In 2013 I moved out here to Albuquerque to begin my PhD program.
I returned to high school teaching this past March here in Albuquerque.
I've been thinking a lot the last few months about how teaching and pedagogy is and isn't stressed in higher ed. I've been told repeatedly in my PhD program that "teaching isn't why you're here." Added to this, being back in a high school classroom after three years of my PhD program has made me realize just how much my higher ed experience has influenced and changed how I teach high school students. Likewise, I've realized that contrary to popular opinion, my high school teaching is an asset to my higher ed teaching.
Last year, the Medieval Academy has a dust up over the World History taught in high school AP classes and the fact that it was incomplete and inaccurate. While this was only a single instance to me it highlighted just how little high school teachers and college professors know about each other and what they do. I've blogged some about my schedule as a teacher, but I think a lot of people don't know what the other does.
First, I want to talk some about the general differences between high school and higher ed in the hopes that both could learn some from the other.
- High school (and other K-12 teachers) are encouraged to get to know their students. Their home lives, their families, their cultures.
- My school has roughly 1500 students. 50% of which live in poverty. The majority of our students are Chican@ or Native. Most of our families are employed, but they struggle to make it so they are working poor. Parents often work more than one job. Many students don't have computers at home. Or internet access. Or a place to work. They care for multiple siblings or work to help out after school.
- For students from the reservation or lower socio-economic class this is an access issue.
- Whether or not students have smartphones, or computers, dictates whether they can do that assignment.
- Being aware of this, and making sure students know about campus/school resources is key.
- Our students deal with trauma, of homelessness, family and friends lost to suicide, drugs, crime.
- There's a rule in my classroom- no one goes hungry in my class. My students know this. I have a drawer in my desk that's always full of granola bars, oatmeal. Students know they can always ask and ALWAYS have food. ALWAYS.
- In part because of these issues, absences are a HUGE issue. I have several students I haven't seen in ten weeks or more. Others only turn up every nine days because they know after ten they'll be dropped.
- We have a food and clothing bank on school property. It's key to erase the stigma to taking advantage of these resources. For college professors, think about making a list of resources, on campus, and in town, and posting in your course so students have access.
- Don't assume someone else is doing this.
- Families want to help, but Spanish only speaking parents and their work schedules can often make communication difficult.
- The importance of culture cannot be understated.
- For me this year that meant choosing different texts to teach skills. We read The Underdogs, The Jungle, The Milagro Beanfield War. Books that spoke to culture and socio-economic class.
- I have noticed with my students that they prefer to work in groups, communal efforts and work is a cultural thing both for my Chican@ and Native students. This works well in my classes because my default is group work at big tables.
- This affects daily work. Most of my students don't work on their own, they always work in groups, they always complete assignments together. For smaller, formative assessments this can be helpful. But it can also complicate assessing what they know versus what the group knows. Separating them to get them to do their own work is sometimes tricky.
- In my classes I often see/have one or two stronger English Language Learners helping or translating for five or six weaker English students. They translate the instructions, they explain what we're supposed to do.
- There are pluses and minuses to this. The plus is I don't speak Spanish, and these students are a resource I wouldn't be able to provide otherwise.
- This group setting also helps build class community.
- The minus is that usually this role falls to the girls in my class. Which means they put their learning aside to serve the (mostly) male students.
- Many of my students have Spanish as a first language. I ask them what words and phrases are for things I say a lot. I ask them how to correctly say names. I make them experts in our classroom.
- The last year I had students in my college classes who were assaulted, had friends die, had lives taken over by care-giving, and other traumatic events that impacted their class performance. I know we're not counselors, or psychiatrists, but we can be support. I have language on my syllabus about reaching out for help, contacting me. I tell them that I cannot provide the help they need but I can help them get it.
- I have a safe space sign on my syllabus and on my online course's header.
- Out of these students the last year they've all reached out and I think my reaction has helped them. I made sure I was sympathetic, told them I was sorry they were going through this, and asked what I could do to help. Not all passed. Some dropped. One dropped then took me the next semester to graduate and told me my support was key to that happening. Each, whether they passed or not, reached out to thank me for being there. These connections matter.
- Proximity and contact are important tools in the teacher's toolbox. You walk around the room, you stand near groups that are off task. You high-five students, tap them on shoulders, give them pats on back.
- For the obvious reasons this can go wrong, and issues of consent, higher ed professors shy away from this. And I get it. But proximity can be done without issue. And if you walk around larger classes, use proximity you learn more about your students. Crouching down by desks/tables and listening, you learn more about your students. Asking how students are, building in some personal contact (even if it's not physical) will improve your classroom.
- This can be asking how they are in the ten minutes before and after class. It can be encouraging them to explore their own interests in assignments. It can be in your interactions and communications.
- My students don't have a whole lot of role models. Last year when I told them I was working on my doctorate they asked if once I graduated I was going to work in a hospital. They didn't know the difference between a medical doctor and a PhD.
- For this reason, as with my college students, I am very transparent about my background and my experiences. Growing up poor, moving a lot, having a single mom, being a first generation college student, how I worked all through high school, college for my masters' degree, and now my doctorate.
