Oh, that would never happen in MY classroom!

smug

Ah, the clarion call of the shitty teacher; the person who proves his or her superiority by taking a teachable moment and using it to score points off a willing and eager learner or collaborator.  You see, this piece of passive aggressive nonsense is most often blurted out directly after a colleague has had the strength and integrity to ask for assistance or clarity, or express a concern.  It’s usually directed at someone young/new and insecure, and said in a smug, self-satisfied tone.   And it is almost NEVER followed by any useful information.

There’s almost no quicker way for a teacher to lose all my respect.  (If said in a gentle tone, and immediately followed by the phrase “anymore, since I implemented X,” or ” anymore, since I reconfigured Y,” the teacher might actually be salvageable.  I’d need more data.)

It’s been a little while since anyone lobbed that nonsense in my direction, because I am not terribly new anymore.  But it did happen just the other day.  In fact, I was triple-teamed. In a stunning reversal, this was a veteran teacher being “Oh, NEVER”-ed by newbies.   You see, I have some very insecure young colleagues who refuse to acknowledge that anything less than stellar ever happens in their classrooms or among their children.

I saw a student avoiding class in the hallway. Twice.  You know the kid.  He’s the one who isn’t doing very well in any subject, and who goes to the bathroom and then returns to class with only the briefest stopover in Iceland.  This kid missed A LOT of class last year for the same reason.  He’s hiding from academics because he isn’t terribly good at them.  I notified his teachers, the insecure colleagues, to be met with a chorus of “Oh, he would NEVER with ME” and offers to talk to him on my behalf because they have RELATIONSHIPS with the boy.

fuck you

Now, the first who issued this rebuttal hates the hell out of me for reasons so petty and childish that I expect a Taylor Swift song to be written about them at any moment. The second, who piled on, is terrified of people thinking he isn’t perfect.  The third just enjoys a drama and will even indict herself in conversation if enough momentum is moving against her.  I’m not kidding; she did exactly that two days before.  So, I’m not personally wounded by a difficult interaction with this trio.

But here’s what might have happened, had these people been there for the benefit of the child and not to hate on me or toot their own horns:

– They might have said “We haven’t seen that behavior, but we will look for it.”

-They might have acknowledged a concern if they had one, and looked for solutions together – to serve the best interests of the child.

-They might have asked a follow-up question or two to see if my observations were relevant and concerning before dismissing them.  

Anyway, I did my duty in bringing the issue to their attention.  A few sensible people were also in the room, and they now also know about the issue.  So, that’s good.  Here’s hoping the terrific trio secretly get enough past their own desperation to be right to actually do what is necessary for the kid.

The amusing thing is, though, that the two who started the “such things never happen with MY students in MY classroom, this boy is just doing this to YOU” are the teachers of the very classes the boy was skipping.  I observed him in the hallways because I was out of the classroom on my planning time.  Logic: also not a strong point for the malevolent and/or insecure.

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Intermission Ended Due to Excessive Time

For the past year or so, I have been getting very close to numerous doctors of gynecology, trying to figure out why my ovaries and uterus developed side projects without my consent or permission.  I was MRI’d and PET’d and Ultrasounded and had what felt like all my blood taken away at least five times.  I had exploratory surgery scheduled, then cancelled due to medical complications.  I got anti-hormone injections, hot flashes, and a lot of nervous waiting time.   As this was going on, and I was desperately trying to suppress the visions I had of Gilda Radner dancing in my head, I also turned 40.  So I got to feel old and mysteriously ill, and dreadfully unaccomplished too.  My body was betraying me on multiple levels.  I was alternatively a nervous wreck and a careless ass.  Judge all you want; I was suddenly middle-aged, childless, with modest accomplishments, had inexplicable and debilitating leg cramps all the time, and my ovaries were possibly trying to kill me.  That’s a lot to process all at once.  Some road trips and alcohol were required.  Blogging, apparently, was not.

