A Ghost Story

Sunday, September 25, 2016

If you’re just tuning in, DEVOLSON is an acronym I made up that stands for the Dark, Evil Vortex of Late September, October, and November. This three-ish month period is for me and thousands of other teachers I know the most difficult stretch of the school year. The amount of paperwork, adjustment, and readjustment involved ends up creating this giant tornado of exhaustion that sweeps through my life every fall, destroying everything in its path from my social life to my overall hygiene.

Neat, right?

Anyway. Enough of that metaphor and of talking about my hygiene. DEVOLSON begins tomorrow, and because DEVOLSON is terrifying, I thought it was only appropriate that I tell you a ghost story from my teaching past. This is from one of my very first years, so it’s extra spooky. Ready?

It was not a dark and stormy day in October.

It was unseasonably hot, and I’d had a particularly terrible day. I was exhausted, had blisters on my blisters (I had not yet learned the value of orthopedic shoes), and, as usual, none of my lessons were going the way they were supposed to. According to the district calendar I was supposed to be teaching coordinating conjunctions, which is difficult when you’d only realized only a few weeks earlier that most students couldn’t write a complete sentence.

One of the markers of a bad day for me during DEVOLSON was (and is) crying. I had kept it together throughout the day, but as soon as I got in my car to go home around sundown, I started whimpering.

But a few minutes later, when I pulled up to the traffic light just outside my school, I stopped crying and gasped. A tiny, snow-white Chihuahua was darting in between the tires of the twenty or so cars waiting all around me on the busy street.

“Oh, no,” I whined. “Baby, get out of the road!”

The dog was panting, looking in all directions as it skittered under cars. No collar. None of the other drivers around me appeared to notice it. The light would turn green any second.

I knew what I had to do. Maybe I could get the dog to jump in my car, take it back to my apartment, and then look up a no-kill shelter or foster program on the Internet when I got home.

I opened my driver door.

“Hey! Come here!” I shouted as nicely as I could.

The dog perked up its ears, turned toward me, flittered over to my door, and hopped onto the floorboard. Just then, the light turned green, so I shut my door.

“Hi, little buddy! How you doin’?” I said gently, admiring her sweet face as she peered up at me from just under my knees.

And then that dog promptly lost its mind.

If we were in some robot science fiction movie, this would be the scene where the sweet, tiny librarian rips off her face to reveal that she’s a bloodthirsty cyborg. The dog jumped (more like Exorcist-style flew) onto my passenger seat, bared her teeth, and began barking so ferociously I thought her head would fall off just from force alone.

For a few seconds I was in shock. Then the car behind me honked, which made both the dog and I jump about a foot in our respective seats.

I thought maybe the sudden noise would quiet her, but the dog soon picked up her verbal harassment, nearing closer to my elbow with her razor-sharp teeth that looked like they had been meticulously sharpened by her previous owner, Satan. I tried to reason with myself that the poor dog was just scared, but what if she had rabies? Or, more likely, was a zombie?

"It's okay, shhh," I tried soothing her, but she wasn't having it. She lunged at my wrist on the steering wheel, barely missing it. I said about seven bad words.

I was driving forward now, so me jumping out of the car was not an option. Instead I reached down, grabbed the floorboard mat, and draped it over my shoulder to form a barrier between me and this little dog made of nightmares. (I am very resourceful.)

I turned right at my first chance into a neighborhood and swerved into the closest driveway. A couple was standing on their lawn and, rightfully, looked surprised to find me pulling in so suddenly. I slammed my car into park, hopped out, and shut the door. Then I shrugged off the floor mat I had on my shoulder.

“There’s a dog in there,” I told the couple, motioning toward the car.

Then I realized the dog had its paws up on my driver’s side window, still barking maniacally, so my announcement was the equivalent of saying, “We’re on planet Earth right now.”

The couple didn’t speak English very well, but between my rusty Spanish and their English we managed to decide that it wasn’t safe for me to try to drive the dog to a shelter, especially not alone. Maybe, the man suggested, we could try to get the dog into his old dog’s crate?

Don’t, she’ll kill us all! I wanted to say, but I nodded as to not appear more crazy than I already did.

 The man disappeared into his garage, then came back a moment later holding a small tan crate.

“You open?” he said, nodding to the driver’s side door.

Carefully, so as to not provoke the beast, I opened the door while the man stood close by with his crate, but the second I had the door about four inches open, the dog flew out, landed perfectly on the ground, and ran at lightning-speed across the road, down half a block, and under the fence of what I hoped was her home.  

Fantasma,” the woman said, laughing. Ghost. Was it the dog’s name, or because the dog was so terrifying and had disappeared so suddenly?

