Hide from the Sun

My mom used to get so frustrated with me.

She lived long enough to see me through ten years of teaching high school, four years of grad school, and the first two years of my college teaching career.  In all that time I only rarely volunteered any of my accomplishments.  This is the way I’ve always been.  People tell me I’m hard to get to know, and I don’t disagree with them.  It’s an unholy combination of Midwestern stoicism, introversion, and social anxiety that causes me to play my cards close to the vest.  It is, as much as anything, my overriding belief that there’s nothing about me that’s worth getting worked up about.  I try to keep my head down and do my thing.  There’s nothing remarkable about me.

But my mom, like most moms, wasn’t so easily convinced of that.

When she was alive I’d mention any recognition or awards I got only in passing, or I’d let Wife of Monty take care of that once she was on the scene.  I just didn’t – and don’t – see the fuss.  But my mom would good-naturedly scold me once she’d learn about the teaching award or the publication or the grant and tell me that I need to be prouder of my accomplishments and publicize them.  I’ve tried to do better with that, partially to honor her memory, but also because Wife of Monty constantly reminds me that people want to hear about these things and celebrate them with me.  I don’t get it – and I’m not sure I agree – but I know when to yield to an unstoppable force.

So it was in that spirit that I turned to Facebook this afternoon to relate a conversation I had with one of my students.  At the end of class I shooed people out of the room citing a meeting I had to run to across campus.  One of my students said she didn’t want to keep me, but asked if we could walk and talk.  Never one to turn down the chance to feel like an actor in an Aaron Sorkin show, I obviously and immediately agreed.

It was a good talk (and walk).  She said she admired and respected the way I teach, the way class is structured, the way I facilitate discussion.  She asked if it was possible to teach high school that way because it didn’t look anything like what she experienced.  I assured her it was, that it takes time, but that’s true of anything worth doing in the classroom and that it took me five years to really feel like I knew what I was doing. She expressed anxiety at not becoming the teacher she wants to be, of not being good enough, of not living up to her own expectations for herself.  She ended the conversation by saying, “Help me teach the way you teach.”

It’s one of the best compliments I’ve received in my professional career.  My goal of course is to help my students find their own teaching voice, but I understand the desire to walk in the footsteps of the people who have come before us.  I owe an undeniable debt to some of my own teachers, so it would be silly of me to downplay the sense of pride that I could be one of those teachers to someone else.

So I turned, as we do these days, to Facebook.  I shared the quote, but because old habits die hard and I didn’t want to be seen as bragging, I undercut the story with a self-deprecating comment at the end – something about someone wanting an extension on the final project.  I hit “Post” and immediately felt remorse.  Here this student had come to me with honest concerns, paid me a genuine compliment, and I chose to diminish it with sarcasm.  It didn’t matter that she wouldn’t see the comment; it just felt disrespectful to the student and the honesty of the moment.

To course-correct, I edited the post to air some of what I’m writing now in abbreviated form.  I ended by admitting that even though I’m sarcastic by default, I feel immensely lucky to have the chance to do what I’m doing with my life.  What followed was a string of comments from current and former students telling me how much they appreciate my teaching.  And I started to feel worse.

Let me stress this: From the bottom of my heart, I appreciate each and every one of those compliments.  Any teacher will tell you that in a career where there isn’t a lot of instant gratification, that kind of feedback keeps us going.

But I deleted the entire post anyway.

It suddenly felt like I was fishing for compliments, that the edit I made to show love and respect for my profession had suddenly made it all about self-promotion – that I was being disingenuous in my gratitude, all to hear more about me me me.  Obliterating the entire exchange seemed like the best thing to do.

If you left a compliment for me earlier, remember: It’s not you, it’s me.  I don’t know how to take compliments, and the act of sharing them feels like I’m begging for more.  And this is something of a problem, my refusal to really be able to enjoy praise because I’m constantly filtering it through the consequences of sharing it with anyone else.