But, I am now out of surgery, awaiting pathology reports, and have a lot of time on my hands to think about what I am doing with my life and career.  I would usually discuss this with the person I once considered a best friend, but that friendship now appears to be a casualty of the cancer scare. So, the internet will have to be my sounding board now.  Hello, internet.  Let’s talk!

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How I Got Here

There’s a lot of speculation on the part of the woefully uninformed and snarky about who teachers are, and how they choose to go into teaching.   I thought I’d share my story. 

I am an educator.  This is a title I claim with great pride, because it took me quite some time to earn it.  I grew up in a family that struggled financially, to put the case rather mildly.   Though I wanted desperately to go to college, that dream was regarded in my household with the kind of pained pride that mothers bestow upon the more quixotic dreams of their naive offspring.  College aspirations were a broken heart waiting to happen.  Though I was accepted to many colleges, we couldn’t afford even the ten percent family contribution to a state university. I needed to postpone my college education. 

I was extremely fortunate that my family had connections good enough, and a reputation for hard work solid enough, to guide me to a job that paid twice the minimum wage, and eventually allowed health benefits.  I earned enough to sustain myself, and to pick up my share of the load of family responsibility.  I saw doctors outside of the emergency room.  I grew and learned in that job for ten years, making supportive friends, accumulating cost-of-living raises, and occasionally putting aside enough money to take a class or two. 

After ten years, at the urging of those supportive friends, and with the help of my family and the income level and flexibility that came with ten years’ tenure in my job, I was able to attend college full time and work full time simultaneously.  It was rough, but I had help and I was determined to succeed.  And succeed I did, graduating with various honors in my two major programs, and the credentials necessary to teach in my home state.

The teaching market is never very good for Humanities teachers in my state, and I am crap at interviewing.  I spent a year subbing, doing home and hospital teaching, picking up classes to teach at local children’s hospitals and giving very bad interviews.  After that year, with the panic of a Master’s degree deadline to keep my teaching credentials looming, a still-weak job market, and immense fear of failure, I elected to go to a second-choice graduate school rather than wait and make a fair chance at an application to a school I really wanted.  

This school was happy to have me.  I mean, as happy as any school is to have another Humanities major using library resources without bringing in corporate contracts.   They were so happy to have me that they gave me a teaching job to supplement my loans, which was paid at 1/9 the rate of a science or math grad’s remuneration.  I incurred during this process rather a lot more debt than a woman raised in poverty is comfortable acquiring. I had nearly continuous neurotic episodes where I was convinced my mother’s grave illness was being exacerbated by my personal fiscal failures.  (She lived with me, and any belt-tightening I had to do negatively affected her.)  While trying to do research, and write papers so I could do as well in graduate school as I did in undergrad, I frequently imagined myself a matricide-by-failure.  It’s not ideal to try to grapple with big ideas when you are in a constant state of panic and guilt.  It’s not ideal to have a professor tell you you aren’t a real, studious student when you show up to class late again due to your mother’s recurring cardiac events. *

After two years and many tears, I completed the MA program, and walked in that graduation.  Two days later my mom had open-heart surgery, which she survived, barely.  There were panicked and running surgeons at one point; not a good sign.  Then I began the search for employment again, only this time with crushing debt and less time on the clock until my state credentials ran out.  You can imagine how relaxed I was in those interviews.  I expanded my search outside my state, because I needed a job, nevermind location issues. 

Finally, just after the school year started, a teacher in a state 300 miles away quit his position because he was afraid of his students.   I was apparently the runner up for that position, and they called me in.   I was broke from all the traveling around seeking employment, and I needed to borrow two thousand dollars from a family member to go stay in a very shady motel so I could report to work while finding an apartment.  I ate nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and drank nothing but water for a month. Even with my Silas Marner-like parsimony, I still almost ran out of money.   My mother called from grad school city crying because she needed money and I couldn’t give her all she needed.   She was alone in a city I had decided to move her to, living out a lease we couldn’t afford to buy our way out of, and my siblings couldn’t visit on a schedule I tried to set up so someone would be looking after her at least every weekend. 

