The Myth of Whiny Teachers

As we get closer to summer, writing about teachers seems to be everywhere. For every thoughtful or thought-provoking post on the end of the school year, there is a counterpoint, or a host of comments that complain about the whining of teachers. “Teaching: the only job where you work half the year and complain about it full-time,” read one top rated comment on a blog post describing the end of year paperwork and conferences expected of teachers. “You’re not doctors,” another told me. “You’re not cops in dangerous cities. You’re not first responders. These are tough jobs. You play with kids until 3.” In response to the observation that these jobs require teachers, because they require school & training, a clever commentator challenged: “So, should we revere chocolatiers because most doctors have had chocolate before?” (The answer, of course, is no; we should revere chocolatiers because of chocolate.)

Without trying to address the misconceptions and fallacies represented in these opinions (half the year…?), I think the important thing to point out is that teachers aren’t whiny.

There are people who are teachers who whine. And there are people who are teachers who complain, but so are there doctors, police officers in tough neighborhoods, and unlikely as it seems, chocolatiers. But the perception that there is a public platform for teachers to stamp their feet and demand more respect for their jobs is simply false.

This misunderstanding implies that teachers have taken to the internet to list and detail the hardships of their jobs with no impetus. We looked around at 3 pm when we were done playing with our students all day and thought, hmm…I think I’ll complain on the internet for awhile, because my job is done! The idea that teachers are just whining for more attention ignores the fact that these articles, blog posts, and memes are not happening in a vacuum: these are responses to attacks. Teachers are constantly called upon to defend themselves, their jobs, and their students, and that call is most often rhetorical. Articles and blog posts that detail the realities of working in education represent the voices of those who refuse to be silenced, not the petulant dissatisfaction of the over privileged. That so many consider it whiny and unnecessary is evidence that the smear campaign against teachers has, in some ways, succeeded.

The aspects of education jobs that teachers complain about – or, rather, the realities that teachers seek to expose – mostly stem from the increased interference of policy in classrooms. Overcrowding, excessive paperwork, beyond excessive testing – the toll these and other atrocities take on students, teachers, and education is obscured by painting educators as lazy and overly demanding. When teachers write about these things, or address the lies told about them and their jobs, they are not whining. They are standing up for themselves, their colleagues, and their students. They are not crying for more money or trying to justify their worth to you. They are telling you are being lied to; like teachers, they are encouraging you to use your brains, consider multiple perspectives, and interrogate what you have been told. Like teachers, we invite you to think.

And some of us write these stories to remind each other that we are not alone. So to my fellow teachers: keep speaking up. People will misunderstand you, call you a whiner, tell you to quit, call you a liar (#hatersgonhate). But other people will thank you, and some people will think about what you have shown them and see differently. Like teaching, the effects will be varied and we may not see them firsthand. Continue to honor your students and yourself; you teach students to question, to think critically, to express themselves, to speak up when they are bullied, to search for truth. And as we well know, that job is never done.

Untested: Growth That Tests Can’t Measure

Favi called me over to her desk one recent afternoon, leaning forward over her notebook urgently. “I have to thank you,” she said. “You remember how you told Raymond that writing is a way to deal with being upset? Well, I took that advice, too. But I don’t wait to be upset. Every day, I write about a quote. & I really have to thank you. It makes me feel…lighter, if that makes sense. I just feel better every time I do it.”

New York’s school year is ending, & tests are bursting into bloom around us. MOSLs, field tests, the NYSESLAT, all sinister roots winding their way to the towering trunk of Regents exams. It’s a tough time of year, to put it very, very lightly.

Times like this, when my students are emotionally manic balls of stress that ricochet through outbursts & mood swings, when all of their self-esteem & confidence plummets & they find themselves forgetting the most routine of behaviors, when they are bleary & cranky from lack of sleep, or surly & defensive, or on the verge of tears after the slightest frustration, it is easy to feel like I have taught them nothing. They certainly feel as though they’ve forgotten everything. During an after school session, a student working on an essay for another class told me he didn’t want to work with that other teacher, because asking questions was embarrassing there. He knew he would be reprimanded & told, “You should know how to do this! I already taught you this!”

“I know I should know,” my student told me. “I just forget or maybe I’m not sure. Sometimes I ask the question even if I have the right answer, just to check. I don’t want to get it wrong.”

That feeling of I’m not sure & I don’t want to be wrong so I have to ask while I still can seems a direct result of excessive testing. It’s an intense anxiety, one that even self-confident students will suffer through as exam after exam crashes upon them, like so many waves.

