Continuing Education

Perfecting your craft as an educator is an ongoing part of the teaching profession. This involves on the job experience in the classroom as well as supplemental courses and training. Earning a clear teaching credential usually includes additional coursework to augment the preliminary certification granted at the college or university level. After you secure your first regular teaching position, you are expected to keep up with the rigors of the job by enrolling in workshops and classes in order to improve your knowledge and performance.

Most of this continuing education will take the form of campus or district in-services on new technology, educational theory and practice, guest consultants, or training in new skills and procedures. Whether you are working with college prep kids, honors students, English learners, special needs children, or all of the above, you will need to stay current with the latest trends in meeting the needs of the young people you have in class. Your school and district will let you know of the requirements and opportunities presented to you as an employee.

Beyond your school, however, lie many other venues for continuing education. If you do not already possess an advanced degree, returning to graduate school will bolster both your confidence and competence. Most districts also place you higher on the salary scale when you earn additional credits or diplomas. Check your district’s compensation guidelines and remember to submit the proper paperwork and certifications to your district office.

Secondary level social science teachers are wise to pursue a Master’s degree in their chosen field. Graduate level work in history, psychology, sociology, political science, ethnic studies, women’s studies, regional or cultural studies, philosophy, religious studies, anthropology, archaeology, geography, economics, public policy, museum curation, or even business will strengthen your curriculum and your standing with your district, administrators, colleagues, students, and their families. Choose the program that best answers your needs and inspires your passion as a teacher.

You may also choose to earn a Master’s degree in the field of education. Most colleges that offer teacher credential programs also have these kinds of programs specially designed for teachers. This kind of training will help you in curriculum design, dealing with classroom management and discipline issues, interacting with students and their families, and helping those with special needs. If you are eventually interested in working as a school administrator, a Master’s or doctoral degree in education might be the best way to go.

Special weekend events are offered all year to add specialized training to the arsenal of teaching skills. I attended a CUE (Computer-Using Educators) Conference in Palm Springs, California in the spring of 2010 with my colleagues in the Digital Arts and Humanities Program and garnered many new ideas for multimedia and interdisciplinary learning. I also participated in many other staff retreats and seminars over the years that were held off campus and provided an entire weekend to build teamwork and competency in new areas. Take advantage of all these events and attend as many as you can.

Reading is another important part of continuing education. Visit the education section of your local bookstore or online sellers. Follow educational sites on social media and subscribe to teaching periodicals. Sign up for training in the latest software for use in schools. Ask your colleagues for help with new technology and ideas. Spend time visiting and observing other teachers at your school. Be an early adopter of new grading programs. Try to move away from paper and embrace digital classrooms and curricula.

Whatever you do, stay current in your craft. The world of technology changes at an astronomical rate, and your students will have the latest gadgets and programs. Keep up with them as best you can. Incorporate software programs into your teaching. Read the latest books on teaching. Follow the advice and guidance of your administrators. Seek out your colleagues in other departments as well as your own who know more.

As in the business world, international diplomacy, and the garden in your own yard, whatever does not grow will wither. Do what you can to grow as a teacher. Both you and your students will benefit from your efforts.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Teaching as Art

Teaching credential programs generally include courses on topics such as educational theory, child psychology, language acquisition, and curriculum development. Some also focus on the use of technology in education, classroom management, and working with English learners and special needs children. The science of education has undergone great advances in the last several decades, and these developments have been incorporated into teacher training programs.

What cannot be taught in an academic program, however, is the art of teaching. Each educator must develop her or his own personal style in the real life laboratory of the classroom. This task is organic and evolves over time. It must be refined in every new teaching setting. Your distinct personality shapes how you teach, and your students will remember you more than they will your subject. Embracing your own way of teaching is key to creating a successful learning environment.

I participated in a lot of theatrical productions as a kid, so my teaching style naturally included role play, mimicry, costuming, and music. As a visual artist, I also spent a lot of time decorating my classroom board and walls with the calligraphy, artwork, posters, and photographs that I thought would capture the interest of my students. Engagement in the material is vital in learning the detail-heavy social science curriculum. To this end, I tried to enliven the human element of historical narrative and the contemporary relevance of political and economic theory.

