Saturday, February 9, 2019

South Carolina teachers are already walking out over tough conditions

This commentary originally appears in the Post and Courier.

Last week, a group of nearly 40 educators, led by the nonpartisan grassroots organization SC for Ed, traveled to the state Capitol to raise their voices and to communicate an urgent message: Teachers in South Carolina are at a breaking point, and the Legislature cannot continue to hold the future of our children in peril by ignoring the issue.

I was one of those teachers, and am now quoted as saying, “we’re darn close to a walkout.” I neither chose those words lightly, nor intend for them to be a threat. Rather, I wish to express how serious the situation has become, and how teachers feel that things are getting worse, not better.

Teachers are beyond frustrated and cannot wait for another year to go by without action regarding substantial salary increases, protections against increasing demands and the resources necessary to educate children. Our elected officials must understand why drastic and expedient measures are needed to stop the exodus of teachers from classrooms.

Perhaps it is worthwhile to remind ourselves of the situation we find ourselves in and how we got here. South Carolina consistently comes in near the bottom in state education rankings, even judged as dead last in 2017 by U.S. News & World Report. This should come as no surprise when the Legislature consistently refuses to fully fund education at the very levels it established per state law.

Since 2010, the state has underfunded public education by $4.4 billion, and education spending in South Carolina is about 12 percent below its pre-2008 education funding levels. As part of this general lack of funding, teacher salaries continue to languish behind the Southeast average, and with ever-increasing demands such as constant testing, expensive certification, unpaid duties and shrinking benefits, many in South Carolina are simply leaving. In fact, almost 5,000 teachers said adios to education altogether last year in South Carolina.

As striking as these numbers are I feel it necessary to share rather personal insights into the financial situation of teachers today. I have been teaching for nearly 11 years, the last four in South Carolina. I have a master’s degree in secondary education and am working on a Ph.D. in social foundations of education at USC. I have devoted my professional career to education, serving on numerous statewide committees and presenting at state and national conferences, all the while teaching social studies, wiping tears and passing out Band-Aids to middle schoolers. I am really good at what I do and take the responsibilities of this profession seriously. However, as much passion I have for my job as a classroom teacher, I find it increasingly challenging to make it as a teacher in South Carolina.

For example, the state’s inadequate health care plan, in combination with my relatively low salary, make for a horrendous financial situation. Over the past few months, between my Type 1 diabetes and the birth of our second daughter, my family has medical bills totaling more than $3,000. Like so many other teachers these medical bills are in concert with heavy student loans and personal contributions to materials for my classroom. In total, my bills of late add up to more than my take-home pay.

In an effort to pay down these bills my wife (also a teacher) and I have second, even third, jobs. My wife is a fitness instructor. I teach classes at USC. This cuts down on family time and also impacts my preparation and presence each day with my sixth- and seventh-grade students. My story is not an outlier, and the reality of teachers leaving due to financial circumstances and job stressors results in a vicious cycle. The fewer teachers there are in the classroom, the more demanding the job of a teacher becomes. Class sizes are increasing, substitutes are harder to find, and less support staff leads to many more meetings and paperwork.

Like many other teachers across the state, I find myself considering: Should I continue teaching in K-12 schools? How can I keep doing this at the expense of my financial, emotional and physical health and that of my family? How can I afford to be a teacher in South Carolina?

Let’s not fool ourselves. South Carolina is in the midst of a walkout. Teachers are already leaving classrooms in droves and not coming back. There is a clear way to reverse these trends, and I call on the public of South Carolina to support schools by urging legislators to fully fund education, increase teacher pay, and remove the burdensome barriers that impact professional autonomy.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Summer Blogging Update - What does it mean to be a teacher?

I started the summer with grand plans to blog every week and focus more on "low-stakes," playful writing. I wish I could say I held myself to this public pronouncement, but well, I did not. So here I am writing on the eve of the end of my summer break. Instead of every week, I managed one post at the beginning of summer and one at the end. Bravo!

Most of my summer went to studying for comprehensive exams, but I also became increasingly engaged in a grassroots teacher organization in South Carolina called #ScforEd. It is amazing how much these two overlapped. In particular, I spent a lot of time reading about the construction of teacher subjectivity and identity. And while, yes, much of this reading is highly theoretical, it helped me understand the discussions and comments that run through the popular SCforEd facebook page/group. Why is it that teachers are posting deals, discounts, and "inspirational" memes to a group working on improving teaching pay and conditions?

