The Back-to-School Parade!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

I love parades! This one was in Boston, where I almost lost limbs from hypothermia.

This week I will begin my sixth year of teaching.

My SIXTH!

By the end of this year I will have taught around seven hundred students.

Graded 56,700 papers.

And gone through approximately nine trillion boxes of pencils.

Every year it still feels like I’m brand new. I wonder if it’ll always feel this way. It’s similar to the way I would imagine it would feel to send my child off to kindergarten and being very confused since I had only given birth to him a few weeks ago.

(That makes it sound like I actually have a kindergartner. I do not. Moving on.)

But the beginning of this year feels extra weird, for lots of reasons. First, I’m at a new school. That’s always an interesting transition—meeting new people, forgetting their names immediately, trying to expose my weirdness to people in increments as to not overwhelm them, etc. It’s stressful, but I already love my new school. Truly, madly, deeply. More on this later.

Second, this is my first year at a non Title-I school. If you’re just now tuning in, you can check out my thought process about that switch here. A teacher I talked to who had also previously taught in Title I schools said to me, “You know, I think the hardest thing about the switch for me was that I realized I was no longer needed.” I’ve been thinking about her words a lot.

Third, I’ve been feeling lots of feelings. With the rest of the country this summer, I’ve been watching the explosion of interracial hatred and fear and violence and have been thinking a lot about how we see that in education. I listened to this profoundly moving episode of This American Life about low-income schools, and have been reminded again how deep our racist roots as a country run, and how we are trying to do everything but admit that, and how the education gap will never be closed until we do.

But mostly I’ve been thinking about a teacher I know who was recently diagnosed with a rare and aggressive brain tumor. He was my geography teacher my freshman year of high school. I’d had great teachers in all the schools I’d been through, but there was something that really set him apart. High school kids are not always easy to love, and this teacher acted like it was the easiest thing in the world, like there really was something special and unique and awesome about each of us. He was unbelievably funny, but never at the expense of others. And he loved teaching. I remember him tearing up during our Holocaust unit, and the reverence he had when he taught about world religions and cultures different from ours. I’ve  mentioned his influence several times in the writing of this blog—the trashketball game, among others.

There aren’t very many answers right now about his diagnosis, but from what I know he remains positive, gracious, and grateful. He’s even starting a new school year tomorrow.

When I think about this teacher, I weep. I weep out of gratitude that I grew up in a place with access to amazing teachers like him and so many others. I weep because so often I get it wrong as a teacher, and he got it right so often that I can’t even remember a time he got it wrong, and if this world was fair, even a little bit, people like me would have to carry these kinds of burdens instead of him. I weep because I have a natural tendency to think the worst about things, and I worry about his family and the community that joins me in caring about him.

But all is not lost.

I’m not sure that I believe that everything is a carefully-crafted plan, but I believe that everything is redeemable. That the direction we’re headed is one in which goodness will eventually win. And so, when I think about my teacher, and the racial struggle that is keeping so many people in our country down, and all the other things in our world that are unjust, I think about what I can do, which is to cling to hope, choose kindness, embrace challenge, and love people the way my teacher did and does.

I hope I remember those things more and more every day as I approach this new year.

So, friends, here’s to 2015-16. Here’s to marching into unknown territory with Goodness as our drum major, with confetti cannons blasting and our band jamming out to T. Swift. Here’s to leaning on each other when we’re hurting, and here’s to laughing in the face of DEVOLSON*. Here’s to treating each kid like they’re our favorite, and here’s to hanging up our problems outside the door of our classrooms, and here’s to loving so fiercely and with such abandon that one day someone will weep out of gratitude for us. Here’s to moving mountains, and to all the metaphors I’ve just mixed in one paragraph.

Let’s do this thing!

Onward, edusoldiers!

Or marching band players!

Whatever we are!

Onward!

So much Love,


Teach

*DEVOLSON = The Dark, Evil Vortex of Late September, October, and November

Project Semicolon (and Three Myths We Should Bust)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

From http://activemindsblog.org/the-semicolon-project/

I recently learned about a movement called Project Semicolon by following a fellow educator, Nick Provenzano. He’s one of those real edubloggers that actually writes helpful and informative things about education, unlike yours truly, who encourages you to eat frozen macaroni and cheese out of fancy teacups.

