Saturday, September 17, 2005

Not So Quick Update From An Absent Blogger

I can't believe it's been 10 days sine I updated this blog - wow. I suppose I should have expected this, though on reflection I hadn't really given it a lot of thought, just assuming that this would somehow ust continue, but real-life responsibilities have caught up with me in the form of my new job as a chemistry teacher. I'm not sure if what I'm going through is typical or not. My natural inclination is to think that no one experiences anything without there being many people out there in many places who are sharing the same experience, or certainly something very similar. That said, it's really something of a "does a tree falling in the forest with no one around make a sound" sort of dilemma - if those sharing the experience aren't there to share it with you then in effect your experience is uniquely your own and for all practical purposes you are the only one having it. Maybe blogging a bit about it will solve this.

First I found myself taking over for someone who was the chemistry teacher where I'm at from the day the school opened some thirty years ago. His degree was apparently in history and how, exactly, he came to chemistry is something of a mystery to me, one that at this point I'm not at all inclined to solve. My combination classroom/lab was in a state of odd disrepair. The siding to the "teacher's" desk/lab table is largely removed, as it is along the base of many lab tables in the room, cabinets are ajar and out of alignment, and while I have 11 lab stations not a single one had anything in them that was consistent. My personal experience is that a student should be able to go to his or her lab station, open up the cabinet to that station and remove a standard set of equipment that could be used for the lab. In my case each lab station had odds and ends thrown into them, with no apparent logic to what was found there, and at this point I have no idea how the students did labs; again, I don't care to know the answer to this mystery.

My predecessor must have been something of a pack rat as it doesn't look as if he threw anything away. At first I thought that this was due to his just giving up before his pending retirement, but when the total amount of glassware I threw out went from about 10 lbs, through 20, and settling into somewhere near 40 lbs in the end, I realized that this man clearly either had unhealthy attachments to dirty test tubes and beakers, or he was something of a slob who didn't give cleaning glassware much thought. Of course that each student station didn't have any test tube cleaners in them, in fact I haven't enough test tube cleaners to go around to all student stations, certainly would tend to influence one's conclusion about how dirty glassware was handled. To be fair he was teaching under a 55 min schedule, and legitimately enough it can be hard to get students to properly clean up before they're done in that situation, but then there was no reason for him to have not recruited a student helper for "community service" or a 1/2 credit deal who would be responsible for cleaning up dirty dishes. Oh well ...

I won't get into the interesting challenge of trying to figure out what I have on hand, not the least being chemicals. The "bad" to this is that you're never too sure what to plan for. The "good" to this, if one would stretch it that far, is that every day is a new adventure. I've found that the chemical list we have for chemicals was not put together with a great deal of
rigor as I've found things in my chemical lockers that weren't listed, and haven't been able to find things that were listed. I have also found that the state's restrictions on chemicals in inventory is incredibly limiting. You can't have lead nitrate in inventory because ... I have no clue. Lead isn't one of those elements that leap out of the bottle at you, and unless you were to
suddenly take it upon yourself to eat the stuff I have no clue what harm this particular chemical presents. Unfortunately this is more the nature of the list than not and, to say the least, presents something of a puzzle. I won't get into how I haven't been able to make a lot of sense out of how the chemicals are stored - apparently my predecessor had his own system for that, too, and I should think it made perfect sense to him but to me ... I'm likely not clever enough.

Dealing with my legacy issues has been trying enough, but on top of this dealing with high school students on the whole has been something of an eye opener, and unfortunately it hasn't been due to the kids. My personal observation is that the students are pretty good - yes, there are a few you want to strangle, but the majority are good kids who I believe want to learn, I'll know how muh so in about another month. It's the administration that's killing me. There's a lack of consistency in what's said and done that undermines what you find yourself doing as a teacher. Let me use one example: bare mid-riffs. Bare-midriffs are a school no-no. Ok, makes sense to me, easy to spot, easy to deal with, right? Well, no, not really.

