Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Friday, March 30, 2018

Time Is My Enemy

Last time I didn't give people a heads up and in retrospect, I feel that wasn't the right way to go about things. I only have enough money in the till to keep recording and posting city council meetings for about another month and a half.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Sunday, March 18, 2018

So You Want To Be A Teacher

So a family member who I haven't seen in a while has told me they're going back to school to become a teacher. And I have thoughts. My experience as a sub has pretty much soured me on the idea of kids, teaching and all of it but WE NEED TEACHERS and I didn't want to be a buzzkill.

This person is an adult past college age and has lived a life and even worked in positions that involved kids so if they want to do this I have faith they can and even should. Let me repeat. WE NEED TEACHERS!

So let's pretend I didn't fall completely out of love with teaching and give in to my advisory role.


First off before I get to the other stuff I also want to acknowledge that I'm kind of jumping the gun This person needs to get a degree and certification.  Again I have faith in this person but personal experience tells me the transition to college life is difficult.  It's been so long since I've been in college I don't know if I should give out free advice on the subject but I will.

I am jealous of college students because even 10 years ago there just were not the digital tools available today. Evernote didn't exist. Youtube was just getting off the ground. Smartphones were just coming around and were super expensive. There is so much I would do differently if I could do it now instead of then.

I don't have enough knowledge about the subject matter this person wants to teach or the University itself to give much other advice so I'll give that advice. Learn about the school and learn about your professors. For better or worse I didn't take professors much into account when choosing classes. "I needed x course and these were the sections available that fit my schedule" That was a mistake.

For the longest time the most difficult classes I were taking in my academic career were the classes where I learned the most but every now and again there would be a course that was hard AND I wasn't really learning much. Almost everything I read up until that point about school and there are some good books, stress never to blame the professor if you do poorly in a class.

That is horrible advice. I understand it. Going up to someone and telling them, "You are bad at your job" is one of the easiest ways to get them to dislike you and you need your professors to like you.  But sometimes you will get stuck with a poor professor and you need to be able to recognize that and on occasion even avoid it. "Koofers" "Rate My Professors" and "College Confidential" are really good websites for this given you keep a few things in mind.

Ignore the ratings themselves and look at the comments. Different students prioritize different things. Some students are taking a course to fill out their schedules and think it should be an easier course than it is. Others will get mad if they feel a professor isn't adequately preparing them for the industry. Read the comments.

A brief aside: something to keep in mind is that some courses will be designed for majors and some for non-majors. That is important information to know.

Also, to be fair to profs, there are some very good reasons why they may be bad at teaching students. It may not be their primary job, especially in STEM fields at research universities. That being said it is useful to jump in with your eyes wide open. They may have been tapped to teach lower level material that they themselves may not have engaged with in a while.

Take it as my first advice on actually teaching, almost every subject being taught to a student simplifies or even ignores complexity and edge cases. And if you are somebody who HAS to be aware of them ignoring them can be a hard mental hurdle to jump.

Beyond avoiding bad professors, you also want to be on the lookout for really good professors. I barely scraped through my college years and I honestly do think that the difference between me graduating and not is I had a lot of good professors at exactly the right times offering encouragement or opportunities to gain insight outside of class.

One of the reasons why I stuck J-school out is because MSU had a lot of good journalism professors who were willing to interact with students outside of class, even willing to be pulled for interviews on stories.

Teaching Requirements
Different places and even subjects have different teaching requirements. Be aware of those as you are going through a teaching program.

Opportunities Before Graduation
I am actually opposed to people without certification "teaching" (Note the first paragraph.) but the State of Michigan is in the middle of an education crisis. Right now there are lots of opportunities to get your feet wet. This person has already made clear that ultimately they probably won't be sticking around in the state permanently but they will get their degree here. If they want to gain experience outside of an educa.. you know what I mean they can.

