Long ago, I promised myself that if I completed 25 years of teaching, I would try to write a book about my experiences. Next year will be year 25. So I started this last year to begin to figure out what I wanted to write about. I welcome your comments, resources, links to your own teaching blog, book recommendations, etc.
I’ve always found January – March to be the most difficult time of the school year. It could have something to do with the fact that I’ve generally lived and taught in cold weather places, and the darkness and the grey can get to me. And this year, there was the special euphoria of starting a new school, though that makes me wonder why starting January in a new building did not revive those good feelings.
The end of the year comes with the “What did I do this year?” kind of feeling when it seems like your students have learned nothing. And there’s also the frenzy to finish what you had planned for the year before the frenzy of standardized tests and band concerts.
I’m not sure why the Wintertime Blues feel especially intense this year. My morale is not great, and I have to push myself to keep my energy going. Maybe the honeymoon has worn off a bit, especially with the adults. Maybe we’re trying to do too much too soon. Maybe I’m just getting old. Who knows? It’s not a good feeling.
I have greatly admired and respected two of the three principals I’ve worked for in the last four years. Both of them got me thinking about the stoplight metaphor, often because grades or test scores or something like that would be presented using those colors as codes. The symbolism is likely obvious. The green kids are going to be fine. The red kids are not. Our work, they both argue, is in the yellow. Though I’ve tried to follow their lead and adopt this philosophy, it has never sat quite right with me. I don’t know why, but for some reason today I had a kind of epiphany. I wanted to do my work in the red because the power of my skills, my character, my motivational talks, my whiteness would mean that I could lift them out of the red, have them leap over the yellow and land triumphantly in the green. I think what I realized today is that I can’t do it. I don’t think – though I worry about this too – that this means I’ve given up on them. It just means (I hope) that I’ve finally learned to recognize my limits, the limits of my training, the limits of myself, the limits of my whiteness.
There are those trained to work with students who read on the 1st and 2nd grade level and are in 9th grade. I am just not one of them. I will try what I know, and I am always willing to learn and try more, but given limited time and energy, I think I finally understood what these two principals have been trying to tell me. Our work is in the yellow. I can do that and challenge the green students at the same time. And I can work with a student in red who demonstrates any kind of spark of a work ethic or interest. I’m bringing in two books for red students tomorrow in the hopes that something, finally, might prompt them to read. And I will push them to write and think and create. And I will call it modifications or differentiation or whatever the word of the day is. Ultimately, though, my efforts are best spent on those on the border. I should have learned this a while ago. After the first year of teaching in the International Baccalaureate program, I received our scores. My Assistant Principal asked me what I thought of them. (For those who don’t know, the scores range from o-7; 4 is considered passing. That’s enough to know for this story to make sense.) I said, “I’m not surprised by the students who got a 6 or 7. It’s the students who got 4s that surprised me.” Her response? “That’s teaching.”
There’s a great moment in Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars in which she describes an international group of educators watching a video of an American teacher’s classroom. One of the non-American teachers keeps asking to stop the recording and asks, “What’s that?” After a while, the American teacher finally realizes what’s so foreign to the teacher who was asking for the recording to be stopped. It was the intercom.
Today was that kind of day. Testing the intercom. Teachers stopping to “peek in” to the classroom (we’re in a new building; many of my students are their former students, etc.).
We know and agree on about 4 things in education. 1 of them is that we shouldn’t interrupt classes. So let’s not do that. Let’s make class time sacred. Because if we don’t, how can we expect the students to do so?
This is a story about a friend. And not ‘a friend’ as in I am trying to disguise the fact that I’m writing about myself, but a friend. Really. So, Mom, don’t call.
A story I tell, probably too often, is about Opening Day at Wrigley Field in the mid-late 80s. I could look up the exact year if it mattered, but it doesn’t. What matters is that prior to the previous season, Major League Baseball seemed to think Andre Dawson was washed up. So he offered his services at what I remember as the league minimum (again, I’m not sure that the details matter, so please don’t bother correcting me) and the Cubs signed him. And he hit close to 50 home runs. I think it was 49. So when he came out to right field on Opening Day the next year, the fans were chanting “An-dre, An-dre” and bowing to him. And I remember in the midst of all of that bleacher craziness thinking about how hard it must be to walk away from all of that, how hard it must be to know when you’re finished.
Now there are age issues or health issues or other circumstances that could prompt my exit from the classroom one day. A few issues that have come up, like No Nonsense Nurturing, have fallen into the category of a hill I was willing to die on, but my resolve was never tested, but then this. My friend and former colleague bought a bulletproof vest last night.
I want to try to stick to what I know to be true here. A student brought a gun into the school. A student came to my friend’s classroom and asked to hide in a closet. In the end, another student reported the gun-wielding student to security. No one was hurt. Those of you who know me and / or read this regularly will know the school. It is rocked by violence on a regular basis.
