Go, Go, Gadget Arms!

How a cartoon comes to life when Florida goes to test.

The micro-credential craze seems to have passed, but when it comes to doing computer testing, Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) has certainly earned one. Computer testing brings its own challenges, especially when it comes to the state-contracted platform (Cambium Assessment), as teachers and school test coordinators scramble to make it work.

We need gadget arms like the cartoon character to take a student’s balky device, troubleshoot its issues, and get the student onto the platform and taking their test without further glitches. Arms that stretch out to reach into all corners of the … let’s call it the testin-verse … because Murphy’s law is insufficient to describe a state testing day in your local public school.

Let’s set the stage. GOT’s district has gone one-to-one with devices. Every student is issued their own laptop … except when they are not. This year, because who would have thunk it? GOT’s school doesn’t have enough laptops for the incoming students because the outgoing students (graduation, transfer, moving out of district, and WKWTFTHG?) didn’t turn theirs in.

Teachers send students to the testing coordinator, who happens to be GOT, to get a laptop. Um, no, GOT doesn’t have a couple dozen sitting in a back closet charging up ready to go. He has none, zero, nada.

The school cannot cover it. We are waiting for a district shipment that will arrive the last week of the month, the same time when the state testing window will close. GOT does not envy his principal’s job when the district calls to complain about the number of students who did not take the new state reading test, now given three times a year instead of once in the spring, for lack of devices. District poohbahs seldom like to hear that it was their fault.

Let’s recover from this tangent and talk about what takes place in a testing room with students who do have computers.

The educational version of Microsoft Windows (GOT’s district got into bed with Bill Gates long ago and seems stuck to the sheets … OMG, GOT is blushing, did he really say that? It is true) comes with an embedded app called Take-A-Test.

You won’t find it on the list of installed apps if you go to the settings. It is part and parcel of Windows. It is the only way students can access the state testing platform, which is run by Cambium Assessments, a company spun off by American Research Institute when they became tired of testing.

Take-A-Test shuts down everything on the laptop except the connection to the testing platform. This is essential to prevent students from opening other apps or browsers for cheating.

Students activate the app from the sign-in screen. Go, go Gadget Arms! the first problem is that students sign into their computer. On their desktop, despite IT’s promises for two years that they will remove it, the students see an icon for the test. It doesn’t work. In the past, they would get to another sign-in screen before getting LibCheck error, which means the app cannot access the school district’s student database software to authenticate their identity. This year, they get an incompatible message that the testing browser and the operating system won’t play nicely in the sandbox.

Go, Go Gadget Arms! The next problem is that students start the app correctly, but it doesn’t work. A teacher cannot solve this problem. If the app won’t load, it has to be reinstalled and that means the school tech has to reimage the drive. No test for you, frustrated student! GOT is alluding to a famous Seinfeld episode, but let’s not mix too many metaphors.

A myriad of other problems will crop up and this is where hero teachers a/k/a test administrators earn that micro-credential that they will never receive.

The student’s computer may be unable to communicate with the internet. When the teacher checks the connection, the computer says it is on the wireless hub. But the student is blocked from the test. Funnily enough, GOT has found that DISconnecting the computer, then REconnecting the computer to the school wireless hub will solve the problem.

The computer was lying? Who would have thunk it? Except for a harried teacher or test coordinator trying everything they can think of.

Sometimes the problem is that the student has switched their laptop into airplane mode, which means they turned off the internet connection temporarily. GOT always wants to think the best of students and always assumes it was not intentional. It’s just one more thing to check.

But sometimes, the computer won’t connect. When the student fires up the app, an error message comes back that the computer cannot reach the testing URL/website.

This is not a fatal error, but this is where the real skill (and that GD micro-credential that will never be awarded) comes into play. It takes a bit of trial-and-error to fix.

The first thing we try is a reboot. Shut the computer off and turn it back on. It’s surprising how often this solution works with silicon-based intelligence. Trust GOT, never try it with a carbon-based intelligence life form. We don’t come with off switches.

Sometimes, this works. Clearing the memory of the laptop allows it a new start and the problems go away. In other cases, it doesn’t.

You see, one of the problems with computer testing is the number of students who are computer testing. This places a large, out-of-the-ordinary demand upon bandwidth and connections that the infrastructure cannot keep up with.

In past years, schools did infrastructure tests months before the end-of-the-year tests to make sure things would work right. But in Florida, we have new tests to give and no one thought to check for bandwidth and testing capacity. Most of the problems schools are reporting are simply that too many students are trying to test at the same time–at the school, in the district, throughout the state–and no one thought about making sure the physical resources to support this effort would be in place.

What’s worse, the system seems to choose one or two students to pick on. While the rest of the room happily (um, no but that’s a topic for another day) tests without a problem, some students are repeatedly kicked out of the test and then told their computer won’t connect. But it was connected only moments ago.

