What Does Your School Choose: Money, Outsiders’ Perceptions, or Education?

The focus of all service industries should be…service. All too often the focus is instead on profits and/or public perception over the service being offered. By working in international education, I have only worked in private schools. I have found that administrative focus has a tendency to stray towards the bottom line and/or outsiders’ views. This then leads them to enact policies that are focused on those issues.

These policies take teacher attention away from educationally useful activities and the quality of education students receive inevitably declines. When the focus is on money, students will use outdated textbooks and teachers will have a very limited access to technology. Infrastructure naturally decays over time. But when the bottom line is the focus, the infrastructure will either not be repaired, or it will be done cheaply and possibly become more dangerous than before.

When administration is focused on outsiders’ views (including higher-ups that renew their own contracts) the policies will focus on appearance. This always leads to extra work for teachers. Work that is educationally empty. Busy work for adults. In my experience this often includes entering datasets that have not actually been assessed, therefore they are pure judgment calls that generate extra data for administration and will not be used to improve classroom instruction. This type of data generation can be tolerable, if educationally pointless because they are not constant and do not directly lead to lower educational quality.

The next level of policy takes directly takes away from learning. I have found that this can involve regular assemblies, contests, and events that have no set end time (whenever the adults speaking run out of breath, I guess). If your class intersects with this time, you could have a full class period or miss anywhere from 5-20 minutes. Also, students who return from sitting in an assembly are less focused and more squirrely than normal. So on top of less class time, it takes more effort and time on the teacher’s part to get the class settled. But at least the school will have good photos to share with current and prospective parents…

The final level not only takes away from instruction but can change teaching methods for the worse. I believe policies that fall into this category are inherently immoral. The solution may be to flat out disobey administration, game the system, or to leave the school (work for change first). Administration should be disobeyed when following their policies requires you to become educationally negligent or dishonest. It is, however, very necessary to check and make sure you are not being needlessly rebellious (It’s a big temptation when you don’t see eye to eye with admin).

Gaming the system is necessary when administration does not have realistic expectations. In this type of case, get the work done as fast as possible with as little effort on both your and the students part as possible. It is generally better to deal with a small complaint about the quality of the work than to waste even more instructional time making things look acceptable to admin (‘pretty’). Finally, if things show no realistic hope of improving, it may be necessary to leave your school.

Folder checks, student work checks, or whatever a school calls them have their uses, but they should primarily be the student’s responsibility to prepare for and the administration ought to clearly communicate that it should be a low/no stress task. When a school places a high value on the folder check and wants every student’s notebook to be graded, corrected, regraded, and put in order, the responsibility falls on the teacher to make every student become perfectly (or at least close to it) organized. This is an impossible task that adds puts an astronomical load on teachers for an incredibly tiny benefit. In my experience, there are only two ways to do this type of folder check; cheat or spend many hours fixing each student’s notebook.

Another intrusive policy that is used to make the school look good is to require that all students pass. When outsiders hear about how successful every student is at the school, especially ones that struggled at previous schools, its prestige will rise. However, doing this leads to a myriad of ethical issues. If student A earned a 34% but receives a 60%, how is that fair to the students who earned their D? Do you bump the whole class up on a curve? What about the students who received an A, do you give them an A++++?

Passing students who should fail cheapens the grades of all students. It also lies to parents. Parents should know that their child is struggling, but if they see a 60%, then they can reasonably conclude that they are doing alright (especially if there is a learning disability or the child is ESL). I feel that this is the most unethical and hardest policy to live with. It must be disobeyed.


What does your school focus on money, outsider’s perceptions, or education?

Why Vocabulary Matters pt 2

Having background knowledge is a prerequisite for academic success. One key way for teachers to help students with background knowledge is to teach vocabulary. This will then help give students the ability to talk about new concepts and make specific connections using academic language as opposed to general connections using everyday language.

For example, Student A could describe the water cycle as, “The water goes up and makes a cloud. Then gets heavier and it can come down. This can happen again and again” This shows that the student understands the concept of the water cycle. But their language suggests that they only understand it on a basic level.

Student B, who has a higher level of vocabulary can describe it with scientific language which provides greater depth. “The water evaporates and then becomes a gas. When it cools, it will condense and form a cloud. When the water droplets come together, gravity can pull them down as a form of precipitation. This process will repeat.”

Obviously, this is a simplified example, but by having the content vocabulary, a student is able to not only show that they understand the structure of the concept. They are able to demonstrate that they understand the processes of that concept.

It also gives the teacher much more to work with. If student A says something incorrect, it is more difficult for the teacher to assess which part of the concept the student does not understand because they explained the water cycle in generic terms with a generic vocabulary. Whereas if Student B makes a mistake, the teacher will be able to provide correction more easily since the student has more background knowledge to draw on (vocabulary) and they used most of the vocabulary correctly, more clearly showing both what they know and do not know.

