Friday, April 15, 2011

Changes to This Blog

Local readers may be aware that the News-Derrick in its on-line version is now behind a pay wall. While I know not everyone has greeted this with shouts of joy and delight, it has become a fairly common practice in the world of newspaper publishing as newspaper folks search for new ways to not starve. We can argue the virtue of that decision some other time; the fact is that it's here.

In conjunction with that, my editor, who pays me very nicely for my work for the paper, has asked me to stop giving it away for free. I have to agree (did I mention that I'm paid very nicely) that this is a reasonable request.

So I am going to take Venangoland to private status. I know this will have an impact on the many handful of readers who follow me here on this blog. Those of you who are far away, related to me, and/or old college friends who will never be in the market for the newspaper in which I usually appear can get an invite to still catch what appears here.

For local folks, I'll point out that regular subscribers can add a cyber-subscription to the paper for a buck a month.

Admittedly, this requires me to let go of a small dream. I put this blog up so that my children could follow the column without my having to remember to attach and mail it to them every week, and later so that old friends could get the equivalent of a Christmas letter 52 weeks a year. But in the back of my mind was always the thought that by having these all on line and searchable, somehow traffic would be kicked up and I would make Venangoland (the place) a little more known and give the home territory that I love a bit more of a web presence. But I've seen my readership numbers and that dream belongs on the same shelf as the dream in which I wake up in the morning with a full head of hair.

It will be a few days yet before I finish sorting out the buttons etc, and then this will bump even further into the internet background. Thanks for all the fish!

Friday, April 08, 2011

Finding Bad Teachers

(News-Herald, April 7) Periodically folks get their High Dudgeon on (that’s fancy talk for Large Hissy Fit) about Bad Teachers and the need to Weed Them Out. Contrary to some reports, you can find plenty of classroom teachers who support that idea, at least in principle.
With the exception of students, nobody suffers more from the work of a bad teacher than the competent teacher in the next room who has to live with the mess that Professor Numbskull creates day after day. We would be delighted to see him retire to Florida or take that job in Antarctica.
Even if we aren’t going to fire some lemons of learning, parents still want to be able to spot these potholes of pedagogy before their children smack into them. Unfortunately, identifying these educational examples of classroom clutter is harder than it looks. Currently, our leading educational experts, loaded down with big ideas and unhampered by any actual experience in schools, have come up with two definitions of a bad teacher.
1) A bad teacher is one whose students don’t bubble in the preferred answers on a government-designed test.
2) A bad teacher is one who gets paid more than other teachers.
These are not helpful; neither is focusing on age. I have known teachers who taught for decades and never stopped firing up their students. My Uncle Frank has taught high school history for over fifty years and his students still do things like dedicating entire sports seasons to him. But I have also known young teachers who were already burned out when they were straight out of the package. So here are some telltale signs that a teacher might not be as fresh as a didactic daisy.
The Big Countdown. A teacher who is focused on how many days are left in the year, how long till the weekend, how many minutes left in the day, is a teacher whose head is not in the game. Granted, a teacher who is so lazily comfortable that he doesn’t need a break, ever, may not be putting his back into it. And everyone has the occasional day that they simply want to be done with.
But a teacher who constantly observes how much he’d rather be somewhere else should do everybody a favor and go be somewhere else.
It’s Not My Fault. My old co-operating teacher Joe McCormick told me two rules of education. Rule number one is that some students will refuse to be taught. Rule number two is that there is nothing teachers can to change rule number one.
He may have been right. There are some students who aggressively resist learning, and others who are so distracted by the mess at home that they cannot focus on school. It is likely that some children would be better off being raised by wolves. Nevertheless, it’s a teacher’s job to try to find a way. We aren’t hired to teach the people they’re supposed to be. We’re hired to teach the people they actually are.
If a teacher bemoans how every lesson is scuttled by those lousy kids, if class is a noisy uncontrolled mess because of those lousy kids, if the teacher complains that he can’t get his job done because of those lousy kids, here’s a news flash—it’s not the lousy kids.
I’m Fine, Thanks. Teaching carries several sources of stress that they never tell you about in teacher school. One is realizing that no matter how hard and long you work, no matter how many years you refine your game, there are things you don’t do quite well enough.
Any teacher worth his chalk (or keyboard) can tell you where he’s weak, what he needs to fix. He may very well be collecting pointers from co-workers, doing more reading, experimenting with new ideas in his classroom. A teacher who doesn’t think he needs help or advice is a classroom disaster waiting to happen.
A teacher should be an expert in his field. If he isn’t a lifelong student of his subject, he’s little use to his students. If he couldn’t teach without teacher editions, he can’t do that much better with them.
There are other signs. A good teacher takes his job very seriously, but not himself. Bad teachers get it the other way around. Bad teachers hide from their students and community in their off hours. And bad teachers think It’s Just A Job, not a particularly large part of life. For that last point, unfortunately, many reformers agree.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Venango Primaries 2011