Go, Go, Gadget Arms! When all else fails, in GOT’s district, the internet signal is still active in the wall ports that were installed back in the Clinton days of putting three desktop computers into every classroom. Like most teachers, he never throws anything away and can pull out an old ethernet cord and connect the student through the wall.

Problem solved.

Time to close. This month, a new problem has popped up. Students logged onto the test platform are suddenly kicked out. We do everything to get them back in, but the system refuses. When GOT checks the teacher interface, he finds that the system is telling the teacher the student is still active in the test. But at the student’s desk, clearly they are not active in the test.

Things are out of sync. But there is a solution. GOT uses the teacher interface to pause the student and take them out of the test. Then, he has the student reboot the computer. That puts everything back into sync. The student logs in, GOT allows them into the test, and there are no further problems.

Postscript: remember this post well. GOT is retiring after this year and this valuable knowledge, dear employer, is leaving with him. If you need him after May 2023, it will cost you. Let’s discuss terms.

Slow Start to F.A.S.T.

In a previous post, Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) described Florida’s pell-mell rush into a new test: Fast Forward to F.A.S.T. Now, after two days of actually trying to run the new test in 9th and 10th grade ELA classes, GOT can report on how it went.

First off, kudos to the teachers who had to work through the confusion. Do not doubt that the shift to three-times-a-year ‘progress monitoring testing’ rather than the once a year summative testing was an adjustment in application and mindset. We simply weren’t in a state testing frame of mind.

Even GOT found himself on the first morning scrambling to print out the ‘Do Not Disturb’ and ‘No Electronics’ signs because he had forgotten they are needed for the teachers to post. Funny story from last year: the state updated the ‘No Electronics’ sign to show not only cell phones, but also smartwatches and air pods. A student asked one of his teachers why they couldn’t have hair dryers during the test.

An honest mistake.

Questions included the testing platform for the test, make-ups in the hall, and preparation of the rooms. GOT takes his hat off in admiration of these teachers who wanted to make sure all the students would be tested and wanting to make sure they were doing the right thing.

We didn’t know how the testing would run. GOT’s administration opted to have the students take the test throughout the day in their ELA classes with their ELA teachers. Timewise, that meant we had to hold over students who weren’t done by the bell.

It takes time to get a test running, especially when it’s new and the first time out of the gate. Some teachers get students working quickly and some take more time to organize things. But no one (except maybe state ed officials lost in their pipe dreams) can get a 90-minute test completed in a 90-minute period of time. Getting bodies in seats, computers booted up, and handing out materials while reading the script takes time.

So how did the timing go? The average time spent on the test was 63 minutes, not bad given the state’s estimate of time to schedule for the test of 60 minutes that they hedged by saying allow up to 90 minutes if needed. However, the median gives a better idea. It was 60 minutes. Before you celebrate, remember that means that half of the students taking the test needed more than the recommended time to complete the test.

LOL, for the first time ever, GOT found a use for the Box-and-Whiskers plot we force middle school and Algebra 1 students to learn so they can answer questions on the state test, the first and last time they will ever need to know what a B & W plot is.

Maybe there’s a better way to graphically display data.

The point is that 25% of test-takers needed more than 1 hour 6 minutes for test. Moreover, 7 1/2 % of students needed more than 1 hour 15 minutes (not seen in the plot) to finish. Given the time it takes to get the test underway, that means those students couldn’t finish before the bell.

In the end, only a few students didn’t finish. Their tests went into a status of ‘expired,’ which means that they did not get a score the next day. GOT’s district testing office has said that eventually, the state should report something based on what they did accomplish, but that remains to be seen.

What else can GOT share with you? The state will allow students to finish the test no matter how much time it takes, but they will not allow them to finish the next day if they run out of time and need to catch their bus.

The first Progress Monitoring test is more of a baseline than anything else. It covers all the benchmarks at a level expected at the end of the year. Nevertheless, the state is reporting a lot of students testing at grade level or higher because these results have been tied to previous FSA performance. Always remember that in a year when the test changes, the results are curved. Where a student is at in learning is not measured. All we know is how they compare to their peers given the previous version of the test.

Finally, teachers reported that the testing was hard on them and their students. They felt the strain of trying to measure up to the inaugural version and the expectations under which they work all year long. They observed the facial expressions and body language of the students and understood that the first F.A.S.T. event was taking a toll on them, too.

It was hard and exhausting. Maybe it will be easier in the winter when the next test event takes place because teachers and students will have a better idea of what to expect.

That remains to be seen.

Fast Forward To F.A.S.T.

You know it’s time to retire when you cannot keep up with the acronyms. Florida Assessment of Student Thinking (actually a decent name that gives away the longstanding pretense that the reading test is testing reading) is an easy one for Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) to puzzle out, but he admits B.E.S.T. keeps him googling for the B: Benchmarks for Excellence in Student Thinking.

