No, Al. The existence of bigger assholes in the world does not make you any less of an asshole.
Every day, I get to hang out with students who are on the eve of what feels like their entire future. They are awaiting college application responses, taking SATs, working after school, and feeling the pressure of thinking about what they might want to do for the rest of their lives. Their dreams vary as much as the students themselves. Many students want to be nurses or doctors, some dream of the IT world and computer science, and others talk about engineering or law.
“What about teaching?” I sometimes ask.
“Oh hell no. I could never do that.”
It’s “the best of times & the worst of times.”
Not the best of times OR the worst of times.
The challenge is that both sides of that ampersand exist in equal measure, and we ignore some important truth about teaching when we diminish either.
My co-blogger and bromantical partner Jason is a great teacher. I know because, although I’ve never set foot in his classroom, one time I saw him kick a car.
They may smell kind of bad, or talk too much, or whine more than the Napa Valley, but you actually believe somewhere inside of you that they are the best part of your job. And, on your worst of days, things are made a little better when you close your classroom door and hang out with your students. If you are honest with yourself, it is the adults that make your job unbearable at times. Not the students.
It's a horribly unjust system that requires some students to break through walls while others float over them, but if I focus on the system I find no hope at all. However, if I focus on the students who push through, like the girl with the calculator, I find hope.
The problem is, that kind of work and passion starts to wear on any of us. Stress starts to take a toll on most good teachers.
I read these vignettes all weekend. At moments I was almost crying as I poured over the experiences that kids had that they felt had been there education. Then, just as often, I smiled or laughed as the funny stories of childhood. I graded them on the rubric I had created and the things we had discussed in class. I drew smiley faces and "wows" all over their papers. And secretly, I hoped that I would learn something deep and game-changing about how students learn.
I didn't though. I just learned that school matters. Your job, teachers, is probably more important than I thought before. Or, more important than any of us thought. Whether we know it or not, kids have an amazing memory and they are learning all the time and in most every situation.
That decision confirmed in my mind something that I had probably known for a long time: that powerful people don't make decisions about education so that kids can learn. That is secondary, at best. They make decisions about education because of money.
In education, we can’t afford the hail mary pass, we have to settle for the efficiency of handoffs or short passes.
Great students conferences work hard to notice the best moments about a person, and then ask the person to be that best version of themselves.
From that moment on, everything in that class changed. It was as if I found some secret code in the game that made it work in my favor. So I kept doing it. Over the last 5 years, I have probably written (or spoken to my phone) 200 pages worth of letters to students. Some of them are academic, telling students that they need to work on developing arguments in essays or reading skills, but others are more personal and they focus on the positive things I notice about the student in class. When I have a weekend with minimal planning or grading, I take a few hours to write letters. I pick a class that I want to address, copy my roster from that class into my notes, and take the free moments on a weekend to write a few letters.
A couple years ago Jason asked me if I get nervous before the start of a school year. I didn't know how to answer him because I’m a prideful person. In my head, answering “yes” meant I was scared of teenagers and “no” meant I was Jack Black during the first half of “School of Rock.”
But there are levers out there that require much less money and lifting, and might work a lot better. Those levers might help a lot more students. In other words, there might be some light lifting we can do in some places that will move some previously immovable rocks.
As we all go back to school in the next few weeks, our students have just seen news of white nationalists, neo-nazis, and white supremacists parading through the streets in broad daylight with their messages of hate for so many in our country. Those messages of hate were attacking the hope of so many of the young people that fill our classrooms and neighborhoods.
The temptation for many of us is to believe that this is a fringe act of terrorists or extremists. But denouncing this kind of thing as fringe seems insufficient. For many people of color in this country, the evidence doesn't suggest that this kind of behavior is fringe at all.
These are the kinds of reactions that I would expect from 17 year olds. When young people don’t get what they want, they often start to scream and yell. In the end, hopefully, adults step in and explain that the policy picture has to be a little more nuanced than a personal experience or heartbreak. We can’t make policy decisions based on anecdotes.