I know this doesn’t make any sense.  I love hearing teacher stories – successes and catastrophes alike, as well as the accolades my colleagues receive from their students  – and I’m sure I’m not alone in this.  But as soon as I open my mouth about my own teaching, the voice in the back of my head groans, “Great.  Not this guy again.”  For some reason the stuff I enjoy hearing from other people turns into a big existential crisis on a personal level.

And it shouldn’t be this way, for any of us.  We’re inarguably at a time when it’s more vital than ever for teachers to share the ways in which they seem to be making a difference.  The profession is under attack from all directions – politicians, the media, the wealthy – and the last thing we should do is double down on the destruction by attacking ourselves from within.  We should celebrate our successes and share the ways in which we grow from our failures instead of modestly (and figuratively) scuffing the toe of our shoe in the dirt and mumbling, “Aw, shucks,” when something goes our way.  I shy away from self-promotion (sez the guy writing the blog), but who else will promote our profession if not us?

And that’s the tension: balancing my natural inclination to just shut up and do my job with the feeling that I should do more to share good news about the profession and my role in it.  So I’m curious: For those in the audience who teach, how do you handle this issue?  Do you struggle with anything similar, or is this just my own anxious navel-gazing?  What do you do when you get recognition for your work?  And should all of us do more?

*****

Current listening:

Love st

Love and Rockets – Self-titled (1989)

Something Must Break

panopticonOne of the hardest things about teaching is running into those students who just won’t get out of their own way.  It isn’t a question of ability or intelligence; those things are, relatively speaking, easy to get a handle on.  No, it’s the students who possess all the necessary tools and then opt, for whatever reason, not to engage at all.  To let the work go unfinished, to half-ass the paper, to fake their way through the reading rather than attempt to make sense of it.

This was true when I taught high school, and, amazingly, it’s still true now that I’m working with preservice English teachers.  These are adult students one or two years out from teaching in their own classrooms, but there are always a couple each semester who apparently decide, “I know there are certain habits that all successful teachers begin to adopt during their time as students, but I’m going to do things my own way.”  They can do the work; they just won’t.

The reasons are manifold.  Sometimes it’s boredom or the irrelevance of the material.  In those cases it’s on me – I have to figure out what’s not working and fix it.  There are also those cases of good old-fashioned laziness, and those are sort of on me, too.  I remember what I was like at 16 and 21, and I have a hard time faulting students for adopting the same behaviors I had when I was their age – and which I still battle, if I’m going to be completely honest.

But there are other instances when the roots of student behavior are deeper and more troubling.  These can often be traced back to trauma – abuse or neglect, for instance, or things as unfortunately commonplace as divorce or death – and when we’re talking about teenagers, we have to remember that they’re ill-equipped to deal with these things.  As adults we have to be sensitive to this.  We are all products of our past, and the way we act in the present is often dictated by how we’ve responded to things beyond our control.

So it is with Anais Hendricks, the fiercely intelligent narrator of The Panopticon, who, at 15-years-old, has racked up charges for over 100 juvenile offenses and is now being monitored at a group home for troubled youth.  Most of these offenses are minor (petty theft and drug issues, mostly); some are major (vandalizing half a dozen police cars).  But now Anais is under suspicion of beating a female police officer into a coma, and she’s been remanded to the Panopticon until her case works its way through the courts.

At the start Anais comes off like just another variation of the addicts who people Irvine Welsh’s novels: she’s surly and sarcastic, she’s usually under the influence of something, and her language is peppered with profanity and Scottish slang.  I resisted this at first because I felt like I’d seen it before.  But as author Jenni Fagan unspools Anais’ story, we come to see there’s much more going on here than we first realize.  Like some of those students who resisted my best intentions to educate them, Anais at 15 is the product of a past most of us would likely never survive.

She’s been orphaned since birth and has bounced through 51 foster homes by the time we meet her.  She’s been abused, she’s been a drug courier for various friends and family members, and her most fondly remembered foster mother is a murdered prostitute.  We don’t know exactly why she has such a destructive streak – unless we’re willing to generally chalk it up to “poor childhood,” which might be fair – but the Panopticon also fits into Anais’ self-constructed origin story: she wasn’t born so much as created in a lab, and she’s under constant surveillance by something she calls only “the experiment.”