And that tips us off that while Ringling Brothers retired the elephants and the pungent smell of elephant dung departed from the Big Top, well, that Florida smell of standardized testing remains no matter what we call it.

And yes, GOT has an attitude and is proud of it.

Is Florida’s demand for student performance on their state tests any less torturous?

The first problem with F.A.S.T. is that Florida is moving too fast; it is implementing a new test before they are ready. For those not in the know (IYDK, YDK), the new assessment is given three times a year. Rather than a summative, once-a-year event, test that tries to determine what students have accomplished, F.A.S.T. is meant to be progress monitoring, an ongoing effort to see how students have improved since the last test.

As a result, F.A.S.T. is given three times a year: once in September, currently described as a baseline test to establish where a student is starting from; once around Christmas, a mid-year check; and lastly in May, to determine at what level a student is finishing the school year.

We’re not ready. As School Testing Coordinator, GOT has spent the last week trying to organize the first administration of FAST in his high school. Fortunately for him, it’s only reading although middle and elementary schools also have to do math. Plus, and it’s beyond the scope of this post, elementary schools are also dealing with K – 2 testing that takes place on a different platform (Renaissance vs. Cambium) that operates under different rules and guidelines.

But Florida loves a test, amiright? AMIRIGHT?

Too bad no one ever asks people at the school level how a new school year rolls out. Many problems exist in getting things underway. First, not every student has a laptop. Like other districts, GOT’s district went one-to-one during the pandemic because the feds were funding unlimited technology purposes. But that meant that schools no longer have computers available for the students who are new to the school and need one issued, leave their computer home intentionally or unintentionally (hopefully, no one is naive enough to believe that students won’t leave their laptops home to avoid the testing that they hate), have broken their laptop and are waiting for repairs, or left it in the closet for three months and, when they turn it on for the first time in a testing room, the district network no longer syncs with it.

The second problem is that the whole F.A.S.T. testing system depends upon districts uploading accurate student information into the testing platform. Known as T.I.D.E. (has GOT mentioned how hard it is to remember all the acronyms? Google to the rescue, it’s the Test Information Distribution Engine), every test administration requires that the students who take the test are uploaded into the platform.

Once the upload takes place, the school’s test coordinator has to go through it to make sure the information is accurate, there are no extras and there are no missing students. Students that are not there have to be added one by one, which takes a considerable amount of time as the coordinator has to look up their birthday, Florida test identification number (not to be confused with their school id number), demographics, and 504/IEP information.

After that, administration records for each testing room/session have to be created. These records are a holdover from the days when are state testing was paper and pencil based, but Florida has never seen a need to update them for computer testing. You can tell a new coordinator when they ask what to put down for the security number for a computer test that has no security number! Leave it blank, they are told, but the document is required even as it no longer serves much of a purpose.

Don’t believe GOT? Each teacher serving as a test administrator has to sign this document that they received each child’s secure testing materials when, in fact, there are no secure materials for them to pick up.

The third problem is that savvy test coordinators know to create testing rosters because that makes it much easier to create administrative records and the test tickets students need to log into the test.

But the rosters are now being used to create reports that teachers must send home. If a test coordinator creates a test roster and assigns it to a teacher who does not actually teach a student they will test, why horrors! That teacher will be able to see the test result.

So, rostering for testing groups is forbidden. GOT is still figuring out an efficient workaround for that.

The fourth problem is the timing. For secondary schools, the test time is 60 minutes but students may have up to 90 minutes to complete a reading assessment. Then, accommodations have to be determined. Do we use 60 minutes or 90 minutes as the base for determining how much more time to allow students with IEPs or 504 plans?

The state cleared that up with a message to districts to allow the maximum, that is, calculate based upon the 90 minutes. Then they added this kicker that districts passed on to schools: allow the kids to finish so they get a score. The times are only suggestions for scheduling purposes and by all means, try to get the children to finish in one day.

That leaves GOT guessing how much actual time students might need and how to schedule the test. His administration wants the test to be given by the classroom teacher during the normal class period, but how does he anticipate who will run over especially the 9th grade students new to the building with whom we have no experience?

As GOT’s parents would say: give it the old college try. Fingers crossed it won’t be a disaster. But do you get the feeling that GOT has that the Florida Department of Education has no idea of what they want and that we’re rushing into something that no one understands and no one can anticipate how it will turn out?

GOT’s Uncle Mac had a saying, “Let’s do something even if it’s wrong.” That seems to be Florida’s approach to testing this year.

The B-Attitudes

Several years ago, Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) was working at a middle school. Back then, every year schools chose a theme for the year that everyone used to guide classroom and bulletin board decoration as well as student motivation. GOT’s school had long been a C-graded school. Every principal desired to break out of the mold and move up, but it was an elusive goal. One year, a newly-appointed principal came up with the ‘B Attitude’ to focus everyone’s attention on making the extra effort and taking the next steps to attain a B grade for the year. That led GOT to pen these as a humorous take on the year’s theme using the Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,

                For a funny classmate will disrupt the class.

