I Love Public Schools.

Today is I Love Public Schools day, an initiative of the non-profit organization NELovesPS. This non-profit has spent the past several years traveling the state, telling the stories of Nebraska Public Schools at a most crucial time.

Nebraska’s current governor, Pete Ricketts, has made no secret about his desires to thwart public education–though he wouldn’t use the word “thwart,” he’d use the word “reform.” He advocates “alternative pay structures” for teachers (code for doing away with unions); he advocates for the proliferation of charter schools (his father funded one just down the road from where I teach); he advocates for voucher systems.

Then, just last week, a state senator introduced a bill that would give the governor control over the state Department of Education.

Not for nothing: Ricketts himself donated to that state senator’s campaign.

Here’s what I always find interesting: when pollsters ask Americans their opinions about public schools in the U.S., their satisfaction is dismal–Gallup’s most recent poll has that number at 47% general satisfaction. But if you break that down to local schools? That satisfaction number almost doubles, to 82%.

What does this tell us?

People, in general, like their local schools. So here’s some things I really like about Bellevue West High School, where I teach.

  • We have an admin team that supports student journalism and encourages us to grow.
  • We have a stellar fine arts program.
  • We have students every year who get into fantastic colleges.
  • Our alumni succeed in college–at both under- and post-graduate levels.
  • Our athletic teams are competitive.
  • We have several AP course offerings.
  • We have partnerships with UNMC, Metro, the Henry Doorly Zoo, and other local businesses that give students current, real world experiences.

There are really good things going on in public schools. And if you think there aren’t good things happening in your local schools, then do something about it. Volunteer. Run for school board. Go to Donors Choose and fund a project. Support NELovesPS.

Nebraska has always done a pretty good job of keeping educational boondoggles at bay, instead relying on local districts to make sure they are giving children a quality education–often with much fewer resources than other states.

There’s much to love about Nebraska Public Schools. If you can’t find anything to love about public schools yourself, go ask a teacher to educate you.

Snow Days.

Let’s have a chat about snow days.

Every year from December until March, any mention of snow accumulation sets teachers and students a-flutter with glimmers of hope that maybe metro superintendents will call off school.

Let me be clear: I do love my job. Very much. In fact, most of the time, I’m at least 10% annoyed when school is canceled. I’m also fairly pessimistic about snow days happening. Legend has it that when Ms. Rowse says “We will totally have school tomorrow,” it’s a sign we won’t. When she says “Snow day tomorrow,” the weather dissipates and the sun shines.

But snow days are also a bit necessary for a few reasons.

  1. It keeps people off the roads. At the risk of sounding like a DirectTV commercial, when schools cancel, many other businesses and organizations then choose to cancel as well. This means fewer drivers, which means fewer accidents. Fewer drivers and accidents mean city plows can actually get roads treated for essential services.
  2. It keeps kids safer. Not every kid has a ride to school. In my own school district, budget cuts necessitated fewer bus routes which means more kids are walking to school. If it gets too cold or too snowy, keeping kids home really is in their best interest.
  3. It makes better teachers. Sure, our last snow day for me involved binging the PBS series “Victoria,” and you might say, “How does that make you a better teacher?” Here’s how: ever heard of decision fatigue? Teachers have it in spades by 9 a.m. How many decisions do I make in a given hour? Day? Week? Too many to count. So a bonus day off in which my only decision is “another episode?” actually makes me a better teacher in the long run because I get to take a break from the hundreds of other decisions I make in a given school day. (But truly, I spend time on most snow days refining lessons, reading, writing, and grading.)

Now, do I sometimes think we jump the gun a little on calling off school? Sure. Do I sometimes get frustrated with snow days because it gets in the way of the important work I do? Absolutely. However, I get equally frustrated when I see people criticizing both teacher/student snow day joy and the superintendents who make the call.

Take a moment and think about the superintendents who make the call to cancel school: if the weather doesn’t materialize, people criticize them for calling off school for no reason. If the weather does materialize, people criticize them for not calling off school–with the added bonus of a steady trail of students leaving school early so they can get home before the roads get too bad. Superintendents truly cannot win in making this decision.

But one last consideration about snow day frenzy: what does it say about the work environment when people are clamoring for an unexpected day off? If both teachers and students are giddy with anticipation at a day they won’t be burdened with expectations from various external sources, maybe those expectations are a bit too crushing? An extra, unexpected day to catch up on work, sleep, social life, or a day to just breathe is almost necessary for survival.

Perhaps instead of criticizing the joy and glee students and teachers express at snow days, a closer look at the reason for that joy and glee is a better use of time. Something to think about the next time teachers and students are gifted a snow day.

Which is today. Enjoy.

A Letter to December.

Dear December,

I’m not sure when it started happening, this horror you bring to my life every year. Perhaps it’s always been this way and I’m just now noticing it. That’s entirely possible. So I shouldn’t be quite so angry with you. It’s mostly my fault.

But other months don’t do this to me year after year.

This week alone I was out until 8 or 9 p.m. every night–three nights work-related, one night spent with friends, one night running errands because of the other four nights spoken for and Saturday completely booked.

This morning I was going to wake up early, go to Jazzercise and run more errands before picking up a friend to go see the musical “Waitress” and then attending a church Christmas party that has had my stomach in knots for three weeks.

When I got home last night at 10:15, my whole being chided, “Julie. Tomorrow morning you are going to sleep in. You will eat your favorite yogurt and a bagel for breakfast, while in bed watching something mindless. Spend a little time writing. You’ll eventually get up and get ready for the day, maybe even vacuum, maybe grade a few papers, maybe even get a jump start on holiday baking. You are taking the morning off. It’s the only way you won’t lose your mind.”