But there’s so much more than the test. Tests. The growth & gains my students have made this year can’t always be measured by one test, or even four, or even more. I need to make space to celebrate those moments, so my students can join me in recognizing that increased confidence, stepping outside of their comfort zones, playing teacher, asking questions, & writing independently are huge accomplishments.

Like Favi’s discovery of the healing of journal writing, many of my students have achieved in ways these tests can’t & won’t measure.

There’s Ivy, who began the year so fearful of writing that she did not trust herself to put down more than a  sentence before asking me to read it and tell her if it was “right.” How many hours a week she sat in our classroom after school, tears threatening her eyeliner as I reminded her to write down what she was thinking. “It isn’t going to be perfect, but that’s good. Nothing is perfect.” I can’t pin down Ivy’s exact turning point, but somewhere this year, her anxiety eased up a little. She took risks writing down her thoughts without triple checking her ideas against her classmates’ opinions. She wrote whole paragraphs before asking me to look, & didn’t crumple when I asked a question about her work. & after a reading response activity of drafting coming to America poems, Ivy returned after school to proudly present me with a second poem, one she had simply felt inspired to write. I was so proud I wanted to shout, especially when she handed the poem to me & said, “it’s not perfect, but I like it.”

This school year has held so many of these moments, demonstrations of learning & development that will not be assessed by a formulaic written response to a standardized test prompt. Students reading aloud for the first time, finishing a book independently for the first time, writing in English for the first time after months to years of anxiety & fear. These huge accomplishments do not mean that they will pass their exams, though, & in the end, they will be made to feel like none of these achievements matter.

I’m left with two areas of tension, knots I need to work at as I prepare for next year (next week, next day). One: how do I honor & value students’ growth throughout the year in a way that allows them to honor it, too? Beyond reflective writing & portfolio building, beyond conferences, beyond inspirational speeches; how does the recognition & celebration of improvement become a core piece of our classroom? Two: How do I continue to build a classroom environment that helps my students do the things they have never before done, and extend that safe, productive feeling beyond our walls? It is invaluable, the work I put into creating a classroom that encourages students to take risks & push themselves, but that needs to continue happening when we are apart. How do we create a class environment that allows students space to achieve great things both inside the classroom & out?

This is my favorite place to be as a teacher: holding the tensions in my hand, learning their shapes & textures, feeling for a starting point. What do you think? How do you honor students’ growth, & encourage them to keep growing independently? 

Make ‘Em Say, “Huh?”: The Value of Confusion

“Confusion is a state of understanding.” – Sheridan Blau

I only recently discovered Vicki Vinton’s wonderful blog, To Make A Prairie, and my life is already better! I came across this post on confusion, and my heart sang out. I had just come from a coffee date with a friend, M, and I was still reeling from the tales she had told me.

At M’s school, no student is supposed to be confused, ever. Teachers are expected to “assess student understanding” every 15 minutes, and if students are “not getting it,” teachers are expected to teach the same information again the next lesson. I imagine that this seems like a beautiful vision to many people (probably few of them teachers) – a utopian classroom where everyone understands everything and no students ever feel out of their depth.

Of course, if you know your dystopia (and you should), you know that 1984 and Brave New World and The Hunger Games all feature nightmares of society that came to pass because of similar attempts at perfection. And if you allow yourself some speculative fiction and ask yourself, “If this goes on…” you will likely come to the conclusion that eliminating confusion from the learning process is not only impossible, but a terrible idea.

Confusion gets a bad rap. We think of “I don’t know,” as dirty words, a forbidden admission. We hate to say it, and we hate to hear it. And as teacher evaluation systems attempt to link a teacher’s effectiveness to test-based measures of student progress, “I don’t know” starts to sound like, “You failed.”

I think part of the problem is that people like to think of learning as a linear process that looks something like this:

learning

In a linear process like this, confusion is equal to failure. If a learner cannot progress to, “Now I know!” after being taught a lesson, then the teacher has failed the learner, and the learner has failed himself. The linear model does not account for what happens in between the lesson and “successful” learning. Thinking linearly, we can’t appreciate that learners are touching down on “I think I know,” or “I know this much.” A straight line like this does not account for the learner connecting new information to existing understandings, wondering how these fit together, and experimenting with revised ideas. Neither does it acknowledge that learners are likely to return to “I don’t know,” during a moment of anxiety, like when they are questioned in class or given a test. Learning on a straight line, there’s no appreciation for the deepening of thought, or the reality that understanding is layered; it changes as the learner changes, evolves as she reflects and revisits.