Blessed are those who mourn,

                For someone cute will enroll at the school.

Blessed are the meek,

                For they will not get a referral for fighting.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst,

                For they shall receive Breakfast-in-the-Classroom*.

Blessed are the merciful,

                For they will share paper and pens with their unprepared classmates.

Blessed are the pure in heart,

                For they will never post snarky words about their peers on Facebook**.

Blessed are the peacemakers,

                For the administrators will never reveal that they snitched about a planned food fight.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness,

                For all As on a report card is the greatest feeling in the world.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you,

                Rejoice and be glad, because Anonymous has your back in the Twitterverse***.

These are the original words from 2014. Some updating is in order and offered below.

*Breakfast-in-the-Classroom was an initiative for Title 1 schools in which, rather than having students go to the cafeteria before school, the cafeteria delivered a meal that children ate in their classrooms at the beginning of the day. All students received breakfast regardless of their social-economic status.

**Teenagers move on quickly from a once-hot social media platform. Currently (2022), they prefer Instagram and Tik-Tok. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will never post embarrassing photos on Instagram or videos on Tik-Tok.

***… because your school is investigating your bullying complaint. Or, … for Equality Florida, joined by Attorneys General of 16 states, have sued to overturn Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law, a/k/a Parental Rights in Education law.

Happy New School Year!

One Mil or Another

Like many school districts in Florida (20 and counting by the referendums on the 2022 ballot), Grumpy Old Teacher’s (GOT) school district is asking voters to approve a voluntary, additional tax on their property to fund the school system.

It’s one mil or one-one thousandth (.001) of the taxable property value. To put it in context, for every $1,000 of property value, it’s an additional dollar. For GOT’s district, that money will go to fund increases in teacher salaries (65% of revenue), support personnel wages (10%), arts and sports (12.5%), and yes, it’s required in Florida, a hand-off of revenue to charter schools (12.5%).

While some play the numbers game (GOT fondly remembers a vacuum cleaner salesman explaining how his product only costs pennies a day, but doing the math and it added up to hundreds of dollars in one year) by saying that an owner of a $125,000 home would only pay $8.33 a month, still that’s $100 a year. (If you’re doing the math in your head, Florida has a homestead deduction of the first $25,000 of property value for a home before the tax is applied.)

Because property owners pay their tax bill once every year, not every month, the cited figure is appreciable. But the typical home price in the district is around $314,000 and the impact of one additional mil would be more like $25 a month or $300 a year.

In these difficult times of inflation, soaring property values, and recession-on-the-horizon, it’s not hard to understand that this time around the voters may be reluctant to approve additional support for their school system that would ordinarily be a slam-dunk win. The timing is also unstrategic as voters will begin early voting in another week or go to the polls in three weeks in this month of August when the projected property tax bills with all the increases will arrive in the mail.

Based upon gripes GOT has seen on social media, many people do not understand that school boards in Florida do not benefit from increases in property values. The state forces millage reductions every year to stop that. As an illustration, the Jacksonville Public Education Fund developed this graphic:

3.2 or 5.4? Read on.

The declining millage rate … or is it? The School Board recently voted on this year’s millage rate and set it to 5.4% as the state forced a 0.4% reduction. How do we explain the discrepancy?

Twitter to the rescue. GOT raised the question recently, tagged the school system, and here’s the exchange:

A school board budget is complex, filled with mandates, both unfunded and restricted, that come from state and federal laws. The advantage to having a public school system (not a faux version as in charter schools) is that everything is available to the public even if no one wants to spend month after month digesting 100 pages plus of financial disclosures that take place at every board meeting.

School districts can’t just move funds around on the board like a chess player does. If they are to have additional money to raise teacher salaries to make a dent in the accelerating exodus of personnel, localities are going to have to agree to tax themselves. The state government is quite uninterested in providing competent, credentialed teachers for public schools. But teachers are finding that private industry values their skills, is willing to pay them higher salaries, and won’t require 24/7 availability or even that they purchase their own office supplies.

Yet, GOT hears what people are saying. These are tough times as inflation threatens to break into double digits. They would like to provide better salaries to teachers, but everyone is hurting.

GOT can’t tell people what to do about the referendum. But he will share a story from his past, a time when he wasn’t a teacher. GOT spent a few years being a preacher.

The salary was abysmal even worse than a teacher. What was doubly delicious was that the church was exempt from paying Social Security taxes, which meant that GOT had to cover both the employee and the employer’s burden that came to 15.3% of income every year. Because the church provided a home and utilities, GOT had to add in the fair market value of that into his annual IRS calculation of how much that 15.3% would be applied to.

