On Teaching Right Now

Wednesday, November 30, 2016




Heads up: I'll be talking about politics in this post.

It’s not what I usually talk about, but I am today for several reasons. First, I should be talking about politics more often than I do: they affect what happens in our schools, classrooms, and the lives we teach. Second, this blog, more than anything is a record of my teaching journey. For the better part of the last year, I’ve stayed (mostly) silent on this blog when it comes to politics, but in my personal life, I’ve been deeply saddened by the campaigns as well as the aftermath. What's worse is that the stress has affected me as a teacher.

If I breezed over everything political on my blog, pretending the past few months never occurred or affected me, it would feel extremely inauthentic, almost to the point of deceit.

That being said, I’m totally aware of the overabundance of political posts out there. I’m not pretending that I’m saying anything that hasn’t already been said. I’m writing because I’m struggling, and because I suspect there may be some other teachers who are struggling. That’s it.

I know there will be those who disagree with me for the content of this post or for writing it. I welcome your opinions. In my years as a blogger, I have learned so, so much from readers who have thoughtfully and respectfully pointed out ways I can grow--those people have made me a better teacher and a better writer. 


***

The campaign season was tough for me to watch from all angles: the debates, the commercials, the posts and memes on social media. Nothing about it made me excited or proud or encouraged. I felt like I was watching our country under a microscope, like cancer cells, repeatedly dividing and infecting. Or when it didn't feel like peering into a microscope, it reminded me of the times in the past in which a physical fight has erupted between students in my classroom. If you haven't experienced it, it's one of the worst feelings in the teaching world--you just want it to be over. And isn’t that what so many of us said about the election? “Ugh. I can’t wait for this to be over.”

And then it was.

For the record, I’m not upset that a Republican won. I’m not upset that someone I disagree with won. Though my political leanings generally tend toward the left, I think it’s good in a two-party system for our country to trade off in leadership. I come from a family of mostly Republicans, whom I love. I certainly don’t think Republicans are bad people because we disagree on some issues, in the same way I don’t think all Democrats are good people because I agree with them on most issues. (Informationally: I don’t think any of us are “bad” or “good” people, but that’s a topic for another day.)

I’m just sad that it had to be him.

On a large scale, I’m worried that a man who has demonstrated little if any skill in curbing his temper will be in charge of our military. I’m worried that a man who has demonstrated very little tact and self-control will be representing our country when meeting with foreign leaders. I’m worried that several of his appointments, including the Secretary of Education, have been people with very few qualifications or with strong records of not doing the right thing.

On a more local level, I am sad and sickened for my students—particularly those in groups who are already marginalized—who have watched a person get elected who has openly spoken disparagingly about them or has made promises under the assumption that their personhood is a threat to America’s greatness.

But these aren't what saddens me most.

I take my job as a leader very seriously. I believe that even more important than my job of teaching kids to read and write is my job of teaching kids what leadership looks like. I believe that leadership means strength, but that strength is meaningless without humility. That my power as a teacher should be used to build up and include; not destroy and divide. That we are enhanced, not threatened, by people different from us. That performance matters but character matters more. That we should own our mistakes, apologize for them, and look inward; not deny them or find someone else to blame for them. I believe these things and take my leadership so seriously because kids are watching all the time. I know that in my every action, reaction, glance, and word that escapes my lips, the kids are watching, and they are learning how to treat others by the way I model it for them.

So more than anything, I’m sad that our future president so far hasn’t behaved in a way that indicates he holds the same regard for public leadership. And I’m deeply worried because I know the kids will be watching.

So.

Here we are.

I thought maybe I'd be upset for a little bit. In general I'm a resilient person, so I thought the bad feelings would blow over, that I would find ways of moving forward. I even thought that maybe our president-elect would rise to the occasion and surprise all of us, as I've watched happen over and over in similar situations as a teacher. 

But so far, none of that has happened. Every new story, Tweet, article, political appointment refreshes my anger. Most of the time, when something outside of the classroom is bothering me, I can do a really impressive job of blocking it out and leaving it at the door. But this time the negativity marches right in with me.

As my stress builds, my teaching ability plummets. My patience all but disappears. I find it hard to plan or even know what to do next (ever caught yourself staring at a blank computer screen for upwards of ten minutes? That's been me the past three weeks). And knowing that I'm not being the best teacher I can has created this terrible snowball effect: stress, bad teaching, stress because of bad teaching, etc.