Anyway.

Project Semicolon is dedicated to presenting hope and love to those who struggle with depression, self-injury, and suicide. In the way that a semicolon means a sentence isn’t over, The Semicolon Project encourages people to recognize that their story isn’t over; the idea that you are the author of your story, and you are choosing to continue.

I have many (too many) students who struggle with depression. I can’t tell you how many essays or poems I’ve read that I’ve had to show our school counselor; how many students I’ve sat with who have burst into tears when, privately, I’ve asked them if they would like to talk with me about what they wrote. Middle school is already a highly emotional, highly chaotic time for young people, and adding a chemical imbalance into the mix complicates things even further. The grieving I do for students who struggle with mental illness is a yearly affair.

I’ve touched on depression in a post about teenagers and writing before, but I’ve never spoken about my own. I think it’s important that as educators, we are willing to talk to our students and each other about mental illness.

I didn’t know I had depression or anxiety until very recently. I was having a pretty rough time, but thought it was just work-related, and figured I was experiencing a very normal reaction to a difficult situation.

But after a while, I noticed that my brain just wasn’t working the way it normally did. I couldn’t reason with myself. When I was sad or stressed (which was almost all the time) I would get in these really terrible headspaces where I would take a very minor, normal life hiccup and just spiral into madness. Example: “I have a headache” -à “Oh no, I usually don’t get headaches” à  “This is probably very serious” à “I’m sure I have a brain tumor” à “I always knew I was going to die young.”

Now, typing this, I can see how the absurdity borders on being humorous, but at the time I couldn’t convince myself otherwise. I knew I was being irrational, but at the same time knew--I mean knew-- that I had brain tumors, or was going to get lead poisoning from a waiting room with peeling paint, or cancer from not washing a tomato. I would tell myself out loud, “You’re overreacting. This is crazy. You’re not going to die.” But even knowing these things, on a near-daily basis I was vacillating between sending myself into a panic or crying from not understanding why I couldn’t reason my way out of it.

When I finally saw a therapist (side note: when I rule the world, ALL teacher insurance plans will cover therapy), she told me it was likely I was suffering from a combination of depression and anxiety. Not severe or life-threatening, but enough to seriously interrupt my daily life and my sleep, which could lead to bigger future health problems.

“Nah,” I told her. “I don’t think so. I mean, apart from the past few years, I’ve been fine. I don’t remember ever being like this. My childhood was eerily perfect.”

“Well, both depression and anxiety are caused by chemical imbalances in your brain,” she explained. “So if you do show the symptoms of them, it’s likely you’ve always had these imbalances, but didn’t have a reason for them to present themselves as strongly as they are now. A lot of people didn’t experience high stress as children. Do you remember being anxious as a child?”

“No,” I said immediately, then thought for a second. “Well, yeah. I remember being tired a lot in kindergarten in particular because I would lay awake at night imagining all the horrible ways my family could die.”

My therapist nodded slowly, the way she must have nodded at thousands of crazy people before me.

“Upon hearing myself out loud just now,” I said. “I think you may be right.”

That conversation was about six months ago. Since then, I’ve made tons of progress through a combination of a low-dosage antidepressant and therapy. The medication isn’t a “happy pill”—I still worry and get upset, but the difference is that now I can actually listen to the part of my brain that says, “Hey, you probably don’t need to worry. This turbulence will probably not result in a jet engine falling off."

Because I know I’m not alone in being an educator with depression and anxiety, here are three myths that I think need to be dispelled:

1) Students don’t want to know about your experience with depression or anxiety.

Because neither of my mental illnesses are severe enough to really interfere with my teaching, I didn’t think I ever needed to talk about them at school. I thought it might be awkward, like a strange plea for sympathy, or be ammunition for Crazy Parents (“My daughter failed this quiz and said Ms. Teach has depression—how can I know she is being graded fairly when her teacher is MENTALLY UNSTABLE?”)

