Not in Teacher School

Things they didn't teach

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Turning Four

I found this in my inbox a few days ago and I felt… flummoxed.

How have four years past? I genuinely believed it to be three, at most. Probably two.

I remember starting out with NITS. I remember my good friend helping me get a URL and a Tumblr and a Twitter and linking me to Facebook. At the time, I was only dimly aware of what he was doing, though grateful to have a friend who had the knowhow and the patience to actually help me do something I wanted to do quite badly, but could not start for myself.

I also remember my motivations. I really believed I would just write a blog and suddenly have thousands of followers, a sweet book deal, and dozens of speaking engagements at schools around the country, for which I would need to buy dozens of flattering pant suits, preferably purple ones.

Spoiler alert!

This is not how it worked out.

I do not have thousands of followers or a book deal. I still have only one pants suit and it is black and I wear it to weddings, as I have not yet become a motivational speaker.

I do, however, still have a great job, albeit one with fewer pants suit wearing occasions. I am still a teacher. Now I am also a teacher who blogs.

My first instinct when I received this email was to recall my original goals, see I had not realized them, and shutter Not In Teacher School forever. But I am not in that place anymore.

This blog has not made me rich or famous (or thin, which somehow always goes along with my fantasies on this issue). But it has connected me with a wonderful community I had never before realized existed. Through writing NITS, I have come to realize there are lots of teachers who blog out there and lots and lots of them are very cool. Every day, it seems, I find out about more of you. I have discovered you are wonderful and creative and supportive and always just a click away when I need to feel rejuvenated and valued. When I need a laugh. When I need an idea. Even when I just need some schadenfreude.

Over the past four years I have also come to use NITS to give me a little perspective. When something goes wrong in my classroom, or a student says something out of the ordinary, I now think, “I can blog this!” instead of, “Why is this happening to me?” Writing NITS has allowed me to be more chill and accepting in my classroom and for that, I am very grateful.

Even as a little girl I wanted to be a writer. As a teenager, I wanted to be the voice of my generation. In college I majored in journalism. But life takes interesting turns. Recently, I got to have an Old Home Weekend with my dearest friends from high school. I turned to two of them and said, “We all ended up with the perfect jobs for us.” And it was true.

I love being a teacher. And I am still grateful to that friend who helped me become a teacher blogger. I may not be rich and famous, but my life is richer for having this outlet.

Happy Birthday, Not In Teacher School, and Happy July, teachers everywhere! Enjoy (what I hope) is a whole month off to pursue whatever outlets bring you all joy and fulfillment.



16 notes

Learning From Preschoolers

Until the 4th of July, I had never before spent a day with a bunch of four year olds. One four year old, maybe. Two was pushing it. But on the 4th, I got to spend the afternoon playing kickball with a bunch of mini-patriots, many of whom happened to be four.

And I learned something. I learned that there are infinite ways to be four. One can be four and be totally introspective. Or one can be four and remember a woman met only once, a year before, and shower her with cute affection. One can be four and be super athletic and bike ten miles and still run bases. Or one can be four and already be able to read entire magazines. (I witnessed both of these feats with awe). And one can be four, as my goddaughter is, and actually be going on twenty-one.

Probably this is not revelatory for most people. But as our forefathers reminded us, we do hold some truths to be self-evident, and the one I discovered while celebrating this declaration is that all humans, from babyhood to adulthood, are strong and distinct individuals.

Duh.

Except…

We do not really treat them this way in our institutions. We do not treat them this way in the education system and we do not treat them this way in the criminal justice system and we do not treat them this way in the social service system. And these are just the systems that are trying to treat them at all.

In schools we talk about differentiating instruction. We post memes about square pegs and round holes and everyone being a genius in a different way. However, when it comes down to a problem, when a kid needs to be instructed differently, or sanctioned differently, we become uncomfortable.

Contemplating our system, I can think of far too many occasions when we put the enforcement of rules ahead of the recognition of individuality.