I thanked the couple, got back in my car, and drove away. It had only been ten minutes start to finish, but it felt like a lifetime had passed. The way time moves when you see a ghost.

So let this be a lesson to you this DEVOLSON: sometimes, when you think that your day couldn’t possibly get any worse, a little tiny dog you're trying to rescue may try to eat your face off.



*I told this to my students later, one of whom lives in the neighborhood and was able to confirm this was, in fact, the dog's home home.

13 Things I Was Wrong (and Right) About My First Year

Saturday, August 13, 2016

August is always a reflective time for me. I reflect on why I have no money in my checking account and why I continue to live in a place that is unbelievably and demonically hot. Every four Augusts I reflect on whether or not it's too late for me to join the U.S. gymnastics team. But mostly in August I reflect on the upcoming school year. This year, as I head into my 7th (SEVENTH, holy crabapples) year of teaching, I pause to think both about how much I’ve learned since my first year.

I also pause to think about how much I still feel like a total rookie.

I think that’s good, though. I’m wary of any teacher—whether they’re five years in or fifty—who claims to have it all figured out, like they’ve hit the ceiling of pedagogy and academia and there’s nothing left to learn. I may get to that level of expertise regarding a more finite area of study (say, Pop-Tart flavors*), but I will never even come close to knowing everything there is to know about teaching English.

That being said, I still know a lot more than I did my first year.

Below are some things I thought about teaching going into my first year. Most turned out to be wrong. Some turned out to be right.

13 Things I Was Wrong (and Right) About My First Year:

I don’t need to write my name on every classroom object I own. WRONG. Even (and especially) the doorstop.

Teaching is going to be like riding a bike—it’ll take a few tries and then be second nature. WRONG. And also, HAHAHAHAHA. It’s gotten a thousand times easier, no doubt, but if it’s ever as thoughtless and simple as riding a bike I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. Aunt. Stepchild. Whatever.

Failure is the scariest thing ever and I should avoid it at all costs. WRONG. My perfectionism hurt me for way too long in my rookie years. I’m learning this the hard way every day and have been for seven years but one of the most important things that teaching has taught me is this: failure always makes me better. Did you know at Google they give huge bonuses to teams that fail and celebrate their failure? What could all of us do and try if we celebrated not only our accomplishments, but our failures, too? 

All students need to succeed is love. WRONG. Love is, of course, a huge part of teaching. But if it were the only thing needed for students to succeed, my first year students would have been eating out of my hand by the second week of school (in reality, they practically ate my hand). Students need love, but they also need boundaries, and someone willing to teach those boundaries with a firm but caring approach. Like Catherine Cawood from Happy Valley.

I should not keep entire containers of trail mix in my desk. CORRECT. Or any snack I find delicious, for that matter.

Nah, I don’t really need an organizational system. WRONG. So wrong. The wrongest. I thought I would just figure it out as I go (which I did), but I so wish I’d had even a semblance of an idea of how to organize stuff my first year. P.S. here’s a post I wrote a while back for WeAreTeachers with all my organizational secrets!

Wow, I’m so brave for doing this! CORRECT. Teachers are brave. But I had no idea what brave meant until I met students who came to school every day despite absolutely crippling situations in their homes and real pain in their hearts. That’s bravery.

Maintaining a social life and working out will be a breeze while teaching. WRONG. *Glares at former self*  

No thanks, I don’t need more paper/dry erase markers/staplers. I think I have enough. Also wrong.

Students will return my pencils because they care about me. Hahahaha, WRONG. I know my students care about me, but the year—nay, the day—that I have the same number of classroom pencils I started out with is the day I quit teaching. Because I know I will be hallucinating.

Pencils are just one of those things I’ve learned to let go of. (Of which I’ve learned to let go. I hate English**.) Maybe when I get to heaven one day all my pencils will be returned to me. Sharpened, in bundles and without teethmarks, on the backs of unicorns galloping toward me.

Working hard, doing a good job, and being respectful will eventually earn me respect from my leaders in return. WRONG. I would say this way of operating worked with most of the leaders I’ve had in education. But I’ve been in so many situations and environments where I have worked tirelessly, followed even the craziest of the rules, showed respect when it wasn’t due, and still got trampled. I think what I’ve learned, though, is that even when it’s not earning me anything return, working hard and being kind is always worth it in the long run. (But that’s a difficult thing to remember when you’ve got a boot over your head.)

The best part of my job will be my students. CORRECT. Correct, correct, correct. Times infinity.