(News-Herald, March 31) It’s primary season in Venangoland-- time for the usual rounds of cantankerous caterwauling about county commissioners. As usual, about 147 people have thrown their hats into the ring, and as usual, fuss is being raised.
For the casual political observer, or for the local who’s just not well-connected, it’s never entirely clear what political the fuss is about. What’s clear is that there is an awful lot going on that we regular civilians are unaware of.
So far we’ve had election board spats and a narrowly targeted petition challenge based on a technicality. Everyone involved claims that it’s not personal, it’s totally on principle, etc but out here in the cheap seats it feels a little like watching that couple who get into a savage argument about how to fold the napkins—you’re not sure exactly what’s going on, but it’s pretty clear that what’s going on is not a simple disagreement about napkin folds.
Most interestingly, there appear to be folks lining up against the local tea party—and not the expected liberal spendthrift godless Democrat types. If Venangoland is once again on the cutting edge (don’t laugh—we were all over bad defaulting mortgages before that crisis went national), this could foreshadow interesting times for the national tea partiers. At the very least, they may need to come up with a whole new set of names to call people.
There’s the old argument about full time commissioners. It’s a dumb argument. The question is not “What should we get from the current holders of the job?” The question is, “Who would want the job if it required full time commitment?” What successful businessman could leave his business for a few years (and take a pay cut to do it)? What successful professional could afford a multi-year leave of absence? Full time commissioning would be most appealing to people who aren’t busy doing anything else important. I’m not sure that’s a good deal for the county.
Put you ear to the Venangoland ground, and you’ll also hear the familiar charges of “old boys network” and cronyism. Time to get things done out in the open. Time to get out of the old smoke-filled back room.
So for all the folks who are penning garbled letters and running anonymous websites and making random accusations in meetings, here’s an observation, not meant to criticize, but to let you know how your message is coming across. From out here in the cheap seats, it doesn’t look like noble warriors standing up to the boys in the back room. It looks like a whole bunch of people in the back room together, squabbling amongst themselves.
If there’s a message you’re trying to get out, you’re doing a lousy job. Whether you’re in office, running for office, or imagining yourself a puppetmaster behind the scenes, you are communicating precious little that makes sense. Consequently what comes across is the message, “That guy over there really annoys the bejeezes out of me.”
People end up in back rooms sometimes because they imagine if people can see what they’re up to, the public will “get the wrong idea” or “the correct message” won’t come across. That’s why the sunshine law is a good idea; more public officials should pay attention to it.
A person can start to believe that because the people in the room with him are nodding their heads and cheering, EVERYBODY must be hearing him. This is not true, not even in a small town setting.
There’s another reason people end up in the back room in an area like ours. It’s the voters’ fault, and it relates to out other election season problem. Say you have an issue, and you want to share it with the giant auditorium full of people. You try to talk to them, but they can’t be bothered. They’re busy. They’re talking to each other. They don’t even show up. Eventually you conclude that it’s easier to finish the conversation in a smaller room with people who are actually paying attention.
Occasionally one of those uninvolved people beats on the door and demands to be included. Mostly they don’t.
For a moment, don’t look at the commissioner candidates. Look instead at the many positions, from townships to school boards, for which there aren’t even enough candidates to fill the empty seats. Our politicians should communicate better with the cheap seats, but those of us in those seats could stand up and try to get a better look.

From my Flickr