But it turns out that knowing about my mental illnesses was actually helpful for my students. I never made some weird class announcement or gave a passionate lecture; it just happened to come up organically in a class discussion on a poem about depression. One of my students joked that I seemed to know a lot about depression, and I just replied conversationally that I have it, but that I have healthy ways of dealing with it that makes it easier. Once I’d opened the door on this “taboo” subject, I found that so many of my students had been waiting for an opportunity to talk about it—either in themselves or in family members, and some of them really needed serious professional help that I was able to connect them with from our school counselor. Even as an anonymous blogger I don’t feel comfortable going into more detail than that, but you should know that I now think it is of utmost importance that teachers be willing to talk about things like this openly and honestly. 

2) Coworkers don’t want to know about your experience with depression or anxiety.

Let me be very clear that it was my pride and not any kind of humility that kept me from telling my coworkers about my mental illness. I didn’t want anyone thinking I was weak or weird.

That’s probably my life motto, actually. Anyway.

After I told my close friends at school, I had no idea why I’d been so hesitant to talk to them about it. Nobody so much as batted an eyelash, and they were all grateful that I told them. Some even had depression or anxiety themselves. Telling them helped me, too, in that I now had support in separating reality from my anxiety.

Me: Do you think I could get tetanus from the scratch I got from the staple remover?

Coworker: You don’t have tetanus. Next.

I wouldn't recommend making a formal announcement at your next faculty meeting (I think we all know people at school who would abuse others' personal information), but don’t be afraid tell the people you work closely with and trust the most.

3) People with mental illnesses are less effective teachers.

This is about as true as saying that people who are left-handed can’t swim.

Because of my surplus of pride I spoke about earlier, I know I’m a good teacher. But interestingly, when I think of the best teachers I know in real life, four out of five of them have struggled (or currently struggle) with depression and/or anxiety, and I would say that all of them have more severe cases than I do.


Illness does not equal weakness.

Someone in your school—student, coworker--needs your story.

Don’t be too proud to tell it.

Today, July 14th, join other educators with the hashtag #semicolonEDU to speak up about mental health.

Love,


Teach

The Most Important Thing I've Learned from Teaching

Monday, June 29, 2015


After five years teaching in low-income schools, I’m moving on next year to a small public charter school. I thought I would feel more sad or disappointed in myself about leaving, but I’m not. I feel good.  I know that deciding to stay in an environment that I knew was draining me would have been neither brave nor heroic but damaging. 

Anyway, I’ve been in a very reflective mood lately, as I often do at the closing chapter of something important in my life—my senior year of college, the final months of the school year, the last bite of a particularly awesome cookie (“Man, the ratio of batter to chocolate chips was really powerful and evocative.”) I talked about many of the changes I’ve undergone in a previous post, but I left out what I think the most important lesson is that I’ve learned so far in the classroom. And after receiving many emails lately from teachers across the country on this topic, I knew it was time to write about it.

***

If you’d asked me at any pre-teaching time in my life whether I hated anyone, I would have assured you that I don’t. However, in that same breath I could have listed off about fifteen people that I thought were total jerks and that I would never want to spend more than five minutes with, maybe ever.

Then, when I started teaching, I met The Jerk To End All Jerks. 

He was the assistant principal at my former school and my appraiser. I realized early into the school year that he didn't particularly care for me, and thought I could win him over with kindness, but that was not the case. He would often roll his eyes at me, conduct his observations of my classes the day before a major holiday break, respond to my honest questions or concerns by laughing derisively or trivializing them. I watched him in the hallway go out of his way to bump up against a student who had anger issues, who then blew up at him and was suspended. When I told my assistant principal what I’d seen, he made it clear that if I reported him, my evaluations would suffer. He once responded to a question I asked by leaning back in his chair and mumbling, “Every year I keep asking myself why I’ve gotten myself into a profession with so many women.”

I hated him. And by “I hated him” I mean I hated him. Just seeing him in the hallway or reading his name in my email inbox was enough to get my blood simmering, and I rarely left a meeting with him without crying from frustration or screaming at traffic on the way home. When I finally left that school, I left with a searing bitterness in my heart towards him, one that I held onto long into the next school year.

