Friday, November 21, 2014

Year 5: Week 12 - Why Taft?

For the past four years I’ve went for a four day/three night retreat with my fifth graders to the NIU Lorado Taft Field Campus. This is an outdoor education facility. After my first trip, I reflected on my first campfire.  After my second year, I wrote about raising spirits during a particularly rainy day at Taft with some Lady Gaga.  The year after that I discussed the “teacher marathon” aspect of the trip and how you needed to be on for 24 hours a day.  And last year I talked about finally figuring out how to manage groups of boys in a cabin. 

What’s my takeaway from this year?  We could get away with doing a lot less on this trip.

If we wanted to, at Lorado Taft we could simply be chaperones. They have a staff there that is trained to lead a wide variety of activities. Instead of sitting back and watching other people work with our kids, for the majority of the activities, we are actively teaching our own kids.

Why? Because we feel it is best for the kids. Over many years, we have developed a curriculum that integrates the classroom experience with the trip. The best way we have found to make sure that the experience at Taft is meaningful and builds off our work in the classroom is by taking time to teach our own kids during the trip.

Here’s the thing. We don’t get paid more to put in this extra effort. But over and over, I saw my fellow teachers at Taft going beyond any administrative expectations or board approved curriculum in an effort to make this trip a meaningful experience for our students.

What kind of person pushes himself or herself to work to a standard of excellence without any hope of monetary award?

Great teachers.

There’s this idea that if we can quantify students’ achievement, than we can provide financial incentives for great teachers. A teacher who produces higher test scores like a car salesmen who sales the most cars, should get a bonus.  This seems logical enough.

Without getting into the absurdity of measuring student and teacher effectiveness and success quantifiably with tests, this idea is fundamentally flawed and goes against what makes some of the greatest teachers in America so amazing.

The teachers I spent the past week all have salaries based on our union-negotiated pay scales. There’s no resentment or competition amongst the teachers based on bonuses and raises. There is not a lot of space for upward mobility. Yes, there are committees and department chairs but that’s about it. My school also has a tenure system, which doesn’t guarantee employment but places a high level of confidence in job security.

With all of these factors wouldn’t people become complacent and allow mediocrity to settle in?

While there are a lot of people for whom without financial motivation would not work hard, there are also other people who because of a sense of responsibility and a passion to help other people live fuller lives, find deep within themselves a reason to push themselves to great heights.

It’s in schools that you can find these people every day.

Taft bring out the best in my fellow teachers.  This desire to do the best for our students is an instinct with these professionals and it's amazing and inspiring to work with such amazing teachers.

There's a lot of great things about Taft but it all starts with the great teachers of the past who developed this trip and current teachers who for the love of education and teaching come back with me to this special place year after year.


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