As I read these posts, I couldn't help but to think deeper, like much deeper, about what it means to be a teacher? How is the subjectivity of teachers constructed? How do the material practices and realities of teaching interact with the discourses of policy-makers, policies, administrators, business, stakeholders, and other teachers to construct who we are? These processes that create the norms, boundaries, and common-sense of teaching, the space of a teacher one might say, is increasingly interesting to me. I also think it is something very few teachers think much about, how their being as a teacher is outlined and defined for them. 

This does not mean teachers are without agency or intentionality, but it does challenge teachers to dissect the taken-for-granted qualities of a teacher. Some of these include how teachers are "selfless," or "servants," or "role models," or  that teach because they "love kids" (like there are people that don't?). All of these seemingly inherent aspects of a teacher are social constructions that can be questioned and problematized. Additionally, teachers must come to realize that what it means to be a teacher is not an autonomous process of self-defintion, but rather a field of "acceptable" choices we must plant ourselves in. I have not yet talked about power relations, but one can only surmise how those "acceptable" choices are constructed. 

In short, what I am thinking through is more than teacher identity, but rather the preconditions or underlying norms that structure our understanding of teacher selves. I hope this is a question I will return to and continue to deconstruct over the course of this year, perhaps even analyzing specific incidents or experiences.  


Here are some texts that are helping me think through this:

Heller, K. J. (1996). Power, Subjectification and Resistance in Foucault. SubStance, 25(1), 78–110.
Foucault, M. 1982b. The Subject and Power. Critical Inquiry 8 (4): 777-795
Popkewitz, T. S. (1985). Ideology and social formation in teacher education.
Teaching and Teacher Education, 1(2), 91–107.
Popkewitz, T. S. (1998). Struggling for the Soul: The Politics of Schooling and the Construction of the
  Teacher. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Summer Blogging

Looking back on an incredibly busy, yet successful, school year one area I completely ignored was personal writing. In fact, on this blog I basically went a year without a post. Ironically, in a year when I didn't blog at all I came to realize how important this type of writing is for me. This blog has always been a place for me to play with ideas, try out new things, and generally just write for writing's sake. However, it is often these informal threads that develop into larger, more formal pieces. In these instances I can come back to a post I wrote to jumpstart a journal article, a chapter proposal, or a conference presentation idea. Of course, not every piece evolves in this manner, but when they do it feels like a bonus, a freebie.

It is difficult to sit down and write when every time becomes a high stakes endeavor pressed with academic conventions and a looming deadline. I need a more regular routine of low-stakes writing, of putting words to my thoughts, and of explaining my weird (current) experience as an academic and practitioner. Additionally, as I hope to make my scholarship widely available finding ways to continue publishing through many modes is necessary.

All this to say that I am (re)committing myself to blogging over the summer. My goal is one post a week, probably Fridays. Who knows what will come, but I think that is exactly the reason I need to do it.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Teaching as a Career

Image Credit: Pixabay user, Wokandapix

I am a full time sixth grade teacher. I am also a full time PhD student in an education field. I think a lot about how these two do not play as nicely as one might think. I am lucky to be at supportive institutions (my school and university) that work around my schedule as best as possible. Still, it often feels as if I would be much better at the other if I had more time.

The farther I go in my studies the harder it is to remain in the classroom. This is not a problem unique to my position. The longer one spends in the classroom, the more pressure there is to move to administration, to a specialized position, or in my case, the academy. As a recent NPR story illuminated, pay is a major factor for this push, but it is not the only factor. Teachers look beyond the classroom in search of more prestige, greater “impact,” less stress, or maybe just change.

I do not quite understand why we have devised the conception of a K-12 teacher to be so dichotomous. Either you are a full time classroom teacher or you are not. As a administrator in the aforementioned NPR story said, “There’s not a step in the ladder between teacher and administrator.” This basically holds true for other non-teacher positions.

In a sense there are two ways to look at a career in K-12 education. Either you move through what I see as a horizontal view of career development — building one’s craft as a practicing teacher — or you jump to a vertical “career ladder.” On the horizontal axis you move from preservice teacher to that of “mentor” or “master.” At some point on this journey you are forced with a decision, be a teacher lifer or pursue the goal of moving up to that of high level administrator.