All this while I desperately tried to get children who had inspired — I learned — several of their former teachers to resign to sit still and try to learn.  Eventually, I was able to teach them something.  After I reminded them that 3 years without a steady teacher in my content area did not excuse acting like fools when they finally had a teacher.  Their test scores went up an average of 30 points that year.  I developed blood pressure that should have killed me, 230/180 for a couple of days, and that caused a secondary problem I still deal with today. 

I am not all that special, and I’m not telling this story to pretend I am.  I am not telling this story to seek pity for my struggles.  I know that we all struggle with many stressors and grave misfortunes in our lives.  It is expected that one soldiers on through at least some adversity.  I know I was fortunate to get to college at all.  Many from my background would not have made it there and through. I just want some people to have some idea of who they are talking about when they start a sentence or a clause with the words “these teachers.”

When Arne Duncan talks about trying to get the top 2% of college students into the classroom, he’s talking about me.  I have all manner of cords and plaques and assorted tchotchkes to prove it. 

When self-appointed arbiters of teacher quality talk about effective teachers as if standardized test scores are the only thing that we can use to see if a teacher is effective, they are talking about me.  

I stay almost every night until 7:30, working on school stuff.   I am not the last person in my building most nights.  I bring supplies for children whose families are suffering an economic downturn.  I counsel children who should be pre-sexual about respecting themselves and their lives too much to be as hypersexual and reckless as they are being.  So, when the arbiters of teacher quality talk about teacher dedication, they are talking about me. 

I figuratively and damned near literally broke my heart trying to get good at this job.  

But every time one of these people talks about teachers, I want to quit.  Just quit.  I could start a soy farm somewhere, or raise goats, or something.  (This would be hilarious to you if you knew me.)  Because every time one of these people talks about teachers, it’s to degrade us.  They speak to blame us for the problems that exist in a society they have allowed or even encouraged to become less fair, less open, less kind to children and their caretakers.  And there are many of us: competent, effective, and dedicated educators who became educators because it is what we truly wanted and felt called to do, who want to walk away now.

* I want to be clear that my mother was a constant support, and joined several of my professors in encouraging me to continue on for the PhD in my field.  I did not choose to go that path, because I just could not handle the guilt anymore.   That guilt was made by me, though, not the people around me.

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A Question of Priorities

About a week ago, I went to interview with a school very near my own.  It is far from an education mecca, but I have some friends there already and my commute wouldn’t change.  We went through the standard interview questions, although in a fairly unconventional manner for some time, and then the principal asked about some teaching I have done of which I am proud.  

I love that question. 

Just a few weeks ago, during our drama unit,  my students surpassed my hopes and expectations for them and made me so very proud I could barely express it.  For four solid weeks, 120 13 year-olds showed me why I wanted to be a teacher.  They engaged with the text, The Diary of Anne Frank, and the social context in which it was produced.  They tried hard to understand nuanced meaning.  They were reflective and creative.   They developed empathy and outrage before my eyes.   Without asking for extra credit, they nagged their parents to take them to the Holocaust Museum on the weekend.   Without asking for extra credit, they did independent research, reading as many articles as they could find and watching all the movies available to them on the subject of the Holocaust and later genocides.   They came in to school ready to teach me and their peers what they had learned, and learn from us.  They proposed a letter-writing campaign to our government, demanding to know why we weren’t doing more to stop modern genocidal movements in the world.  They really began to see themselves as members of the human family, with all the rights and responsibilities of full membership.  In short, I have touched the teacher’s holy grail.

Beaming with pride, I explained this unit and my students’ engagement with it to the search committee of a school principal and two assistant principals. 

Their response?

“That’s all very nice, but what tested indicators did you cover?”

 

 

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Preparing for Exodus and Diaspora

For the years I have taught at my current school, there have been typically a few colleagues who, at this trying time of year, notify us all of their intention to leave for greener pastures over the summer.  Last year there were quite a few colleagues who did just that, a few at my advice because they were so unhappy, and many who tried to get me to go as they were packing up.  But I still loved those I had left of my team, and this is my school, and things hadn’t been awful for me specifically that far. 