The truth of learning, though, is that it is a recursive, ongoing process. Philosophers debated the concepts of knowledge and learning for a reason: because it is messy and twisty, and very much not a straight line. It probably looks more like this:

confusion-2

Moving from “I don’t know,” to “Now I know,” isn’t going to happen in a neat series of steps. Great minds are always quoted saying something along these lines: learning comes from failure, mistakes create knowledge, grit means not quitting when things are tough. Ad campaigns infect us with slogans derived from these beliefs: impossible is nothing, says Nike. Such advertising works for a reason.

The idea that learning is a shapelier process than a 1-2-3 sequence may seem off-putting to those who seek to evaluate it. And for those who hope to dictate how teachers should teach, acknowledging that learning is not uniform or straightforward is probably pretty scary (at least annoying). It would certainly take more work. The checklist systems many evaluators favor would not be as useful in an environment that welcomed confusion. But one could argue that those checklist systems are already failing, because they can award high marks to lessons that do not encourage students to grapple with their learning, work through their confusion, even learn to understand that confusion is not failure, but progress.

Last week, during my after-school class, some of my students sat by the wall where I display the quotes we have discussed in class, rereading past quotes and remarking on their favorites. Mohamadou turned to me. “My favorite is, ‘Do not spoil what you have by wishing for what you have not.'” he paused, turning over the remaining words in his mind. “‘Remember that what you have today…was once…what you only hoped for.’ Something like that. That’s a good one.” I smiled at that, remembering the day they came in to find the Epicurus quote on the board (right before Thanksgiving, of course). I remember their crumpled faces, their lips moving silently as they reread and reread. Had I snapped a photo, it would have been the very picture of confusion. But they worked. Hard. They waded into their uncertainty and sloshed through the mire, and they found a way through. I was so proud of them, and I knew I was doing something right, because they were so proud of themselves. They had faced that confusion, and they didn’t turn back. And Mohamadou sits in my classroom months later, reciting (almost perfectly) these words that presented such a puzzle, required such a feat.

If we teach students to fear or avoid confusion, then what are we teaching? What are they learning? If students learn that they can’t ever be confused, then almost anything will become too big a challenge to attempt.

What role does confusion play in your classroom? Share your thoughts in the comments!

 

The Value of Dreams

Overheard in NY, one teacher to another: “These kids just have no basis in reality. They’re just dreaming.”

Lifting me, unwilling, out of my book, the complaints from those teachers flooded the subway car we shared. Everyone wants to be a baseball star, or a rapper. Even the kids who want to be lawyers and doctors “just don’t get it.” This girl won’t study for math because she wants to be a model. That kid wants to be a stand-up comic because he likes Kevin Hart – but he’s not even funny! The outrage was bottomless, and I felt myself sinking through it, discouraged by the despair of these teachers.

I hear these complaints more often than I’d like. Since I’ve been working in the Bronx, I’ve been told about how out of touch our students are, how unrealistic their goals, how foolish their dreams. Reality is going to slap them in the face, their teachers have assured me. They’re in for a rude awakening when they fail.

I want to ask: what dreams are not foolish? And I want to argue: no one who can dream can fail.

I became a teacher instead of becoming a writer. I majored in English in college, and I went to college because it was just what you were supposed to do after high school. So I devoted my college years to stories, reading them and writing them. And I told everyone who assumed I would be a teacher that there were plenty of other things one could do with a BA in English (that song from Avenue Q was fun when it came out junior year), all the while guarding my secret dream of being a writer.

I didn’t even know what it meant, to “be” a writer. I couldn’t answer any of the important career questions: where would I work? and how much money would I make? and where would I live? It was a dream. It was wholly impractical, no basis in reality. When I pictured myself as a writer, I was always taller and my stubborn Hermione-hair had relaxed into the effortless, beachy waves that no amount of product or brand of gadget will ever give me. And I usually lived on the beach, in an old mansion, with a whimsical dog that could, like, howl out a Talking Heads song. Or I lived in a warehouse-cum-apartment building like a character from RENT, expect not addicted to heroin. Becoming a writer wasn’t a plan I was executing, or a goal I was carefully progressing towards. It was a dream, a dream that I knew would become a reality.

