Why Schools Shouldn’t Reward Attendance

I saw something on Twitter the other day. Somebody had created a nifty bulletin board. It listed the names of all the kids with outstanding attendance for each grade level in the school. The board’s creator had obviously spent a lot of time on it. On its face, it seemed like an awesome idea. Lots of Twitter people hit the heart. I commented, but sort of lied because I don’t like criticizing teachers on social media. Teaching is hard, and most of the things I now disagree with I used to do. I said I struggled with the idea of publicly acknowledging kids for attendance. In reality, there’s no struggle.

I’ve evolved from a teacher who used to create fancy certificates to present to those with two or fewer absences during an award ceremony on the last day of school to one who hardly mentions attendance to his students at all. Here’s why my thinking changed, and why I think bulletin boards like the one I saw on Twitter are well-intentioned but ultimately misguided.

It’s Not The Kids

If you want to get on your high school students about dragging themselves into your class ten minutes late on a regular basis, then go for it (although you may want to consider that your school’s start time and adolescents’ circadian rhythms are unaligned). But I teach third graders and the bulletin board referenced above was for a K-5 elementary school. Third graders don’t decide to stay home from school. They don’t drive to McDonald’s five minutes before the day starts. They don’t roll in late because they hit the snooze bar too many times.

I have a student this year who is almost always late. I know why. It’s not her fault. It does no good for me to get on her case about it. There’s nothing she can do.

There are lots of reasons a student might be absent or late. Some of those reasons are good ones, like they’re sick or had a dental appointment. Some are bad, like they pretended to be sick or they stayed up too late playing Minecraft. No matter the reason, it’s almost always on the parents.

I was a kid. I pretended to be sick because I didn’t want to go to school. My mom wouldn’t let me get away with it. If I wanted to sleep in– and believe me, I did–my mom got me out of bed. That’s what parents do.  That’s their job, and when they don’t do it, it isn’t their kid’s fault.

When elementary students are absent or late, it’s almost always either for a good reason or a parent fail. And for that reason, students shouldn’t be awarded or criticized. They’ve done nothing to deserve either.

Sometimes, Kids Should Stay Home

I used to offer a class party when we hit attendance milestones. For every 20 days of perfect class attendance, I’d throw a party. I hoped it would encourage kids to show up. If they weren’t feeling 100% before school, I thought the incentive would make them think twice before asking to stay home. If they got a stomachache after lunch, I wanted them to gut it out for the team.

That was dumb. Sometimes, kids should stay home or leave school early.

I don’t want them in class if they’re sick. Not only will they not learn much if they’re genuinely ill, but they’ll tell me about it all day, which is really annoying. There’s also a decent chance they’ll make other kids (or worse, me) sick. With the flu being what it is this winter, I pray every day when I send my child out the door that her classmates’ parents are keeping their sick kids home.

One year, I had a student who lost his father in a terrible accident. In May of that year, I was scrolling through the attendance numbers of my class. I congratulated a couple of kids on how few days they had missed. A lot of them wanted to know their number of absences. So I told them. When this boy asked me and I told him ten, he was shocked. I gave him a few seconds to figure it out. When he didn’t, I said, “You missed a week in March.” Thankfully, he remembered and I didn’t have to say anymore.

But I felt like a jerk for even talking about attendance. What you reward, you get. And if you reward attendance, you’ll get it. That might not be a good thing. If they’re sick, I want students at home. If there is a tragedy in their family, I want them with their family. They shouldn’t be made to feel like they’re letting people down about either.

There’s More to Life

School is often referred to as kids’ jobs. It’s a crappy comparison, but even if we go along with it, do we really want to be responsible for perpetuating Americans’ obsession with work? I’ve never understood people’s pride in never missing a day on the job. It’s like bragging that you prioritized working for others over your family and yourself. There’s so much more to life.

I never have a problem with students missing a week to go on a family vacation. I’m cool with Take Your Child To Work day. If a parent wants to pull their kid out of school for the first day of deer season, or to celebrate the child’s birthday, or to sign them out early for gymnastics class, or to get down to the stadium early so they can watch batting practice with dad, I’m fine with it. Learning happens outside of school, too. And we should send the message that school, like work, shouldn’t take priority over our families or our passions.

