Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sabbatical Encounters Part 1: Milan Aboard

While I was on sabbatical I had a number of random discussions with people about education. Educators, parents, business folk, and many students... folks from late retirement age to youngsters in elementary school. Here's the first of these stories I'll post through the rest of the year.

Milan Centrale
Milan aboard

I stood there looking at the departure board in Milan Centrale train station and put the pieces together. Rush to get a ticket, make way to the far end of the station to train I wanted to catch to Milan Malpensa Airport... in 15 minutes... or wait another hour for the next train.

I was tired, just off a consuming trip to the Winter Institute in Reggio Emilia. I still wasn't sleeping well... still perplexed about the new developments in my job back home. I figured that sitting in the station and towing a small suitcase around or sitting in a coffee shop in the station didn't sound like much fun at all.

15 minutes to grab a ticket a floor below and catch the train... engage.

I stepped on the train to the Malpensa Airport with a minute to spare. As the doors were about to close another couple stepped on towing multiple bags, laughing and talking in classic NY, USA accent. They stowed their load of stuff and sat across the isle a few seats ahead of me.

When the fellow gave me one of those welcome nods I bit and asked where they were from. Sure enough, New York.

I told them I was a teacher from Vermont on sabbatical checking out innovation in many schools in Europe, Canada, and the United States. They laughed. They were both teachers in NY.

I asked them about their jobs in education... and the following poured out like a dam bursting.

The fellow, a social studies teacher of 22 years was, for lack of a better way to describe it, pretty excited to retire.

He described the school he worked at for his whole career as a shell of it's former self. He described he'd been asked to teach math over the last few years because his administrator deemed him capable and voiced concerns that his social studies classes were "much more popular than some others in the department." The decision was made to eliminate the 'popular class and teacher,' and move that teacher to the math dept... to teach a subject he had no interest in teaching. Last year he'd been asked to take on an Earth Science class due to staffing issues, something he'd never taught before.

I asked why his social studies classes were so popular, hoping for a good explanation. I got a good one.

The glimmer in this fellows eyes and excitement overflowed as he described his social studies days... how he tied relevant current events into studies of the past. His courses then were explorations of moral and ethical and community connections rather than memorization and regurgitation trials of events. Project nights, community debates, you name it. Pretty impressive stuff by the sounds of it. The glimmer in his eyes disappeared and his posture changed when he spoke of his trials in math and science, especially the latter. "I'm learning day to day, just before the students," he said. "I've never taught science before. It's our new school motto for teachers. Anyone with multiple certifications, and many who don't like myself, are being asked to fill in to teach classes due to staffing reductions."

A asked why he felt the school had taken such a turn. "It's a number of things," he said. "State mandates, the school district budgets, and the school leadership. Out principal is basically ineffective.  We don't do anything innovative. It's pretty much business as usual. He also hired one of his own close friends into the assistant principal role about five years ago. He's a nice enough guy, but he shouldn't be an administrator. He's very disorganized and pretty ineffective at coordinating school discipline and systems. It was getting bad before, but that's when things really went down hill. The schools new high flying agenda," he said, "is to increase our test scores. Budgets are falling, the school facilities are crumbling around us, and morale is at an all time low."

"My story is nothing though, compared to hers," he said pointing at his wife.

She was an elementary school teacher, and like her husband, very much ready to retire after 25 years.

She described that her school had recently hired it's third principal in five years. The latest, like the others, had completely different agendas that their predecessors and had embarked on a paperwork producing palooza. "We have committees to discuss making committees," she said. "We churn ideas and brainstorm but nothing ever gets accomplished. Most people, the good ones, don't volunteer for committees anymore because we never get anything done."

She went on to explain the new principal had pushed the school into it's third curriculum overhaul in five years. "The paperwork had been turned in and like the others, no followup, no meetings, no discussions, no rationale why all the work had been done. No feedback. no discussion, no professional expectations. It's just busy work." I described this as "another binder on the shelf syndrome," and both nodded, smiled and shook their heads in agreement.

I listened for about 30 minutes as their stories flowed out about crumbling facilities, leaky pipes and windows, buying their own space heaters for their classrooms in the Winter, moldy air filters, aging and heavily restricted computers, increased enrollment, decreases in support staff, dramatic increases in standardized testing initiatives and State curriculum mandates, and reduction in services for families in need. "It's worked it's way into extra-curricular activities" the fellow described. He coached and described steady increases in costs for students to participate in extra-curricular programs and demands on his time to fundraise to keep the program going and get the facilities in good shape.

