Teaching In the Deep End

So here is the thing.  An admission, of sorts. 

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. 

The little voice in my head (one of many little voices, in case you were wondering) tells me that it is ridiculous to write a blog.  I should leave this to the good ones.  The ones who seem to know what they are doing. 

IN fact, If I ever leave this profession it will be because I am not good enough.  When I think about good teaching, it seems kind of daunting and impossible. I’ve learned a bit about what it is, but that realization makes me feel even more inadequate. There are a few things that go into being great at this, all of which seem overwhelming on their own. 

I’ll use an example to make my point.  Her name is Tish.  Let’s say she is in my first period class. 

Good teachers have to be smart.  We have to know what has worked and what hasn’t worked.  Not much has worked for Tish.  Her state reading score percentiles look kind depressing.  She was in the 5th percentile in 3rd grade, then the 3rd, then the 2nd for three straight years, and then the 5th percentile again in 8th grade.  I knew this before I met Tish and my reading specialist friend told me that she is “on a pathway to illiteracy.” I acted like I knew all of what that meant, but really those kinds of words frighten me and I remember to look for the foam noodle.  So I look at her grades.  Middle school was all A’s and B’s in English, but there was no real growth in reading.  High School got a little worse.  There are mostly C’s and D’s. Their have been efforts and interventions that I can see along the way, mostly in middle school, but I can’t find any real evidence that anything worked.  I also can’t see any indicators that anyone has really tried to intervene in high school.  

Then, I met Tish. 

Good teachers have to be listeners, observers, and discerners. Kids walk into classrooms with histories that are intricate and complex. For now, I’m not talking about trauma and challenges, but just the nature of being human. Good teachers have to listen to this.  Tish hated English on day one. Of course she did, she can’t really read. You can’t give Thoreau to someone who can’t read. She’ll get pissed and start cussing a lot. I would too. But the first thing I remember noticing is how much she spoke and how she had an unsteady confidence to her.  It could have been a facade, as it often is for high schoolers, but it was there.  In the span of a few weeks, I started to learn more.  She didn’t really know her dad, so her stepdad who she called Mr. Charles had become everything to her.  She loved that guy.  He treated her like his own child, and Tish felt that every day.  But, unexpectedly, Mr. Charles died when Tish was 13.  She hasn’t really recovered. She told me that she still thinks about talking to him and telling him about life.  And sometimes, alone at night, she still talks to him through the emptiness of a dark bedroom. When she wrote about Mr. Charles, I was impressed. She demonstrated skills that one wouldn’t expect from a non-reader.  But when she wrote about anything else, it was unclear and disconnected.  She would copy huge portions of text to prove a point that she hadn’t made, and then not explain what she was thinking or where she was going with her ideas.  I didn’t, and probably still don’t, know what to do.  So I did what my insecure self always does, and reached for the side of the pool.  

But I can’t stay there forever. I have a job to do. I have the nagging conscience that tells me that my job is to help her get better.  To read more confidently and to communicate clearly. 

Good teachers have to be excellent instructors.  And this comes after the first two things for a reason. Because now, and only after I have learned the backstory, it is my job to help her.  Tish doesn’t know the research on adult illiteracy.  She doesn’t know that without these skills she might be struggling to find meaningful work for the rest of her life.  She is just trying to smile through her days and pass 11th grade English.  She tells me that reading is hard, but she wouldn’t admit that she really can’t read much at all.  If I were a good teacher, I would know what to do here.  I would know how to take all of what I have learned and blend that with real and meaningful practice. I would know how to find the missing pieces in her learning and replace them with strong foundations.  

But this is where I find myself looking for two foam noodles to jam under my armpits.  I read articles that tell me what to do, and consult with others in the school, and talk to my neighbor who knows a lot more about reading instruction than I do.  But I feel like none of the answers that I get are enough. None of them work like I want them to work.  I go back to the drawing board and push in all the ways I know how to help her get better.  But at then end of the day, I’m not quite good enough.  I take comfort in some things.  There is a 3 page essay in my bag right now from Tish.  It won’t be perfect, but it will be a good city block better than it was 4 months ago. 

And Tish took the state test in reading again a few months ago.  I asked her how it went.

“The first day was ok.  Mr. Boll- I tried so hard.” I smiled, knowing that she has shown enough progress to demonstrate some real improvement if she tried.  

“I’m proud of you, T.  And the second day?” 

She smiled.

“That shit was hard. I gave up.”
“Ha.  I’m still proud of you. And you're a punk.” 

We smiled.

It is not just Tish.  Most teachers could re-write this for 100 other students.  Each one would sound different, but each goal would be the same.  We have to help them get better. 

And I reach for the foam noodle.