Kids who are in school every day haven’t done anything to deserve our praise. And they certainly haven’t done anything to earn a reward. They’re lucky. They’ve won lotteries. They have responsible parents who value education (maybe too much?), and they were fortunate to not get sick or have life happen to them for ten months out of the year.

Those kids have already won.

In Defense of Public Consequences

My ten-year-old daughter played softball this past summer, and I could not believe how she was publicly humiliated. In one game, she hit the ball down the third base line. As she hustled to first base, the throw came in off line. The girl caught it in front of the bag and tried to tag my daughter, but my kid dodged out of the way! She was safe!

But the umpire called her out for leaving the baseline.

Right in front of everyone!

My daughter had to walk back to the dugout in shame because of that umpire’s call!

It’s not just softball. This public humiliating of kids happens in almost every sport. When a kid commits a foul on the basketball court, the referee blows a whistle — a whistle! — and everyone stops and waits. Then this awful excuse for a human being points right at the kid who broke the rule and announces to literally everyone in the gym that the kid screwed up.

But he doesn’t stop there!

Because then he goes over to the scoring table and signals the kid’s number and explains exactly what the kid did wrong. Then he takes the ball away –again, with everyone watching — and gives it to the other team.

In football, the referees throw a bright yellow flag on the ground. They then punish the ENTIRE TEAM for the infraction of just one kid. How is that fair? It’s like the referees are trying to destroy the team ‘s culture. How can anyone expect the guilty kid’s teammates to feel anything other than resentment toward him?

Hockey is even worse. The cruel adults in this sport blow their whistles, report the offenders, and then they actually make kids sit in a BOX! They don’t even try to sugarcoat what they’re doing. They don’t call it the Think Box or the Second Chance Box or the Stop and Reflect Box. They call it the Penalty Box! They lock them in a cage where everyone can see them!

It seems to me that if an athlete breaks a rule in any sport, the officials ought to be able to tell them without shaming them in front of everybody. These referees should find a way to quietly whisper to the players, encourage them to do the right thing, and stop embarrassing them!

What I can’t understand is why these kids keep playing these sports. Do they want to be publicly shamed? Do they like being embarrassed?

And why do parents allow this to happen? Where’s the outrage?

No, For Real

If the above sounds a bit ridiculous, then you will understand my feelings about those who criticize teachers for giving students public consequences when they break a rule in the classroom.

There is a large contingent of teachers and education thought leaders who say there is no place for public discipline in the classroom. These critics say that teachers who call out bad behavior are humiliating kids and robbing them of their dignity.

But public consequences exist for important reasons, and shaming kids isn’t one of them.

They Let Everyone Know What’s Actually Acceptable

I played high school basketball. I quickly learned that there were two types of referees: those who would “let you play,” and those who nailed you for even slight infractions. The written rules of the game were the same, of course. A rulebook existed that spelled out exactly what was allowed and what wasn’t on a basketball court.

But there was room for interpretation. Put a hand on a guy’s hip with one ref and get an automatic whistle, while other refs let the small stuff slide. If basketball isn’t your game, then the same can be said for the strike zone in baseball or pass interference in football.

The same is true in every classroom. Teachers have their posted rules and expectations. But until those rules are enforced, no one really knows what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Many classrooms have the rule, “Raise your hand to speak.” But teachers vary greatly in how strictly they enforce it. It’s through public consequences that the line is quickly understood by everyone in the room.

Words are just that. Words, whether gentle or firm, don’t always convey our seriousness. Asking a student to stop interrupting a lesson doesn’t always work. Asking them again is more of the same. Like referees in sports, teachers need to take action to show they actually mean it, and the whole class deserves to understand what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

They Allow for More Efficient Teaching

Critics of public discipline will say that the teacher should praise publicly and criticize privately. They should stop teaching their lesson (or allow it to be sabotaged and then talk to the saboteur afterward) in order to avoid embarrassing a student with a public reprimand. They should surreptitiously walk over and have a quiet word to redirect the wayward student.