Draw on your hobbies and life experiences to enliven your subject. My high school math teacher was with Patton at the Battle of the Bulge and used to regale us with World War II stories to illustrate and explain equations. My chemistry teacher was an avid amateur geologist and shared his rock collection and slideshows of national parks with us. My government teacher was fond of wordplay and employed literary witticisms to entertain as well as educate. Whatever you have done or like to do can be included in some way: sports, fishing, travel, fashion, organizations, the arts, or other careers you have pursued. Use your imagination in coming up with creative instruction.

Even your classroom rules and the way you enforce them can be creative. In my first school I developed a three-strike system which I called “hammer time” and devoted a section of the front board to its artistic representation. Many of the students found this amusing, but the clear boundaries also kept them in line and discouraged disruptions. I created a similar infrastructure at my next school under a different name. In my last school, one of my students found my aphorisms so engaging that he created a meme around my treatment of cell phones in class (see image below).

Teaching involves many artistic endeavors. There is the art of diplomacy when dealing with parents, students, colleagues, and administrators. Achieving a balance between listening and initiative is an essential element of the profession, but one which is unique to each individual teacher. Then there is the issue of classroom setup and decor. The visual aids you decide to hand on your walls, the way you arrange your desks, and the supplies you make available all reflect your personality. Celebrate yourself in the way you educate.

Of course, teaching is about the kids. But the kids depend on you to teach them in a memorable way. The impression you make upon them as a person will color the extent to which they understand and like your subject. This is particularly true with college preparatory and special needs children. These are students who struggle with academic tasks for a variety of reasons, and anything you can do to help them move forward is important. Honors students enjoy an engaged teacher as well, even if they already like your subject as they enter your class. Give whatever you have to offer. In your class, that is more than enough.

Graphic design created in 2011 by student artist Juan Romero.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Social Media

The internet has irrevocably changed the nature of human interaction. The worldwide web was born out of our innate need to connect with one another on a global scale. I can remember the first “bulletin boards” that allowed for messaging between personal computers in the early 1990s. These were followed by the early websites and online networks with their simplistic graphics, accessed by burdensome dial-up servers. Then came high speed digital subscriber lines, more complex code and programming, and finally social media sites.

As someone from the tail end of the Baby Boom generation, I watched the development and dissemination of the internet with incredulity and awe. I grew up interacting with faraway people only through corded telephones, handwritten letters, or traveling in person. Information was stored in libraries or spread through newspapers, magazines, books, radio, or the four channels on television at the time: ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS. Photographs were taken with hand held cameras and rolls of film processed in darkrooms. Computers were gigantic and inaccessible and controlled by the government and big corporations. Many still used paper punch cards to process data.

After witnessing the advent of personal computers, cellular phones, digital cameras, satellite communication, microwave ovens, and cable television as a young man in the 80s and 90s, I was even more amazed by the internet revolution that inaugurated the new millennium. Seemingly overnight, the library, the newspaper, the magazines, the television programs, and all my personal accounts were all available on a single screen in the privacy of my own home. Email and messaging soon replaced letters and cards. Paper became obsolete. I thought I had seen everything computers could do.

Then came social media. When Facebook was first introduced fifteen years ago, its users were almost exclusively college students. One by one, campuses across the country and the world signed on to create their own Facebook networks. By the time other sites such as Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram allowed for more specialized interaction, children and adults of all ages had become regular users of most social media platforms. LinkedIn developed as a network for professionals. Poshmark and Etsy provided online marketplaces. Products and goods of all kinds could be sold on Amazon and auctioned on eBay. The economy and society were forever transformed.

As an educator, I soon began seeing opportunities to expand my curriculum and enrich my lesson plans through the use of social media. I had been teaching for six years when Facebook appeared. Three years later, I signed up to join a group for those of us portraying artists and correspondents from the American Civil War period for community and school presentations. I created a profile and posted a few things in the group. It was indeed fascinating to have such a user friendly format with which to connect with people who shared my interests. I started looking for new ideas to use in the classroom.

Over time, I discovered the educational value of social media platforms. I began joining pages for news networks, documentary films, historical documents and photographs, cable television programs, investigative journalism, civil rights and government organizations, and research groups. The Library of Congress, National Archives, the New York and Boston Public Libraries, National Public Radio, the National Park Service, the BBC, and The History Channel were among the many users who were posting cool stories, pictures, and quotes I could use in the classroom.