And my friend, an excellent teacher in his own subject and one of those people who are great to have on a faculty because he is willing and able to do whatever is needed. (He once told me that chickens make a contribution to breakfast and that pigs make a commitment. When it came to teaching, he said, he wanted to be a pig.) I have also had the opportunity to see him as a husband, a father and to hear stories about him as a brother and a son. All told, when I told him I loved him on one of my last work days with him last year, I meant it. I already knew of his experience with guns. And now he has a bulletproof vest.
At first, the moral of my story is that when he saw himself in the store contemplating which vest to buy, well, that should have been his sign to himself that it was time to quit. I know some offer the notion that educators should be armed, and if that becomes the requirement, it would mean it was time for me to go. I am certainly never buying a bulletproof vest any more than I am carrying a gun at school (or anywhere else). And I still think he should quit. The first rule of teaching is to keep the children safe, physically. But the school, under its current lousy leadership, has an obligation (moral, contractual, fiscal – whatever suits you) to keep its teachers safe too. And clearly, he does not feel safe. One mutual colleague suggested he might be overreacting. Maybe. But I know him as a reasonable person. I know this recent event did not happen in isolation, that it just may have been the exclamation point. But it’s enough. He should quit.
But I realized that this can’t be the complete response. He should quit for his safety. And he, we, also need to change the terms of the fight. After the recent Presidential election, a lot of words have been written in response to more or less the same question: how did we get here?
And that’s the question I have now: how did we get here? How did we get to the point where a talented and passionate teacher is so disrupted by the amount of violence surrounding his school that he buys a bulletproof vest? How do we make sure that not only my friend is safe, but that all teachers and students are safe? How did we get here? And how are we going to step back from this particular brink? And stay back. We know you cannot learn when you are hungry. Well, you cannot teach when you are afraid.
So not only do I want my friend to quit, I want him to quit publicly. I want him to let people know what he bought and why, and why this will likely be his last year of teaching. I want people to know that just as we can’t accept the national scene as any version of normal, this, even if it is in the “inner city.”
I am sure there are millions of ideas about how we got here. I’m not even sure that I can say what ‘here’ means. Perhaps it’s enough to say that ‘here’ is in the aisle of some store looking at your options for bulletproof vests.
Parent conferences last night. Whatever I think about the format, I was thrilled with attendance. I think I saw around 30 parents. Many of the conversations were productive; at least I thought so. I was leaving somewhat high on this buzz (at my previous school, if we saw 5 parents, that was a win) when I saw a student sitting with the Principal and crying. She had a minor argument when she and her mother and conferenced with me, but for some reason, I knew. Mom had left her behind. On purpose. The minor argument that had started in front of me must have escalated. I was absolutely chilled.
I spoke with my mother about it, and she helped me calm down. She reminded me about what we do in times of anger and how some people get no help, no role models, and no education when they become mothers. I had a feeling her comments were somewhat autobiographical.
There’s a difference, though, between then and now, between black and white. I am not sure where the student slept last night, but I suspect that it was arranged by the city and not her mother. The Principal reminded me to keep my mouth shut this morning. I knew to do that. And the student isn’t even here.
After watching our daughter endure close to two years of this glitchy program, I went to talk with her Principal about it (and other things). Conferences with her teachers had indicated to me that they were less than enthused about the program and that they were being required to choose an arbitrary number of lessons to assign each week. I asked him about the research that went into selecting the program.
Principal: It is supposed to improve test scores.
Me: Oh. Where can I find that information?
Principal: Compass Learning.
Me: I mean, has anyone outside the company that sells the program said anything positive about it? Is there any independent research? Did you contact any other schools that use it?
Principal: It’s meant a great deal to my son. I’ve seen his confidence in math improve.
So when I went to the Open House for our son, I was pleased to hear what sounded like a more deliberate approach to using the program. I was pleased until he called me to the computer one day and asked for help with a unit called ‘Poetics.’ After enduring an endless and inane lesson on the volta (not the most urgent topic for anyone, much less a 5th grader), we came to this writing prompt –
Write two paragraphs in which you analyze and compare how the forms and structures of “Sonnet 19” and “Ozymandias” help to express themes and ideas. Use the information in Part 1 to help you organize your ideas. Refer back to the text evidence you found in the sonnets to help you support the ideas in your analysis.
I was floored. I’ve taught “Ozymandias” . . . to 11th graders. And Shakespearean sonnets can be fun, even for 5th graders, but not like this. Definitely not like this.
I wrote his English teacher an impassioned plea to reconsider assigning this unit. I received a rather bureaucratic response. She claimed that the program offered different levels of reading challenges for students (this one apparently had a 9.8 lexile) and that if I wished, I could tell our son (very much a rule follower) not to do Compass Learning and that it would not have an impact on his grade.
First, she missed what I thought was my wildly overstated point that this approach was very much going to contribute to the reputation schools have for killing the joy of poetry. Second, if it’s (supposedly) so essential to the curriculum, how can he just opt out of doing it? If I mentioned this option to him, he would refuse it, not wanting to be singled out. So now I am left with the option of bringing my concerns to a higher level or enduring another two years of this?