Luckily for my sanity, at the same time that my hatred was growing and multiplying for my assistant principal, my teaching life was getting easier. I was beginning to get the hang of classroom management, which is largely a result of being willing to put aside a lot of my personal preferences and background and instead focus on my students—who they are and what their needs are. I began to understand that my “worst” students were ones who had had the worst things happen to them. They’d lost parents or siblings. They’d lived through an ugly divorce. They’d been bullied or abused or neglected, or maybe they’d come from a supportive and stable environment but had somehow received the message over and over again from somewhere that they were unimportant, slow, or not enough.

And one day—I can’t remember where I was or what I was doing--I realized the same must have been true for my assistant principal. The true personhood of my assistant principal was not the man I was seeing. He couldn’t have learned that it’s okay to treat people as inferior beings unless someone had modeled it for him. He couldn’t have learned that threats, manipulation, and power moves are appropriate ways of dealing with people unless he himself had been threatened, manipulated, or made to feel powerless.  I pictured him as an 8th grader in my class, coming to school lugging many of the same issues my students do, and for the first time, I felt compasssion for him. For some reason, I had understood that there was a reason for many of my students to have bad attitudes or a temper, but I’d had no such grace for my assistant principal. 

Does this excuse the actions of my assistant principal? No. Does it mean I should have accepted his treatment of me with a “Thank you sir, may I have another?” approach? No. But if I had approached my assistant principal the way I approach my tough students—with patience, grace, and a persistent kindness, the go-out-of-your-way type of kindness—I think I could have had a very different experience at that school, and maybe my assistant principal could have, too. 

Over time, I realized that the truth about my assistant principal was the truth about all the jerks I’ve known in my life—acquaintances, bosses, strangers. This truth is that nobody is intrinsically a jerk. This sounds obvious, and is something I thought I believed before teaching, but I didn't. Not really. I’ve been told and have believed for as long as I can remember that I’m a good person, and instead of using that to seek out the goodness in others, I’ve used that to draw a line in the sand. Good people like me-- who think like me—on this side. Everyone else on the other. I’d said that I loved others, but what I meant was that I loved others once they met my prerequisites.

This is not the way to teach.

This is not the way to live.

I haven’t come anywhere close to mastering the way to teach or live, but I’m working on it. Some of my students still get under my skin, and I’m constantly tempted by many adults to push them onto the “other” side of the sand, or to take the easy way out and pretend that the fronts they’re putting up are their real selves. But while I’m no expert on loving yet, teaching has made me look at these people in a new way. Not as pathetic or inferior, but as human and hurting. Just like I am. 

And I hope to get better at it, no matter where I teach. I think if all of us can look at each other the same way we (hopefully) look at our students--that everyone can be redeemed--maybe we would start to see a different world unfold before us.

Join me?

Love,

Teach

Summer To-Do List 2015! And some updates, y'all

Friday, June 12, 2015




Well, hello there! It’s been a while, but let me catch you up to speed on Things That Have Happened:

1) I got a letter back from Obama and several letters readers have forwarded me from their senators/congressmen about my post onteaching in a Title I school. Yes, party poopers, I know that most likely the letters are not penned by the actual president or congresspeople, but it was good to feel heard. I also sent the article to my governor and wrote to him as myself (not as Love, Teach).  Haven’t heard back yet, but I feel good feelings about that letter. If I don’t hear back from him or get a super vague response (“Thanks for your letter, schools are important, I like schools, here’s all these things I’ve done that kinda look like helping schools”) I’ll just send a pizza to his office with a note that says, “Sir, I’d like a ‘pizza’ your time. Email me at loveteachblog.com to set up a meeting.” That’s friendly and attention-getting and disarmingly weird enough, right?

2) I signed my contract to teach 6th ELA at a small, non-Title I public school next year! I feel really good about my decision. I reached a point where I knew that if I didn’t take better care of myself, I would be useless in any classroom.  I know the transition—like any transition—won’t be seamless, but I’m looking forward to a new challenge. I’m not ready to leave the classroom just yet J

3) I’ve written two Buzzfeed articles! Check out my Teacher Edition of “Would You Rather," and my post on how life-changingsummer is for teachers. What fun! Also, I don't work for Buzzfeed. 

