forum included materials and pages from Penny’s writer’s notebook, questions about practical things like assessment and class time, and the general idea sharing I’ve come to love from the EC Ning.

The next session was about collaboration with colleagues and again the organizers posted a helpful video of one of their sessions, which didn’t focus on failures of students or behavior issues – the general bitching that can occur in meetings like this. Instead these educators were talking about what worked and the things they were stuck on – they were trying to figure out how to bridge gaps in their lessons and help students make deeper connections. They talked about what worked, what didn’t, and what they were going to try next. They trusted each other and felt safe tossing out any and every idea all with the goal of helping their students. I stuck around for a bit of the forum discussion, but around that time my coffee ran out and I had to go to bed. It’s an unfortunate side effect of living in a different time zone and trying to participate in U.S.-based PD. Next time I’ll take a midday nap.

Both Penny’s session and the collaboration group reminded me how important it is to document great things happening in your classroom and with colleagues. Sharing is crucial to the success of learning networks and professional spaces like the EC Ning. Lots of great things go on in classrooms and school buildings around the world, despite what talking heads and pundits say to fill 24-hour news cycles, so documenting it goes a long way to showing the greatness of teachers and helping others become great.

I was disappointed I couldn’t make the live Elluminate sessions later in the Webstitute, but I learned a great deal from the discussions I had on the EC Ning and simultaneously on Twitter. If I had a recommendation for the next webstitute it might be to hold the forum discussions asynchronously across a few days or a week. There was a mad dash to post and participate and respond (all great things!), but one could only keep up with constant browser refreshing. If the organizers wanted a live chat maybe a private chat room would have worked, but then we would lose the ability to upload and share documents in the context of the discussion (a great feature of Ning forums). Not sure what the answer will be, but my international time zone self would love a more aysnchronous workshop. Live events like Elluminate talks can never be asynchronous (though archives are available), but the forum discussions can be. The EC Ning has done this to great effect with its virtual bookclubs.

Over the course of the Webstitute I also joined the EngDo collaborative – a wikispace of document and resource sharing for educators. I’m still trying to piece together how this space will be different from the EC Ning, but my hope is it’s a more organized place for resources and collaborative documents while the EC Ning is mostly a forum where people post resources sometimes.

Lots to do and think about after just one weekend of real-time professional development. I’m off to work on assignments for my digital storytelling and podcasting workshops. I’m thankful to have such a great network of teachers on Twitter. I would have never heard about EVO if Larry Ferlazzo hadn’t posted about it one day.

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“He was just crazy” isn’t good enough.

January 11th, 2011 | Filed under: Opinion

Being far away from America means I live without the 24-hour news cycle of American CNN. I don’t have to watch a ticker across the bottom of the screen tell me which talking head is outraged by Obama’s call to the Philadelphia Eagles owner. In return I get news sources that are more global and cover issues like conflict in Sudan and the use of rape as a weapon of war in Africa. Anyone can do this by adjusting your personal news sources, though I didn’t do it myself until moving to Northern Europe. I don’t know why I didn’t do this earlier…

But a few days ago I couldn’t miss the horrific shooting at a Safeway grocery store in Arizona where a number of people were murdered, including an innocent 9-year-old girl. It hadn’t hit my global news sources yet, but my Twitter network was in full force with people tweeting their feelings of shock, dismay, and utter frustration at the hate. Some speculated about the lack of serious gun control in America and its role in the event. Others wondered how much Tea Party rhetoric played a role in the gunman’s decision to attack this political meeting organized by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords,  a Democrat from Arizona who according to the latest reports is recovering from surgery. She was shot in the head.

We don’t know yet (and we may never, truly) if the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, was compelled by the vitriolic rhetoric and campaigns of the Tea Party and extreme conservatives to attend the Giffords event with the goal of assassinating the representative. She has been outspoken about the xenophobic and hateful policies instituted by Arizona in an attempt to curb illegal immigration. One can’t ignore the language used by these campaigns to foment outrage and anger among a constituency that is anti-other and carries guns to political rallies. Words like “eliminate” in reference to contenders in races, “in the cross-hairs,” “on the attack.” Is it typical campaign language or is it something else? Language is power. To deny that is to essentially put your head in the sand and pretend the world doesn’t exist. What we say and how we say it has meaning, something I try to teach my students always when words like “faggot” or “retarded” pop up in class. Loughner may well be a psychopath – there’s no other way to describe someone who shoots up a group of random people in a grocery store – but how much did language play a part in how he decided to release that rage? For many people on the outskirts of society, people like Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris of the Columbine shootings, they often find solace in communities that are outside the norm. For years people tried to connect shootings like this to horror-core and other music genres, but most of us cried out in the name of censorship and said no, this is just a result of a community leaving these boys behind and children bullying, knowing not how they hurt others in doing so. Others lamented weak gun legislation. And of course there are always the people that shake their heads, call the shooters crazy, and move on from the event choosing never to reflect on how they could have done something.

But which is it? I’m a rabid support of free speech. Even in cases where I hate the subject and wish others weren’t writing/painting/singing about it in an attempt to raise even more supporters, I deal with it because I see it as a necessary part of supporting the right to free speech. But how far is too far? Most journalism students learned the case of Schenck v. United States where the phrase “clear and present danger” was first used (speech should be free unless it creates a clear and present danger to others). This can be stretched to fit anyone’s argument (for or against), but we must think about it in moments like these, even just a little. And maybe Loughner’s shooting had nothing to do with Tea Party rhetoric. Maybe he is just a psychotic killer and not a psychotic killer that’s also a Tea Party member (Jacob Weisberg tackled the idea that Loughner may have been influenced by both mental illness and political rhetoric on, calling it “politically tinged schizophrenia” while David Greenberg labeled Loughner a political assassin.). The question still remains: How are we going to deal with a society that seems to be growing ever more hateful and outraged and a political system that purposely taps into that rage to push agendas only to back away and say “no, he was just crazy” when it blows up in their faces? I say these things, but then the hairs on my back stand on end when I realize I’m pushing to limit speech that is used in many situations (political campaigns, sports games, etc.). Maybe I’m just looking for a big group or movement to blame, something on which I can take out my anger when I see the faces of the innocent dead on web pages.

Blaming something big and without a face is easy…looking inside ourselves to see what we could have done to prevent this is not. As a teacher it’s my job to reach out and support my students – all of them – even when there are so many I can’t seem to find the bottom of the grading pile. And especially those students that seem to be on the fringe, getting lost in their own thoughts and shameful memories, bullied by students for being so damn different. This isn’t to say that it’s always the “weird kid” that ends up going on a murderous rampage, but it doesn’t hurt to care for those students and show them they aren’t alone in whatever they might be dealing with at home or just in their own heads. As news sources try to find explanations for an unthinkable event we will no doubt learn more about Jared. He already has a pretty clear digital footprint that should have been a warning to someone, but it’s hard to tell in a world where anyone can upload anything, where insanity and fringe behavior are rewarded with more hits and views. Loughner is getting lots of views and hits right now, but the warning signs are lost on viewers. It’s too late.

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