I then asked how they were going to stay healthy. "Trips to Italy help," the woman said and we all laughed again and agreed.

I asked if they'd ever thought of going into administration.

"I don't want to get into administration at this point in my career, the fellow said, and his wife shook her head and said "no way. Too many headaches." He continued. "I actually have an administrators license I just never wanted to go that route. I love teaching kids. At least I did in social studies. I struggle day-to-day teaching science. I don't love it, I don't feel I'm good at it. But after my second year now, I'm getting better at it. It's painful," as his face cringed and he had a long look at the floor, "to watch my old department shift toward memorization and testing though. Very painful. Don't get me wrong, I love having a job. It's just... not like it used to be."

She described the path she had ahead in five years to retirement as "close the door and teach the best I can with what I have." she said. "My supply budgets have been cut again so this year I'll spend more than $2500 of my own money for the classroom. He and I," pointing at her husband, "disagree on how much I'm spending out of our pocket." He rolled his eyes and nodded, and she elbowed him in the arm.

As the conversation moved along... I noticed a young lady leaning on the headrest of the seat in front of her and taking in our conversation, peering over the fence style, and her eyes were wide. I said hello and she immediately moved up to the seat just behind the couple from NY. "This is crazy luck," she said. She, it turns out, was from the US and just finishing up a college teaching fellowship in Italy and on her way back to Washington DC.

I asked the young lady about her work teaching program in school. "The place where I did my student teaching in the US was more like a prison," she said. "Armed guards, metal detectors, doors shut, loud speakers blaring, horrible food. It was pretty scary. So I took a teaching fellowship abroad to see what else was out there."

I asked about the schools in Italy she'd seen so far. She was teaching in a high school. "They're pretty nice, and pretty old" she said. "It's a pretty traditional setup where I was teaching. Students are asked to memorize a lot. Desks in rows and all facing the front. Mostly students were pretty bored with what they're asked to do. I was asked to teach pretty traditional stuff, pretty traditional curriculum and in a (quoting her fingers) 'stand and deliver' fashion. The kids were bored and are pretty disrespectful. I'm glad it's over actually."

She looked blankly for a moment... I'm going to miss Italy though, especially the food." We all laughed. Then she paused... "I can't believe I'm in this train with you guys and you're all talking about this. I've been pretty stressed about all this over the last few months."

We all sort of sat there for a minute silently... and I asked them if they'd be interested in opening a new school, counter to all those things they described. We all had a good laugh and it broke up the therapy session.

I asked if they'd mind if I wrote all this down into a story to share on my blog at some point. They all agreed, but wished to remain anonymous. Of course, I agreed.

The young lady spoke up again and asked me. "So, you're on sabbatical to look at innovative schools? I still love teaching," she said. "It's what I've wanted to do for a long time," but I just have to find the right school. Can you send me a list of places you're visiting? I want to find a place that's doing something innovative."

The fellow spoke up. "Don't make the mistake I did. Be willing to move around when things change for the worse," he said, and his wife nodded. "I wished I had moved to another school earlier. It's tough to find a place now willing to hire me at my age. Don't wish you did. Do it. Sometimes you can't correct things. You have to be willing to move on. School philosophies change. Administrators come and go. Some of those folks are great and you'll love your job and some just shouldn't be in education at all. Find a place you can be creative and where you're work is appreciated, somewhere you can take risk and do innovative things."

"Good advice" I said.

The young lady stared at him for a bit. "I need to find those places." She asked me again if I'd share my list of innovative schools I was visiting. I agreed and she gave me her email address.

As our train ride came to a close, I told them I had to confess... how I'd actually gone to great lengths to plan this meeting... and we all had a good laugh.

"This was incredible," the young lady said. "I was, honestly, pretty discouraged about heading back and struggling to find a place I wanted to teach. Hopefully," she told me, "you can help me. Don't forget to send that list to me." She gave us all hefty hugs, wished us safe travels, and whisked off to catch her next flight.

The couple from NY and I stood there for a bit and exchanged contact info. I wished them luck, and many more trips to Italy. "Remember, don't use our names," the fellow said, "but tell our story. I'm looking forward to reading it and about your other travels," and they headed off to their own flight.

I stood there and watched them walk away and let that whole train ride discussion soak in.

Over two hours that night I ate dinner, sipped my way through a bottle of wine and wrote down these notes about four American educators, who randomly caught a train from Milan Centrale to the Malpensa airport, at the same time, on the same car.

I received an email from the young lady this last Fall that she landed a job at a school I recommended, and had glowing reports about the work she was doing with kids and the community.

So... what's your story you'd tell someone on a train?

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