4) I AM ALMOST DONE WITH GRAD SCHOOL. One more semester! I’m getting my Master’s in Writing, and while I love my program, it’s really, really hard being a full-time student and a full-time teacher. I’m ready to have my nights and weekends back.

Okay, now that we’re caught up, IT’S SUMMER! And you know what that means….

My Summer 2015 To-Do List

One of my favorite things to do every summer is make a list of all the great things I'm going to do. It makes me feel accomplished in a fun way, and it also prevents me from doing nothing all summer besides Netflix and eating Chocolate Lucky Charms. Here's this year's list!

1) READ. 

I read for grad school until my eyeballs are ready to fall out, but now I can catch up on books for fun! On my list this summer are:

1) The Goldfinch (just finished!) by Donna Tartt
2) The Magicians by Lev Grossman
3) Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandell
4) The Secret History by Donna Tartt
5) Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
6) Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
7) The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Read them with me! I’ll do a follow-up in August of what I thought—I’d love to hear from you! It’ll be like a book club, except we’ll have to eat our book club snacks in separate places. And we don’t have to invite that annoying lady.

2) Take a barre class!

Though I enjoy being a teacher, I’ve always had the nagging feeling that I missed my real calling in life, which is to be a ballerina. Though I probably look as close to a ballerina as my cat, Hugo, looks like a pterodactyl, and though I’ve never taken a ballet class in my life, I’ve always had this obsession with the ballet world. I watch ballet documentaries. I go to the ballet in my city. I once spent a summer hanging out a coffee shop way too far away from my neighborhood because I read in a program at a ballet that an absolutely beautiful male ballet dancer went there often. (I never saw him. LIES!)

I think a barre class would help me reconcile my actual life and my dream life, don’t you? Yes, me too.

Moving on.

3) Make an awesome meal and invite neighbors!

My neighbors are terrific humans. One is a teacher and is wickedly funny, the other is an older gentleman who feeds the feral cats in our complex. I see my family and friends a lot, but I don’t see my neighbor friends all in one place a lot, so I would like to bribe them into hanging out with me via food. And not an easy meal or something that I make all the time, but special food. Food-food.

Right now I’m thinking roast chicken, whiskey-glazed carrots, homemade biscuits, tomato salad, and either blackberry cobbler or lemon bars. OR MAYBE BOTH BECAUSE IT’S SUMMER, and summer is for treating yourself, am I right?

4) Go to the art museum!

I just finished reading The Goldfinch, so now I want to go look at all the art ever.

5) Take a picture of Hugo in a bow tie

Because it’s the right thing to do. Look at him. Doesn't his face just scream, "I WON'T BE HAPPY UNTIL I HAVE A BOWTIE ON"?



6) Think about structure/format of a book I could write

Notice how vague I am when goal-setting. I like to stay un-quantifiable. Write a book? Nope. Start writing a book? Nope. Think about starting to write a book? Sure!

(If you have a good idea for a book I can write about teaching, be a doll and let me know so I can cross this one off my to-do list. )

Not sure how many posts I’ll have for you over the summer on here, but stay tuned on Facebook and Twitter for updates and for our book club meeting in August!

Unrelated: I am writing this on my stomach on the floor of my apartment and Hugo just hopped on my back, curled up, and fell asleep. A gift, this kitten is.

What's on your summer to-do list?

Lovey love,


Teach

My First Year vs. My Fifth Year

Sunday, May 31, 2015




I’ve been teaching for five years now. Five! This is pretty impressive for someone who almost drowned in a sea of her own tears her first year. I remember one Sunday around October of Year One, I was so despondent and full of agony that my roommate just sat there while I talked, staring at me like this:



But I’ve made it! Way fewer people stare at me like that now.

In many ways, I can’t believe it’s been five years. So much of this teaching gig feels so new, and I still find myself making rookie mistakes. But then in other ways, when I think about the teacher I was my first year, the difference is so stark that I wonder if she was actually a different person and I’ve simply been body-snatched.

This is what I mean.



My First Year
My Fifth Year

I can’t believe that teacher down the hall yells at students to stop running. That’s so mean! It’s just running… they’re kids!

I WILL DESTROY ALL RUNNING SIXTH GRADERS.

“You forgot your homework again? That’s okay. Whenever you can bring it is fine!”