Quartz et al. (2008) problematized our understanding of teaching as a career. Through a critical examination of role changing, the authors questioned the benefits of teachers leaving the classroom for other education positions. Although these individuals bring a lot to the new roles (and stay in education), schools are (often) forced to completely replace their expertise and experience in the classroom. While we wouldn’t consider this part of the greater retention issue, it really is. We loose talented classroom teachers to positions that, even assuming their impact, are disconnected from the day to day demands of the classroom. While the differing positions associated with role changing do not always present a straight “step-up” in the profession, there is (in my opinion) much greater prestige associated with being a ‘curriculum coach’ than a teacher. I see this as a jump to the vertical axis in teaching as a career.

This is not to say that all teachers should, want to, or can stay in the classroom. Sometimes they are better suited in administration roles. Sometimes their expertise as a technology specialist or teacher on special assignment benefits many students and teachers. Sometimes their heart lies elsewhere. My basic thought here is that we should think much more about teaching as a career. How might it be possible to allow passionate teachers to both remain in the classroom and assume other roles in education? What if the standard was not to pick one axis? What would a third axis look like? 

Feiman-Nemser (2001) wrote, “if we want schools to produce more powerful learning on the part of the students we have to offer more powerful learning opportunities to teachers” (pp. 103–104). Her purpose was to show how coherent, purposeful, and participatory learning opportunities might revision teaching into a continuum of practice, essentially rethinking what it means to call teaching a career. Having opportunities for teachers to be researchers, mentors, professional development leaders, or even part-time administrators are examples of transformative learning experiences.

I think we should work to make these options available for classroom teachers. This does not mean to add more responsibilities to full time classroom teachers’ plates, but rather rethink what their days, weeks, or years look like. How might it be possible to create positions for amazing classroom teachers to teach a few classes, take on admin responsibilities, and be compensated accordingly? What would it look like if teachers spent part of their weeks writing and researching? What is classroom teachers spent some of their time working in the community? What would it look like if we rethought what a teacher career looked like?

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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Dialogue Poems

Picture is from my trip to Teotihuacan in 2007

It has been quite some time since I published a "this lesson/project worked great" post. Although these types of entries used to be a central focus of the blog (and do serve a useful purpose),  I moved away from such because I found it more useful to reflect on complex and thornier issues. I no longer regularly pump out quick posts, but rather use my (informal) writing to think through problems that really gnaw at me. I also try to pass along summaries or excerpts from longer pieces I write for other outlets. Thus, this blog has evolved into a place for deeper reflection on readings, ideas, contextual matters, and practice, rather than a space to quickly share my "wins" as a teacher.

However, I want to break that streak by sharing how I recently used dialogue poems as a summative activity for a sixth grade study of Mesoamerica. I was unaware of dialogue poems until a few months ago, but they proved to be a wonderful mode for students to understand multiple viewpoints of a historical event. This is especially powerful as it works against the privileging of dominant voices normally centered in Social Studies curriculums. Through dialogue poems marginalized voices comprise a (more) equal share of historical inquiry. For this particular unit it meant students "heard" the Aztec, Maya, or Incan versions of conquest, not solely the typical European "exploration" narrative.

Dialogue poems challenge students to complicate moments, events, and perspectives by acknowledging multiple ways to analyze history. They also hold us accountable as educators. Does our curriculum include multiple voices and perspectives? Do students have the resources or guidance to complete such a task? Whose stories do we privilege? In a fantastic monogram about dialogue poems Tedick writes, "A dialogue poem offers an excellent opportunity to assess students’ understanding of different perspectives on cultural themes. A dialogue poem reflects a dialogue between two people who represent different perspectives on a particular theme, issue, or topic." As the examples below illustrate, my students represented a Mesoamerican perspective on history that is typically overlooked in narratives about the "New World." Mesoamerican groups are not merely a footnote in the study of World History, they were full of achievements and problems, complexities and contradictions.  Furthermore, those cultures continue to struggle, thrive, and exist today. The structure of the poems, the centering of their voices, stresses the dynamic creation and activity of these people, rather than the passive descriptions often reproduced in textbooks.

Dialogue poems provide a path for integrating the arts into different subject areas. Furthermore, the structure of dialogue poems creates a low-entry and high-ceiling type of assessment. This means that even those who claim they are not "poets" can create meaningful prose, while those who wish to dig deep have the ability to do so.