One day the week before we let out for Thanksgiving, a student told me I was stupid and that an assignment I'd given was stupid. He was having a bad day, I knew, and I softened my voice, preparing for the usual talk I have with kids on bad days about how important it is to respect each other, even when we're angry. But instead, this thought entered my head, as clear and as loud as if it'd been uttered into a megaphone:

Why are you talking to him about respect? Respect doesn't matter anymore. 

The thought was so jarring that it stayed with me all day, long after the last bell. I thought about it on my drive home, while making dinner. Respect doesn't matter anymore. Of course I didn't believe it (and thank goodness I didn't say it aloud at that moment). But why would I have thought it?

Then I realized: since the election, all I'd been doing was reading friends' angry thoughts, commentary, and memes on Facebook.

I'd been checking the president-elect's Twitter feed.

I'd been reading online articles, even ones I knew were propaganda trash, because they justified and fueled my anger.

I'd been fact-checking online articles and wanted to throw my laptop in a lake.

It's no wonder I'd begun to think that respect doesn't matter anymore.


It was then I decided I had to do something. I could not let the political climate continue to ruin my attitude and affect my teaching. But I also knew I couldn't just tune out completely. If I want to be an advocate, I have to stay informed. Since then I've been making a list of how I plan to do that: stay informed and involved, but without giving power to bitterness or hate.

1. Stay off my personal social media accounts. As much as I love seeing my friends' babies, dogs, and lunches, I know that reading the political posts are doing bad things to my heart right now (even when I agree with them). 

2. Stay informed the right way. I’ll be the first to say that one of the benefits of this election was that it made me take a hard look at the news I read. I had thought that my news source (which is not any of the cable networks) would be listed among the most empirically unbiased, but it wasn't. That doesn't mean it's heavily biased, but it also doesn't mean it's unbiased. With a little online research, I found several news outlets that were consistently rated to have the most neutral reporting. Note: I don’t there’s anything wrong with reading news that “tells it slant” to some extent, but I think it’s important to pair it with outlets whose commitment to neutrality outweighs ratings.

3. Call my government leaders. Social media has become an echo chamber, but you know who has to listen to me? Jeff, my state representative’s intern. I’ve called him every day for the past week and a half. I start by thanking him for his service, and then I ask how he's doing, or how the weather is, or I tell him exactly what I’m doing (once, Googling whether you need to pluck dog ear hair). Finally, I tell him my opinions on various political appointments that have taken place. Who knows if Jeff even tells his boss about me apart from, “Yeah, that weird lady called again,” but I have to believe there’s a better chance of my voice being heard by talking to Jeff nicely than by sharing something angrily on social media. (P.S. Once I actually reached Jeff’s boss! It was very exciting.)

Want to call your own Jeff? Here’s a handy link: https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials

4. Focus on what I can do, and believe that what I can do isn’t small. For me, this means selecting books for my classes that highlight stories of diverse and/or marginalized people and groups, teaching students to differentiate between real and fake news (because most can't, which is frightening), and trying my darndest, even when it feels impossible, to model the leadership qualities I want to see in our world.  

5. Take lessons from animals and nature. Dogs, man. Dogs and trees. I spent a lot of time this weekend with both, and I just feel improved. Rebooted.

6. Give things to my friends who are most affected and to organizations that need my help. "I'm here if you need me," is good, but I like asking others what would help them the most, or if they say nothing, just guessing. Once, a friend knew I was having a rough time in school and simply gave me a tiny plant and said she was thinking about me. I have never forgotten that gesture.

7. Eat things that make me feel good for longer than five minutes. Cramming nine Oreos in my mouth makes me feel awesome for exactly five minutes. An hour later, I want to kill the whole world. I know that example is silly, but I’m a big believer (even if I'm not a big practicer) that it’s really hard to do good if you don’t feel good. So for now, Oreos are on the '86 list.

8. Practice grace. Practicing grace doesn’t mean turning a blind eye or excusing bad behavior; it means recognizing that behavior is not the person, and remembering that in every person (every, every, every person, I remind myself) is a story worth a listen; are fears to which I can relate; is redemption. 


Reading over this list, I just sighed--one of those huge, exasperating sighs that end with my head on the table. Some of these steps seem too big for me. Some don't seem like they will be enough.

But there’s a quote from Richard Rohr I return to again and again. He says, “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living; we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” I’m hoping that by doing (and in some cases, not doing) I can get back to a place where I feel like a highly effective educator as well as a highly effective human again. I'll keep you posted on how this works, but in the meantime, let me know how you cope when you're not feeling your best in the classroom.

Thanks for reading, for teaching alongside me, for letting me write when I'm struggling.

Love,


Teach

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.

Love,


Teach


*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.


Love,


Teach


*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.

Love,


Teach

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.

Love,


Teach
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