“I teach at a failing high school.”
I can feel the shifting uneasiness.
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.
I’m not that good at teaching. Most days I feel kind of like I’m drowning. I’m in the deep end and I am kind of a shitty swimmer. I can doggy paddle, and tread water for a while, but eventually I need one of those huge foam noodles that my grandma would jam under each armpit so she wouldn’t get her hair wet. She never once got her hair wet in 87 years. Those foam noodles worked wonders.
What I do know is that Mrs. Wilson gave me a ladder to climb that day and challenged me to go for it. It’s hard to overstate the power of this moment in my life as a student. I approached future educational goals with the seeds of confidence planted in me that day at Riverview Elementary.
People want to read strong, unequivocal opinions that leave no room for debate. They don’t want to read some directionless meandering through a cloudy philosophical forest of indecision and doubt. The problem for me is that my head is kind of a cloudy philosophical forest of indecision and doubt.
IF students are feeling safe and happy in your classroom, they feel challenged and engaged, other professionals are challenging you and informing your work, and your students are growing in their knowledge and ability, THEN you should be paid like the leading professional that you are. That is, however, a big IF/THEN statement that we are not currently honoring. That kind of pay scale would attract more talented and motivated people to teaching, inspire all the innovative folks that are already teaching, and keep the general public from thinking we are all a bunch of worksheet-making blowhards who drink Corona in Cancun all summer long.
That “something new” is where the job of being an adult requires that we work to solve problems. Those teachers, in frustration and habit, are acting like I do each morning when my daughters wake up early. Our attempts to solve the problems we face in education often amount to doing the same things that we have been doing louder and more frequently. It is a great disservice to our students that some of data analysis in my profession never gets much beyond classroom management.
What I have come to know, and am still learning, is that mentoring is done best when it’s not my own birthday party I’m planning. There is no room for the imposition of my own expectations. It’s not about me and any self-gratification I achieve through my mentee’s success in her life journey. I get the honor of an invitation to another person’s birthday party, so I am along for the ride. I am there to celebrate, support, and enjoy the unique way in which that person designs their party. I will learn, I will be out of my comfort zone, and I will experience joy when I am free of the anxiety of hoping it all goes perfectly. It will be the most fun when I let go of my vision and show up with true openness and humility, in sincere gratitude to be invited.