“You forgot your homework again? That’s okay. You shall complete it during lunch with me while I eat tuna and blast my Alanis Morisette Pandora station.”

I’m going to make 95 cupcakes for every month to celebrate students’ birthdays!

I’m going to use running high-fives to celebrate students’ birthdays!

I can't believe the principal is making us use this reading strategy he created. There's no data behind it, he created it by himself, and his only teaching experience was twenty years ago as a math teacher! Oh, well. Time to redo this month's lesson plans to fit it in and abandon my more effective, research-based strategy.


I will put up the reading strategy poster in my room and when an administrator comes in my room I will point to it and say "Make sure you use this strategy, kiddies!" And that is all.


I'm going to buy ALL THE DECORATIONS EVER!


I’m going to laminate the heck out of every poster I own so I will never buy decorations again!

Storage? Not a priority.

Um, excuse me, Target employee. Where are your giant plastic Rubbermaid tubs? Good. I will be needing ALL OF THEM.

Teaching will be just like Freedom Writers or Dead Poets Society!

Teaching is a mix of Cast Away, Children of the Corn, Mary Poppins, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Star Wars, The Sound of Music, Mr. Holland's Opus, Whiplash, Harry Potter, and Snakes on a Plane.

Teaching supply stores are the best!


Teaching supply stores make my paycheck disappear!


50% of my students failed this assignment? These kids are so low!


50% of my students failed this assignment? Man, was I on bath salts when I taught this? What can I do differently when I reteach? And can it involve Oreos?


Look how clean my car is!

Look at:
-The layer of coffee sludge that has made the cupholder in my console its home
-The 18 Tupperware containers littering my back seat
-The random school stuff that has been in the truck for months that I’m hoping I will one day have the motivation to actually take it out, but, realistically, know that I won’t

I can't believe that news story about the teacher who was sneaking vodka in his Big Gulp cup at school!


I can definitely believe that news story about the teacher who was sneaking vodka in his Big Gulp cup at school.*


“Oh, I don’t need any construction, paper, thanks. I don’t think we’ll be using it anytime soon.”

“Sure, I’ll take that construction paper. Not sure when I’m going to use it, but let me place it in my Hoarding Closet.”

OH NO A SCARY PARENT MEETING INITIATE SWEAT MODE DYING DEATH HUMAN MALFUNCTION ERROR CANNOT COMPUTE

Scary parent? Bring it. Yawn.

Grades are due? NOOOO I CAN’T DO THIS!!!

Oh, grades are due? Oops. I’ll be needing six hours, a gallon of iced coffee, and two scheduled Netflix breaks.

This is really, really, really, really hard.


This is really, really hard.
But also really, really great.


I will change these children's lives! I will be the superhero!


This is not about me. I'm here not to be recognized, but to stand beside other people as they figure out what is recognizable about them and how to use that for good.


I only need one stapler in my room at all times.

I need eight staplers in my room at all times.

I CAN’T WAIT FOR SUMMER.

I am going to really miss these kids! But also, I CAN’T WAIT FOR SUMMER.

I’m going to wear the cutest teacher clothes ever!

Oh, orthopedic shoes. Mama loves you.

I’m going to use a whole sheet of paper to print a 5-question quiz and make 88 copies.

I’m going to fit EIGHT five-question quizzes on one piece of paper and only have to print eleven! And then I get to use the GUILLOTINE!

Oh, I mean paper cutter.


In general, I think the changes have been mostly positive. I’ve never been one to think that teachers must develop this tough exterior or succumb to being jaded and cranky (though I have felt those ways, to be sure). Teaching has made me stronger. Not in a stomp-around-“I’m-in-charge” kind of way, but in a quieter way.

I’ve also learned how to work smarter. I’ve built a hierarchy for my priorities that works for me, and I’ve learned to conserve my energy for what matters (teaching and caring for my kids) instead of spending it on things that don’t matter so much.

This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be in the game, but it’s good to know I’m becoming a better player.

In the Game of Tomes.

(I couldn't resist.)


Love,

Teach


* "Can definitely believe" does not mean  "think highly of" or "am planning to emulate." Just clarifying for my mom.


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