First, let there be no mistake, high school girls in large nmbers want to show you their mid-riffs, and with that, for a significant number, comes their belly-button piercings. Initially I took this one for action given how easy it was to spot the perpetrators, but only in my classroom - I actually told two girls that their mid-riffs were out of place in the classroom. One of them got a bit snotty about it, and we had a little chat about disrespect which I'd like to think hit home, but on the whole we came to an "agreement" that this wouldn't happen again. Well over the course of the next two days what did I notice? Bare midriffs galore, everywhere I looked, and believe me I wasn't looking hard. Well, so what's the point of being the "Enforcer" if you're not backed up, or everyone else in the posse aren't picking up their share of the load? I mean really, am I the only one noticing bare-midriffs? I think this is an interesting question regardless of however facile it may seem for I think that were you to ask a lot of teachers if they're noticing their students' midriffs they'd quite possibly honestly tell you no, they're not. I'm coming to the conclusion that in an environment where your perception is that you stand alone you begin to deliberately, though most likely unconsciously, stop taking notice of those things that potentially put you in conflict with the "rules". The main "enforcer" here should be the principal and vice-principal, and at this point neither have made much of an issue of this with the faculty. Oh well ...

Well, I've vented a bit here, and got to make a re-connection with the blog. I'll be posting some things on Iran in the coming days, but I guess on the whole I'll be hitting this a bit less than usual, at least until such time as I get a rhythm going that gives me more time to breathe. Between preparing lesson plans and trying to figure out how to fill in 77 min periods (the school went over to block scheduling this year for the first time, and while I appreciate the beauty of this in the long run right now it's a bit painful to work through) with not only lecture but other things that will keep the students engaged and not having to just listen to me drone on and on. I guess it may seem like I'm complaining, and I'm not; I do like my job and seem to be enjoying it more with each new day. That said, there are things about it that are puzzling, frustrating, and just plain bizarre sometimes, and I suppose over time this will make for excellent blogging fodder.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Corpus Callosum: It's GRL Time!

Do you have a desire to get in touch with the best of online medical blogging? The subjects stretch the range of issues, from the poetic to the pedestrian, from the human to the technical, and the Corpus Callosum, the name of the blog cared for and fed by the good Dr. Joseph (his first name is Joseph, but he's a doctor, too), is hosting the Grand Rounds, a compilation of what's in the blogosphere of a medical nature that has been considered to be worthy of your attention. Go ahead, just click on the hyperlink above, and see for yourself; you're apt to be glued to your monitor screen.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Slogging Through Officer Candidate School

This wasn't me, but I did share the sentiment on the hat (i.e. "cover" in the Navy.)

We take up with our blogger after he arrived at OCS and pick up as he tries to make take his existential bearings in the brave new world of the U.S. Navy.

Getting over the initial shock of being at OCS was the first thing to do if one was to survive the whole thing. There are many times when I asked myself why I stayed for there were certainly moments when I questioned why I was putting myself through what this entailed. First you're yelled at for reasons that have no connection to any logical process you heretofore acknowledged or could on your own divine, you were regimented and in close quarters with a large group of people you didn't know, your hair was shorn, you now all wore the same clothes, you were ALL expected to participate in MANDATORY fun days on Saturday mornings, you stood fire watch, quarterdeck watch, and whatever other watches at all hours of the day, you went on "liberty" in your uniform so there was clearly no mistaking where you were from, and you were expected to eat your meals as if someone was going to steal the food on your plate if you weren't quick about it (this last point was really only true for the first week, after which we were fully considered "officer candidates" and allowed to eat our vittles at a reasonable pace.) There was little about this environment and what was going on it to invite rejoicing or anything but one's questioning of their fundamental sanity, and surely I was asking a lot of questions. The best answer I could come up with was that I would have been embarrassed to have bailed out, in addition at this point I set myself on a course of some sort and no reasonable alternative loomed on the horizon to take its place. I would muscle my way through this as best I could, survive my four years and go on from there.