I am change-averse, can you tell?

This year will be rather different.  I realized a few weeks ago that, though I have the best batch of kids I have ever had and the best team I have ever had, I have been angry all the time anyway.   I mean really angry, and this has been going on all year long.   That anger is a reaction to the administration of my school, and sometimes my district, and the counter-intuitive (read: dumb-ass) choices they make.  Though I have some ambivalence about the move, and still love my team, 50% of that team already have new assignments far, far away and are awaiting their chance to tell the principal at a time when his retribution engines are down or there’s limited time left for him to torture them, another 25% are going to second interviews this week, and being fabulous, will have firm job offers in hand by the time we return from Easter. 

So, change-averse and ambivalent or no, I need to get my happy ass in gear.   I will not be left behind in this school after all the good people leave, if I can help it.  And, seriously, almost ALL the good people are leaving this school.  Some of the best people are even leaving education entirely, because why the hell would they continue to do this to themselves?  By the time the dust settles, we will be left with some good arts teachers, two dim-witted sorority sisters, one awesome math teacher and the office staff.   Oh, and we’ll have coaches and administrators who are petty dictators still.

So, why does it still break my heart to send out resumes? It has to be more than a fear of having nobody to be friends with at a new school, or learning the ins and outs of a whole new field.   I partly feel that moving to a new school or district would be abandoning kids who really need teachers who give a damn about them.   Almost every district surrounding my own has better academic programs and less — or at least less obvious — corruption.  Almost every district surrounding my own has developed better rapport among school, home, and community.  And, because of these things, I feel guilty leaving.  Maybe I can make a difference if I’m here, I think, even though I know I can’t because I won’t be allowed to make that difference. 

So, then, should I just leave teaching and do something else, something with better pay and less homework?  I mean, I won’t have my colleagues anyway, what better time to make a radical change?

Feh.  All neuroses firing on all cylinders now.  And it is in this condition, all twitchy and bothered, that I must make my employment decisions.

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I Have a Cunning Plan!

Of late, the most frequent thing I take for my teaching pains, after excedrin and the occasional gin and tonic, is umbrage.  (I take lots and lots of umbrage these days, so you can just imagine what my excedrin and gin bills look like.)  Fortunately for my teacher’s budget, most of the umbrage I take is provided to me gratis by the loud n proud politicos and punditry, who are beamed into my living room whenever I try to be a good citizen and turn that flickery thing on during its agreed upon information distribution cycles. 

Our national-level representatives, bureaucrats, and their corporate-funded press minions spend a lot of time in the box talking about what teachers don’t do, and should do, and must begin doing yesterday, which they all know very well from their complete ignorance of pedagogy.  Some even go so far as to prove their hardass news chops by pointedly ignoring such whiny excuse-laden babies as adolescent cognitive function experts, education experts, teachers and children and expound instead the theories borne of the political machinations of those who belive firmly in their own liberty to curtail the liberty of others with impunity.  Then, for diversity of opinion called “balance,” they add those ideas promulgated by the wealthy who contend that ability to amass wealth is the very same thing as ability to teach chemistry. 

Well, I surrender.  I am slightly anemic, you see, and my body simply can’t make the hemoglobin required to take all this umbrage properly anymore.  Besides, I like a learning experience, and these people have much to teach me.  They say so themselves, right there on the TV. 

I hereby call on my peers, my fellow teachers, to follow my lead and go to these people.  Seek their wisdom.  Do it for the children.  Do it for the nation. 

Those teachers among us who live in or near D.C. can be the first to show proper humility to our colleagues around the country by taking our grading and planning away from our classrooms, libraries, dining room tables, and favorite quiet coffee shops.  We must bring this work to the establishments in the district where we know our representatives and their official and unofficial assistants frequently spend the joyful hours between four and seven pm, say, on weekdays.  I know, if we say nothing, but just sit there, occupying tables and booths quietly, humbly, bumbling along in our woefully misguided grading/planning/data disaggregation, that these kind people will give us their counsel, and we will be better for it.