- High school teachers are encouraged to connect their content to the students' experiences. Activating schema is huge- text to self experiences.
- In my higher ed classes I do this through pop culture references and just asking. What do you know about X? I also encourage them to find cultural connections to the material we're covering. It doesn't take a lot of time, and can drastically change how you approach something.
- I am a big fan of teaching students where they are not where you want them to be. This means assessing where they are and then planning activities to improve and supplement the skills they don't have.
- In my classes there are a lot of class assignments in f2f and practice assignments in my online class. They're not graded usually, or if they are they count as extra credit. They are designed to improve student skills and to give them a chance to practice the skills needed for larger, graded assignments.
- I know college professors can't make up for years of not knowing X. But there are small moves that can be made to improve skills and class performance.
- Because of my higher ed experience there are also things that have changed in my high school classroom:
- I jump on kids immediately for offensive or dismissive language. High school students, particularly high school boys are fond of using "fag," "retard." "pussy" on a casual basis. Not only do I chastise them for it, but I interrogate them about why they think this is okay. If they use gendered language I ask them if they're seriously going to say to ME that women are weaker, or less than. Because of how I frame it though, I've never had to have the conversation twice.
- High school students are super touchy-feely, but I stress with them that in my classroom we don't touch people without consent.
- As in my college classes, I explain why we do what we do, and what my rationale is for doing certain things or assigning certain things.
- Because I teach at the college level I also make a lot of statements that tell them how college is different, and what they can expect. Not all my students will go to college, so I make similar statements about the work force.
Now for some things that perhaps higher ed professors don't know. I'm basing this on my 16+ years of experience in a variety of places, but I have a lot of friends who are also high school teachers throughout the country and I can tell you these are all pretty typical situations.
- Work, work, work, grades, grades, grades are the motivators in high school. At my school parents were concerned that all of a sudden at the end of the marking period their child was failing because many teachers weren't entering grades until the end, so we were asked to give a minimum of 2 grades a week.
- I teach 5 periods. Roughly 30 students per class. That's 150 for those of you not good with math. So I was just asked to grade 300 assignments. Every week.
- I tend to do a lot of small practice assignments that are formative not summative assessments and my big grades are long term writing and projects. So this edict is in direct conflict with my pedagogy.
- The union intervened, but this work expectation is fairly normal. As are parent calls and emails about why their child is failing, has a B, doesn't like you.
- We are required to call all parents of failing students, or students in danger of failing. This is usually 30% of them during a six week marking period. So 50 students every six weeks.
- While this varies from school to school and state to state in general, there is little incentive for students to stay on top of research, current trends, up to date information.
- A high school English teacher is a general teacher. 9-12 English is the designation. This means that people with no background or experience teach specialized classes. Teachers teach based on interest (theirs) and school needs. Rarely does a teacher get assigned a class because they are an expert. For example, my specialty/focus is medieval and early modern literature. But last year I taught 9th grade an intro to literature, a reading remediation class, and this year I have the remediation class and American literature. Teachers may teach things because they "love" it not because they actually know anything about the content or field. This means that you have teachers who are not necessarily qualified teaching courses such as: Film, British literature, American literature, Shakespeare, Bible as literature
- This might not seem like a big deal. Until you realize these are foundation classes, not just for the content they teach but for the way they teach students to think.
- In this same vein, you need to realize that most high school teachers only have bachelor's degrees. Many do not continue their education as they teach outside of required professional development. Some may pursue their master's degree if they can during nights or summers. It's often a pay raise. But these programs are often nights, weekends, summers and probably do not look like the grad school model you're familiar with. But most don't pursue this. Money if often an obstacle as is daily schedule. High school teachers may share ideas with other teachers, but there is a strong division between high school and higher ed teachers sharing approaches, pedagogy, and research.
- Even if teachers are interested in these things, it becomes an issue of time. The workload that the numbers above equal means that there's not a lot of time to do anything other than keep your head above water.
- Budget cuts mean that out of city, let alone out of state, conferences are no longer an option. If you live in a small, rural area you may not have access to conferences or professional development.
- Being a high school teacher is expensive. Depending on your school you buy your own supplies. You buy supplies for students who don't have them. You buy class sets of books. The list is pretty extensive. Conservatively teachers spend several hundreds of dollars each year of their own money.
- High school teachers are required to design multi-page lessons for each class. Each must show how they achieve state standards, and daily student learning objectives. In addition, content can be questioned by administration or parents.
- Tests and certain assignments are often dictated by department, school, or district. This doesn't even include the state tests.
- All this is to say that enthusiasm for content, experience on content, are not always the driving force in a classroom.
A lot of these I think focuses on skill development. Students having a hard time writing thesis statements? Do a brief mini-lesson on how to write a good one. Students having a hard time with citation? There are hundreds of web resources, just point them there.
I know that college classes can't make up for or address all the instances of trauma our students experience, but we can make our classes safe spaces. We can be that one person students feel like they can talk to.