Another important factor. The even if Student A perfectly understands the water cycle (albeit in generic language) he will fall further behind in future units that build on previous unit’s vocabulary. This makes it important for teachers to stress vocabulary and test it (to make sure students have learned it). Learning vocabulary will help students catch up and give them the ability to think more critically about whatever concepts they are learning.

Why Vocabulary Is Important

As I have gained more teaching experience, I have gained a greater understanding of vocabulary’s importance. Students must know the words before they can apply the concepts. As a result of this, I have begun to take the vocabulary teaching portion of my job more and more seriously.

A study that clearly shows the importance of background knowledge (vocabulary is an integral part of background knowledge) for comprehension was done by (Rect and Leslie, 1988). This study found that students who had low reading abilities and high content knowledge were able to comprehend a text better than students with a high reading ability and low content knowledge.

In short, the students with high content knowledge were able to “chunk” the important information together in order to retain it. While the students with low content knowledge needed to focus on every piece of information at the same time and as a result had a more difficult time visualizing and comprehending the content.

A scenario similar to this likely plays out in your classroom everyday. If you are teaching a unit on mass movement (landslides, flooding, etc), students will need to have background knowledge in the rock cycle and the environments you will be applying the new vocabulary too. Those that don’t will find their working memory to be overwhelmed as they will essentially be learning about the rock cycle, environments, and the new vocabulary simultaneously. This will lead to cognitive overload, poor performance, and worse, poor comprehension.

However, students that have strong background knowledge of environments and the rock cycle will likely understand and be able to apply the new vocabulary with much more confidence and accuracy than those without. The reason being, these students can focus on applying the new vocabulary to environments that they are familiar with. They have more background knowledge which reduces their cognitive load, allowing them to focus on learning the new vocabulary.

In order to help my students who have less background knowledge, I try to give concrete examples of the vocabulary and its applications. The concrete examples are easily attainable for most students, and it gives them a reference point of a correct example (a worked problem). The students can then refer back to the concrete example as we apply the vocabulary to new circumstances.

An example of this would be with flooding. I would show a picture/short video of a flood in a place that had many different types of plants after giving students the definition. Then we would talk about how the flood impacted the environment (weathering, erosion, deposition). This example is more concrete because the students can see what is happening even if they are unfamiliar with the environment the flood is happening in. Then, as the class goes on, we will continually refer back to the video, explaining why flood produced those particular results.

This would then be the pattern I would want my students to apply to new situations. Ex: A flood in an environment without many plants (How does not having plants affect the impact a flood has?). The students can check back to their notes to help them apply the vocabulary to a new environment.

Having sufficient subject vocabulary is integral for students to succeed, as it allows for them to focus on the content (what you want students to learn) instead of getting lost in the delivery.



School Climate, Classroom Weather

Every school has its own atmosphere and those at the top set the climate. The administration set the tone for the school and when they create an unstable atmosphere, staff do not know what to expect from one day to the next. This causes a lot of unnecessary stress and the school climate deteriorates.

When there are good headteachers or department heads, they will work to shield their teachers from unnecessary chaos and stress. Often this will involve making unclear or contradictory directives (from admin) clear and consistent. Doing this is difficult.

When busy work and other frustrating (educationally empty) tasks are sent down from above that must be done, good department leaders can clearly communicate where the directives are coming from, “The office says..Administration wants….I am just relaying this message as accurately as I can…” Then, after communicating the message the leader works with teachers to accomplish the task in the most time effective manner possible (because they understand that teaching is important and the whims of administrators are something that must be dealt with). Doing this helps create an environment of trust and respect between the teachers and their immediate superiors.

The chain continues with good teachers. Good teachers will work to shield their students from the chaos sowed by administration. This is done by maintaining a positive approach in the classroom and by focusing on academics, not bringing school politics into the classroom. Students should focus on learning and applying the course content. They don’t need to know how upset the teacher is with certain school policies.

The issue and this is what makes good administration so valuable, is that even with good department heads and good teachers, there is only so much they can do to combat the climate set by administration. Frustrations and stress will show themselves, it is inevitable. And the more perceptive students will pick this up. And then the climate’s atmosphere seeps into the students and their interactions.

However, just like our Earth’s climate, our school’s climate can change! Changing climate is difficult and it takes time. The quickest way would be for administration to have a change of heart, gain competence, or be replaced. But all of this is out of a teacher’s control. We need to focus on what we can control while keeping perspective. We need to keep perspective because we need to be grounded in reality as opposed to idealism or pessimism.

Teachers do not have control over the school climate, but we do have control over our classroom’s weather. We first need to choose to and put in the work to be consistent, positive, and academically focused. Then we can work with other teachers to help them develop the same traits. If enough teachers buy in, the weather will consistently be better, and, with time, the climate may change.

However, fighting the climate is an uphill battle, and there are people who do not like climate change (those who have found success in the system and administration). Be prepared for pushback (“Why would we change this? We have always done it this way.”) and blowback (You could lose your bonus or job if you push too hard. It is very important to be calm and tactful.), two steps forward then three back. Change is messy, but it can often be better than more of the same.

My department head has been invaluable. Hopefully yours is too.