It didn’t. I became a teacher, not a writer. And I have not once regretted this. Not because teaching is a stable job, or because I can pay my rent; nothing boring like that. Teaching is satisfying and fulfilling and challenging and exciting and all of the things I felt being a writer would be, and I never would have made it to this job if I hadn’t held on to that dream. By most people’s standards, I failed. In truth, the dream has been the secret to my success.

On paper, I had a good upbringing. My family was not poor. I went to school every day, got into a reputable college. I am well-mannered and I know how to cook. The reality of my home life was in discordant contrast to the projected image, and though I am now voluntarily estranged from my abusive-in-every-sense-of-the-word family, when I was living that reality, my dream was all I had. It was the only thing keeping me afloat. It was the reason I got out.

When I hear teachers and parents complain about dreaming children, I want to scream. I want to wrap my arms around their kids and turn myself into something impenetrable and protective. I want to protect these dreams, because I believe in their power. I believe that dreams can lift us when we fall and sustain us when we are starving. I know that we need reality, too. I know that we can’t tell people that dreams are enough to make a life happen. We need the real, and the boring. But we also need the dreams, and some of us more than others.

Something I try to show my students (high school through graduate school) is that we never quite know what’s going on in someone else’s life. We make assumptions, but even when we think we see and hear everything, so much can be (often is) happening in between people’s lines. On paper isn’t reality, either. But we believe it and treat it as fact, and try to sever children from their dreams because we think it’s our duty as adults.

Once in a workshop, an elementary teacher marveled at the high school teachers in the room. “I just don’t know how you can do it!” she said. “Those high school kids are tough!” As the other teachers mused over what it is, exactly, that makes high school so difficult, one voice seized a brief lull to state, “It’s because they don’t imagine anymore.”  There were only about 15 of us, and it paused us all for a moment. I thought about how hard it can be to motivate my students, how defeated many have become. So many that have resigned themselves to not understanding, not being a “good student,” not being seen. I smiled, thinking about how wonderful it is when the walls start to come down and my students lose themselves in play and wonder, but the truth of that teacher’s statement made me so sad.

It’s not that I think you should let the student who has stopped coming to class slide because he’s dreaming that he’ll be a rockstar. But I think that telling that kid he’ll never be a rockstar, or pointing out that he’s not even in a band, will just push him away from you. You become just another hater, just someone else who doesn’t believe in him. My friend Molly likes to talk to kids about “the plan.” You want that? Ok, let’s figure out how you’re going to get it. What an awesome research project could come out of this (I’m sure has come out of this). Maybe instead of bursting bubbles or telling students how impractical their dreams are, we could acknowledge their dreams, validate them, engage them in the study and exploration of them. Give students a chance to figure out what that dream could look like in reality, and open the opportunity to discover new dreams.

Dreams are important, is all. I mean, they were good enough for Einstein.

How do you encourage your students to dream? Let me know in the comments!

2/24: It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This past week was midwinter break here in NYC so I was hoping to devour about 10 books & get two posts up. Instead I spent the week rushing one of my cats back & forth from the vet & tending to him post-surgery. Suffice it to say that Monday came back around way too soon.

I did get some great reading in though!

monsterLast Night I Sang to the Monster, Benjamin Alire Saenz - I mostly loved this. If you know BAS from Aristotle & Dante, there is familiar territory here, but I found Zach’s tale somehow enchanting in its rawness. It was a hard read in some respects – at times because of the content, because of Zach’s brutal & honest reactions, & at other times because Zach’s go-to phrases seemed to cheapen or diminish the story. Despite that, & an ending that came too soon & tied up too neatly, this was a beautiful, haunting book about addiction, trauma, secrets, & finding yourself.

realboy

The Real Boy, Anne Ursu – Finally! Back in November, I all but camped out at Scholastic’s NCTE booth in hopes of scoring a copy of this lovely book. No dice, though I considered being late to my own presentation to get it. Instead, I had to wait on my local library. Thankfully, I picked up Breadcrumbs, Ursu’s beautiful reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” to tide me over. The Real Boy was wonderful. It grabbed me; I found myself at times gasping & clutching at the book. Some loose ends that never quite came together, but I can forgive that. Really lovely fantasy tale, & awesome cats!

everyday

Every Day, David LevithanI’m definitely hooked so far, but I’m not in love. A is…complicated. It’s nice to have a complicated narrator, though. I become so attached to “good” narrators that I’m often too forgiving, so I’m enjoying disagreeing with A, so far.