Going over to a kid and telling them what you expect is fine, maybe even preferable, but it’s sometimes impractical.

The teacher and the students who are doing what’s expected shouldn’t be inconvenienced by those who aren’t.

Every kid in the room already knows what’s going on. They know who is breaking the rules and they want it stopped, just as any kid who plays in a basketball game wants the referees to do something about the kid who fouls his opponents every time down the court.

Those kids are messing up the game. They can’t be allowed to continue to do so. Public consequences keep the lesson moving so everyone else can do their job.

They Allow for Easier Parent Communication and Support

When I was in elementary school, my teachers used star charts. Many teachers in my school (including this one) use a clip chart to track daily behavior. Other teachers write names on the board and add check marks for each rule infraction. Technology allows teachers to keep track of behavior with apps like Class Dojo. But why keep track at all?

For the same reason they do in sports. Fouls and penalties are recorded (and often displayed on a huge scoreboard for everyone to see) because failing to learn from your mistakes is a problem. You can’t continue to go on messing up the game and keep playing. Eventually, the consequences get more severe. Players foul out. They’re red-carded. They’re removed from the field. Screwing up is fine. Continuing to screw up isn’t. This is a message all kids should learn early.

Tracking behavior also makes it easier to communicate. When a parent wants regular updates of her child’s behavior, it’s much easier to say “She had three strikes,” than it is to recall and report on each broken rule. “Dave committed five fouls in six minutes,” says plenty about how Dave played the game, just as, “Dante was on red before lunch” lets everyone know that Dante had a really bad day.

So why do public consequences like behavior charts receive so much scorn, when public consequences in sports go unremarked upon? I think it’s mostly out of fear and a lack of trust. There is the potential for abuse, and unlike in an arena or on a field, teachers work behind closed doors. Parents (and other teachers) have to trust that teachers won’t use public consequences to shame kids.

Like everything in the classroom, it’s not so much what you do but how you do it.

Lectures can be boring or illuminating. Group work can provide important collaboration time or can be a hot mess of conflict. And public consequences can be used to shame kids or to reinforce the rules and keep things moving efficiently, as they do in sports.

Note: My favorite article on how to enforce consequences was written by Michael Linsin. It shouldn’t surprise you that he recommends teachers act just like referees.

Maybe American Teachers Don’t Suck

Could it be? Is it even possible? Are American teachers actually good at what they do?

Education reformers would have you believe that they are not. Not by a long shot. Their evidence? Student test scores. After the results of the 2009 PISA test were released, Head Reformer Arne Duncan, sounded the alarm:

“The chief reason that U.S. students lag behind their peers in high-performing countries is not their diversity, or the fact that a significant number of public school students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The problem, OECD concludes, is that “socioeconomic disadvantage leads more directly to poor educational performance in the United States than is the case in many other countries.”

Our schools, in other words, are not doing nearly as much as they could to close achievement gaps. As schoolchildren age in America, they “make less progress each year than children in the best-performing countries,” according to the OECD.”

He then pointed the finger squarely at our dumb teachers, writing:

“The United States has a lot to learn from South Korea, Singapore, and Finland about building the teaching profession and recruiting teachers from the ranks of top students.”

Reformers are convinced that if we just had better teachers, those middling test scores would skyrocket. In their minds, the two are conjoined, which means that since our scores aren’t very good, then our teachers must not be either. That belief explains why critics are up in arms at the end of every school year when the evaluation systems they were so sure would lead to legions of teachers being fired instead reveal that principals think almost all of their teachers are pretty good.

Their frustration and bafflement are palpable, with headlines like:

Schools Rate Almost No Teachers Ineffective

Michigan School Districts: We Have No Ineffective Teachers

Even After Colorado’s Teacher Evaluation ‘Revolution’ Fewer Than 1 in 1,000 Rated Ineffective 

Brookings was so discouraged that they claimed that “Teacher Observations Have Been a Waste of Time and Money.” (They’re right.)