With new platforms came new challenges. As a teacher, it is important to maintain your personal and professional boundaries. Exercise caution in adding people to your accounts. Fair use copyright issues must be considered when reposting pictures or using them in your slideshows. When I bought my first smartphone in 2013 and began observing student usage, I saw “phoning” become a discipline issue. I had to start confiscating student smartphones in class so they could pay attention to what they were learning. I generally returned them at the end of the period unless the student was a chronic offender, in which case I sent the phone to the office and called the parent.

The internet allows for vastly expanded educational methods, but the majority of school districts have learned to block social media sites on their servers. The advent of digital classrooms and district-issued student Chromebooks allowed for more effective ways of conducting research and communicating with students, colleagues, parents, and administrators. Over the course of the four years in which I used digital classrooms, I encouraged my students to bring their Chromebooks to class and turn their assignments in online. There was no need for a smartphone unless the Chromebook was absent or malfunctioning.

Despite their many pitfalls, social media sites can still be a great source of new ideas and creative presentations of information. Like any other form of media, proper discernment is required in their use. Not all information on the internet is reliable, and critical thinking skills must be used in assessing the value of a post or website. Cyber crimes such as fraud and identity theft are ever present dangers. Predators and terrorists have learned to use the web for their own nefarious purposes. Online bullying can be extremely damaging, especially to impressionable teens. Artistic property and existing fair use laws must be respected.

This is not to discourage you from using social media sites for educational purposes. Memes and other creative posts can often make learning fun. But use your own personal judgment when logging on and especially when posting something. What goes onto the internet usually remains there. Personal information can easily be shared and misappropriated. The term “friends” can be a misnomer. And it is easy to forget that the seemingly omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent social media networks were created by imperfect human beings just like us.

The caution that famous journalist Edward R. Murrow advised when dealing with television during the Cold War years can easily be applied to internet use today: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.” The technology itself is just a tool. How that tool is used is entirely up to us. For students and teachers, its best use is to advance the intellectual development of what Thomas Jefferson called “an enlightened citizenry.” It is always within our power to employ it as a means to that end.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

June is LGBT Pride Month

President Bill Clinton declared June 1999 to be Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, the first time an American President publicly commemorated the contributions of LGBT people to American history, culture, and society. President Barack Obama continued this tradition through his eight years in office (2009-2017), designating June as LGBT Pride Month. After decades of litigation, the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision of the United States Supreme Court struck down state bans on same-sex marriage in 2015. The following year, Stonewall National Monument in New York City became the first site in the National Park Service to highlight LGBT history.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people were the nation’s “invisible minority” for much of American history. Prevented from pursuing identity and relationships of their choice by local and state “sodomy laws,” most gay men and women hid their sexual orientation. Lesbian relationships were stigmatized as “sapphism” within the confines of sexist social structures that kept women subordinate. Many LGBT people reluctantly embraced heterosexual marriage to gain social acceptance. Living “in the closet” often seemed preferable to a life of humiliation, rejection, and abuse.

The medical community considered homosexuality a form of mental illness and “treated” it with isolation, medication, and electroshock “conversion” therapy. The American Psychiatric Association did not remove it from their catalog of “disorders” until 1973. Homosexual attraction was routinely condemned as “unnatural” and “sinful” by religious leaders. Gay people were shamed and ostracized by their families, their employers, and their communities. Many fled their home towns or went into hiding out of fear for their physical safety. Untold numbers of them became homeless or the victims of hate crimes.

Large numbers of LGBT men and women served honorably in World War II and Korea, despite the risk of dishonorable discharge if their sexual orientation was discovered. Like other American minorities, they returned home with raised expectations about the exercise of their civil rights. Instead, they were met with the homophobic paranoia of the “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s. Thousands of LGBT government employees were fired as “moral deviants” and “security risks,” accused of being especially vulnerable to Communist propaganda and blackmail. Many in Hollywood were hounded and blacklisted.

Throughout the 1960s, stiff fines and prison terms awaited anyone caught in public acts of same-sex affection. Openly gay poets and artists such as Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) and Andy Warhol (1928-1987) attracted devoted fans of all backgrounds, but the hateful sodomy laws remained in place. Mainstream hostility toward gay culture was reinforced by negative news coverage, erroneous academic scholarship, and homophobic clergy and politicians. Police raids on gay bars, long the gathering place for the community, increased dramatically.

The situation came to a head on the sweltering night of June 28, 1969 during a raid on the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. For the first time, angry LGBT patrons fought back in large numbers, driving police officers back and damaging property. Within a year, the first Gay Pride parades were organized in major American cities. LGBT neighborhoods such as the Castro District in San Francisco, West Hollywood, Hillcrest in San Diego, and Provincetown on Cape Cod grew in strength and numbers. Gay and lesbian Americans began speaking out publicly and defending their rights.