In no way am I advocating for abdicating rules. We needs structures and guidelines. But when those fail, when a student is not learning in the way in which we hoped he/she would, why do so many educators default to the one-size-fits-all model when we know it does not work?

After watching a group of joyous four year olds run bases and kick balls whenever they wanted to do so,with little regard for batting order or scoring, I realized what a shock it will be for them next year when they all start kindergarten. Again, we need to help them realize they are a part of a communal society, and as such, we do need structures and systems, but we need to nurture their individuality as we do so. Neither can be lost. And putting a rule or a convention ahead of seeing a person and a person’s individual character and needs is too, too sad and misguided a practice to be allowed to continue.

Filed under education

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Summer Lessons

One of the great benefits of being a teacher is that it gives me enough time off to go and visit my family during the summer. I would be remiss were I not to admit this essential truth. I live a long, long way from my immediate family and oldest pals and I love them all a lot and I feel very fortunate every late June when I get to get on a plane and fly out and see them for a few weeks.

Since I have been here I have been around more children under the age of sixteen than I have even been around before in my life. It is strange to associate with minors who are not teenagers. Strange and lovely.

Toddlers, for example, are a wonderful education in language usage. They speak in short, declarative sentences. In doing so, they manage to communicate their desires beautifully.

It really makes me think about how much obfuscating we do as adults. Why do we squander so much energy not getting to the point? Why do we use so many words we do not need? Would my students perhaps benefit were I to be a little more direct when explaining what it is I want them to do and why? I suspect they would.

These wonderful nieces and nephews of mine are also teaching me a lot about patience. They do not get across the parking lot quickly. They do not get in and out of the car quickly. They do not get dressed quickly. In fact the only thing they excel at doing rapidly is taking off their clothes, which they do readily and with abandon. There is a marked contrast between this pace and the pace required to get them to reverse this process and do something else entirely.

Again, probably a little of the patience I can discover within myself for my not-quite-three-year-old nephew would go a long way when it comes to explaining embedding quotations.

Perhaps the greatest revelation for me has been that sarcasm is a remarkably ineffective tool to use on a wet five-year-old or a hungry baby. It goes right over their heads. Having to dial down the caustic remarks has been a real eye-opener for me. I never realized how often I was resorting to this old habit in my dealings with other humans. I now see why so many students have commented on it over the years and I now see how hurtful it can be.

Sure, there are a lot of key developmental years and stages between even my charming seven-year-old bestie and my youngest junior, but there are some universals there, too.

And it certainly doesn’t hurt me to be reminded of this once a year, at least.

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Summer Me

A couple of night ago, my boyfriend came into our bedroom and expressed surprise to see me up, reading in bed. It was almost midnight. This is a real walk on the wild side for me. I rarely make it past ten thirty. In fact, I have to go to extreme measures just to get through an entire episode of Mad Men (would it kill them to start it at nine?!).

Then he smiled and said, “Oh yeah, Summer You.”

Summer Me. A whole different person. A relaxed person. A reasonable person. A person less prone both to fits of crying and to militaristic adherence to schedule and routine.

Summer Me rocks. I would hang out with that broad.

Of course, Summer Me has many advantages over Regular Me. Regular Me always has a stack of papers somewhere that needs grading. Summer Me has a stack of novels to plow through at my leisure. Regular Me is exhausted, literally ALL the time. Summer Me hardly even needs concealer for my undereye circles. Regular Me needs to plan out even my spare time months in advance. Summer Me actually has the freedom to do spontaneous things sometimes.

Summer Me also has a handle on my laundry and my dishes. Summer Me has clean floors. Summer Me is experimenting with new hairstyles and takes the noon yoga class more than once a week.

It is mind blowing how much school takes over my life, my personality, my perspective. I love my job. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But it is nice to have these few weeks every year to recharge, to reconnect with what might actually be the Real Me.

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On Being Old

It was almost twenty years ago to the day that I donned a white graduation robe and marched out onto the field to the tune of Pomp and Circumstance, wearing no shoes and a sweet pair of Lennon-style shades.