To keep the number simple, say GOT was making 25 grand in salary. But the housing and utilities was valued at an extra 15 grand a year. For paying the Social Security tax, that meant 15.3% of 40,000. OUCH! It was a struggle.

Then occasionally (and we’re getting to the point), the church people would complain about the services they were paying for. “Why should we pay to mow your lawn? No one does that for us.”

GOT always cheerfully replied, “No problem. I will happily mow the lawn and take care of the grounds. But that will require at least one-half day a week, a time that I now spend preparing sermons and lessons, going to hospitals, conducting funerals, visiting, and praying for you. You decide. What do you want me to do?”

Inevitably, the people stopped complaining. That’s where we are with the referendum. A teacher’s salary is not enough for them to live on and provide for their families. The State of Florida is not sending any more money. What do you, the voters, want from teachers?

If you choose to vote down the referendum, you accept the fact that teachers may have to take on second jobs (not only in the summer but during the school year). Their availability will decrease. They cannot spend 10 hours a day as a professional would do to meet all obligations as they have to make it to Denny’s for the 4 to 11 PM shift.

What do you want? If you want teachers available for after-school conferences, if you want them to spend their evenings grading papers and updating the online gradebook, if you want phone calls returned and emails answered within 24 hours, you have to pay them enough so they don’t have to work those second jobs.

If you want them to live in your city or town so they don’t have to spend an hour or more commuting in the morning and again in the evening, you have to pay them enough so they can afford to live among you.

What do you want? Make your choice, but don’t complain about the consequences if teachers, just like you, have to make difficult life choices and move on.

The Lies of Ron DeSantis

Recently, Florida’s Governor was speaking at the Florida Sheriffs Association Summer Conference Awards Banquest when he made a claim that persons who are vaccinated and boosted for Covid-19 are actually more likely to get the disease than those who are not.

In his typical bombastic fashion, the Governor insists that he has analyzed the data and knows what he is talking about. When the flubbering of lips stopped, people wondered what he was referring to.

It seems the Gov is cherry-picking data. One idea is that he was using a CDC-produced graph:

The Joy of Misleading Data. Ignore that black line on top.

The problem with this graph and the other possible source (Walgreen’s reported testing data) is that it is raw data and people who know their stuff (in other words, the experts) warn that no one can draw valid conclusions from raw data. Plus, this is only people 50 and over. Plus, with so much home testing now, any database will be incomplete and biased.

But the Governor is unfazed. His modus operandi (standard operating procedure) is not that he’s the smartest guy in the room; he’s the only smart guy in the room. If the rest of us dumb people would shut up, he would gaslight … er, cough, cough, explain how wrong we are.

Ron DeSantis is on a roll. He is also warning that early education teachers are telling girls to be boys and boys to be girls. To quote the famous Dave Barry, Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) is not making this up:

Pants on fire.

Here’s a quote: “This will be for elementary school kids where they are instructed to tell them, ‘Well you may have been born a boy that may have what you said, but maybe you’re really a girl’. That is wrong. That has no place in schools,” DeSantis said. “That is happening in our country. Anyone that tells you it’s not happening is lying to you.”

The only one lying here is Ron DeSantis. He has no evidence. If any teacher was actually caught and documented to have said that to children, their employing school district would have removed them from their classroom and terminated them.

It isn’t that DeSantis hates teachers; it’s that he finds them a useful punching bag in his never-ending-culture-war-performance-art-theater for a political base he has almost captured from his godfather.

But could the tide be turning? We’re still a long way out from the 2024 presidential campaign. With these latest lies, DeSantis could be wearing out his act. That bit about the Covid boosters … GOT could be wrong, but he is wondering if we aren’t witnessing the governor jumping the shark.

#hashtag

It’s summer and Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) has been loafing quite a bit. Also, he can barely start a reflection on an issue and a dozen other important things to talk about occur. So here is a random compilation of issues that won’t get the full treatment.

#hireavet: The latest and definitely not-so-greatest idea from Florida’s Department of Education is to issue 5-year temporary teaching certificates to military veterans or their spouses even if they had not earned a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university or college. Lots of outrage has ensued, mostly centered around the difference between military and school culture, soldiering vs. teaching, and professional knowledge about how children learn.

GOT agrees with everyone in principle, but these are desperate days. Look down the hallway; there are empty classrooms with 25 to 30 children needing somebody. There aren’t many options and every one of them will require the professional corps of certified teachers to take on something extra be it supporting a long-term sub, taking extra students into their classrooms, or giving up planning periods.

Then there is GOT’s district which came up with this solution: Raise class sizes and wipe out the vacancies. Presto chango, what teacher shortage?