I’m starting Valentine’s day, because I love America.  Instead of eating chocolate, I will be bringing my canvas bag of doom to an eatery right on the Hill, and quietly completing paperwork there until some fine person shows me what I am doing wrong.

Join me.

Don’t do your teacher work in the dark, where the people can’t see you and correct your elite fascist union errors.  Go to them.  Let them instruct you.  Every experience is a learning experience, and I think there is much to be learned by this activity.

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Is There Forethought and Action in Your Activism?

When I was a student, I belonged to a student government organization.  There were semi-weekly meetings of torturous hell, mostly, that accomplished almost nothing.  But, I could have technically called myself senator for a bit (though I never did), and the experience was not without its instructional moments. 

 The lesson that sticks out most clearly is the absolute unwillingness of the most “radical” of our membership to do anything at all useful in effecting the sort of change they would so often insist was required.  There was one guy, whose name I have sincerely forgotten, who was perpetually “demanding immediate action” really loudly, in response to some administrative decree or another that absolutely should have garnered action on our part, if we were anything at all like activists.  He was always assuaged by the epitome of political action: a consensus to send a strongly worded letter expressing the student government’s disapprobation.  Fellow senators felt really good about their daring natures whenever such a resolution was made, because they were redressing their grievances in a letter and then signing it, just like the founding fathers. It was such bullshit.  We were accepting our powerlessness as it was constructed by the university, and effectively stomping off to our rooms and slamming the door when we sent those letters.  There was nothing to back up our “disapprobation.”  Nothing at all.  They weren’t well-considered and carefully worded persuasive missives.  We didn’t even threaten to organize students to stop buying sugary treats from university vendors until our demands were met.   At best these letters were a minor irritant to administration; more likely they were a source of amusement or just a shameful waste of dead tree.  They surely weren’t activism. 

When I, in exasperation, tried to get the group to agree to an actual action or just let it drop after yet another rant by the same guy about yet another outrage he percieved in administrative procedure, I was shot down.  There was too much at stake.  The administration might disband the senate, revoke our funds, admonish us personally if we made too much of a nuisance of ourselves.  They could make it difficult for us to get our degrees.  There would be negative consequences.  Apparently, we saw real oppression, and could be just like the founding fathers to rectify it, as long as we didn’t risk financial or emotional inconvenience.  And we couldn’t just do nothing, because that would be wrong.  We had to be on record as muttering impotently that all this was quite unpleasant, indeed, really, and should be stopped.  I’m convinced that the blood pressure issues I developed later began in that room. 

Fred Clark, in writing recently over at Slacktivist about anti-choice activists, comes up with a description of this false-activist mentality that I think also exists in a number of school reform “activists,”  much to the detriment of actual educational policy discussion.

Let’s pretend that our unremarkable lives of quiet desperation are actually epic quests in the service of something meaningful. Let’s pretend our lives are driven by some purpose. Let’s pretend we are engaged in the great moral struggle of our time—that we are opposing some massive and twisted evil. Let’s pretend that this struggle requires courage and commitment and let’s pretend that we possess those things. Let’s pretend that we are all that stands between this country and brutal chaos—that we and we alone are the ones keeping it all together.

Let’s pretend we are not who we actually are. Let’s pretend that our lives are not what they actually are. Let’s pretend.

I think I might have someone more artistic than I needlepoint that on a desk blotter, and send it to the most egregiously self-serving school reform blatherer I can identify when it’s finally done.  Though I would probably add “and let’s make a profit while we do it” to the above.