There are only two possible explanations for why more teachers aren’t rated ineffective. Either principals are giving high marks to undeserving teachers, or principals know what they’re doing and teachers don’t, in fact, suck.

We know what the reformers believe.

While critics of American education base their opinions of teachers on test scores, there are other ways to evaluate people. I can study the statistics of my favorite baseball team, but I can also watch them play.

And of course, not everybody cares about test scores. As a parent, I don’t judge my child’s teacher on my kid’s test results. Evidently, I’m not alone. Because when we ask the American public what it thinks about teachers, we learn that:

–79% of parents are satisfied with the education their oldest child is receiving. (Source)

–The public believe that just 15% of teachers are unsatisfactory.  (Source)

–77% of Americans trust and have confidence in America’s teachers. (Source)

–Americans rank teachers behind only nurses and military officers on questions of ethics and honesty. (Source)

These numbers are remarkable. In spite of well-funded, incessant attacks, three in four Americans still have confidence in teachers, trailing only nurses as a profession. That’s pretty good company.

But you protest. What does the American public know? Half of them don’t even know where New York is.

What about teachers themselves? If anyone should be able to accurately assess teachers, it’s other teachers. So how do teachers rate others in their profession?

According to a 2017 EdNext Poll, teachers rate the performance of 11% of other teachers as unsatisfactory.

While that’s more than districts identify, it still means that teachers, who should know effective teaching when they see it, believe that 89% of their colleagues are getting the job done.

Recognizing that teachers might be the most honest evaluators, a few school districts have experimented with Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) programs, where mentor teachers work with and evaluate fellow staff members. A review of the Columbus, Ohio PAR program shows that of the 5,861 participating teachers, 9.5% either resigned or were let go. In Cincinnati, dismissal rates ranged from 2.9% to 7% between 1997 and 2001. Rochester terminated 8% to 12% of new teachers between 1998 and 2003. (Source)

So although teachers judge their colleagues more harshly than principals do, they still conclude that about 9 in 10 teachers ought to keep teaching.

Well fine. All these adults think a very small percentage of teachers should be removed from classrooms. But what about the kids? Surely, the kids ought to be the fairest judges. They’re the ones having to put up with teachers’ uncaring attitudes and ineptitude. They spend every day with them! It’s their opinion that should count the most!

The website Ratemyteachers.com has been collecting students’ opinions of their teachers for a number of years now. Students can hop on there, and, in seconds, rate their teachers on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being the highest. So what do American students think of their teachers?

The average rating for a teacher on the site is 4.45.

Millions of students have spoken out and they seem to think their teachers do not suck.

–Parents think the great majority of teachers do a good job.
–Principals think very few teachers are ineffective.
–Teachers conclude that about 90% of their colleagues are good at their jobs.
–Students rate most of their teachers highly.

Maybe the rest of us should believe what everybody except the people who base their evaluations on test scores and who have a poorly concealed agenda to dismantle public schools have to say.

The Best Christmas Gift For Your Child’s Teacher

gift teacher

I’m a parent as well as a teacher, so you’d think I’d be one of those parents who spoils his daughter’s teachers with great gifts for the holidays. After all, I ought to know exactly what they want. But the truth is, there are years when I get them nothing at all. It’s not because I don’t appreciate what they do. All teachers know exactly how difficult the job is. Even teachers who do the bare minimum are providing parents a hugely valuable service. If you doubt that, take a look at child care costs these days.

There are a number of reasons — most of them bad — that I fail to get my daughter’s teachers a little something to show my appreciation. I’m cheap. I’m lazy. I don’t like shopping. I don’t want to look like I’m sucking up. But the biggest reason is that I have no idea what to get someone I don’t really know. So I do nothing and then feel bad about it.

But this year is going to be different.

As a teacher, I know that we don’t really want anything.

Actually, scratch that. It’s not true. Like everybody, we like getting gifts. I should say that we don’t expect anything.

Any gift we receive — homemade macaroni masterpieces,  coffee mugs, Christmas ornaments, Amazon gift cards–will be appreciated. That said, there is one gift that will be treasured by any teacher and that I’ll be giving each of my daughter’s teachers this year.

