On Teaching High School

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I recently began and ended my high school teaching career. I lasted 1.5 years, from fall 2020 through fall 2021. I’ve worked in higher education most of my professional career. For years, I used to teach college English classes on the side as an adjunct instructor. But this was my first time teaching high school, and it will be my last. I learned a lot in my brief tenure as a high school teacher. I’m no longer surprised that new teachers burn out so quickly, and that fewer and fewer are entering the field.

People often think the kids are the problem. When I tell people I quit teaching, they sometimes tell me they wouldn’t want to deal with “those kids” either. In my experience, the kids were the best part. My students were, by and large, receptive to learning and fun to be around. Many of them were genuinely interesting people. I built a rapport with them, and I truly miss many of them, especially my seniors. They always made me feel welcome. They let me into their lives. And, honesty, I think they took it easy on me.

The main problem with teaching high school isn’t the money, either. You go into teaching knowing the money will be bad. It does need to be better, of course. People entrusted with the education of our children shouldn’t have to work side gigs delivering pizza to make ends meet. Nor should teaching only be the domain of people who don’t need the income. I’ve met some talented teachers who are unconcerned with the money because they’re wealthy or their spouse has a high-paying job. Teachers create value that should be rewarded with more than fuzzy feelings and the satisfaction of a job well done. All that is really nice, until the mortgage payment comes due.

The real problem, as I see it, with education in the the US is the lack of adequate on-the-clock course development and preparation time. The time you spend in front of the students is entirely out of balance with the time you need to spend preparing to be in front of the students. To say the prep time is inadequate is a gross understatement. There’s practically no on-the-clock prep time at all. When I was teaching high school, I taught four different classes each day. Each class was 90 minutes long and met Monday through Friday. In my last semester, the four classes were 9th grade English, 11th grade English, AP Literature (12th graders), and AP Research (also, mostly, 12th graders). That required four different preparations for each class day.

But they give you prep time for that, right? Sure. Each day, I had one hour of prep time. On most Mondays, there’d be a faculty meeting during the first half hour of that prep hour. I was also expected to sponsor two student clubs. That was fun (especially ukulele club), but it ate half of my prep hour for two other days each week. Thus, in a typical week, I’d have between 3.5 and 4 hours to prepare for 30 hours of class time. Even if I’d been guaranteed the entire hour each day, I’d still have had only 15 minutes to prepare for each 90 minute class.

I’m no good at math. Some of you are. You know that 30+5 = 35. What about the other five hours in a 40-hour work week, Wheat? What were you doing then? Well, I had a 30 minute lunch each day. Since I had to monitor students during lunch, it was time on the clock. I wasn’t allowed to leave for lunch. In fact, I had to have the security guard or another instructor cover for me just to go to the restroom, fill my water bottle, or grab something from the fridge in the teacher’s lounge. So, I had a protein bar each day–for a year and a half–and used what was left of the time to prep for my afternoon classes, record grades, and answer emails. Each morning, I was required to arrive 30 minutes before classes started. I used that half hour to set up my laptops, fire up the Smart board, grab some laptops for my students, and chit chat with my first block kids. At the end of the day, I’d burn a bit of my prep hour returning those laptops to the charging station, decompressing, and packing up my own laptops to go home. Some days, I’d get a solid 45 minutes. Other days, far less.

Since there was no real time during the workday to prepare for classes, I did what many teachers do: I spent my own time on it. Prepping in the evenings didn’t work for me. I have a wife and a teenaged son. So, after some experimentation, I found myself getting up each weekday morning at 4:00 AM and working until 6:00 AM. That extra 10 hours a week was barely enough to keep my head above water. But it did help. I actually tried getting up at 3:30 AM a few times, but I couldn’t sustain it.

Two hours a day to prep for four classes, if you spread it equally, is 30 minutes per class. Some days, that was fine. And, in some subjects, it might be fine pretty often. But, in an English class, you’re often preparing to discuss an essay, a book chapter, a short story, or a scene from a play. Thirty minutes is often not adequate to read the material, much less prepare to discuss it. It’s easier for material that you’ve read at some point in the past. It’s easier still for material that you regularly teach. But, even for something you taught just last semester, you still have to reorient yourself in the text. I became quite efficient at using Kindle Cloud Reader to read, highlight, and make notes on the books I was teaching. This was also a great tool for helping me walk through those books with students in class. So it was both a preparation and a presentation tool.