The idea to hire military vets may not be the best idea, but it’s not the dumbest. (Not the least because the vet must have 48 months of service and an honorable discharge, 60 college credits and a 2.5 GPA, and a pass on the Subject Area Exam–in other words, they know their stuff presumably.)

As for qualifications, GOT starts here, whether we’re talking about a veteran, an alt cert teacher, or a graduate from a traditional teacher’s college: Do you like kids?

Anyone who can’t say yes can hit the bricks. Those who can, let’s talk.

#parentalrights: A/k/a, the Don’t Say Gay bill. The Gotterdamerung of public schooling has come to this: parent groups, among whom the most notorious is the group Moms For Liberty (M4L), will monitor classrooms and nail the teachers’ unions and their minions in the indoctrination of children. The latest reports say they will monitor teachers’ social media to catch them out.

Florida parents now have statutory permission to sue school systems if they disagree with something a teacher said in the classroom or they can report the teacher to their employer for discipline.

But how will they know? The problem with groups like M4L is that they don’t have children in the classroom, who will be the only source for naughty teaching. Even parents whose children are in public schools can only make allegations based on hearsay.

Do these people really think teachers are going to cry and fold? Looking forward to the false accusations and the defamation lawsuits. M4L, maybe transfer your assets offshore? Teachers are not going to lay down and take your abuse.

#bookbanning: If you study history, you know this is as American as apple pie, Mom, and Chevrolet. Well, maybe not Chevrolet. Open the hood and identify the parts that were manufactured in America. <Giggle>, if you drive a City Express van like GOT, you know it’s a Nissan that Chevy bolted their nameplate onto. But GOT digresses.

The point is that it’s been tried before. Didn’t work then; won’t work now. (But the van runs with no trouble as it logs 84,000 miles, six years, and counting.)

#CRT: The outrage of 2021, this one has about run its course. The roofer and his ginned-up outrage had fun while it lasted. Most people tried to explain that the actual Critical Race Theory, developed in the 1970s, isn’t actually taught in schools.

That misses the point. If you can stand the bald candor, what the outrage has been about is allowing school children to look at narratives other than the happy slave story. A Birthday Cake for Mr. Washington becomes the approved curriculum.

Woe to those who disagree.

#Groomer: For his next trick, the roofer will convince you that Mrs. McGuffin, your dowager kindergarten teacher, with her lilac-scented eau de toilette and mid-20th century English dress, is turning your kid much as a vampire might suck out their blood until they go <ahem> … rogue.

#Ukraine: While Florida digested teacher reports of indoctrination by their Department of Education via summer Civics seminars, news came out of Russia that they saw Ron DeSantis’s bid and raised him double. Russia’s version of a Department of Education has rewritten the history curriculum for Ukrainian schools to correct the history that is being taught (their words) and pushing their version into Ukrainian schools wherever they have taken over.

Ukrainian teachers in the affected regions (Kherson and surrounding environs) have fled. That is why Russia is offering teachers a huge bonus for agreeing to go to Ukraine and teach. According to reports, many Russian teachers are interested despite the fact that they might/will end up in a war zone.

It seems Russian teachers are as badly underpaid as US teachers and the offer is attractive to many despite the bombs that may drop on their heads.

Ron DeSantis has made sure that the Florida legislature pushed through laws that our schools must teach about the evils of Communism. Irony of ironies, he is determined to copy them.

Summer Break

Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) often says that there are three seasons to the school year, Instruction (August through December), Test Preparation (January through March), and Testing (April through June.) But at this point, he must admit, there is a fourth season, the season of Lay-Off.

But what about July?

As regular as May testing is the June grousing when the school year ends that teachers are lucky because who else gets two months of vacation every year?

Teachers rush in to defend themselves and GOT is seeing some of this now in social media outlets: we worked a full year in 10 months, we’re not really off because we are busy in workshops, mandated continuing education courses to maintain our certification, we’re working a second job because we’re not paid enough, we’re planning next year’s lessons, and more.

All of this is valid, but it really doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. Teachers don’t get two months of free vacation every year. Teaching is the only profession where people are laid off for two months and have to provide for themselves because the summer hiatus does not qualify for unemployment compensation.

Let GOT say that again. Teachers don’t get two months of vacation every summer: They. Are. Laid. Off.

And must fend for themselves and their families.

Why must that be? Why must teachers be laid off every summer?

The end of a school year seems glorious with unlimited time to relax, catch up on household chores, take the children to the beach, mountains, or pool, but there is a problem with this that has nothing to do with the usual defense (see the paragraph above.)

School systems need the summer break to organize and get ready for the new year. First, everyone has to clear out so the classrooms can be cleaned. Furniture is moved, floors are stripped and waxed anew, graffiti is cleaned off, walls are painted, lockers are emptied and readied for the next student’s use, the list goes on and on.