In 1977 Harvey Milk was elected to the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco, the first openly gay public official to gain national prominence. His assassination a year later and the moderate sentence given to his killer led to riots and outrage. Throughout the 1980s, the LGBT community continued to organize and agitate for equal rights and treatment, surviving the trauma of the AIDS crisis and the indifference of the Reagan administration. Many gay voters saw a potential champion in Bill Clinton in 1992, but his subsequent “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on LGBT military personnel and the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) came as bitter disappointments.

Clinton began to come around as an ally of gay rights toward the end of his presidency, and more than a decade later President Barack Obama publicly acknowledged the struggle for LGBT civil rights in his 2013 inaugural address. Federal hate crime laws were strengthened and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was finally dismantled. Spectacular legal victories struck down discrimination against domestic partnerships and eventually all remaining state bans on same-sex marriage. Gay candidates began winning local and state elections.

Helping your students understand the tremendous contributions of LGBT Americans is an important step forward in presenting a balanced view of United States history. From President James Buchanan, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Susan B. Anthony in the 19th century to the numerous television, film, music, and sports stars of the 20th and 21st, LGBT artists, leaders and celebrities have shaped the fabric of the nation’s course and character. The songs of Cole Porter and literary works of Alice Walker, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Gertrude Stein, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Armistead Maupin are among many resources for cross-disciplinary activities.

According to some estimates, LGBT Americans constitute up to 10% of the U.S. population. They come from every state and cultural background and are numbered in every profession. Politicians of all parties have finally accepted the power of the gay voting bloc. You will have LGBT students in your class as well as many others who have gay friends and relatives. Bullying in school and online has led to alarming rates of depression, alcohol and drug use, and suicide among LGBT teens. As their history teacher, you have an important role as advocate and ally. Telling the whole story of American history, including the part played by the LGBT community, is a good place to start.

With the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots approaching, this is a banner year for highlighting LGBT history. New York is hosting a massive commemorative celebration called Stonewall50 which will attract thousands from around the world. Pride parades across the country are expected to be the largest ever. In the four decades since Harvey Milk, 46 of the 50 states have elected LGBT local or state officials. Three have served as state governors and ten now sit in the U.S. Congress. On April 14 of this year, South Bend, Indiana Democratic Mayor Pete Buttigieg entered the 2020 race as the first openly gay candidate for President of the United States in American history.

Take advantage of the many online resources available at your fingertips. Have your students research openly LGBT candidates for public office. Explore the history and development of federal hate crime legislation. Analyze the background and findings of the 1950s Kinsey Reports. Study the history of early civil rights groups like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. Create an art activity on the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Assign a project on the 1998 Matthew Shepard murder case or the recent Supreme Court decisions. Have them write a news story on a local Pride Parade.

Whatever you decide to do, remember to include this important segment of American life in your curriculum. The political debates on gender identification, public accommodations, equal employment and housing opportunities, and rights to privacy and freedom of expression have only intensified in the last several years and show no signs of quick and easy resolution. Adding your voice and those of your students to this public discourse will enrich the quality of your students’ learning experience. The story of LGBT America must continue to be told, and as a teacher you are in a unique position to tell it. Your students of all orientations and the society at large will be empowered by your efforts.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.


Honors Classes

Teaching higher level classes involves a different set of parameters than what is required at the college preparatory level. Course structure, types of assignments, grading rubrics, the depth of academic content, and classroom discipline must all be designed with the performance of honors students in mind. These are kids who are university bound and determined to graduate from high school with test scores and a transcript commensurate with today’s demanding college admission standards.

This means challenging them to achieve college-level comprehension and analysis in subjects they will be required to take in lower division core courses when they enter the university environment. To this end, your behavior and performance expectations of them must necessarily be higher. An honors level course at the high school level roughly corresponds to a general education course for college freshmen. Your honors students must therefore demonstrate that they can behave and perform accordingly at this level.

An honors class is not the same as an Advanced Placement (AP) course. Teaching AP classes requires specific outside training and follows particular rubrics and structures. Honors level courses, on the other hand, allow for more flexibility and creativity in both design and execution. I taught honors history at the middle school level for five years, honors geography to high school freshmen for three, and honors economics to high school seniors for seven summer sessions. In all those cases I followed certain guidelines in both curriculum and discipline.