Within the first week or our indoctrination we were brought to an assembly with the commanding officer of the training command that we were all now a part of. His name was Captain Pepperidge, and why, for the life of me, his name sticks with me after all of these years is a total mystery to me. Anyway, he gave us a general rundown of what life was about for us there at OCS, in case any of us at that point hadn't already figured it out, and then he went on to give us an interesting statistic. I'm not sure I'm totally getting this right for at this point memory is reaching back some 25 years and personal experience has flavored the whole thing, but essentially he ran down what would beconsidered the attrition rate for those in the audience in front of him. Essentially a very small percent of us would be invited to leave before our four years were up, about 50% of us would leave at the point of our contract expirations in four years, 25% of us would be gone by the 10 year point, at somewhere between 5 and 10% of us would actually get so far as to retire. By the time I was hearing this I was solidly a first 50 percenter in my mind, there was just no way I was going to stay with this past what I had signed up for.

Promotion and attrition in the Navy is a complicated and to some degree mysterious process (this in most respects applies to all of the services but how it's handled differs - for instance the Navy doesn't provide an option for officers to become enlisted men/women if there's what's called a reduction of force, or RIF, whereas at least in the past the other services did). The reasons for the attritions alluded to by Capt Pepperidge were not fixed. Some, in fact most, would be due to the person concerned deciding that they had something else they'd rather do or they had enough of what they were doing regardless of whatever else they might othewrwise do. Few would actually be directly asked to leave, though those in after ten years would find themselves in the tenuous position of having to make it up through the system, i.e. you had to be promoted with your peers if you'd expect to make it to 20 years for if you weren't promoted you were essentially informed you no longer had a viable career and you were let go before the government took on a lifelong retirement payment obligation. For the group of people the good Captain was speaking to at the time the end of the Cold War still loomed some 8 years into the future, and the subsequent force attrition and the diminution of the jobs that made one "promotable" all would put extra strain on people trying to stay in the service and who were finding fewer and fewer avenues by which to travel to facilitate that happening. In October of 1980 there was no reason to think that the system wouldn't be very amenable to us as Under Jimmy Carter, who was still president, there had been a major increase in defense spending, and under Ronald Reagan, who was elected president that November, there was to be a continuance of that spending in addition to a generous increase in salaries for all of this in uniform, which we all cheered in January of the coming year when a sizable increase in our base pay was enacted.

Added to everything else that was being thrown at us we also found ourselves in the middle of a whirlwind of instruction. What Naval Academy graduates had to absorb in four years we were having shoveled into us in 12 weeks and this, needless to say, wasn't fun. The courses themselves were not that rigorous, but they mostly dealt with information and ways of handling it that were totally foreign to us. There was also a huge focus on memorization, you had to jam as much as you could into your head in the time you had it, regurgitate it for the test, and then go on from there. How much you actually recalled from all of this wasn't clear, though my guess and personal experience is that it wasn't much, and to some degree that was beside the point. Indeed, you were expected to learn something, and moreover you were expected to be able to put to use some of what you were learning, but what mattered more than anything else was that you passed the tests, that you got through the course in the end with a passing grade.

Grades were one of the three things that could get you canned from OCS. The other two were: 1. You were a troublemaker who didn't belong, and true to form every class had a few of those, not all of whom were caught - those not caught tended, on the whole, to be the more interesting of us. 2. Military bearing - if you couldn't act the part, with the right creases, the right shine of your shoes, the proper salutes rendered at the proper moments, or you constantly were failing your room inspections, then your military bearing was seriously in question. The grade you got for military bearing, which was by and large a subjective one (no one in those days was much concerned with justifying grades with some sort of rubric), was factored into your overall academic performance and the military bearing grade actually carried the greater weight of the two. If collectively you weren't cutting the grade you were either told to re-do the OCS experience (these folks were lovingly referred to as "re-treads"), or if you were considered hopeless you were asked to leave.

While it would have been hard to believe when all of this started, it wasn't long before the days blended one into the other, and we made our way slowly but steadily, like a good Navy ship, through the cold, cold Newport winter. The wind blew briskly from the nearby Atlantic Ocean, and this in turn induced a quicker stride as we made our way from building to building for our classes. We got into a routine which dealt with the quotidian challenges and indeed, we even became more of a team, doing what we could to help our compatriots along who were having a hard time of it and pulling together when a team effort was appropriate to handle whatever was thrown at us on a given day or week. We honed our skills at "uniformology", or whatever one would call it, as we were required to fill our sea bags with ALL of the uniforms a Naval Officer would be expected to have at his or her disposable whenever they may conceivably be required. We learned to steer clear of most of what the Navy Exchange system had to offer in this regard as the quality tended to be inferior to what one would find in town at places like "Max Oberhard", otherwise referred to as Max Overcharge, and Viking, both shops catering to the needs and vanities of the average officer candidate coming out from Newport who wanted a good quality pair of pants, shirt, hat (i.e. "cover"), or whatever, and who was willing to spend their money to get it.