I will change the world with my profession! UNDECIDED. On the good days, yes, I believe this. But on the bad days, when I hear uninformed politicians talking about education, or I learn of more budget cuts, or when policies begin to lean toward tying the hands of teachers instead of trusting them, I wonder if anything I do will matter. I wonder if the voices of teachers, who represent the voices of future generations, will ever matter.

Luckily, I don’t have much time to wonder. Over 3.1 million teachers and I too busy changing the world anyway.

Have a great year out there, teacherfriends. Make it the best one ever.



*best: blueberry with frosting. Worst: most of the chocolate varieties.
**Just kidding, English. I love you.

Tolerance is not enough: a letter to my former students

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Dear former students,

There’s quite a lot I didn’t teach you.

You knew my rules about respect. You knew not to use the word “gay” to indicate displeasure in my classroom. (You even knew not to use “gay” as a synonym for happy because it’s culturally outdated and a loophole to continue using the word derogatorily.) You knew not to laugh at homeless people or use the term hobos around me. You knew I don’t like misogynistic “jokes” or song lyrics that degrade women. You knew that joking about rape would earn someone a referral to both the principal and the counselor. You knew I would lose my cool on anyone who created more work for our cleaning staff by intentionally making messes or littering around school. You knew how fast I would stop class if I heard any kind of attack or threat on another student, no matter how small.

But I never really taught you why those things were important to me. It’s true that you could have guessed. Maybe occasionally I offered a very brief explanation. You could have inferred what I believed based on stories we read or the way I handled certain situations. But I never taught it the way I did subordinating clauses or figurative language or sonnets.

That’s because until very recently I thought it was fine to simply teach tolerance. Respect each other. Keep offensive remarks and behavior to yourself. If you can’t, things will get ugly with me.

I taught you wrong.

In my defense, it’s easier to teach tolerance. It’s faster. Issuing punishments and repeating mantras about respect takes far less time than sitting down and examining linguistic, cultural, and historical factors or talking about feelings. We have a lot of work to do with the curriculum alone, and sometimes it’s just faster to say, “We don’t use that word in my classroom,” or “That’s a lunch detention,” and move on.

But it can’t be the only way to teach. It makes my classroom a safe space, but it suggests that the only time to behave safely towards each other is inside that room. Coming down hard on insensitive behavior and remarks might protect the feelings of victims, but also isolates and vilifies the student who behaved in that way. Arguably, it probably also doesn’t change anything for that person, except to know that their teacher will shame them.

When I read the stories about Orlando, my heart broke wide open. I cried reading about the victims, thinking about the living nightmare the survivors must now endure. I cried for the LGBT community, here and abroad. I cried for the helpers, the first responders and the brave men and women who risked their lives to protect others. I cried for the shooter, because even though that amount of hatred is unthinkable, to reduce other humans to a value of zero, I have to wonder if he had been taught by people in his life that he, too, was worth nothing.

So this coming school year, I’m going to do something different. Instead of teaching tolerance, I will teach insistence. I will insist that everyone belongs—not just the people who think, look, or act like you.

I will insist that everyone—and I mean everyone, even (and maybe especially) that classmate you just can’t stand—has value and beauty and a story that would make you cry if you knew it.

I will insist that we read books with diverse characters—LGBT, Muslim, refugee, people with mental illness, etc. I will insist on class discussions throughout the year where we talk about people groups who are marginalized because of their race, sexuality, religion, or other factors related to their identity, and I will insist that their stories matter.

I will address the students who break my rules about respect firmly and swiftly, but more importantly, I will treat them with the same kindness and compassion I’m asking from them.

I will insist that building walls is never a solution to being afraid of those who are different from you.

I will insist that no matter how loudly the world might say that it’s dangerous to be yourself, love is louder, and love will win in the end, always.

Teaching insistence will take longer. It will require more of me—more energy, more compassion, more patience. It will require more of my students, too. But so much of what we’ve seen recently, and not just in Orlando, tells me we need it.

Former students, I’m not your current teacher anymore, but I have faith you’ll learn insistence from somewhere. In spite of everything, I believe in the good forces that are at work, and I believe that good is insistent, too.

I care about all of this so deeply because of you. Teaching has fundamentally changed me, is changing me, and it has to, because I spend hours every week interacting directly with kids who represent a vast array of beliefs, values, and experiences. I love each of you so much that sometimes I think I’m in actual danger of my heart exploding out of my chest, and more than anything I just want all of you to live in a world where you feel safe and strong and valued, because feeling safe and strong and valued makes it easier to be brave and kind and inclusive. And in case you haven’t been paying attention, we need more of that.

We need you.



