For the Rookies, on the First Day of School

For the rookies in 2015-2016!

There's nothing better than brand new school supplies!

There’s nothing better than brand new school supplies!

At the very core of education, in your own classroom, there is nothing like the magic of educating kids. Nothing. You see moments in a kid’s life, flashes of brilliance and frustration; you hear them laugh, you see them cry. You are mom, friend, sister; you are at once the coolest cat and the biggest bitch; you will love them, and have days where you could climb a mountain; you will hate them and have days where you wish it was still legal to smack them.

You will love their parents. You will hate their parents. You will see some beautiful souls and some souls bound for the deepest parts of hell. You will hear stories that make you believe in the human spirit, and stories that give you nightmares. Students will lie to your face; parents will lie to your face. One day, a student will tell you a truth so terrible that you will wish they had lied. You will help them while your heart is breaking inside.

You will want to save them. Then you will learn that some kids are not meant to be saved by you. And you will cry.

You will know you are on the right track when the question of your reputation results in fierce debate between the kids who love you and the kids who hate you. Change is hard for teenagers, just like for grown ups. When you push them, they’ll push back. Stay strong. I once had a student named Jerome revise a paper 9 times to get a B and when he did, he hung that thing proudly on the fridge. And didn’t speak to me for two weeks.

I was so proud of him.

You will make mistakes. Tons. There’s no way to talk to 200 kids a day and not say something stupid on a fairly regular basis. When you do, just apologize. They will respect you forever because no one ever apologizes to teenagers. Let them learn from you that apologies don’t make you weak, they make you honorable.

The kids–they will strip you down and make you see who you really are. Then, if you let them, they will make you better, even the ones who make you crazy first.

Maybe them most of all.

So best of luck. You’ll need it between principals trying to make quotas and veteran teachers with an ax to grind and an entire political system that likes to demonize your profession. But it’s not cliche that you are in charge of the future so you have to find a way to manage. You’ll want to quit. All of us wanted to quit sometime in that first year, usually in January or February.

But hang on.  I promise that by May you will feel much better.

For the Rookies, On the First Day of School 2014-2015

For the rookies in 2015-2016!

There's nothing better than brand new school supplies!

There’s nothing better than brand new school supplies!

At the very core of education, in your own classroom, there is nothing like the magic of educating kids. Nothing. You see moments in a kid’s life, flashes of brilliance and frustration; you hear them laugh, you see them cry. You are mom, friend, sister; you are at once the coolest cat and the biggest bitch; you will love them, and have days where you could climb a mountain; you will hate them and have days where you wish it was still legal to smack them.

You will love their parents. You will hate their parents. You will see some beautiful souls and some souls bound for the deepest parts of hell. You will hear stories that make you believe in the human spirit, and stories that give you nightmares. Students will lie to your face; parents will lie to your face. One day, a student will tell you a truth so terrible that you will wish they had lied. You will help them while your heart is breaking inside.

You will want to save them. Then you will learn that some kids are not meant to be saved by you. And you will cry.

You will know you are on the right track when the question of your reputation results in fierce debate between the kids who love you and the kids who hate you. Change is hard for teenagers, just like for grown ups. When you push them, they’ll push back. Stay strong. I once had a student named Jerome revise a paper 9 times to get a B and when he did, he hung that thing proudly on the fridge. And didn’t speak to me for two weeks.

I was so proud of him.

You will make mistakes. Tons. There’s no way to talk to 200 kids a day and not say something stupid on a fairly regular basis. When you do, just apologize. They will respect you forever because no one ever apologizes to teenagers. Let them learn from you that apologies don’t make you weak, they make you honorable.

The kids–they will strip you down and make you see who you really are. Then, if you let them, they will make you better, even the ones who make you crazy first.

Maybe them most of all.

So best of luck. You’ll need it between principals trying to make quotas and veteran teachers with an ax to grind and an entire political system that likes to demonize your profession. But it’s not cliche that you are in charge of the future so you have to find a way to manage. You’ll want to quit. All of us wanted to quit sometime in that first year, usually in January or February.

But hang on.  I promise that by May you will feel much better.

Just Do Your Job

teacher-what-i-think-i-do

Sometimes the day in, day out is a grind, especially when you’ve been at your job for years. And when that job is teaching, when you’ve been going in day after day, usually teaching kids who don’t give a damn about their education, it’s even harder. I know. I’ve been there.

A couple of months ago, I decided that I would start substitute teaching one day a week to help contribute to our household income. My husband doesn’t work on Fridays, so he is able to stay home with our daughters while I work. My former school district hired me, and I’ve spent the last month and a half at the high school that I taught at for 8 years. It’s great because I know all of the secretaries and most of the teachers and I eat lunch with a bunch of my friends. It really has been fun to be back.

This last Friday, I subbed for a teacher in the special education department who teaches only one period a day of math support and spends the rest of his day as a collaborative teacher in main stream “regular” classes. He has a caseload of students who need individualized attention, which comes with a lot of paperwork and parent meetings to make sure that the students’ educational goals and needs are being met. I walked up to his classroom for his second period class and got the usual, “Are you the sub?” as I opened the door with my key. I walked over to the desk, only to find that there were no lesson plans. As the kids sat down I told them I would take roll, then try to find out what we were supposed to do for the day. Their answer was not uncommon, “We should just watch a movie!” I told them we would NOT be watching a movie, but not to worry, I’d find something for them to do. “We always have Movie Fridays,” said another student. “Sure you do,’” I answered, and started calling around to other teachers for ideas. In my calls, I find out that this teacher never leaves lesson plans for subs. As a substitute teacher, this is my worst nightmare, because now I’ve got up to 40 students in a class with nothing to do. For an hour. Awesome.