Your overall grade and class standing played into your follow-on orders from OCS. The idea was that the higher in the order you were the more choices you would have with regard to duty stations. With regard to duty stations you had two essential considerations to keep in mind: 1. What sort of command did you want to go to? and 2. what part of the country did you want to go to? I was going into the surface line community, i.e. I was going to go to sea on surface ships. Within the surface community you wanted to go to sea in a frigate, destroyer, or cruiser, with the idea being that you'd get lots of sea time, lots of experience, and you'd be in running with the "warriors". You wanted to avoid any ship that was the size of an aircraft carrier or indeed an aircraft carrier itself inasmuch as a carrier was an aviator command, surface line types were not premier and they often were at a disadvantage for various types of experiences and training. A large ship in general gave you the disadvantage of being lost in the crowd, though there were some who were essentially looking for that. My standing amongst my peers was essentially in the middle of the pack, which essentially put the "optimal" surface line choices out of reach and leaving me with location as my prime consideration. I wanted to get off the east coast so pretty much anything in San Diego was in my line of sight. I got to the board with the duty station options posted on it and found a slot on the U.S.S. Tripoli, stationed in San Diego, though with some distinct disadvantages to her. First she was an amphibious ship, i.e. one who's prime mission was to carry and deliver Marines. Second, she was primarily configured as an aviation platform, though flying helicopters vice planes. On the whole the Tripoli was less than what I would have considered to be an ideal choice.

On the whole getting through OCS was a drudge, though I can't say that there weren't moments when I'd experience an epiphany resulting in an "Ahhhhhh, now I get it", or that there wasn't much to be learned from the emphasis on teamwork and working with a divergent group of people. Interestingly enough you soon learned, once you made it out into the fleet, that a lot of what was made out to be "important" at OCS wasn't anywhere near important in the fleet, an experience that I suppose anyone who has gone through boot camp would be able to related
to. On the whole, though, at the time I hated the experience for ways that were more often visceral than ones I could quite pinpoint, though in retrospect there was always a part of me that didn't feel that I fit in, that somehow I could do what was needed to get through yet at the same time feel that I really wasn't a part of this whole thing.

Whatever, by February of 1981 I had finished the training, was commissioned an Ensign, and I had three weeks before I had to leave for Long Beach, California. I had one more school to attend, which would be in San Diego, before heading to the Tripoli, but the school wouldn't start for three months. In the meantime I would be temporarily "stashed" on board a cruiser going through an overhaul in Long Beach. My Navy life was finally off and running.

Note: Interestingly enough I was reading the local Providence newspaper this morning and learned that the Navy plans to move Officer Candidate School from Pensacola, Florida where it now is, back to Newport, RI. That would explain the construction now ongoing in the vicinity of the old OCS facilities. This is apparently a move in the direction of making Newport, where the Navy's War College is located, the intellectual center for the Navy.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Things to Learn About Teaching

Ok, let me say up front, there's a LOT for me to learn about teaching that have nothing to do with today's post, but these tidbits today happen to be on the top of my brain and I figured I'd share them with you.

You may remember way back in May my posting something titled Whaddya Gotta Do For A Job?. This specifically addressed the requirements associated with getting a job in the Providence public school system. It turns out that a school about a mile from me is under state supervision for many reasons, which caused a lot of teachers to decide to retire or otherwise bailout (I don't know all the particulars, but my guess is that a few were invited to leave as well.) So there was an ad in the local paper which indicated that this particular school in the Providence system was looking for many teachers, across many disciplines. If you go to the
Providence school system web site you'll find a list of things that an application must have (note: these requirements are still applicable as of today):

Teaching Applications must include the following:

-State of Rhode Island teaching certification
-Copy of Praxis or National Teaching Exam
-Bureau of Criminal Identification (BCI)background check
-Three (3) current letters of reference
-Original transcripts
-Copy of driver’s license and/or passport and social security card
-Mantoux (PPD) skin test results (tuberculosis)
-Hepatitis vaccine

All applicants who are not currently employed by the Providence School
Department must submit an original state and national criminal records check
through the Attorney General’s Office, Rhode Island State Police or local police
department where they reside.