I decided to structure my high school honors classes along lines similar to the courses I had taught for six years at the community college level. Students were responsible for taking lecture notes but not required to turn them in for points. Unit tests and final examinations were weighted higher than in college preparatory classes. Disruptive behavior and academic dishonesty were swiftly dealt with, and low grades were addressed immediately. I instructed both students and parents that anything below a B- in an honors course was cause for concern. Tutoring was encouraged to prevent withdrawal from the course.

Honors students are generally more motivated than the average student and given more support at home. Their parents attend Back to School Night and other community outreach activities in greater numbers. Working with these parents is vital to your success as an honors or AP teacher. Be proactive in your parent contact, particularly when it comes to discipline and lackluster grades. Be clear with your course expectations and grading rubrics.

The assignments you give in these classes must be challenging and rigorous. Allow your honors students plenty of opportunities to engage the course material critically through essay writing, Socratic Seminars, analytical projects, and team discussions and debates. Your grading load will be larger, but so will the depth into which you can explore the course material. I always enjoyed the seminars, discussions, and project presentations in these classes, particularly when I taught Honors Economics in summer session. It is gratifying as a teacher to see what these students can do.

Go over unit test scores with your honors students to help them improve their performance next time. Keep them busy with the material and start each day with an opening activity that gets them engaged right away. For many years I designed a series of questions called the “Daily Q” that connected the day’s topic to current events. Give them challenging homework assignments that keep them on top of the subject. Keep up on your grading and return graded work right away.

Ask for help if a student asks you a question beyond your knowledge. I learned a lot from my honors students and grew in mastery of my subjects as a result of their questions and interests. Monitor their progress and be discerning about which students might be better suited to a college preparatory level class and vice versa. Many of these students are taking several other higher level courses as well as participating in athletics, performing arts, and time-consuming extracurricular activities outside of school. Support them in their efforts to achieve a healthy balance in their schedule.

Teaching honors classes can be extremely rewarding. It also comes with its own unique challenges. Be honest with yourself about what you are willing to take on and find the resources you need. Embrace the valuable learning opportunities that come your way.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.


Memorial Day Weekend

Memorial Day began as Decoration Day in the 1860s to honor the Union dead of the American Civil War. Copyright (c) 1995 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

For many of you, Memorial Day represents the end of the school year and final exams. Many people observe this three-day weekend with picnics and parades, much like Labor Day or Independence Day. In the midst of the jubilation and relaxation, it is easy to forget the somber origins of this important national holiday.

I drew the flag pictured above to commemorate the campaigns of my great-great-grandfather Michael Schneider, who served in Company G of the 27th Ohio Infantry throughout the American Civil War. He and the other volunteers of his regiment, many of them recent immigrants living in Cleveland, answered President Lincoln’s call to preserve the Union and later to end slavery. By the end of the war in 1865, 214 of them had given their lives in what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.” These are among the people we commemorate on Memorial Day.

More than one million Americans have died in the nation’s wars, with the fratricidal Civil War being the most destructive. Decoration Day began while the war was still raging to honor those who died to save the Union and was eventually renamed Memorial Day to include all those lost on distant battlefields throughout United States history. Flags and flowers are placed on the graves of the fallen today, just as they were over 150 years ago.

As the school year ends and summer break approaches, let us remember those who gave everything to preserve our rights, including our personal freedoms and the right to a safe community and quality public education. On this Memorial Day weekend, may we dedicate our own lives to the continued preservation of those rights for all Americans.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.


Grading Procedures

Grading is one of the most demanding aspects of teaching, as well as one of the most necessary. Keeping up with the assignment, collection, assessment, and recording of student work is vital to maintaining the momentum of your course. The more proactive you are in your grading procedures, the better you can stick to your lesson calendar. Planning and executing your grading policies and procedures in a timely manner will allow you and your students to finish each semester effectively without feeling overwhelmed. This is one of the duties of teaching you need to get right from the beginning.

As any experienced teacher will tell you, this is easier said than done. It begins with collection. Make sure your students know from the first day of school when and where to turn in their work. In the years before I began using digital classrooms (prior to 2014), all assignments were completed on paper. During that time and thereafter, I placed stacking plastic trays on a table near the classroom door, marked for each of my five periods, into which students fed their homework and classwork papers every day.

