Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Teacher’s World Is “Not All Flowers and Sausages”

We picture elementary school as a bastion of learning, teeming with the creativity and inspiration that flows from the collective energies of the dedicated faculty. But “It’s Not All Flowers and Sausages,” according to “Mrs. Mimi,” who depicts in her new book a reality where devoted teachers struggle to engage and enlighten their students amid a suffocating environment. The book is based on the popular blog by “Mrs. Mimi,” the pseudonym assumed by second grade teacher Jennifer Scoggin.

It’s Not All Flowers and Sausages: My Adventures in Second Grade (Kaplan Publishing) is highly amusing and thoroughly entertaining due to Ms. Scoggin’s breezy narrative style, sharp wit and biting sarcasm. Although she relates her story with humor and aplomb, the underlying message comes across loud and clear. Dedicated, talented teachers are constantly encumbered by administrative hassles, unnecessary distractions, and counterproductive colleagues.

While the book recounts the frustrating obstacles Ms. Scoggin faces daily, her passion for teaching and rapport with her students is palpable and touching.

In the book, Ms. Scoggin takes us inside her New York City classroom, where we meet her students (she calls them her friends), colleagues and administrators. She candidly discusses her interactions and observations. Time and again we see how her efforts to impart knowledge and skills to her students are hamstrung by a raft of assessment tests, mountains of paperwork, time-wasting policies, and intrusive meetings and assemblies.

And then there are the constant disruptions, such as inconsiderate visitors and irritating phone calls. Ms. Scoggin talks about the morning three plumbers barged into her classroom and started turning the faucets on and off while talking loudly, distracting the students. One engaged in a personal conversation on his cell phone. The men returned to the classroom in the afternoon to change a light bulb. One of them actually stood on a student’s desk while the child was working at the desk.

Detractors who dismiss Ms. Scoggin as a complainer are missing the point. It’s Not All Flowers and Sausages offers administrators, taxpayers, parents and the governmental powers that be valuable insight into the real problems facing our school systems—problems that threaten to impede our teachers and hamper the success of their students.

Drowning in a Sea of Tests

Ms. Scoggin is currently taking some time off from teaching to pursue her doctorate in education. I had the opportunity to speak with her recently about the issues she raised in her book. She cited the crush of assessment tests as one of the biggest challenges she faced as a teacher.

“When they start mandating a prescriptive curriculum, and all the paperwork that comes with that, these are all things that eat away at a teacher’s time and creativity,” she says. “There’s so much pressure around it, you end up having to cater all your instruction to the tests rather than the students’ needs and interests.”

Every year she was required to add a new test to the schedule, and some duplicated existing tests.

“Elementary school is about having magical, creative experiences, and that’s just gone, and that’s a huge loss,” she says. “Those experiences are the most powerful ones, the ones people remember into adulthood. There’s so much learning happening.”

Administering the tests cuts into instruction time, as does preparing students to take the tests. They have to learn the tricky language on the tests and engage in practice drills.

“I believe if you have good teaching and non-scripted curriculum, and you teach really well and deeply, that’s your test prep,” Ms. Scoggin says. But that’s not enough at many schools, which are under pressure to deliver acceptable test scores. Teachers are often required to focus on test preparation, limiting the time they can spend on valuable lessons and activities. “Because that pressure is so high, I question whether or not the kids are prepared to do anything.”

Ms. Scoggin agrees with the many educators who warn that standardized tests are not a valid measure of a child’s aptitude.

“It’s a very narrow way of looking at intelligence and a very narrow way of looking at how we’re doing,” she says.

Schools often mandate the teacher’s curriculum, such as the reading program used in the class. “They don’t give you any control, and then they judge you on the results. That’s a scary scenario,” Scoggin says.

Shackled by Bureaucratic Red Tape

Ms. Scoggin was also stymied by a lack of support from some administrators, staff members and parents.

“When you’re working with people who are not as invested as you are, it makes it more difficult than it needs to be,” she says.

The unrealistic demands on her time, including paperwork and filing procedures, were also frustrating, she says.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘Do an hour of math, an hour of this, an hour of that,’ and it adds up to 15 hours. They put things on you that are physically impossible, and then they say, ‘You work it out.’”

Reaching Out to Parents

Ms. Scoggin’s persistent efforts to involve parents eventually yielded positive results. Only a couple of parents would show up for parent-teacher conference night or volunteer to chaperone field trips when she first started. Later they were lined up outside her door for conferences, and she had to compile a waiting list for field trips.

To keep parents informed, she sent out a monthly newsletter recapping what the students learned in the previous month. She also provided advance notice of upcoming events, such as concerts, field trips and writing celebrations, and welcomed parents to attend.

She sent home packets that complemented her lessons, including games and activities parents could do with their children at home. She also sent home bags of school supplies to ensure parents and students had the necessary materials to work at home. She paid for a lot of the supplies herself, but she also accumulated them from a variety of sources, such as the website, donations from generous friends, and contributions from parents.

To involve parents in the class, she found out whether they had a special talent, such as art or cooking, and invited them in to share their expertise with the students. Parents who came into the class received a thank you note from her and from one of the children, who wrote the note on behalf of the class.

If she was unable to reach a parent to discuss an issue their child was facing, she kept detailed records reflecting every attempt to make contact.

Ms. Scoggin says parents may avoid their child’s teacher if they think the teacher communicates only when their child is struggling with a problem. To counter this perception, she sent positive notes home periodically.

In the beginning of the year, she and her students would write a positive note about each student together. The activity served as a shared-writing exercise and allowed the students to get to know one another. It also reinforced positive behavior because the students enjoyed the recognition from their peers.

Learning from “Mrs. Mimi”

When asked what teachers need to be successful, Ms. Scoggin cited the following:

* More freedom and control over their time. The interaction between the student and the teacher is the most important factor in determining a student’s success, based on Ms. Scoggin’s research for her doctoral degree. “The more demands they put on teachers, the less time we have to develop that interaction and become experts at that part of our job,” she says.

* Access to the proper supplies and materials. “It’s important that they ask us what we need,” she says. “I would get a handful of googley eyes and rubber bands. I need pencils.”

* Input into policy decisions. “Teachers need to feel more invested in the school as a whole,” she says. Federal and state governments should also gather input from teachers when formulating education policies. “Decisions are coming from the top, which doesn’t make sense when the most important interaction is happening at the bottom.”

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post--Behind all the humorous and wonderful tales Mrs. Mimi tells is a true portrait of how well-intentioned policies take a wrong turn in the practical day-to-day life of a teacher. This is a must-read for every new teacher! Even as a school psychologist, I was able to relate to Mrs. Mimi's struggles.