How can that be? How can I be at this milestone already? Weren’t there myriad other things I meant to accomplish by now?

I am good enough at math, both actual arithmetic and the more complex mathematics of crow’s feet and regret, to have known this day was approaching, but I still find myself jarred when students tell me their birthdays were in 1998 or when someone shows me a picture of Kurt Cobain’s daughter and she looks like this:

image

It does not seem possible to me that, by the proverbial inexorable progression of time, I have become so far removed from the experience of my students. But I have.

When I graduated from high school I did not have an email account. My car did not have a radio and I rode around with a boom box, which like that of Radio Raheem, ran on D batteries. Cigarettes, which I reprehensibly smoked in aforementioned car, were around $2 a pack and Biggie had not yet released Ready to Die. It was a simpler time.

We got jobs. Easily and quickly. We quit them and got more jobs. The economy was booming. And the average total cost of a year of college was $5,625.

All of which makes me wonder what on earth I have to say about life to a roomful of seniors this fall. Their world is a tad different from mine at their age. They carry phones in their pockets upon which they can speak, text, listen to music, surf the web, exchange message and videos, take photographs, and create art. College tuition rates have doubled, but the national minimum wage has only increased by $3 an hour (a non-comparable increase of about 70%). Jobs are still scarce, despite the desperately hopeful monthly reports from the Department of Labor. And jobs for unskilled high school graduates are scarcer still, and abysmally unfulfilling.

But there are some things which are never going to change. The expressions on their faces at graduation. The way they laugh with their friends. They still come to school tired. They still become indignant at perceptions of inequity. They still feel passionate about bands and sports teams. They still fall unhesitatingly in love.

So, what can I say when I meet my classes in the fall? What I have always said, I guess. “In here you will work hard. You will read a lot and write a lot and talk a lot. Ask questions when you do not understand. Never give up. Be creative. Have fun.”

Because those activities, learning and thinking and trying one’s best, they never go out of style.



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From the Class of 2014

Every year, at the end of the year, I have my students write the speeches they would say if they were valedictorians. Sometimes they are funny. Sometimes they are insightful. Sometimes they cry.

Here are some highlights from this year’s crop:

“So here I am thinking what if I would have listened to what others used to tell me. There were many things I learned such as you don’t know as much as you think, not to feel stupid if you are different, to invest time in what’s worth with it, and to expect more of yourself.”

“We used to talk about and fantasize about boys like it was money.”

“We have all earned the privilege to walk across this stage today, to see our families so proud with tears of joy, to feel proud of ourselves, and to say to those who doubted us, ‘I did it, I graduated.’”

“Each one of us had a motive, a push, a bait at the end of the hook that pushed us to do it. To get that piece of paper.”

“We despised and denied everyone who doubted us. And we’re here today to prove them wrong.”

“With the help of my family, who has also made mistakes and changed their lives for the better, they helped me and influenced me to do what I had to do.”

“Just move on.”

“What this four years has brought us is learning. We learn from our mistakes. We grow from our mistakes. We become adults from our mistakes.”

“It was a challenge, but it was a stepping stone. What is four years out of a whole lifetime?”

“Take this day and hold it close to your heart because this is OUR day.”

“Remember, Tupac’s coming back this year.”

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Vergara v. California

"This is a sad day for public education"                                                    -  Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers

Yes, Randi. Yes, it is.

Yesterday, a judge in Los Angeles decided the case Vergara v. California, with a ruling which effectively puts an end to laws that protect teachers from termination in that state.

As the The Los Angeles Times yesterday stated, “The tenure and seniority system that has long protected California public school teachers, even ineffective ones, was struck down Tuesday in a court decision that could change hiring and firing policies nationwide.”

Note that caveat, “…even ineffective ones.” Similar sentiments were rampant around the internet yesterday, as though everyone with a keyboard wanted to remind readers that there are a lot of us out there who suck at our jobs and AT LAST districts will be able to do something about it.

