Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

Remember when you had to line up in elementary school? Toys had a particular box to go in and coats had to be hung on a specific rack? The world was black and white,  right or wrong. Do this. Do that. Follow the rules or get punished. Students were praised for doing what the teacher said. “What a good little girl you are!” I remember hearing time and time again in reference to the pretty girl in white with the Winnie-the-Pooh backpack.


I’ve noticed an interesting dynamic over the last twenty years of teaching–teachers are treated by administrators the same way elementary students are treated by their teachers. They take attendance at meetings. They select teachers-of-the-month. They give out perfect attendance awards. They expect us to do this, do that, without question. If we do question their authority, we are labeled trouble-makers and called into the principal’s office. It doesn’t matter if the objection is valid. We are simply expected to follow their rules without question.

Years ago, I was reprimanded for having the bus drop off my students at the strip-mall across the street from the high school because we were running late and had missed lunch. I was written up–yes, a formal reprimand in my file–for placing my students “in danger” and “encouraging them to skip class.” It seemed so ironic when I saw how our special education students walked to the store and back again to learn how to navigate the real world. My seventeen year old AP students, class valedictorian included, were not considered capable of grabbing a bite to eat and then using the crosswalk to return to school under my supervision. It was explained to me that we had a closed campus, and (by letting them cross the street during school hours) I had violated a rule of safety. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to teach at an open-campus school where students were allowed to go home for lunch. How did they possibly keep them all alive?

Things seem to be getting worse. Teachers are being forced to switch from classes they love to teach to classes assigned by principals, without discussion, and without regard to experience or areas of expertise. We are being told what essays to assign. We are being told where to stand and where to sit, where to hang up our jackets… Okay. There’s a little hyperbole in that, but also truth to the decreasing  freedoms due to top-down mandates. I’ve heard it’s worse at other schools where every lesson is scripted. Oh, wait! Isn’t that exactly how our new online-based textbooks are designed to be used? Open the web page…press play… I guess I should be thankful that my job is becoming easier.

We have officially ushered in the era of collaboration, which is quickly becoming a synonym for conformity. Do it this way, or else. I don’t know what the “or else” is exactly, but teachers are already feeling ostracized for their desire to remain individuals.

It is also clear that that common sense is being replaced by edicts. State standards and data are being used as tools of manipulation. Given, there are circumstances where data are extremely useful, and standards have an important role in designing and executing curriculum. But what if you teach in a school where students already perform at the top of all other schools in your district?  Could it be you are actually doing something right? Unfortunately, the argument “you can always do better” is becoming a slogan comparable to Orwellian doublespeak.

Because teachers are, by nature, service-centered individuals, they are being taken advantage of by administrators. Many teachers are afraid to make waves and voice their displeasure for fear of retaliation.  And what good would it do anyway? I recently tried to voice my concern when I was told I had to switch from teaching Honors World Literature (which I’ve taught for eight years) to English Literature (which I taught for one semester fifteen years ago). It’s my belief that my request for a summer meeting was denied and pushed to the Thursday before school started so they could argue how scheduling changes at that point would be “operationally difficult.” Their letter used those exact words and also made it very clear that if I didn’t accept their changes, I would have to take time off and use sick-leave until another meeting could be scheduled–no indication how long that would have taken.

In most careers, twenty years of experience would place you at the peak of your profession. For teachers, however, twenty years of experience means you have not yet learned how to do your job well. They call it professional growth. I call it days away from students and wasted money on substitute teachers. I call it something I could learn on my own from a couple good articles in an hour. I call it ignoring four years of undergraduate school, a master’s degree, doctoral degree, and twenty years of teaching experience. My bad!

I’m not sure what will become of the teaching profession or how these changes will actually impact student learning. I do know it’s time for me to seriously consider finding a job at a private school or in another profession altogether.

I need to ponder that a little longer. For now, I have to go and get back in line.

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I believe when we stand before our maker at the final judgement, He will ask us one simple question: With the time that I gave you, did you make life harder or better for those around you?

“God is not unjust. He will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.” Hebrews 6:10

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Think about your favorite teacher for a moment. Why did this person have such a big impact on you?

Talking with one of my former students, who is now in graduate school and working on her secondary teaching credential, she told me how a professor recently asked her this very question. I told her that one of my favorite professors had asked me this question in teacher school, too.

We both had the same answer. It’s probably the same answer you came up with. Our favorite teachers connected with us on very personal levels. They didn’t just feed us information but helped us relate what we learned to our own lives in unexpected ways.

It sounds simple, right? Not really. Consider for a moment the many different personalities that walk this Earth. Even one the most popular personality tests, the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory, needs sixteen different personalities types to represent our differences. Add to those sixteen personality types different socioeconomic factors, cultural differences, gender differences, family dynamics, age gaps, traumatic experiences, chemical influences (something as simple as caffeine to behavior altering prescription drugs), and you have students who are as different as January snowflakes.

No matter how much you try, there will always be students that are difficult for you to relate to. It’s not your fault. It’s not their fault. It’s just the reality of being us.

Don’t fret. The master teacher accepts that it is impossible to reach all students and has faith that there are teachers out there for those others. But I have realized over twenty years of teaching high school English and AP Psychology that there are five magical traits that seem universal to every personality type. Even the most alien kid sitting in your class will respond to these five Master Teacher traits.