Here’s what makes it the best Christmas gift for your child’s teacher:

  • It’s free.
  • It takes just a few minutes.
  • You don’t have to leave the house.
  • If you forget, you can still deliver it once the holiday break starts.
  • It’s foolproof; every teacher will love it.
  • It’s valuable and enduring.

What is it?

An email of genuine appreciation that specifically praises the teacher and that is copied to his or her principal.

Here’s why:

First, a lot of teachers have a tremendous amount of self-doubt. Most of us fear that we’re not very good. We’re sent this message quite regularly. Politicians aren’t shy about saying it. School leaders might try to be supportive, but administrator walk-throughs, pacing guides, and an insistence that teachers adhere to unproven programs instead of using their best judgment all send the message that we’re not trusted because we’re not very good.

Even in the best school cultures, teachers are presented with daily evidence of their failures. While we tend to credit students for their successes, we accept responsibility for their failures. And there are always failures. Stuck in our own rooms all day, we have little idea if what we’re doing is any good, so we assume it probably isn’t. We know that our most successful students would probably be successful with any teacher, while we wonder if those who struggle with us might be better off in a different room. A letter of appreciation lets the teacher know that you value their work. That they’re are making a difference for your child. That they don’t suck.

Second, teachers are evaluated by their principals. These evaluations are often based, at least in part, on observations of their teaching. The observations are subjective, and principals are human beings. They can’t know everything that’s going on because they’re too busy. But they hear things. Those things influence their opinions of teachers. If principals hear more positive things, they’ll think more highly of their teachers. It’s similar to how we judge movies. If you hear that a movie is great before you see it, you’re predisposed to like it. A principal that hears a lot of good things about a teacher is going to be more likely to give that teacher a good evaluation.

So if you want to do your kid’s teacher a solid, or if you just want an easy gift idea, send your kid’s teacher an appreciative email and make sure you CC her boss.

Here’s a template you can start with:

Dear Mrs. [Teacher’s Last Name],

I just wanted to take a minute to express my profound gratitude for the work you do as [Child’s Name] teacher. [Child’s Name] has not always loved school, but he really looks forward to coming to school each day this year. I know a large part of that is the relationship he has with you.

I also appreciate how you communicate with me and other parents through your newsletter and by promptly responding to emails and text messages. I always know what’s going on.

Lastly, I know the job of a teacher is stressful. I have just two kids of my own and can only imagine the challenges of trying to teach [Number of Students the Teacher Teaches]. While I’ve never seen you teach, [Child’s Name] tells stories, and I am impressed by the good humor you’re able to maintain in the classroom.

I hope it’s okay that I copied your principal on this email. I just want him to know how much this parent appreciates the good work you do. Have a wonderful holiday season and enjoy your well-deserved break. Thank you!

[Your Name]

How Teachers Can Get Paid For Extra Work

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are a number of studies that have attempted to determine how many hours teachers actually work. The Gates Foundation says 53 hours per week. The NEA claims 50. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics gave teachers a time-use survey and concluded teachers work about 40 hours each week. Teachers surveyed by AEI reported working an average of 44 hours, a little less than college-educated professionals in other fields.

Regardless of which study you believe, one thing is certain:

Teachers work a lot of hours for free.

In my last article, I argued that teachers are going to keep right on donating labor for a very simple reason: Employers like work they don’t have to pay for. If you’re willing to work for free, then don’t expect to ever be paid.

So how can teachers start getting paid for all the extra work they do?

The solution is simple. Stop working for free.

Don’t go in over the summer to set up and decorate your room. Don’t volunteer for committee work. Don’t attend after-school events. Don’t take work home to grade. Don’t meet with parents after school.

Unfortunately, that solution is also really hard. You’re probably uncomfortable just reading those ideas. That’s pretty messed up when you think about it. It shouldn’t be a radical idea to suggest that professionals be paid for their work. But most teachers with whom I share this idea react with at least one of the following emotions:

Anger

There is a subset of teachers who believe that teaching is a “calling.” They see it as special work that ought to be governed by special rules. They’re there for the kids. They’re selfless, often working to the point of exhaustion, and they wear that dedication proudly. The idea of them or their colleagues slacking off or demanding to be paid for things teachers have always done without compensation is offensive to them.