After about 5 minutes of me floundering and the students texting, the class collaborative teacher came into the room. I told her that I was grateful she was there because there were no lesson plans, and to my surprise, she told me, “We always have Movie Fridays.” She proceeded to pull up Netflix on the classroom computer and pick a movie for the students to watch during class time. The movie she chose was Three Days to Kill with Kevin Costner.

Let me pause for a moment here to tell you that I have NO problem showing movies during class time. In fact, I think that they can be excellent tools to support classroom instruction. I have movies that the kids hated and movies that the kids loved. I’ve shown all sorts of films, from a documentary about Benjamin Franklin (hated) to Their Eyes Were Watching God with Halle Berry (loved). I have film adaptations of short stories that we read every year that I could pull out and use if I needed an extra day to grade essays, and I have the interview that Oprah Winfrey did with Ellie Wiesel, an author and holocaust survivor who wrote about his time in Auschwitz. I even have an entire unit that examines literary devices that cross over into screen direction in Edward Scissorhands. It’s genius, really.

But here’s the thing: Movie Fridays? Um, no. This collaborative teacher went on to explain to me that having Movie Fridays every week gives the teacher a chance to catch up on his paperwork, and the kids love it. Honestly, I was astounded. My mind drifted back to my teaching days, with 40 kids in a class for 5 periods a day. We tested every 6 weeks. Every 6 weeks they wrote essays. If you’re keeping track, that’s 200 essays to read every 6 weeks. It was awful. So I understand needing to catch up. But every week? And the movie that she chose… for those of you who haven’t seen it, in the first 5 minutes, a woman is recognized as a spy, beaten until she is a bloody mess, dragged across a hotel hallway, then her assailant pushes the elevator call button, pries open the elevator door, and when the elevator comes down to their floor, it decapitates her. Mouth literally agape, I turned to the other teacher who said to me, “Oooh, well, it’s PG-13. I hope I don’t get in trouble.” I sat through the rest of the class period watching shootouts, people getting pistol-whipped, and a near rape of a teen-aged girl.

I know that I was not the perfect model of a teacher when I was there full time. I know. There were days that I got side tracked. There were days that I was just too tired, too sick, or too pregnant to be effective. I know this. But there are ways that you can still make students work and learn while you take a little break. Instructional minutes are so valuable and it seemed that at the end of a grading period I just never had enough time to really teach what I needed to teach.

I’ll admit it. I was seduced by Dead Poets Society into thinking that my teaching career was going to be full of inspiring students to stand up on desks for me, that I was going to teach them more than the class content, and that I was going to use literature to change their lives. But I wasn’t teaching the students of Welton Academy. And Mr. Keating I am not. My students needed to learn to write a sentence. And read at grade level. I didn’t even have the freedom to choose my own curriculum, like Ms. Johnson in Dangerous Minds. So on we trudged, through texts like William Bradford’s ship log from his journey on the Mayflower, written in 1620. Are you kidding me? I don’t even care about that. We read Patrick Henry’s “Speech to the Virginia Convention” and when I asked who the audience was, the students couldn’t tell me. Perhaps, the Virginia Convention?

And while I met some really neat kids along the way (who are probably reading this article), there were also the bad apples: the boy who threw an eraser at my head, the girl who called me a fucking bitch to my face, the boy who said if he had been on a slave ship, he would have “tapped” as many women as possible, the student who stole an ipod off my desk, the boy who made one of the most disgusting sexual comments that I have ever heard about me and my husband, and the student who told me that now that I was pregnant, I could be a MILF.

Teaching is hard. And there are so many who go in every day and do it well. I couldn’t anymore. So I got out. And here’s the thing, if you can’t do it anymore, if you have Movie Fridays every week, EVERY WEEK, then it’s time for you to get out, too. As I went on about my day last Friday, I got angrier and angrier. I got angry because there are so many teachers, my own friends, who are rad teachers. And they fight against the crappy kids and the prescribed curriculum and they TEACH. But then there are the few, and believe me, they are few, that have given up, that have Movie Fridays, and Study Hall Mondays, and Free-Time Wednesdays, and they are the teachers that we hear about on the news. They are the ones who are held up as the mascot of all teachers on talk radio. They are the ones that the public holds up as the example and scream about inflated teacher salaries and incompetent classroom management. And you know what, they’re right. The public is right to scream about those burned-out, uninspired, dried-up teachers. But those teachers are not the norm.   And they’re giving the rest of us a really bad name.

This is harsh, I know. But if you’re going to continue teaching, you gotta pick up your game. You gotta pull up your britches and DO YOUR JOB! You don’t have to be Mr. Keating or Ms. Johnson.  But you have to do your job.  Teaching is hard; it is. But you know what, lots of jobs are hard. Lots of people get up every day and go into a job that they dislike. If you were just a pencil pusher in a cubicle that hated your job, I wouldn’t care how you did it. But you aren’t. Your slacking and burn-out is directly affecting the lives of students who desperately need an education. They can’t do basic math.   They can’t write a sentence. They don’t have good examples of responsible adults at home. And when they see you giving up on your job, they see you giving up on them. They may not verbalize that. In fact, they’ll probably love Movie Friday. But deep down inside, they’ll know.

Teachers, let me give you this poem, in the spirit of LouAnn Johnson from Dangerous Minds:

“Do not go gentle into that good night”

Dylan Thomas, 1914 – 1953

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.