  1. Be Real: Students are perceptive. They can tell when you are fake. They are masters at being fake themselves, as they try on as many hats as they can in hopes of discovering who they are. Their radar will scream warnings if you are not honest with them.  But if you can be real, if you can expose to them your inner strengths and your flaws, how you care for them in spite of your differences, they will love you for your honesty and realness.
  2. Be Forgiving: Students make mistakes every day. They will talk when they are supposed to be quiet. They will check their Snapchat in the middle of a test. They will make paper airplanes and fly them across the room behind your back. That’s okay. Be firm. Tell them its wrong. And then laugh with them. They will respect you, and if you are consistent with your rules and punishments, they will quickly learn what they can get away with and what they can’t really get away with.
  3. Be Accepting: Remember how hard it was to be a teen? Now add some elements we never had to contend with, like constant technological distractions, potential public shaming that begins with the click of a button, a general lack of parental support, daily news of violence that occur inside our schools, and you have some very confused kids. They are as awkward on the inside as they look on the outside. They are a tumultuous bundle of emotions and thoughts. And they are perfectly normal, in spite of all these challenges. Love them for all their weirdness, because, somehow, in spite of all the ways we adults keep screwing up their world, they keep finding ways to evolve into some pretty cool young adults.
  4. Be Caring: Your students are going to forget most everything you say, but they will never forget that moment when you looked through them with obvious compassion and asked them what was wrong. They won’t want to tell you. Don’t expect them to tell you. Actually, hope they don’t tell you because there is very little you can do to help them. But it doesn’t matter. The fact that you care is what they will remember.
  5. Be Knowledgeable: It goes without saying that the Master Teacher is an expert in their subject matter. But a Master Teacher is also knowledgeable about the world. They have a way of bridging time and space and bringing the world into their classroom. This means that you need to read, you need to travel, you need to fill your life with as many varying experiences as you possibly can. Some of your students will have been blessed with some amazing experiences themselves. Learn from them. Ask them to share. Let their cultural differences and varying experiences be windows into other parts of the world and other realities. Your curiosity will open them up and connect you to their world. Then, the next time you have students with similar backgrounds, you will floor them with your understanding and knowledge.

Becoming a Master Teacher takes time and experience, but I guarantee you these five  traits are fundamental components that will help you connect with your students in the most rewarding ways.

Good luck and teach on!


After five impossible years of learning to cope with chronic pain, Dr. Burnham is determined to live, teach, coach, and thrive in Southern California.

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Trashy Students

I passed a student today at lunch just as he threw his juice box on the ground. I said as he turned and saw me seeing him, “The trash is right there.” He immediately apologized, picked up the juice box and threw it away.

Why did he change his mind in my presence? Why didn’t he pick it up in the first place? What would his parents say?

You would be amazed as to the amount of trash students leave behind at my school. I’ve seen staircases covered in trash. I’ve walked through hallways filled with empty cartons. I deal with it in my own classroom on a daily basis. There is always something left behind under the desks. Yes, I’ve addressed it. But they do it anyway because they have to be caught in the act to care.

Lazy! Lazy! Lazy! My school is filled with trashy students! And it’s our fault.

We baby our students way too much. We pay janitors to pick up their trash when lunch is over. The more trash they leave, the more we pick up after them. Why doesn’t someone stand up to these kids (and their coddling parents) and hold them accountable for their actions?

A couple of my students were talking today about the mile they had to run in P.E. Nice! Exercise is great. How about having the walk a quarter of a mile and pick up all the trash they can? Why not make give them the choice to work of some of their detentions?

Students know the difference between right and wrong. When pressed, most of them make the best decision, just like this young man did today.

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I wrote this on my Facebook page the day my voice awakened. I have something to say and will no longer be afraid to say it. Thank you, Kate, for showing me what courage with the pen is all about. Letting the world into my mind will, I hope, help the world understand what it means to be a teacher, coach, martial artist, writer, chronic pain survivor, and whatever other voices might come to mind.. So, let us begin…


I was told on Friday that I might have to switch the classes I teach because I am not a “good collaborator.” You see, teaching in a California public school is no longer about what happens in the classroom but what you do on Wednesday afternoons when the kids are home playing video games. Let’s ignore for the moment that my doctorate in learning psychology gives me a pretty good understanding of how students acquire knowledge, and that this understanding has become ingrained in my delivery system, to ask what I would have to do to be considered a “good teacher” under the new paradigm. I detailed in my doctoral dissertation about this paradigm shift that began with the No Child Left Behind act, where politics and commerce decided that holding parents and students accountable for performance were no longer viable. Instead, we began to pump money into technology and teacher training. It was easier to blame teachers for poor student performance (forget that I am the same teacher for one student who fails and the next student who is accepted into Stanford University). Here we are twenty years later and we are still wasting billions of dollars a year on new computers and software platforms that delight us with pretty colors and fancy integrated functions but do little to change the fact that learning comes down to encoding and processing information then storing it for later retrieval. The decision makers have entered my classroom maybe five times this year for a total time of no more than ten minutes. They have little knowledge of my curriculum or how I teach it. They have no knowledge of the life lessons my lectures impart that go way beyond the classroom. I doubt they’ve spoken to one of my students. And yet I must be a “bad teacher” because I am hesitant to jump through their hoops on Wednesday afternoon when I am home recharging because my schedule has me teaching five periods straight without a break (ignoring the restricted work conditions the district and I agreed to when I began suffering from chronic nerve pain). So, I am seriously frustrated here and questioning my decision to even be a teacher at all. If it weren’t for my amazing students and their parents who continually share with me their gratitude and appreciation, I would walk away right now. I hesitate sharing this, but I am tired of being accused behind closed doors of not doing my job and could use some support and encouragement here.

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