Guilt

A lot of teachers like the idea of being paid for all their work, but they know they’d feel guilty if they simply stopped. What will those colleagues who put in so many hours before and after school think of them? Are they being shallow or greedy for expecting pay for things others are doing for free? If they’re not working lots of hours, are they letting other teachers, their principal, their students, and their parents down?

Teachers who do decide to cut back on extra, unpaid hours almost always betray the guilt they’re feeling by justifying their decision with high-minded reasons, like spending more time with their family. They hardly ever say, “No, I quit that committee and go home right after work because I’m not paid for that stuff.”

But feeling guilty about not working for free is absurd.

Why should any professional feel bad for expecting to be paid for the work they do on behalf of their employer? For that matter, even if everything you do is “for the kids,” why shouldn’t you be paid for those things? Surely, acting in the best interest of children is deserving of compensation. Things are so backward in education that the party who should feel guilty –the district for taking advantage of their dedicated employees — actually have the audacity to lay guilt trips on teachers when they don’t volunteer their labor.

Fear

Some teachers worry that their districts might retaliate. They might ding them on their evaluations. They may put pressure on them by reminding them how much their colleagues are going “above and beyond” (which is perhaps the most insulting and manipulative phrase in education today). They fear what parents might say when they make what should be a reasonable request to meet during the school day instead of after hours when they’re no longer being paid.

Altogether Now…

There’s not much I can say to those who are offended by the suggestion they be paid for their work. For everyone else, the solution to guilt and fear is a unified teaching force that takes a stand and refuses to budge.

When teachers are unified in their conviction that they will be paid for their work, the ball is then in the hands of district leadership. They will no doubt respond by pressuring the staff to return to the status quo. They’ll argue that teachers knew the deal going in, that other teachers work for free, that it’s always been like this, that “professionals” do what needs to be done, that you’re there for the kids. They’ll lay on the guilt because they like not paying you. There isn’t an employer in the world that would turn down free labor.

When that fails (and a unified front that wants to actually get paid for their work must ensure that it does), then districts may seek to punish. They may threaten teachers with poor evaluations. They might engage in a public relations battle to convince parents you’re not working hard for their kids. They might not renew the contracts of the most vocal ringleaders.

This is what most teachers fear, but my suspicion is that it’s unlikely. Look at it from the district’s point of view. If no staff member breaks ranks, then the district will be in a difficult position. Are they going to give every teacher a low rating and risk their own reputation?Are they going to fire the entire staff and risk making the national news over refusing to give in to teachers who want nothing more than to be paid for their work? Are they going to convince parents they’re right and that teachers are greedy for wanting what other professionals get as a matter of course? It’s a losing argument, and teachers should force districts to make it.

Paying People Forces Decisions

Districts will have to decide whether or not that thing for which it’s been relying on free labor is worth enough to pay for it. There’s tremendous value in that. Schools try to be everything to everybody and waste a lot of their employees’ time. Committees are created that meet often but accomplish little. After-school events put a strain on everybody in a school and sometimes result in low turnout. They often draw only those parents who are most involved anyway.

If the work, the committee, or the after-school activity is important enough, then they’ll find a way to either pay teachers or free up time to get it done during contractual hours. Alternatively, they might negotiate new contract language that requires a certain amount of donated time (for which any decent bargaining team will gain concessions in other areas). They might also pay someone else to do the work. For teachers who complain that nothing is ever taken off their plates, their willingness to work for free is one of the reasons.

So will I be putting my money where my mouth is? Nope. As I said, this only works if everyone is in the boat and rowing in the same direction. Short of that, it would be foolish for teachers to go it alone or with just a few others. You’ll succeed only in making yourself look bad. So like almost all of you, I will be heading into my classroom in the next couple of weeks to get the copies made, the lessons planned, and the classroom organized. I’ll be doing those things because I take pride in my work. I’ll do them because I’m a professional.

And I ought to be paid like one.