But what if you also need to design some sort of activity? Building a good educational activity or exam is time consuming. On top of that, if the activity is something you’re going to grade, you’ll need time to grade it. Time concerns are why teachers frequently use multiple-choice assessments. Google Forms can grade those automatically, which helps. In my case, you still had to manually enter the grade in the state’s clunky, web-based grade book program. Most of the assessments I created were multiple-choice reading quizzes. Those had their value. They kept the kids on track made make sure they had a basic, factual understanding of what they were reading. They can help you and the students identify gaps in understanding. But, though pedagogically sound, they’re hardly a rich form of engagement.

Everyone in a salaried position expects to work some extra hours sometimes. But, as a high school teacher, I found myself putting in 50 hours a week every week. And even that wasn’t enough to do the job well. Some days were better than others, of course. It occasionally all came together quite nicely. I did a lecture on Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” that got applause. And I did one on Carver’s “Cathedral” that was on par with it. But, a lot of the time, I didn’t feel like I was doing a good job, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. I’d taught college, and I’d been good at it. And college is harder, right? Wrong. Teaching high school kicked my ass. I’d drive Uber before I’d ever do that again.

“But Wheat, those summer’s off are sweet, right?” Kinda. But it’s less “off” than you might think. During the summer before I started teaching, I had to take a two-week course on my own time in order to be qualified to teach AP Literature and AP Research. Still, the rest of that summer was pretty sweet, at least until I got my first paycheck and saw how little it really was. The next summer I, like a lot of teachers, spent most of my time working a second job to make up for how little teaching pays. I know some teachers stick with teaching just for the summers. They grind through ten months in order to enjoy those two. Personally, I don’t think that’s healthy. Quality of life shouldn’t be confined to two months each summer.

There is an unstated expectation that you, as a new teacher, will spend a lot of your time outside of work for the first several years developing the course materials you think you’ll need. Once you’ve gotten your bag together, you can coast, with only minor adjustments, for the rest of your career. In philosophical circles, that’s called a “perverse incentive.” As a survival tactic, I get it. I have strong sense of solidarity with fellow teachers. But it’s not a great idea if you want your teaching to stay relevant.

The main problems with high school education are systemic. Too few people are hired for too little money to do too much work. Increasing teacher pay will attract more people to the field, but it won’t retain them. The same is true of lowering the bar to entering the profession, which is all the rage right now. Fixing the real, underlying time problem would mean cutting teachers’ class loads in half, so they’re actually paid for the course development and preparation they’re doing on their own time. Making that sort of change would cost serious money. Call me a pessimist, but I don’t see America, famous for its anti-intellectualism, rising to that challenge.

Don’t Come At Me, Bro

One of the rhetorical tactics that annoys me most is moving the goalposts. I’m not sure if people include it as a logical fallacy or not, but I’ll add it to my list of “rhetorical fallacies.” It’s a bullshit move, and intellectually honest people avoid it. I was on the receiving end of it recently, on that pretty hate machine, Twitter. I made a post about gun violence, in the wake of the hate crime in Buffalo, New York, where a white, racist coward named Payton Gendron gunned down then people of color at a local Tops grocery store. My post was in support of President Biden, for calling this action by its true names: domestic terrorism and white supremacy. And I contrasted Biden’s behavior with Trump’s infamous comments about the Charlottesville, Virginia, Unite the Right rally, when he said, on August 15, 2017, that there were “very fine people on both sides” in the wake of another racist coward named James Alex Fields, Jr. deliberately drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing one, Heather Heyer, and injuring 35 others.

James, not Jim: Our guy doesn’t have any problem calling #WhiteSupremacy and #DomesticTerrorism out by name. Your guy says there are good people on both sides. That’s one of the many reasons why decent people prefer our guy. #POTUS

Some account I’ve never heard of, with ten followers, no bio, and a misleading username, decided I’d benefit from his commentary and jumped into the comments:

Numberoneliberal: Your guy has a problem calling out black supremacy. Why didn’t Biden go to waukesha? He’s using black people as usual. This is the same guy that didn’t want black children going to school with white children.

His reference is to a domestic terrorist event on November 21, 2021, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, known as the Waukesha Christmas parade attack, in which a black, racist coward named Darrell Edward Brooks, Jr. intentionally drove his SUV into a crowd, killing six people and injuring 62 others. My Twitter interlocutor’s false claim is that Biden–due to his (also false) deep-seated racism–failed to visit Waukesha in the wake of the violence there. This claim, it turns out, is currently a right-wing talking point, being carried by tabloids including The Daily Mail, The New York Post, and Newsweek. Google “waukesha biden” if you’d like a taste; I’ll not link them here.