I was decidedly lukewarm on The Panopticon throughout its early chapters.  Like I mentioned above, at first there’s a little too much Welsh for comfort, and Anais initially seemed like just another in a long line of nihilistic teenage protagonists who didn’t have much to bring to the table other than drug problems and a piss-poor attitude.  To the author’s credit, however, it becomes clear pretty quickly that she’s not just rubbing our noses in the darkness of the world.  Anais has a wicked sense of humor, and its her exchanges with the other characters in the Panopticon that’s partially due to my turnaround.  It’s all bleak – Tash is a teenage prostitute; Isla is an HIV-positive cutter who gave the disease to her twins – but there’s a pseudo-philosophical gallows humor that cuts through material that could be tediously morose in other hands.  Take this reflection on our origins:

Maybe God’s just a scientist.  This is all an experiment gone wrong, every single one of us, just wonky as fuck because of some chemical cock-up that was meant to produce something less faulty.

The other thing working in the book’s favor is how sensitively Fagan paints Anais’ inner life.  Despite her (self) destructive tendencies, she lives by a strict moral code – no bullying, no hurting animals, respecting children and the elderly – and she struggles mightily with her regular realization that most of the adults she encounters live intellectually and emotionally bankrupt lives.  For me, the key passage comes in a hearing to determine how she should be punished for charges she received before falling under suspicion of beating the police officer.  The court officer – condescending and imperious – asks Anais if she has anything to say before being sentenced.  She doesn’t respond, but this is her internal monologue:

Aye.  Aye, I do.  It’s this: here is what you don’t know – I’d lie down and die for someone I loved; I’d fuck up anyone who abused a kid, or messed with an old person.  Sometimes I deal, or I trash things, or I get in fights, but I am honest as fuck and you’ll never understand that.  I’ve read books you’ll never look at, danced to music you couldnae appreciate, and I’ve more class, guts and soul in my wee finger than you will ever, ever have in your entire, miserable fucking life.

Taken in the context of the way I started this review, it should be clear why I find Anais such a relatable, heartbreaking character.  Adults too often jump to conclusions about teenagers.  This is true of teachers, too; I worked with them and wasn’t immune to such judgments myself.  We evaluate them based on the standards we set for them, assuming all along those standards are worth meeting.  But how often do we really stop to find out why they act as they do, or to try and learn more about their rich inner lives?  We think they’re lazy, they’re mean, they don’t care.

Sometimes they are and they don’t.  But I’ve been involved in education long enough to realize this is dangerous thinking.  It’s dismissive, and it too often ignores the very real hurt at the core of their behavior. Even though The Panopticon is obviously fiction, Anais is such a vividly drawn character that I see her in many of the students I’ve taught over the years, and it makes me wish I’d tried harder to reach those I too casually wrote off.

In the end, The Panopticon can’t quite deliver on all its promises.  Plot threads go unresolved and conflicts are dropped in aid of a (non)resolution that is certainly hopeful but strikes me as a little too easy.  But if I’m at all dissatisfied with the way Fagan ends things, it’s only because I was so enthralled with the rest of it.  It’s a first-rate story, true, but there are important lessons here for those willing to heed them.

*****

Current listening:

New electric

The New Pornographers – Electric Version (2003)

Asleep at the Wheel

standardized-tests As I was making the decision to fire this thing up again, I made a deal with myself that I would purposely stay away from education posts. There are many people out there right now doing the job way better than I can, and I’ve pretty much worn out my welcome on the topic with the friends who are most likely to read these posts. So unless I’ve got something personal to add to the conversation – you know, the conversation about how Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Race to the Top, the Common Core State Standards, the standards’ associated high-stakes tests, etc., etc., are systematically carpet-bombing public education as we know it into oblivion – I’ll keep my mouth shut.

After tonight.