Department of Attorney General
150 South Main Street
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 274-4400
$29.00 for both

An application packet will not be processed until these documents are obtained. Please refer to Law #16-2-18.1 Criminal Records Review. [Blogger's note: My emphasis on this section of the the city requirement.]

At the time I originally posted a blog entry about this I estimated that just to get your application in the door, i.e. just for them to LOOK at your application without a guarantee of a job offer, someone would need to spend roughly $125 to $150. This was based on my assumption that a hepatitis vaccine (this is for hepatitis B) was about the same cost as a TB test. I just found out at my new job that a hepatitis vaccine costs some $200, it's a series of 3 shots given over a period of about 9 months. Moreover only those teaching or working in areas where there's a reasonable likelihood of exposure to blood need get the vaccine, so we're talking nurses, physical education instructors, people working with special ed students, and, here's where I come in, chemistry teachers who work with a large amount of glass. Of course Providence doesn't appear to make that differentiation regarding their job applications, so what should we assume regarding this and what might it tell us? Well maybe that regardless of what discipline you work for the possibility of being exposed to blood is so high that the school district deems it necessary to require your being vaccinated, at your expense, of course; now that should instill confidence in the average applicant, I'm sure.

So just to get your application in the door in Providence you don't need to spend a bit over $100, but rather you need to spend close to $300, and you best have gotten the process started early if you're going to be fully vaccinated. At my current job I've been been told I can be vaccinated if I want and it'll come at the school district's cost, which frankly is where it should come from inasmuch as it's decidedly a job related risk we're talking about here. I have to wonder if Providence expects their custodial hires to all get tetanus shots on their dime before they're allowed to submit an application and my guess is if someone from their reads this (someone will surely have the chance as I'll be sending this to them, the mayor and a long list of others I've communicated with in the past) if they're not doing this they'll institute such a policy and chalk up another cost savings for the Providence Dept of Ed at the cost of the little guy.

Now maybe the requirements as laid out above (which were taken directly from the Providence Dept of Education web site) are not strictly adhered to, I mean this IS Providence after all and God only knows that maybe there are ways around having to lay out some $300 to get your application in the door. Or maybe not, maybe RI is a bastion of integrity and there are simply that many qualified teachers running around out there who've already had a $200 series of hepatitis B shots (likely because they were lucky like me and had their previous school employer pay for it as once you get the vaccination you don't need to get it again) and those who haven't, well they either shell out or the hell with them.

I don't know how this lays out, but I'll give the Providence Board of Education the benefit of the doubt and assume corruption is not an issue, but having to lay out $300 to simply play at the table with zero guarantee of a payout is ludicrous and discriminatory. I mean really, how many people with restricted means are going to shell out this type of money? Moreover, on the
whole when something that's supposed to be open to all but is de facto income restricted, who do we find being left out?At this point in my very limited teaching career (this is my first year teaching) I've already spent out of pocket about $150 to get my classroom ready for what I hope to do in the coming year. Frankly I don't mind that money, in fact I pretty much expected that I'd have to spend some money and expect that I will regularly have money coming out of my pocket to support what I want to do in my classroom. That's fine by me as I believe in the cause and on the whole, I appreciate that money is an "issue" these days, and I don't think I'm being stiffed by my school system when it comes down to things that shouldn't be dumped on me to pay for. How willing should teachers in Providence be to go the extra mile when they're expected to spend significant out of pocket sums simply to get in the door for an interview?

The bottom line is that the system for attracting teachers into the Providence school system is discriminator and penurious, placing the burden for employment on the prospective employee vice the employer. This is wrong, and it needs to be changed.