My research of major publications revealed this subtle bias. Interestingly enough, the focus of the dozen or so articles I perused on this issue was never on the case itself. It was always on getting rid of bad teachers. In fact, the largest publications in this country, The New York Times and USA Today among them, made no mention of the case’s title in their ledes.

Perhaps that is because no one wants to remember that the case was against California and not some looming union antagonist. It is easier to imagine some mythically evil union fat cats, lazy and ineffective beyond belief, standing in the way of pedagogical process, than to think about the real complexities and intricacies that necessitate teacher tenure.

Why do teachers need tenure? Other professions do not have tenure, right? Why are we awarded this bonus? Don’t we deserve to be held accountable?

Well, for starters, public education is NOT private industry. For example, teachers need to collaborate. We need to share best practices and be creative in conjunction with one another, not in opposition to one another. While stockbrokers and and software technicians and pharmaceutical reps may need to be competitive to get the best outcomes, we do not. While secrecy between firms and individuals may benefit private industry, it does not benefit education. We need to share MORE, not less, between classrooms and across districts in order to maximize productivity, so a private industry model simply does not work for us.

Teachers need protection because we GRADE our clientele. If I give a student the grade he has earned and he does not like it and his dad is an important community figure or he is a big football star, I need to know I can not be penalized for doing the right thing. Without the protections of tenure, I could be let go if I do not appease those in my community with the most pull.

Teachers need due process because in order to educate we must be innovative. We must constantly be bringing in new and creative ideas and solutions. We cannot be afraid that doing so will land us on the unemployment line. Two years ago, I made the decision to begin implementing Common Core standards in my classroom, ahead of mandated adoption. I did not have to worry that being the first might make me look bad. I did not have to worry that if implementing these new standards was a rocky road, I might be out of a job for trying. I did the right thing and it worked out well because I was not living in a climate of fear. If this judge’s ruling goes forward across the nation, I will never be confident enough to be at the forefront of change ever again. It is that simple. And that terrifying.

If people really want to know what just happened in California, they should read up on this ruling for themselves. One great place to start is the California Teachers Association (CTA) website, which has a great piece entitled Myths about Due Process. It is also important to remember that, for the most part, outside of parents, teachers care more about students and their well-being than anyone else and what is good for teachers is almost always also good for the kids they teach.

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Poignancy

Vocabulary word: poignant

    from the Latin, meaning to prick, to sting

    refers to the pricking or stinging of emotion, to cut to the heart

    “Profoundly moving; touching” (www.thefreedictionary.com)

I have a low tolerance for poignancy. In many ways, I react to poignancy in the same way I react to tequila: I become overly emotional, maudlin even, and what seems to have no effect on others hits me profoundly and rapidly.

I have always been like this. As a child I could not watch even action movies because there is always some moment where a sweaty hero shows his true identity to be about himself as a father or a child says something innocent in the face of a monstrous attack and I fear I might never recover.

This makes me ill-equipped to be a teacher at certain points in the year because simple gestures take on significance seemingly entirely out of their natural proportion. I have never gotten over, for example, when a freshman girl gave me a jar of homemade jam tied up with a shoelace for a Christmas present. Or when a senior boy handed me a rose on stage at graduation and said, “Thank you.”

When the last few weeks of school come around, I can cry on a dime. There is not enough waterproof mascara in the continental United States to keep me from looking like Tammy Faye. I get one note that says, “I love Ms. S because she loves the Beastie Boys as much as I do,” and the waterworks start up.

The thing is, I have the best job in the entire world.

I get to meet people at the most tumultuous time in their lives. And I get to see them at the moments of their greatest triumph.I get to be bear witness to transcendence.

So a few tears and the destruction of my one decent annual make-up job are a small price to pay to be able to participate in graduation every spring. To be able to feel profoundly moved every single time.

I always tell myself I am getting harder, that my heart is getting colder, that this time it will not cut right to the quick. But I am a liar. And I am okay with that.