As my rule was to have homework due on Fridays, I typically had my largest amount of grading to do on the weekend. I did this because I coached an after-school drama club and taught evening classes during the week and generally did not have time to get to grading until Friday afternoon, unless I could find time during my prep period every day. Sometimes I would bring a lunch and spend Saturday morning catching up on grading in my classroom when the campus was quiet. You may decide to do your grading every night so you can keep your weekends free. Do whatever works for your schedule.

Homework and classwork in my college preparatory classes were graded on a credit/no credit basis. I would look over each piece of work and award a point value based on how much of it was completed, write the score and circle it on the paper, and then record the score on a printed paper class roster for each period. The graded work was then placed in a manila folder according to period and stacked near the homework trays. I had students help me pass back the work at the beginning of each period and did the rest myself before school or during recess, lunch, and my prep period.

Online grading programs were already available when I started teaching in the late 1990s. Over the years I used Easy Grade Pro, Aeries, Illuminate, and others, according to whatever my school or district was using at the time. My rosters were printed from these programs as well as progress reports and final grades. I entered points before school every day so I could print out a current progress report at the request of a student, parent, or administrator.

Percentages and grading categories changed over the years (see my blog entry on Curriculum and Assessment), but generally I gave classwork and tests the largest values in determining the overall grade. Homework and projects rounded out the whole. Honors classes did more writing than college prep and required more carefully reading, so I made those assignments worth more. Unlike in my honors classes, college prep students were required to turn in their daily lecture and other notes for credit, so I raised the value of classwork since I had to invest more time in grading it.

All essays were graded with an attached paper rubric that included comments, points for each category of assessment, and the overall score. Only the overall scores were recorded in my grade book. Projects were graded holistically and given an overall score of up to 200 points. Your department or district may have grading guidelines for certain kinds of assignments which need to be incorporated into your procedures. Consult your administrator and department head before settling on a scale or weighted categories.

As far as accepting late work is concerned, decide on your policy and be clear about it with your students from the beginning. Changing your policy on this in mid-stream will undermine your authority and credibility. You will have students who try to take advantage of your good nature and flexibility. The clearer your grading policies are from the outset, the less trouble you will create for yourself later. The firmer you are in the beginning of the semester, the more flexible you can be at the end.

Organization is the key to success when it comes to grading. Keep the student work in neat piles according to period, place them in folders, and keep them within easy access of your immediate work area. Allow for room in your bag or satchel to accommodate them when you leave for home. Over the ten years in which I commuted by rail, I would try to get some grading done in one of the seating areas of the train car that included a table. The train also had electrical outlets with which laptops or other electronics could be used.

If you take grading home, designate a time and area where you can work there. I usually spread out all my papers on the kitchen bar or island or the dining room table. If you do not live alone you will need to create a suitable arrangement with your spouse, partner, or roommates. You do not want to allow grading or any other aspect of your job to interfere with the rhythms of your domestic life. This can be a challenge toward the end of the semester, particularly if the person or persons with whom you live are not school teachers. Be proactive, listen, and work together.

The advent of digital classrooms added an entirely new dynamic to grading as well as instruction and research. Piles of paper were reduced or eliminated, to be sure, but other challenges and difficulties appeared in their place. Watch for plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty when evaluating online work. Back up assignments and have students do the same. Remind them to do their own work and send it from their own computer. If you have a suspicion that a student is copying work from a friend or classmate, keep a close eye on the assignments from both students and keep the parents informed.

Like classroom management and teaching style, grading procedures are particular to the individual teacher. Experiment with different kinds of assignments and grading rubrics and settle on what is comfortable for you. Work within district and department guidelines and keep the students and parents up to date. The more you plan ahead and stay organized, the more you can keep grading in its proper place.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Harvey Milk Day

Sporting a rainbow bow tie and vintage campaign button for Harvey Milk Day. The rainbow flag was designed as a symbol of LGBT pride by San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker (1951-2017) in 1978, the same year Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated at City Hall. Photo copyright (c) 2018 Torin Finney.

Harvey Milk Day was declared a special commemorative day in California public schools by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009 and has since been recognized across the country and the world as a day to recognize America’s premier LGBT civil rights figure. Milk was born on May 22, 1930 and assassinated on November 27, 1978. He was America’s first openly gay public official and called for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans to come out of the shadows and assert their rights as equal members of our society.