On deck this week:

Rosie & Skate The Demigod Diaries The Living

February 17th – It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?I love this meme! It does mean that my to-read list balloons every week, but that’s ok with me because books are wonderful. It’s the first official day of midwinter break in NYC, which means I came home with a bag of books on Friday, to go with the three towers in the corner of my bedroom.

Really tempted to build a fort...

It’s only a problem if you can’t admit it?

So! What am I reading?

House of Hades

The House of Hades (Heroes of Olympus #4), by Rick Riordan – I’m about halfway through the most recent in Riordan’s Percy Jackson follow-up series, & zomg. I absolutely loved the Percy Jackson series; Riordan clearly knows his mythology & history, not to mention teens. I really enjoyed the books, especially seeing what these gods & mythological creatures were up to in the present (kind of like YA American Gods). I got into this sequel series because of my students, & even though I’ve torn through the first 3 books, they haven’t felt as amazing as the original series. Even though there have been great moments of modern-day god-life, fun callbacks to characters from the first series, & the potential for awesome fights, things have felt rushed & more told than shown.

This installment has been such a welcome change of pace! There’s still a LOT happening on each page, & the drive-by appearances of Scrion, Triptolemus, & Eros have made me wish for a slower pace, but I’ve also found myself smiling & inwardly cheering at many moments. & Tartarus is pretty awesomely rendered so far. I’m forcing myself to move slower through this one, which makes it much more enjoyable, even when I catch myself in social situations inwardly wondering what’s going to happen next & how long it will be until I can find out WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN TO LEO/FRANK/PERCY/HAZEL!

Home of the Brave

Home of the Brave, by Katherine Applegate – I just finished this lovely novel-in-verse this week, a beautiful story about immigration, refugee experiences, & moving to a strange new land. & cows! I’m going to be reading this with my students soon. I’m so excited for them to meet Kek & Gol. If you’ve read One and Only Ivan, you know Katherine Applegate is amazing, & I do think she brings her A-game to HOTB. I read this right after A Long Walk to Water, & I could see them pairing really well together. Applegate is just so good at telling a story through these poems. It’s a joy to read them, & reread them, & chew them over.

fangirl

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell - Rainbow Rowell just needs to stop writing love letters to my soul. Or maybe to keep doing it forever. I LOVED Eleanor & Parkfiercely. I loved it in the primal, intense way that bears love baby bears. & then Fangirl came into my life & I was like, “How can I love you both so much?!” I’d heard a lot of reviews & recommendations that Fangirl was even better than E&P, but I can’t concur with that. They’re too different. & that might be what makes them so great, that FG is so different from E&P, that they speak to very different parts of me & do so honestly. FG was so dead on, about fandom, about college, about boys & nerds & creative writing professors & students. The way Rowell writes about writing unlocked something in me, & I know I’ll be carrying this book within me for a long time.

Also recently read:

exposedbreadcrumbs

boymeetsboy

 

 

 

 

 

What are you reading?

Nerdy Book Club!

I have a post on Nerdy Book Club today! (eeeeeee!) This is pretty much a dream come true for me. I love NBC and the amazing writers who post there, and I’m so honored to see my name on the blog.

Of course, I did a lot of reflecting on myself as a writer, and a teacher of writing, as I drafted and redrafted this post. I worked with my Writing Project buddies on Google Docs, and while I’ve thought about having student writing groups use Google Docs for collaboration (student-student interaction vs. student-teacher interaction), this experience gave me a sense of how that could work. Having multiple voices on my drafts wasn’t overwhelming, as I’ve feared. It was really helpful to have comments building off one another, different writers focusing on different aspects of the draft. Christy and I had a valuable experience regarding my use of “it’s not,” and the different ways that phrase can be read. I’m always reminding my students that readers can’t climb into a writer’s mind, so diction and explanation are important. This moment with “it’s not,” was a perfect example of how a phrase can mean one thing to the writer and another to the reader, and now I have an authentic document to share with my students. The comments that show our “aha!” moment alone are great examples of how to be a supportive writing partner. I’m proud not only of the piece we worked on together, but of the experience of working on it and the depth it gives my teaching.

See? I’m a perfect fit for a nerdy-themed blog :)

I’m so thankful to Donalyn Miller and the Nerdy Book Club community for posting my thoughts on the issue of bookshaming. Seemingly harmless comments that disguise insult as argument, bookshaming can turn readers off by belittling their accomplishments and replacing the joy of reading with anxiety and fear of rejection. Check out the post here!