It’s so seductive, isn’t it, activism identity?  We’d ALL like to imagine ourselves as being of-a-kind with Joan of Arc, or that college kid who stood solo against armed tanks in Tiananmen square, or any number of other people who showed extraordinary courage of conviction in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.  Those people rock, and we would also like to rock.  So we imagine that we do, and we talk like we do, and we get really angry with people who disagree with us because they are messing with our delusions of awesome.  The sad reality is that a lot of us are boring, apathetic, craven, and selfish. We talk a lot about what we believe, and aver that somebody should do something right away to fix that which is vexing us.  We admire the words of people more eloquent than we, and give them our full support to talk some more about whatever it is we’ve decided we’re angry about.  And then we watch reruns of sitcom favorites from our childhoods until the desire to really work this stuff out passes. 

We don’t just need to do better, folks, we need to be better.  And I’m not just talking to teachers and parents when I say that.  The childless accountant who hasn’t read a whole book since junior high?  S/He needs to be better, too.  Before we can be better, however, we have to figure out what better means.  Before we can do that, we have to identify some basic questions to wrestle with, and look carefully at our whole culture, and see what we know to be true: the schools reflect what we have built outside of them.

I do firmly believe that education of the populace is a moral and philosophical issue, and that where we stand on that issue reveals who we fundamentally are as people.  It is not the only political Rorschach test in our democracy, but it is an important one.   Where we come from, who we are, and what we are willing to do and sacrifice is put into stunning relief by what we see when we look at public schools, and what we are willing to propose to better those schools.  As Diane Ravitch suggested in her “Myth of Charter Schools,” those who frequently bash the current public school system and propose greater access to publicly funded private schools often ignore inconvenient facts in favor of more convenient emotional responses.  These emotional responses are often heavily informed by a central belief in and reliance on systemic inequality.  Their personal, made-from-scratch children are special, you see, and should not have to submit to the education that the children of the hoi polloi receive.  Clearly the free, open to all stuff is inferior to the private schools they attended and send their offspring to, because it’s so exclusive.  (I’m reminded of the kid in the 7Up series who ventriloquized his parent and posited a school overrun by nasty poor people who would bankrupt the headmaster when the subject of state schools came up.) Exclusive is better even when it demonstrably isn’t better even by the very same measure that is used to condemn the public school.  Then their democratic urges twinge a bit, and they demand the impossible: exclusivity for all.  Ironically, this list of deniers and ignorers of inconvenient truths features Davis Guggenheim, from whom one could be forgiven for expecting better.  

Charter schools are a bad idea for thousands of reasons ranging from the democratic to the financial, but for now I just want to point out what a tremendous damned cop-out they are.  Activism in favor of Charter schools is the equivalent of saying “the public schools don’t do what I’d like them to do in the way I’d like them to do it, and thinking about why that is makes my head hurt and sucks, so forget it, let’s scrap the whole thing and let the churches and corporations figure it out.”  This is a solution only if your primary objective is to get back to your reruns as quickly as possible.   No, that’s not fair.  It also works if you want to stop your kids asking you annoying questions that make you think about what you believe and espouse, or stop your employees asking why they are being ordered to do things that are stupid, counterproductive, and/or morally questionable.

An educated populace is far less malleable than those who have more power than their intellects and abilities suggest is reasonable would like.  It would be imprudent of us to wait for the powers that be to improve our educational systems for us of their own volition.  They won’t do it. 

The public schools of the United States do not compare favorably to schools in other developed nations when agreed upon measures are used. That much we know.  If we agree that those measures are reasonable and fair, and that we want to do something about our subpar performance, we must do something about that.  We must act.  But before we can act, we need to think about our actions, and what we expect them to do for us.  We have to really consider how our cultures differ from those which are seeing such wonderful results educationally, and what we are willing to alter in our own cultures to see the same results.   

Then, we need to ask ourselves a rather famous question before we institute any change or sign any letter.  We have to ask “to whose benefit” do we do what we do? (Cui bono? if you opt for the original Latin).  If the answer is ‘taxpayers’ or ‘the business community,’ or anything other than “the children we are raising and the future of a free democracy” we need to go back to the drawing board and try again.  But when we get that answer, we need to be willing to do whatever it takes to make those changes happen.  Even if it means we have to pay taxes or turn off the TV, or talk to our kids about something other than the condition of their bedroom floors.

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