Second, schools have to schedule students. This is a huge problem for the many states who have enacted Jeb-Bush-styled reforms, such as third-grade retention for children who don’t score high enough on the annual test. Will they complete a summer school course and test up? Will their teacher have a portfolio of their work so they can move on? Or do they repeat?

Then, at the secondary level, schools are waiting for test scores to come in. In Florida, that happens at the end of June. Schools then have four or five weeks to determine who needs to do what, who gets electives and who must take remedial instruction in reading and math, then decide on staffing needs, then adjust their master schedule and get the students into the correct classes.

If all goes well, and there are years when it does not, the state doesn’t butt into this process in mid-July with changes.

GOT remembers the couple years, only in the recent past, when the state ordered staffing changes in low-graded schools in late July and the district scrambled to find places for the teachers who had to move and to find others to replace them. This took place about two weeks before students were scheduled to begin the new year.

Usually, that resulted in rescheduling an entire student body, maybe 600 to 1800 students.

Understand that a normal school day is a huge time suck for administrators. There’s a reason most principals in GOT’s district spend Sunday afternoons in the office away from distractions, phone calls, etc. to deal with all the paperwork that they have no time for during the week.

Third, there are the curriculum changes that take effect. District staff need time to sort out the new mandates, prepare advice (hopefully, advice) for teachers, prepare new guides (hopefully, only guides), and orient teachers to the new outlay.

If it is a year when the textbooks are changing, books have to be ordered, come into warehouses, be sorted out, then sent to the schools. Schools have to put these new books into their inventories, which means that thousands upon thousands of books must each receive a bar code label that will subsequently be scanned into a student’s account once they are issued.

Students changing schools need to have new ID pictures taken. Trust GOT, when he meets a 10th grader whom he taught as a 9th grader online and all he had to look at was a 6th grade picture … let’s just forgive him for not recognizing the child.

The point of this is that Summer Break has many serious, important, crucial reasons for being in the school calendar.

To a teacher, the cost is not two months of it-must-be-nice vacation.

In the summer, teachers are not on break or a deserved vacation. They have been laid off.

The Month of Pride

When the legalists asked Yeshua (more familiarly known in English as Jesus) what the greatest commandment was, he responded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul and all your strength.” Then he followed up with this, “The second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself.”

But who is my neighbor?

When asked to identify his neighbor, Yeshua responded with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. There’s no need for Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) to recount it here. You know it. If you don’t, google it.

In our time, it wouldn’t be a Samaritan because we are far removed from those days of Roman-occupied Palestine and the prejudices of the day that colored the relations between the people that lived in the land.

In our day, the Parable would relate how a Black person pulled over on the interstate to tend to an accident victim and the white people whizzed by. GOT has seen this during his lifetime.

The point is love. Where has the love gone? Many trot out judgment and justify it with appeals to a complex collection of history, poetry, and prophecy that often disagrees with itself. Many have spent their lives in study and intepretation. But the Gospel command to love is clear; without that, your theology doesn’t matter, your morality is insignificant, and your spluttering outrage on every social media channel will not save you from Dante’s Inferno … exactly what circle are you in?

Where is the love? Where is the caring support for children working out their identity issues as they navigate their teen years? What of your beliefs or your principles, your theology or your exegesis? It does not matter. The command is clear: LOVE.

Schools were created with an educational mission. They must be places of learning, first of all for basic literacy and numeracy, then for citizenship and the responsibilities thereof, and finally, for understanding the world in which we live in all its dimensions: natural, scientific, social, political, and historical.

But for any of that to take place, schools must first be places of safety and needs fulfillment. That is why we feed children, why some schools launder children’s clothes, and why we work to stop bullying and other forms of misbehavior.

When schools are doing their job well, they are often the first places children look to as a refuge from the traumas inflicted upon them. But we don’t have to be so dramatic. Children often have a trusted adult at school in whom they will confide. It doesn’t mean they have a bad parent at home.

GOT was cheap in his teenage years (still is, but that’s beside the point.) He never bought a pen or pencil because he realized that his peers dropped them all over the school all the time. By keeping his eyes on the floor, GOT ended a school year with dozens of pencils and pens in his supply box.

Not all of them were usable. One day, GOT arrived home and dumped his books into the dining room chair set aside for the purpose. He pulled his pen out of his pocket and dropped it on the buffet (a piece of furniture) beside the chair. The next morning, the pen had leaked onto the surface and the ink had eaten a gouge into the wood.

Horrified, GOT put a piece of paper over the damage and beat it out of the house, but all day, he stewed about the coming confrontation. What will happen when Mom finds out?

Finally, coming home on the bus, GOT decided to ‘fess up. Better to get it over with than waiting till Mom found out.

When he came into the house, GOT found his Mom and told her he had to show her something. What happened next surprised that immature, adolescent soul.

“Thank you for telling me. Let’s clean it up. I’m sure the buffet can be repaired. Actually, the damage is not that bad.”