19 Things I’ve Learned This Year That I’m Too Tired to Explain

Saturday, June 4, 2016

1. When dealing with people who are mean and wrong, it’s always better to use raccoon hands than a war hammer even though you might really, really want to use a war hammer.

2. Keep extra deodorant and a spare toothbrush in your desk.

3. I am pretty sure I am too afraid to ever have kids.

4. Or if I do I will need the Time Turner from Harry Potter, very intense sedatives, and sixty million dollars.

5. Many people have different beliefs/actions/values toward women in positions of power than they do toward men in positions of power... and a lot of teachers are women in positions of power. 

6. Education isn’t a broken machine, it’s a raging dumpster fire.

7. In that metaphor I can't figure out whether bad policy is the gasoline or oxygen. 

8. I like fighting fires. I really do. Even though it’s the worst sometimes.

9. There are 100 billion stars in our galaxy and probably 100 billion galaxies in our observable universe.

10. So probably there is an alternate universe where Alternate Universe Me is totally crushing it at life, so that’s comforting.

11. Rain boots. Rain boots have brought to life and nurtured a part of my soul that once dead and constantly had damp pant hems.

12. So many things don’t matter.

13. Wait, so many things do matter.

14. So many things are confusing. There we go.

15. Anyone who says that all classrooms should be loud and wild with kids talking at all times doesn’t know what they’re talking about, or hasn’t met an introverted child.

16. Actually, anyone who says that “all classrooms should look like X” probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about. 

17. (Unless they’re saying that all classrooms should be a supportive, safe space or something like that. You know what I meant.)

18. Teaching has made me rambly. And very tired. And stressed.

19. I love it anyway. (I don't get it.)

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to sleep for a thousand years.



4 Big Misconceptions About Title I Schools

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

I come in semi-regular contact with someone who is familiar with my former school, which was a Title I school in an urban area. She will say things like,

“I bet it’s nice to not have to lock your room every time you leave now, isn’t it?”


“It must have been so frustrating trying to deal with those parents.”


“When I found out Phoebe was zoned to that school, we moved in less than a year. I just couldn’t risk her being influenced by some of those kids.”

When this individual says things like this, I first have to bite my tongue. I was cursed with a sharp wit, which, combined with a Mama Bear protectiveness of my former students and their families, creates some fairly hostile responses that I luckily have managed to keep inside my head.

Then I take a deep breath.  

Then I try to gently and without judgment show her that her notions about my former school and the students in it are misguided; that I loved those kids and my job fiercely and my leaving had nothing to do with either.

This woman is not alone. And she’s not a bad person. She is, like I would say a disturbing majority of the country, sorely under-informed of the realities of the relationship between poverty and education.

Based on conversations I find myself having over and over, both with this person and with others, these are what I believe are the four biggest and most dangerous misconceptions about working in Title I schools.

1. Teachers (and their possessions) are in danger. If you Google “Is teaching a dangerous profession?” you’ll find tons of results about how across the board, teaching isn’t exactly safe. But this is the case for all schools, not just Title I. I once had money stolen out of my non-locking desk when I was collecting money for a fundraiser at a Title I school my second year (rookie mistake). But in the five years I taught in Title I schools, that was the only time I had any of my personal items stolen or damaged.  I know teachers who have been teaching longer than me and in schools far wealthier than the ones where I worked have had their purses stolen, tires slashed, have been sued, had threatening anonymous emails sent to them—the list goes on. Fights were commonplace at the Title I school where I worked, but take a look at the nation’s worst school massacres and you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that wasn’t in an affluent neighborhood. Anything that could happen to a teacher in a poor school can (and does) happen in wealthier ones.

2. The parents don’t care. This is one of the things I hear a lot, and every time I hear it I want to set my arm on fire. This could not be further from the truth. Upper middle-class and wealthy people tend to look at the habits and actions of poor people and assume the parents don’t care about their child’s education or well-being, and their thoughts usually come in the “If they cared, why don’t they…?” format. Why don’t they ground their child or remove privileges? Why don’t they meet with the teacher? Why don’t they enroll their child in tutoring? Why don’t they write a letter to the school board? Why don’t they move into an area where their child will be zoned to a higher-performing school?

The problem with all of these is that these solutions are coming from a mentality of wealth. Wealthy people can ground their children or remove privileges because the household can afford for someone to stay home and ensure the child complies AND wealthy people don’t have to worry about their kids getting angry with them and going off to join the gang a few blocks over. Wealthy people already have flexible jobs that allow them to leave to meet with the teacher. Wealthy people can afford the high prices of homes and apartments in areas with high-performing schools, AND wealthy people are given better interest rates on homes in those areas. Wealthy people have the resources to 1) find tutoring, 2) have transportation to and from tutoring, 3) pay for tutoring.