 After about college 90 credits or about 2 years, they could sub. I do not recommend substitute teaching unless you are serious about going into the profession. The pay is too low and stress is too high for that job to function as a job. It helps to think of it as an industry-specific paid internship. (Isn't that what student teaching is for.)

Also, schools are desperate for teachers right now so they have crazy bonuses for people who may commit to getting those things and sticking with the school.

Let me repeat. THESE ARE THINGS I THINK ARE MAKING THE EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM WORSE!  I quit subbing for lots of reasons but the worst was the feeling (I don't have data) there were more long-term substitutes than certified teachers.

Happy Miles. Positive Miles.

Next even early on it might be a good idea to show up at the local school board meetings. It's free and open to the public. Anybody can go.

The school board essentially acts as the boss of your of your boss and understanding their logic is extremely useful even if it's not the specific school board of the district you end up teaching.

Fun fact my middle science teacher for a while ended up as the superintendent of the District. Having a broader view of how the system works is useful.

Charters vs Public Schools

It's political and I have my opinion.  (One of the charter schools I subbed at is in the middle of a huge lawsuit that may or may not go to the Supreme Court, another cheated teachers out of paychecks,  and another was headed by a scam artist. See the first paragraph!)

Happy Miles. Positive Miles.

But even so in this day and age if you are going into education you need to at least know charter schools are a thing. Right now about half the kids in Detroit aren't being taught in traditional public education and love it or hate it you can't pretend it's not a thing, especially considering the charters have lower starting requirements.

Regardless of whether or not you prefer to teach public school, there is a very good chance that your first job will be teaching in a charter school.

Team Work

In a school, you can not cowboy out. There are too many moving parts. It is really really easy to screw up somebody else's job even without realizing it. I repeat do not cowboy out. Even as a sub there was too much for one person to do in managing a single class. You need all the help you can get.

Students (A primer on classroom managment) 

As a student, the worst experience I have had by far in a classroom was in a class where the students were in open mutiny against the teacher. They hated her, she hated them.

To quote some famous guy. If you have to choose it's better to be feared than loved but never be hated.

The reason why this case sticks out to me is that these were kids who wanted to learn. It was an AP class and most of these students were acutely aware that doing well on the AP exams could save them hundreds maybe even thousands of dollars. And that money may be the difference between going to the school they want and not even if they were already accepted.

And they were hitting brick walls.

As a sub one of my goals was to avoid that situation, where it's not just kids getting off task, or getting a little lazy, or a little rowdy but where they openly want you fired.

And I have sympathy for the teacher. She wasn't originally supposed to be teaching the course. There was a beloved physics teacher (he was great at his job) who's wife got another job in another place and he decided to go with her, and the district struggled to find somebody else to teach AP physics and in desperation went to the department head... who was a better department head than a teacher.

You'll notice this happens a lot if you go to school board meetings. The parents and students want something to happen and the administration just can't find or keep a teacher for a certain course or activity and it either has to go away or they have to make due.

Anyway. Recognize when a mutiny is happening and cut it off. Regardless of age or size if 25 people disagree with you they and are absolutely obstinate probably will have their way whether you like it or not.   I don't know the best way to do that but a way is to it designate a first mate. You need to be subtle about it. because being a teacher's pet is an easy way to get the other kids to hate them and everybody knows this. But having another student or two who can advocate for you to the rest of the class in their terms is extremely useful and can help you know when you need to bend a little before order completely breaks down.

Almost every teacher is going to hear about "classroom" management. That's my starting advice. I was horrible at classroom management. Kids do not respect substitute teachers. There are lots of "good" reasons for this. But one of the few things that did work was to actually let the kids have what they wanted. They aren't dumb and especially if the (practical) negative consequences are short-term and immediate they'll get it.