It’s a lie, of course. Biden did denounced the violence in Waukesha in no uncertain terms the day after it happened. First-lady Dr. Jill Biden visited Waukesha, where she denounced it as well. It’s true that President Biden didn’t visit Waukesha. But the reason he didn’t visit gets left out of the conversation: he was in Kentucky surveying tornado damage following a recent round of devastating storms. The truth is, a lot of bad stuff happens in America every day. The president can hardly be faulted for not being in two places at once.

I informed my interlocutor of these facts, while taking another dig at the former guy:

James, not Jim: He released a statement denouncing it. He didn't endorse violence, like your guy did--repeatedly. That's mostly because he's a decent human being, unlike your guy, who is human garbage.

Incredulous, my interlocutor wanted dates:

Numberoneliberal: When did this happen?

I provided them, along with a Reuters fact check:

James, not Jim: The day after it happened."

And I followed up with the information about Dr. Jill Biden visiting the city and denouncing the violence in person, on behalf of the administration:

James, not Jim: He also sent the first lady, as he was already in Kentucky surveying tornado damage from some recent storms:"

Here’s The Shift

Are you ready? Because here’s where the goalpost shifting happens. Since I’d already addressed the issue at hand, my interlocutor allows to pass without comment the clear evidence that he was wrong when he claimed that Biden failed to address the violence in Waukesha (and the bullshit insinuation that this failure was a sign of Biden’s black supremacist feelings). Instead, he disingenuously pretends his calling for evidence of Biden’s denunciation was actually him calling into question my claim that Trump had ever advocated violence:

Numberoneliberal: I meant when did "my guy" endorse violence?

The only value age and experience offers is that you can see things coming from a long way off. This reply is the set up to a predictable series of rhetorical dodges. There is no amount of evidence of Trump inciting violence which will convince a died-in-the-wood Trumper will ever acknowledge as sufficient. People like Numberoneliberal find shades of meaning in every movement–or lack of it–made by people on the left. But, when their own leaders attempt a violent coup to overthrow a democratically elected president, everything becomes inscrutable. How can we know? What happened before the video started rolling? Shouldn’t we wait until all the facts are in before we rush to judgement? We might call this one the I’ve-been-living-under-a-rock fallacy.

Faced with the setup to this particular chain of obfuscation, I played a rhetorical gambit of my own. But this one, I think, is not a fallacy and is in no way unfair. On the contrary, I consider it a necessary survival tool: the right to end the discussion:

James, not Jim: If that's not plain to you already, there will be no convincing you.

Of course, my friend couldn’t let well enough alone. Having instigated the entire exchange, he decided I needed a good castigating for refusing to continue to waste my time:

Numberoneliberal: Exactly, either come with facts or stick to talking to your liberal buddies.

James, not Jim: I don't owe you anything, man.

My last bit–the conversation continued for a few more exchanges, but they’re not pertinent to the discussion of rhetoric I’m having here–illustrates what I’ve found to be a useful technique. Many right-wingers enjoy trolling. They get a perverse joy in seeing reasonably people waste their time trotting out arguments that they will then ignore, shifting the goalposts to some other minutia. It is a sort of simulacra of reasonable debate. And there’s absolutely no point in being pulled into it. Anyone who doesn’t freely acknowledge that the former guy is a lying, racist grifter and an enemy of democracy is not going to be persuaded by arguments. They are true believers in the MAGA cult. Once you discover this, you’ll only add to your own frustration if you proceed even on step further into their house of mirrors.

Moving from Quiver to Joplin

[Executive summary: Joplin is awesome. If you’ve ever used Notational Velocity, nvALT, Quiver, Simplenote, or any other note-taking app that supports Markdown, give it a try. I think you’ll like it.]

For years now, I’ve kept a lot of useful information–the sort of stuff I used to jot down on a Post-it note and lose–in software fit for the purpose. Lots of people have a Word document or a spreadsheet somewhere, but specialized software does a better job of storing, organizing and–most importantly–finding such things. It’s perplexing that there isn’t even a good name for this category of software. The are, essentially, digital notebooks. But note-taking itself isn’t really the point (or, at least, the entire point). They’re fine for note taking and plans of all sorts. But they’re especially useful for those little bits of information that you need to be able to find later but that don’t seem to fit anywhere else. They are easily searchable repositories for all matter of data you might need in the future, and that you’ll lose otherwise. They are like a well organized attic or file drawer, but one that’s easily searchable.