GOT remembers the angst of that day. Looking back, it is astounding how trivial a leaking pen is next to the struggles of an adolescent working through their sexual identity. How much more might such a teenager be frightened to talk to their parents?

That’s the point. The parental fear that many teens feel even though the emotion says nothing about the parent. Our first and only concern when it comes to teenagers is to ensure that they feel loved, that they are cared about, that they have a safe place even if they are wrong about their home.

Some of them are not wrong. Some do endure a lifetime of parental rejection, read into this link for Echo’s story. In GOT’s city, here’s another story from four years ago.

What about principles, morals, and religious beliefs? GOT is not addressing those. This is not about a debate in the pews, the courthouse square, or the internet shouting-fest. By the way, don’t think this piece reveals anything about GOT other than that the O is real and he feels a weariness about snarling that only happens when we forget that real flesh-and-blood are involved.

Where is the love? Why does our society fall into a moral plane where everyone has an opinion and deals out death and judgment to all who disagree?

“The second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself.”

Bring Back Homeroom

Scene from Hulu’s documentary about Oakland’s Class of 2020, Homeroom.

In Grumpy Old Teacher’s (GOT) day, a time that’s long, long ago, junior and senior high schools began the day with homeroom. Homeroom had three purposes: recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, morning announcements, and attendance. In those days, the teacher marked attendance on a sheet of paper and a runner would take it to the office.

Even before today’s online websites that teachers use to record attendance and grades, technology made homeroom obsolete. Students now report to their first class of the day when the first bell rings. First-period attendance begins the process of officially recording the presence of students at school.

Homeroom is needed no more … OR IS IT?

For GOT, even before the pandemic, the opening of school would bring a new freshman class into the building, awkward teens trying to find their way in a new school, not sure they’re ready for high school, not ready to give up the behaviors that mark a middle school tween.

It was excruciating to watch; how much more is it excruciating to experience the feeling of being lost in a world where everyone else seems to have it together? It takes a long time until perspective matures to realize that nobody has it together in those middle and high school years. It only looked that way.

Eventually, most teens find their group and peers with whom they fit in. The athletes center their lives on the gym, the younger ones forming fan groups around the varsity, soaking up the glory until the years pass and they are the stars.

The creative ones make their way to theater, band, chorus, and art where like-minded friends support and encourage their endeavors. Students craving structure and organization wind up in classes and clubs like Jr. ROTC that meet their need to order their world.

Then there are those who never find their group, never find their way, until they eventually disappear as their parents move them to a new school where they might flourish. Sometimes they don’t move on; they simply disappear in the crowd.

And all of them, every one, is feeling the angst of the teenage years, unfocused yet powerful feelings of despair and anxiety. Where do they belong? Where do they fit in?

Horrific events like Uvalde burst upon us and, in the aftermath, we engage in the usual debates, the usual rage, and the usual policy recommendations that break down into two sides that usually regard themselves as mutually exclusive: harden schools (better doors, better glass, more armed adults, fences, walls, and locks, single points of entry) and reduction of the gun supply (background checks, red flag laws, age requirements for ownership, banning of certain types of weapons.)

How are you this morning? Anything you want to share about what happened last night when you went home? You are among friends.

What we miss among all this noise goes all the way back to Columbine. Some are catching on. There are those who say we should not regard mass murder as the act of someone given over to killing, but the act of someone committing suicide in a spectacular manner calculated to call the world’s attention to the internal angst that grew until it overpowered all sense.

GOT does not want to debate the hypothesis. He merely mentions it to show that we don’t have to be constrained by the usual thinking. That is the point of this piece. There’s something else in this puzzle.

It’s not only Uvalde and the long, sorry record of school shootings. It’s the kids who never go that far, it’s the kids who lose interest, the ones who check out. It’s the ones who never try because they never belonged.

Bring back homeroom. Bring it back with a far greater importance than it had in those attendance, pledge-reciting days. Bring back homeroom so that every day every child can begin their school day checking in with their group, hearing that they were missed because they weren’t there, they are important and they are needed.

Twenty minutes a day should do it.

Already, the objections roll in. Time in a school day is zero-sum. Devote 20 minutes to a homeroom and it will have to be taken out of the instructional day.

We can’t have that. The Almighty, All-Powerful, Ever-Present Test god will not spare that time. Scores will go down. School grades will falter. Some things have to be sacrificed even if that means the souls, and in extreme cases, the lives of children.

But GOT sees a pattern, a pattern that perpetrators like Dylan and Eric fit, a pattern where they felt ostracized, that they didn’t belong.

Bring back homeroom. Twenty minutes a day where children can connect with a small group of peers and a caring adult. Twenty minutes where they feel loved. Twenty minutes to be a part of humanity, to be in a place where everyone knows their name. Twenty minutes to know they are not alone.

Bring back homeroom.