For instance, teachers would tell me they hate noise in the halls so I would have a rule that the kids couldn't leave the room for lunch or recess until it was quiet. If they were late they had themselves to blame and a lot of them got that and understood it and would actively try to help me get the line quiet.  I had a rule that kids could only go out to the bathroom one at a time. If one kid held up the rest of the class by basically skipping they only had themselves to blame and the rest of the class would enforce the rules for me ideally (though not always) making my job easier.

How involved parents are in their student's school lives is going to vary. You may have parents who literally sit in on classes and you may have parents that are nowhere to be seen but in either case, they will be a factor. Even early on I was mostly just trying to collect a paycheck so I was horrible at interacting with parents after hours but sometimes it would come up.

Be cognizant that their interest in you is their kid. People go a little crazy over their kids. It can be annoying but expect it. Moreover. Good involved parents are invaluable. The reason why kids don't respect subs is that they know it takes a lot of work on my end that I may or may not want to do in order to hold them responsible for their actions. I may be there for one day. I don't know anybody's name. And most of all they may never see me again in their lives. And I get this. I understand this. It is what takes the social pressure off me whenever I feel like I am in danger of being a robot.  It's not always a bad thing. But it did make my life hell for a while. You know who they will see, who they have to deal with? Thier parents.

Other Teachers

I have different thoughts about different times in my academic career but in terms of how the system was set up, I actually like middle school the best. See in middle school they sort of did this thing where they sorted all the kids into a sort of "house" for lack of a better word. The kids had mostly the same schedules with the exception of electives, with most of the same teachers. and that fact let the teachers work with each other behind the scenes.

For instance, the math and science teachers could say, that a big project was actually for both classes and act accordingly letting the students work on big complicated projects in both classes with both experience pools to draw on. I really like that idea because of no matter how you slice it the kids outnumber you.

Even when they are on their best behavior there are going to be situations that demand you be in two places at once. For instance, when I was subbing I was under instructions to NEVER leave the kids by themselves. But there was one student who had to use crutches and just couldn't keep up with everybody else and so another teacher was fine watching the class for the five minutes or so I could watch this kid who had to move up a level in the school (I don't remember if it was stairs or an elevator).

And dear god bathrooms. When I first started subbing I would get all of these reports that kids were horsing around in bathrooms but bathrooms are segregated by gender. It was incredibly useful to coordinate bathroom time with a female teacher so I don't have my logic circuits shorted anytime there is a situation that demanded an adult in the girls bathroom.

Non-Administrative Staff (Be nice to the custodian)

While I complain about how crappy people (especially in this state) treat teachers, they treat the other staff in school worse. And we need these people. Be nice. Try not to make their jobs any harder than they have to be.

The worst of it a cleaning staff. When I was subbing my model for how I wanted to run a class were my teachers. And the biggest hurdle to that is the kids would destroy the room where it was almost unrecognizable as a classroom.  Most of my prep hour went to just cleaning the room. I have a profound respect for the cleaning staff in the school. They can be the difference between a school physically being a school and it not.

These guys are underpaid and have to manage the entire building. Ideally they should be able to get away with cleaning each classroom once a week.  These kids could destroy a class in an hour.  (And every time they did I died a little inside.)

Furthermore, I was a contractor to a subbing company and they didn't really train me. Like I said I suck at classroom management. But a lot of these guys knew the school, knew the teachers, and knew the kids and occasionally even knew the parents.

I may have felt like I was eaten alive but without the cafeteria personnel and the custodians and the paraprofessionals, I would have had a nervous breakdown.

They could tell me when a kid was lying or not and that was incredibly valuable to me.

Office Staff
Information makes or breaks me and generally speaking the folks behind the office desk are the most knowledgeable about how the school actually runs. Whose in charge? What does the schedule look like? What does the calender look like? How do you get supplies? Where are the copy machines? Did anybody not come in today? Are there any parents running around?

They know this stuff.

... And as a result, they are incredibly busy. If you piss them off they can make your life hell but if they like you dear god do they make the trains run on time.