The problem with that chastisement is I have goals I set last January, and guess what, December–you make it nearly impossible for a last-minute push to meet any of them. Plus I have a mountain of tasks, all priorities, that need tending to. I feel guilty for taking a morning off.

So I have to make a choice: meet my goals and complete my tasks, or lose my mind. What would you have me do December?

All the things.

That’s what you would have me do, because it’s what you have me do every year. All the things. Which, for a month that is supposed to be about love and joy and peace, seems counter to your alleged theme and purpose.

The only positive thing I can say about you at this point, December, is that this morning is December 16, which means you are half over, and then I don’t have to see you again for another year.

But I am taking this morning off.

Sincerely,

Julie

 

 

Keeping the World Safe for Democracy.

Growing up, I never understood what my dad’s job entailed. His security clearances required he not share a whole lot about the specifics, but he would often tell me his job involved “keeping the world safe for democracy.”

The older I got, I tended to laugh a little when he would say that phrase; it seemed a little tongue-in-cheek, a nod to the fact that he couldn’t tell me just how dangerous his job was. A veteran of the Cold War, his job entailed managing parts of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and being an expert at deterrence theory. He literally kept the world safe.

In my own public service career, I have made similar passing comments about my work, often when talking to my peers. What do I do? I change lives. I’m a champion for children. I’m helping the future. All idealistic catch phrases I’ve said over the past 17 years, sometimes sarcastically, sometimes not.

Ernest Hooper, a columnist with the Tampa Bay Times wrote a piece this week about his experience at the Journalism Education Association’s Fall Convention. It’s fantastic. You should read it.

I’ve taught media literacy in some capacity my entire career, but I’m not sure how I would’ve answered if people asked me on a regular basis why I feel so strongly about teaching media literacy. I’d probably fall back on those catch phrases.

But Hooper’s column gives me the real answer: “Protecting [democracy] begins with educating a new generation that you can’t have freedom without a free press.”

With public education under attack locally through LB 295 and at the national level with the House’s tax reform bill (the Senate’s bill is a bit more supportive of education), I get discouraged about my job and wonder how much longer I’ll be able to do it. Especially since I teach journalism, and if you haven’t heard, the current leader of the free world doesn’t take too kindly to journalists.

My current job feels a bit precarious.

But tonight, I have a renewed sense of purpose, thanks to Hooper. I might be changing lives and teaching the future and whatever teaching cliché you want to throw at me.

But really, I’m keeping the world safe for democracy.

I’m a Rowse. It’s what we do.

 

More Than One Kind of Work Ethic.

Dear Senator Sasse,

I am one of your constituents. I teach in a public high school in Nebraska. Last summer, I attended a town hall you held in Papillion, and I was impressed with your candor and demeanor. Even though I disagree with you politically, I want to hear what you have to say, and I usually keep my mouth shut.

But I take issue with the op-ed you wrote for the New York Times. Next week, I will begin my 17th year of teaching. I’ve taught in Utah, Nebraska, and as a grad assistant in Ohio while earning my master’s degree. I’ve taught a variety of subjects and thousands of students at this point, and here’s one of the many things I’ve learned: there is more than one kind of work ethic.

I’ll concede that I’ve had students who tested my patience because of their lack of will to work–though more often than not, those kids actually worked crazy hard in other classes or at their jobs. I’ve had kids who worked three jobs to help their parents pay the bills. I’ve had kids who took AP classes and did sports and did extracurricular activities and somehow still made time to hold down jobs. I teach mostly juniors and seniors in high school, and nearly every single one of them has a job. They do not lack work ethic.

I’ve been a newspaper adviser for six years now, and every editor-in-chief I’ve had has been a combination of the following: AP student. Honors student. Athlete. Dancer. Club member. Volunteer. And they all have also had jobs.

But I kind of expect that of my EICs. So let me tell you a little about the kids who aren’t the “top-tier” student.

The student who has the emotional work ethic to get out of bed every morning and go to school in a space he feels unsafe because he is Muslim. Because he is liberal. Because he is conservative. Because he is not athletic. Because his grades are failing. Because he is gay.

Or the student who has the emotional work ethic to get out of bed every morning and go to school in a space she feels unsafe because she is Catholic. Because she is overweight. Because she is skinny. Because her grandmother is undocumented. Because she is a woman. Because she is queer.

There is more than one kind of work ethic, and the kind you write about in your op-ed is valuable, to be sure. But to not acknowledge the emotional work ethic placed upon students today is short-sighted and, frankly, insulting.

My students work hard. They might not be working hard in my class on a given day, but in 17 years, I’ve learned to step back and learn about that kid–what else does he have going on in his life? Is he working hard someplace else?

To close, a quick story about two students I taught last year. Senior boys, who took my introductory journalistic writing class. This is a class comprised mostly of freshmen and sophomores who want to be on newspaper or yearbook staff. These boys were graduating, and therefore, would not be on staff. I had no idea why they were my students, and initially, I was suspicious of how long those two senior boys would last. Journalistic writing is not for the weak–we write and we talk to people we don’t know, and I make kids draft and draft and draft their stories.

Yet every day, those two boys showed up and learned. They wrote. They revised. They asked questions. They revised again. They had their work critiqued by the entire class.

They did not need my class to graduate, and could have taken a study hall. Their lives outside of school were not easy. But they stayed and successfully completed a class they did not need.

Work ethic? Yeah, they had it in spades.

I implore you, Senator, to spend some time during your recesses and talk to teachers and talk to students about their work. Go visit the good people at Nebraska Loves Public Schools and see how you can help their mission.

The students of Nebraska do have a work ethic. They might not all be detassling corn in the summers, but they are working physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Acknowledge them.

Sincerely,

Julie L. Rowse