I'd love to see the divide between college professors and high school teachers fade if not disappear entirely. Professors, other than rhet/comp people could reach out to local high schools, guest speak. We could hold local and regional conferences where professors could be paired with high school teachers to share state of field ideas. Technology means we could build list-servs and webpages that shared this information.
These things could only help our students.
Even if college professors can't act on these things or implement them (which they totally can if they want) then at least they're aware.
Even if high school teachers can't make large scale changes to better scaffold for college, they can make small moves that better prepare students.
Postscript: 8 January
There were some great conversations and shares yesterday after I posted this with both Kevin Gannon (
- The first thought that came to me after posting was that at the high school level EVERYTHING is personalized. You tailor assignments, and to a certain extent content (see culture above) to the students. Likewise, while some of us use assignment guidelines and rubrics, many of us still use standard complete/incomplete for small assignments and A-F scale for larger ones. And Johnny's C may not be the same as Amy's C. Amy may be a previously straight A student who is phoning it in while Johnny may be a kid with low reading and writing skills but busted his ASS to get really unique ideas on paper.
- Yes, we should have parity in classes. But for me this is more about parity of the quality and time of instruction. All students are not created equal, and we shouldn't treat them that way. This is part of the reason I like projects as much as papers in my college classes. And it's why I'm not a fan of rubrics. Students can check all the boxes on a rubric, score well, and still write a crap, unoriginal piece. Students can score low on a rubric but rock a project or paper- unique ideas I never would have thought of, great arguments.
- So give all your students YOUR same energy. But remember that THEY are not the same.
- Protection. I have worked in union states and non-union states. I have worked on an at-will contract, and last minute contracts. In NC I was called into the principal's office for teaching The Scarlet Letter and accused of being a devil worshipper. Like, this was a real thing. I've also had parents complain about my Twitter handle. I once lost a contract job because I wouldn't grant an extension to a failing student who hadn't worked in weeks. Depending what your situation is, tenured or not, high school teachers can occupy a very precarious position. I've had parents call and scream at me because their student hasn't attended school in eight weeks. We have little to no recourse with these things. We get used to being treated like this. Many times our day to day becomes a "pick your battle" thing.
- Unfortunately, all the good topics, the ones that challenge students to think and learn critical thinking skills, and become good citizens all fall into dangerous categories. Some of us still push because it's important. Some, understandably, aren't comfortable doing this because they have things to prioritize.
- All this is a reminder that a lot influences the content in a high school classroom.
- Resources. I wrote above about the money teachers spend of their own. But there's a lot we just can't afford. Often we can't afford class sets of books. So your content is limited by what books are in your school's bookroom.
- I wanted to add Fences to my American Dream unit this spring. We don't own it. We have some Chican@ texts, some African-American literature, but most of it is old, white, canon. That's a disservice to our population.
- You also have to share books with 15 other English teachers. So if they get to it first, you're choosing something else.
- You also have to teach what your school or department has agreed on. You look at what you're allowed to teach and then you plan your class.
- Time. I had this conversation at my Tuesday professional development with other high school teachers and it came up again yesterday on Twitter. We don't have any. When I was in high school (1991-94) my English classes were often show up having done the reading, and then we'd spend the entire period just talking about it. What happened? What did you think? The teachers believed in wait time, and if you struggled they gave you a hint. But you figured it out. But we don't have this now. Because you have to post standards for the lesson, and use those as a checklist. And you can't just "talk" about the book or play or poem because while this and discussion is how students learn to figure stuff out, it's hard on a day to day to PROVE this.
- Technology is great. Projects are great. Organizers, sentence starters, supplements, are all great. BUT nothing replaces sitting with students and talking through the ideas. I'm aiming more this semester to try and do just this. But it's hard. Somewhere along the way sharing best practices became a checklist of things you HAD to do in your classroom in order to replicate results, and that just doesn't do it.
- I wish I could have more time IN class, time to explore readings, ideas, get students to think. The problem is there's such a check list of what you SHOULD be doing every day that by the time that's done, there's not much left.
- Time and Physical Consequences:
- In union states you can't be assigned duties during your lunch, or before or after school so your hours can actually be "just" 725-225 of pretty much straight teaching. But that's 7 hours on your feet. If you have knee or back problems, remember, those hours are on a concrete floor, standing. Because you can't sit at your desk.
- I leave my house at 630a. School starts at 725. I teach until lunch (30 minutes, duty free). We have seven periods, one PLC, one prep period. School ends at 225p. Mondays I have all classes in a 50 minute class. T/TH I have 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th. 2nd is my prep, so 90 minutes on those days. But W/F I have 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th with lunch my only break. Technically teachers aren't allowed to leave students alone in a room. Because of this, the number one complaint I hear from older teachers is the permanent bladder/urinary problems they have for overriding instinct and not going to the bathroom for 4-5 hours.
If you're a faculty member, consider these things as you teach graduate classes that include high school and future high school teachers. Or reach out to local high school teachers and ask them what they could use, or what they wish college professors knew.
The more dialogues we can have back and forth, the more this becomes the norm and not the exception the better it is for all of our students.
Thanks to everyone who shared and discussed yesterday. I look forward to the continuing conversation.