Department Heads
I don't really know what they do.  I know they do something. A lot of my teachers over the years doubled as department heads. But I never got entrenched enough in the system that I got a first-hand look at what they do.

The District Board and Administration
One of the most direct ways parents have of holding schools accountable is electing the school board. They can literally fire the people in charge of the schools if they want. Which is amazing to me. Ain't democracy grand.  My view of what both the superintendent and the rest of the administration do is execute the desires of the school board and by extension the parents.

Moreover, the board and administration are responsible for the allocation of resources, which is important.

Classroom Management 

As stated I was horrible at it.  There are some good books out there but I haven't really read them well enough to recommend them. Just know that if you are struggling there is help out there for you.

A Word on Curriculum and Supplemental Materials

So again I'm speaking as a sub, not a regular teacher. I was never in charge of curriculum unless something bad had happened. And most teachers aren't. That's not exactly right. Teachers can craft lesson plans but teachers don't have the absolute control over curriculum most people think they do for a lot of reasons. 

The most obvious reason is standardized tests. All sorts of things are tied to them some of which are by law, such as funding or closure of a school so teachers often "teach to the test.  It gets even weirder in high schools where students take tests that aren't mandatory but can still have huge consequences. Remember my AP example. 

Beyond that there is money, supplemental materials cost money and teacher salaries are crap. For instance, it is very hard for an English teacher to get a classroom set.   30 books X 10 dollars per book = $300 That is a significant amount of money. 

Next of course is the pacing of the class. Teachers have some leeway of "okay I think you guys need an extra week on this subject"  But teachers get excited by the subject matter. they want to expose kids to lots of books or ideas or whatever and time is finite especially with those tests looming over. Textbooks are generally paced better than making things up on the fly, though that is one of the things that comes with experience. 

Experienced teachers are better at figuring how long it's going to take the class to "get" something.  

Regardless teachers out of necessity rely on the materials the school board approves. Those materials set the template of the curriculum. And the state and district school boards have a lot of control over textbooks. 

Also, most schools require the principal approve lesson plans allowing them to veto stuff.  

P.S. Even if you are a male teacher it will be useful for you to take a female sex-ed class if you teach middle or high school. There were a few situations where stuff was happening and I didn't know because as a guy never needed to know and the students were not going to tell me. And I made a situation a lot more embarrassing than it had to be.

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Medium Is the Message

So I went to a journalism panel. I liked it, but walking in one of the things I was afraid of was that the panel was going to bash the internet, and for the most part, they didn't but I still think it's worth talking about.

See I graduated from MSU J-school in 2010 and the overall conversation regarding journalism back then was "Oh dear lord the internet is going to eat us!"

It feels like journalists have moved on from that line of thought but with the proliferation of fake news I have this fear that the journalistic establishment will backslide, and for obvious reasons, that's bad for me. I've pretty much spent the last 7 years of my life trying to prove David Simon wrong. There are times when doubt the wisdom of that choice.

But as a guy who uses his computer as a second brain, I disliked how the internet was viewed as an inherently negative force. Good journalism is good journalism and bad journalism is bad journalism regardless of how its delivered to its audience.

I don't know how much I deserve credibility but I want to be judged on the merits of the work rather than the medium by which I choose to communicate.

That is not to say I don't have problems with internet media. I suck at marketing and advertising and even if I didn't CPM is horrible.

But beyond that what I feel was left unsaid 10 years ago is the medium is the message. That a lot of what distinguishes internet content from say film or television developed because of technological and production limitations; the run time of videos, jump cuts. Even the content itself is shaped by the fact that a huge chunk of the audience will be interacting with it not on its original page but on their Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Pursuing the News in the Era of Social Media, Divisive Politics and Declining Revenues

A Journalism Panel Held at the Southfield Public Library on March 7, 2018

Moderator: Maureen McDonald


  • Eddie Allen
  • Matt Roush
  • Jennifer Cherry Foster
  • Ed Garsten

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