Imagine you and your teenage daughter getting out of your new Honda Civic and a lady walking up to you and saying, “You know, if you really loved your daughter and cared about her safety, you would trade in your Civic and go get the Mercedes G-Class SUV. It’s much safer.”

Would you say, “Oh, wow, thank you—you really understand my needs! I’ll return this junky car in tomorrow, take out a second mortgage, and find a job that pays twice as much so I can buy that car which costs over $100,000. Thank you, kind stranger—I mean, savior!”

Uh, no. A ridiculous scenario, right? And yet so many people tend to pass similar judgments on people in lower classes.

In the five years I worked at Title I schools and met with parents, I never once met a parent who I didn’t fully believe loved and cared about the success of their child. Were some of them struggling balancing work and family life? Of course. Was it frustrating for me as their teacher? Of course. But I think if you ask any long-time teaching veteran of a wealthy school, she will be able to tell you plenty of stories of parents who hadn’t found the work/family balance, either.

3. The kids aren’t motivated. This is another huge misconception, one that I hear a lot from people in and outside of the education world. When they say something to this effect, I think they’re trying to make me feel better about having left, as if motivation isn’t something you can help develop in a child and I was right to have changed schools. But this misconception makes me so, so sad.

Deep down (and sometimes not even very deep down) every child wants to be successful. Every child wants to be smart. But sometimes there are huge obstacles that get in the way of this learning. Some are related to academia, like undiagnosed learning disorders, a language barrier, having huge class sizes that prevent personalized attention or opportunities to be challenged. Some aren’t related to academia at all, like trauma that has happened or is actively happening outside of school, and makes learning impossible. There are so many reasons children in poverty get behind, but it’s not because they have no intrinsic motivation. Having less motivation is a symptom of being behind and feeling helpless.

If you put me in a master’s level course at the Sorbonne with my one semester of French I took eight years ago and demanded that I pass, I would tell you you’re insane, drop out, and then go eat macaroons for the rest of the semester or until my money ran out. (And if you’re reading that scenario and thinking, “No, not me! I would hire a French tutor, I would buy Rosetta Stone, I would find a study group and seek language assistance from the school and I would definitely pass because I’m so motivated and great,” you’re using the wealth mindset—all of those are skills and resources that could only be acquired if you are already wealthy, understand the system, was part of a system that worked for YOU, and have had years of confirmation that hard work always leads to success.)

4. The teachers aren’t as good. I went through my entire K-12 schooling in one of the best districts in the state (and I believe at the time, one of the top twenty or so in the nation) and my entire middle school learning experience apart from maybe three teachers was a joke. I remember asking my science teacher, a woman who was only a few years away from retirement, if could choose Pompeii for a research project we were doing. First she asked me what Pompeii was, and when I told her, she rolled her eyes and said, “No, you can’t research a fictional event.” When I told her Pompeii was real, she very nicely told me to save it for my creative writing teacher.

What I’m saying is that sending your kid to a wealthy school does not necessarily mean you are sending them to good teachers.

Having taught in two Title I schools and a non-Title I school, I can assure you that both kinds of schools have their fair share teachers who are super-amazing and teachers who are not-so-amazing. For every burnt-out teacher in a Title I schools who passes out worksheets 180 days a year from behind a desk, there is an identical teacher doing the same thing at a wealthy school.

I would, however, say that teachers in non-Title I schools are for the most part less stressed and better supported, and I do recognize the impact this can have on performance. But again, this goes back to one of many issues created by the system (large class sizes, administrations having hands tied with discipline control, standardized testing), not an issue with the people who choose to work within it.

Now in clearing up these misconceptions, am I trying to say that kids in Title I schools receive the same educational quality as kids in wealthy schools? No. The majority of kids in Title I schools are being drastically underserved compared to their peers in wealthier schools, and it would be ignorant to think otherwise.

But what people need to understand is that the inequality has nothing to do with the teachers or children or parents of children in those schools, and has everything to do with the systemic abuse that year after year directly affects those who learn and work in those schools. I wish, when I talked to this person I mentioned at the beginning of this post, that I could tell her that she needs to stop being afraid of poor people and start being afraid of the people who are keeping poor people poor.

Wouldn’t it be cool if Hollywood made a movie highlighting the ugly brokenness of the system across schools instead of a sugarcoated story of how one (usually upper middle class) teacher saved the day for a limited group of people?

Sigh. Teaching is wishing.



P.S. Not knowing about Pompeii doesn’t make you a bad teacher. Refusing to know about Pompeii makes you a bad teacher.