This connection to the arts was stressed during the unit on Mesoamerican culture. In particular students dug into The Colloquies (1524), which are recorded words of resistance from the tlamatinime (translated from Nahuatl as "wise men"). Speaking about The Colloquies, the blog Tlacatecco shares, "The bilingual Nahuatl/Spanish text dates to about 1564 and was penned by Fray Bernardino de SahagĂșn. The work concerns itself with recording a series of debates between Mexican religious and political authorities and a team of twelve friars sent by the Spanish crown to attempt to destroy the indigenous faith. These verbal battles took place in the early 1520’s, shortly after the fall of the Aztec empire." One version of The Colloquies includes Nahuatl text in addition to the English translation. I also shared a trilingual children's book and an animated short movie produced in Nahuatl. Thus, the hope was for students to see that this culture has not been erased. This aided students in moving beyond simplistic depictions of Mesoamerican cultures. I have seen this happen as teachers uncritically push a narrative of blood and human sacrifice, rather than explaining the Aztec emphasis on arts and education.

The dialogue poem lesson/assignment was part of the conclusion to our MesoAmerican unit. I divided it roughly into three stages that I list below. I created it for sixth graders. You are welcome to copy and adjust to fit your needs.

Part 1: Analyzing The Colloquies
Part 2: Dialogue Poem Organizer
Part 3: Final Drafts (examples below)

Sunday, May 7, 2017

How (some) state policies criminalize immigrant and undocumented youth...and what that means for education

In the context of Donald Trump's negative rhetoric on immigration it is easy to lose sight of the local and state policies that impact the lives of immigrant and undocumented youth. With national immigration reform highly unlikely these local policies and contexts prove to be extremely influential to immigrant lives. In short, geography and context matters.

With this in mind, we sought to understand how policy discourse works to problematize immigrant and undocumented people in the context of South Carolina. The problematization creates a specific type of knowledge that allows for restrictive solutions to "fix" the created "problem." Below are some excerpts from a longer blog post published at Youth Circulations that describes the research and details our analysis and implications (Please give it a read). We anticipate an academic article out in the fall.

Our analysisspanning six legislative sessions, reveals how immigrants are criminalized in everyday social life and restricted from accessing public institutions and social services. The focus on enacted and proposed legislation follows Stephen Ball’s (1994: 10) argument that policy research should tend to the “process” of policy production and focus on the “action, words and deeds, what is enacted as well as what is intended.” Our work accordingly demonstrates that local policy makers in restrictive state contexts like South Carolina propose and enact legislation that both constructs immigrants as problems to be dealt with and limits immigrants’ opportunities for thriving and advancing economically, educationally, and socially.

Taken as a whole, a picture emerges where immigrants are desired for their labor, but controlled as human beings. The construction of immigrants as problems allows for this dual reality. Immigrants continue to serve the South Carolina economy while policy solutions seek to constrain their material lives and force them to live in the shadows.

As we argue, educators can be at the forefront of the resistance to the criminalization regime. For example, they can recognize, mitigate, and resist the impacts of repressive policies that enshrine “immigrants are problems” on their students by framing students skills as assets rather than deficits.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

This Class Sucks

She put her head down, let out a sigh, and uttered, “This class sucks.”

I looked at her and knew she meant it.  I was not upset at the student. She had every right to her thoughts and emotions. She was not callous or mean. She was not disrespectful. She was honest.

Image Source:, User moritz320

But how could this class suck for her? I used all the best “strategies.” I personalized instruction for her. The last few assignments/projects centered around advice she gave me. We had a pretty good relationship. She was one of a handful of students that came in at lunch just to hang. I checked all the boxes on the great practice checklist.

Yet she was not wrong. This class wasn’t working for her.

I racked my brain. I thought about it deep into the night. I wrote down ideas, and then I wrote down more ideas. As someone who writes, tweets, studies, and practices education with this much passion surely every student is always happy, engaged, and challenged in my classroom. But then again I have 130 students. All unique individuals. All from different contexts. All with their own set of likes and dislikes. No matter how hard we try, we will have these moments. Think about it once more, 130 kids

I don’t write this to say I give up on this student. In fact, the opposite is true. She drives me to be better, to work harder, to think differently, to be more humble, to learn from her. I say this to share that teaching is an extremely tough and demanding job. It is complex and trying. As seen above, it is deeply emotional work; it is nuanced intellectual work. Those outside education need to understand this. Those within education need to understand this. None of us are perfect. We can’t beat ourselves up over one comment, or two comments, or three. You get the picture. It is okay to be bummed out and disappointed. It is fine to feel let down. Allow yourself this. Be kind to yourself. 

And then tomorrow, try again. Dust yourself off and continue to work for education justice and equity. Keep doing the work. Do your best for that student, for the next student, and then the student after that. If your class sucks, do your best to be great for that student, every student. They deserve that. Rest assured, we will have these moments. ALL OF US DO.