I remember well the day Harvey Milk was killed. I was a senior in high school in southern California and had several gay friends and classmates, many of whom had not yet made the decision to come out to their families. There was rampant homophobia throughout the country at that time and my U.S. history class did not include the contributions of LGBT Americans. When I became a history teacher 20 years later, I did what I could to correct that error in my classes. I included LGBT history in my curriculum and made sure my students learned about Harvey Milk on May 22.

June 28 this year will be the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, which later led to the first Pride parades across the country. The San Diego Pride Parade takes place in the famous Hillcrest neighborhood near where I live and promises to be the largest in the city’s history. While homophobia and hate crimes continue to mar our national life, prominent legal victories and the election of many openly LGBT public officials have paved the way for a new generation of activists and leaders. Harvey Milk once said that “hope will never be silent.” May all of us raise our voices of hope in support of full civil rights for all people.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Interacting with Administrators

As a schoolteacher you are the authority figure in your classroom, but you are not the top authority at your school. Unless you are a private tutor or independent education consultant, the teaching experience includes serving under administrators. Over the course of twenty years in five different schools, I had six principals, fifteen assistant principals, and five department chairs. Working with them involved adapting to differing leadership styles within the context of common structural guidelines and procedures.

The three most typical forms of interaction with administrators are observations, evaluations, and staff meetings. I have dealt with the subject of staff meetings in a separate blog entry, which you can read here. Observations occur on a regular basis, particularly when you are a new teacher under probationary contract or if your school is under accreditation review. Your administrators will be looking for evidence of state standards, learning objectives, and effective instruction. The extent to which you are providing that evidence successfully will determine how well your evaluations go.

For the most part, the evaluation process has progressed over time from the hierarchical model of the 20th century to the collaborative one of the 21st. Administrators now try to present themselves as supporters and teammates rather than traditional authority figures. I found this to be true of most of my administrators over the years. They would give feedback and offer suggestions during the meeting based on what they saw in my classroom, and I would try to incorporate their ideas to the best of my ability. A large part of my success as an educator was due to the helpful suggestions of my principals and assistant principals.

Naturally, I connected with some of them on a personal level better than others. Many of my private conversations with them were very comfortable and encouraging. Yet even with those whose personalities may not have been that compatible with mine, I tried to find the value in what they said. As a teacher, it is very important that you keep an open mind, especially during an evaluation. Your administrators are there to help you. Try not to take criticism personally. Remember that you were hired on the merits of your skills and background. Any suggestions for improvement are just that. No one is making character aspersions or questioning your competence as an educator.

This is easier said than done, particularly if you are given a “needs improvement” score in a given category of your performance. This only happened to me once in the course of my career, in the area of classroom management. I was in my first year teaching in a public middle school and my only year teaching the 6th grade. I had come from a wealthy private high school and was having trouble adjusting to the new discipline needs of working with lower income inner-city children. My principal at the time was stern but fair, and offered to provide me with a mentor to help me improve my classroom discipline.

I heartily accepted and immediately began to notice improvement. By the end of that school year I was beginning to find my stride, and my performance steadily improved over the next few years. Despite my fears of being overwhelmed, my administrator helped me reach my learning goals over a few short months. I needed his help and that of my mentor. Admitting that fact was the first step in becoming a successful teacher at that school. By the end of my career I had become known as a strict and effective disciplinarian. This never would have happened without the support and guidance of strong and committed administrators.

Be flexible and open minded. The administration often changes at a school over time. Having the same principal or assistant principals for many years in a row is rare. You must learn to adapt to whomever is in charge. Flexibility is also needed to dealing with changes in state standards and curriculum and the latest educational theory or practice in favor with your principal or district. Try to keep up as best you can and keep your focus on what works best for your students. There are many different ways to teach the same subject. Make use of as many of them as possible.

As far as interacting with department heads is concerned, remember that they may have more experience than you but are not above you in rank. Department chairs do not have the power to evaluate you as a teacher or determine your tenure at a school. They are there to support you and the other teachers in your department, which can include providing needed supplies, passing on communication or updates from the administration, and leading department meetings. Ideally, the department chair position should be rotated every few years among all the teachers in that department. Getting involved in leadership can help you grow as a teacher and strengthen the profile of your school.