Quiver

I had been using Quiver, a relatively unknown application from a one-person development team called Happen Apps for years now. But it gave me a scare a few days ago on my 2020 M1 MacBook Pro, which is running macOS Big Sur, 11.4. Many notes were blank, and I wasn’t sure why. Their titles still existed, but the contents of the notes were blank. After the initial shock of it, I had the presence of mind to check the same entires using Quiver installed on my 2017 MacBook Air, which is running the older macOS Catalina, 10.15.7. The notes were still there. I was relieved, but I also realized it was time to move on. Quiver hasn’t been updated in a long while. And the developer isn’t responsive. If this disappearing note thing is a real issue, there’s no telling how long it will take for him to fix it.

Quiver user interface
Quiver, showing a note in Markdown and a preview of the same

Enter Joplin

So I searched for alternatives and found Joplin, which I’d seen and even tried out once in the past. It was the app I recommended to my Windows friends (yes, I have a few) as Quiver is a Mac-only app. I decided that Joplin was the closest thing to Quiver in terms of features and even had some advantages over it, like a truly functional mobile app. That left me with the problem of moving data from the old system to the new one. But that, too, was resoled fairly quickly and didn’t take a tremendous amount of work.

Joplin user interface
Joplin, showing a note in Markdown and a preview of the same

All my Quiver notes were in Markdown format, and I continue to use that format in Joplin. I got into using Markdown for my notes before I adopted Quiver, when I was using nvALT (another Mac-only app, no longer in development) . Markdown is a great language for anyone who has ever done web design, web development, or any sort of programming. The original idea behind Markdown was to create a markup language which was writer friendly and human readable which could be exported to HTML for use on blogs. But it’s grown to be something generally useful for a lot of applications, especial note taking, and it can be exported to many formats, including PDF. Markdown shows up often as a formatting option in a variety of software, including blogging apps, Content Management Systems (CMS) and Learning Management Systems (LMS).

So, what’s good about Joplin? Lots of things.

As you can see from the screenshots above, the interface is very similar to Quiver, so it was an easy jump for me. But, even if you’re coming to it from some other platform–or just getting your feet wet in apps of this sort–the interface is easy to navigate and gives you multiple ways to organize things. As you can see from the pane on the left, I like to organize my life by folders within folders. I have top-level categories for Home, Freelance, Haas (my full-time job) and Upward Bound (my part-time job). [As of 12/20/2021, I have a new full-time job.] I mostly navigate things this way, but, for things that cut across folders, I take advantage of the tagging feature, which is near the bottom of that left-hand navigation menu. I have a tag called “starred” that I use for things I consider super-important, as it lets me pull all of them into view with a single click. How you arrange is up to you. you can put everything in one folder and use tags to navigate, you can use folders and ignore tags entirely, or you can blend the two, as I do.

Joplin is open source software, and the project itself is quite active. Checking the Joplin project on GitHub, I can see there was a desktop release six hours ago. For me, having moved my notes archives to what is now their third home, picking an active open source solution means it’s not as likely to go dormant, as nvALT did and Quiver apparently has.

The biggest improvement is that Joplin is cross platform. While I’m not likely to abandon macOS for Windows, it’s nice to know I could and to be able to recommend this software to Windows people. But, for me, the real cross-platform value is that there’s a fully-functional iOS version of Joplin. Quiver had a read-only app. nvALT didn’t have a mobile option at all.

I could go on, but I won’t

If you need a trusted system for storing all manner of notes and data, Joplin is your friend. If you use Dropbox OneDrive, or WebDAV, you can easily sync your data to the cloud. If don’t use any of those, Joplin has its own cloud service, Joplin Cloud, which is one of the ways they make money on the free apps.

Ukulele ii-V-I in C

I had this progression and rhythm floating around in my head this morning and thought it would make a nice lesson for my next ukulele student. But, just for fun, I’m sharing it with you as well. I hope you enjoy it. It uses three chords from the key of C major: the ii (Dm), the V (G), and the I (C):

Here in WordPress, I’m using the OpenSheetMusicDisplay plugin to display a MusicXML file exported from Guitar Pro. Let me know if you have any issues seeing it. This is my first time trying out this way of doing it.

ii-V-I in C (Guitar Pro export)

Featured image photo by Sigmund on Unsplash.