Remember that you are the front line leader with your students. The administrators are part of the team that supports you in that important work. Listen to their suggestions and implement them as needed. Your goal and purpose is to provide your students with the best educational experience possible in your subject. Stay focused when the administrators enter your room to observe a lesson in progress. Stay in step with the other teachers in your department. Implement the state and federal content standards to the best of your ability. Above all else, believe in yourself. You have been called to teach. Appreciate the opportunities and value of that calling.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.


Teaching Summer School

With spring final examinations approaching, most teachers and students are looking forward to the end of the school year. The relaxation and exciting activities of summer are just around the corner. Many of your students and colleagues will be discussing their plans for summer travel or family vacation. But not all will be taking a break from classes. Summer session is technically the last term of the academic year, and many students and teachers will be returning to the classroom after the last spring final is over.

Summer school is a different kind of teaching experience than the regular year. Usually you have no more than four weeks in which to lead your students through the equivalent of a semester length course. The school day is shorter, typically five or six hours instead of eight, and more often than not you teach fewer than five days per week. You have to cover the same amount of material in a day as you would in a week during the regular school year. The pay is typically by the hour and less than what you make in your regular salary. All of these factors can make summer school a daunting challenge.

On the positive side, you will probably have an appreciative audience. Summer school is a privilege rather than a right, and an opportunity rather than a requirement. Those students who are making up a class for a better grade are grateful for the chance to improve their GPA. Those who are there to complete a core course in advance of the regular year are happy to get it out of the way. The district is glad you are willing to take on an assignment that most teachers do not consider. The atmosphere is more relaxed than the regular year. You are usually done in time for lunch. Often the school week ends on Thursday, leaving you a three-day weekend every week.

I taught summer school for every one of my twenty years as a teacher. I taught one session to private high school students, one at a public middle school, seven at a community college, and thirteen in a public high school. My courses included United States History, World History, Economics, Health, Summer Reading, Beginning Journalism, and Honors Economics. For a few summers I taught kids in the morning and adults in the evening on the same days of the week.

Some of my classes had as few as a dozen students and others exceeded fifty people. Many of those summer sessions were held in my own classroom with my resources and audio-visual equipment, but many others were in an unfamiliar environment. Sometimes I had to carry all my materials with me across campus and log in to a common computer. I had to adapt to an abridged curriculum on a shortened schedule in a strange space.

In spite of these contingencies, I generally enjoyed the experience. Discipline is not as much of a problem as the regular year, since the school is not required to offer a summer session. Any student who does not take your class seriously will be swiftly removed and will not return. Those who do not show up the first day are dropped. Others lose their place if they miss more than two full days. No failing grades were issued; those who did not pass had to make up the course at a later date.

These conditions make your job easier and those students who remain more appreciative. Curriculum standards and district guidelines must be followed, of course, but the structure of your class can be flexible. There are few or no evaluations from administrators, and usually no department meetings to attend. Attendance is done by the hour rather than by the day. Attire is casual and the weather is warm.

My summer classes were usually comprised of one or two 2-3 hour blocks. In the interest of time and engagement, I mixed writing assignments in with lecture and discussion, audio-visual presentations, group work and testing. I made sure my students were involved in a variety of learning activities. Make sure you mix it up. They are there for a serious purpose, to complete a required course in a satisfactory manner. Keeping them busy and interested will make the day go faster for them and for you.

Get your grading done quickly, preferably the same day it is submitted, so you can stay on top of things and return graded work for your students to use in test preparation. If you assign homework from a textbook (in many cases I did not), enter the graded points from that work right away. Keep the students informed of their grade on a daily basis. Summer school will be over before they know it. They cannot afford to fall behind, and neither can you.

There is usually no time for an academic progress report. Students must keep up on their assignments every day. Your class is probably their only subject in summer school. There is no excuse for them to give in to distractions or indifference. This may be their only chance to complete this particularly course successfully. Impress upon them the seriousness and importance of their task. Their transcript will not favor the classes they finished in the regular year. Their work in summer school is just as valuable.

Of course, the decision to teach summer school will shorten your own summer break as well as theirs. Remember to take full advantage of the days and weeks you do have off. If you teach more than one session of summer school, you may have only two weeks before the regular year begins in August. Get enough rest and relaxation before you have to go back, and advise your students to do the same.

I am a big believer in the value of summer school. There are no extra-curricular activities to distract the students, it is easier for them to get through a shorter day, and they do not have to juggle a full schedule of several subjects. They have an opportunity to focus on excelling in a single subject at a time. Do your best to help them take advantage of this unique opportunity.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.