And I won’t say much.  I just want to share today’s article from Valerie Strauss’ “Answer Sheet” column in The Washington Post. It’s a chilling rundown of all the standardized tests to be taken by students this year in Miami-Dade County, Florida, in all subjects, beginning with kindergarten and lasting through grade 12.

It is, I fear, not an anomaly.

Strauss invites readers to send her any testing schedules that look similar to Miami-Dade’s, and I echo that call. It’s only by unveiling this madness to the public that we can bring about its demise.

Valerie Strauss: “A School System’s Stunning Standardized Test Schedule for 2014-15”

*****

Current listening:

Elvis punch

Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Punch the Clock (1983)

Current reading:

Laurie chains

Laurie Halse Anderson – Chains (2008)

Don’t Forget to Breathe

training

Twice a year – and only twice a year – I question my career choice.  It’s always fleeting, and it’s always in the ten minutes before I make the walk from my office to my classroom.  No matter how long I’ve been doing this (going on 18 years, currently) and no matter how much time and effort I’ve put into syllabus-creation and lesson-planning, those last ten minutes before meeting a new class remind me of waiting in the wings to go onstage.  I figure I’ll either connect with the audience and dazzle them with my brilliant characterization, or I’ll forget my lines, knock over a lamp, and pee myself.  You can always find me ten minutes before the first class of a new semester begins, head in hands, mumbling, “Gaaaaahhhhh.  Why do I do this?”

I stumble to class with all the confidence of a death row inmate on his way to the chair, but ten minutes later, after I’ve started to dig into the work and I realize that my students aren’t going to strap me to a chair and poke me with olive forks, I think, “Oh, yeah.  This is why I do this.”  It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s a little frightening, it’s never dull, and it’s the single most rewarding career out there – but somehow I manage to forget all of that in my semiyearly anxiety.

It happens again and again, and now that I’m 36 hours out from the start of another new semester and another new group of preservice English teachers a semester away from student teaching, I’m gearing up for it yet again.  But that question – why do I do this? – was already on my mind.  Last night, a reader commented on my post with a great question: “If you weren’t a teacher, what other career would you choose?”

It’s a pertinent question, especially in a climate where teachers are continually asked to do more and more with less and less and still end up being vilified by the media and politicians and parents.  And I suppose if a teacher (beginning or veteran) thinks he or she would be happier doing something else, he or she should probably do that thing.  Because teaching is no place for reservations or reluctance.  To be a good teacher is to throw yourself completely into your job.  It doesn’t mean that you live and breathe and eat and sleep the classroom – in that direction lies burn-out – but it does mean that you have to be willing to work, and work hard, at your career.  It means you have to read and plan and grade and talk and write, sometimes simultaneously.    It means you have to have a willingness to sacrifice your time, to fall and pick yourself up again, to be discouraged a split second after being elated, to forego sleep and fun (especially in your first couple years), and to always be willing to adapt.

And, oh yeah – you have to love, especially your subject and your students.  Teaching is a leap of faith into the great unknown, and you have to love what you teach and whom you teach to make that leap, year after year.

It’s interesting for me to think about that question – “What would I do if I weren’t a teacher?” – because teaching came to me as a last resort, and the preceding two paragraphs weren’t even in my vocabulary as a new teacher.  When I started my undergraduate college career in the halcyon days of 1991 (a mere month before the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind album, and doesn’t that make me feel old), I thought I wanted to be a lawyer.  I don’t know why.  I probably liked Corbin Bernsen on L.A. Law.  After that phase reached its logical conclusion I thought I’d study creative writing, but I realized I didn’t have the dedication to do that, and then I thought I’d study acting, but I didn’t smoke enough for that.  Then I thought – and I wish I were kidding – “I like reading and writing.  Why not teach English?”  And so I did.

It wasn’t long into my first year, though, that I quickly learned that just loving reading and writing isn’t enough.  Not even close.  The reading and writing bit – especially in my first year – was the least of my concerns as I just figured out how to survive.  As I wrote a few days ago, I had a lot of instructional freedom, but having a knack for the content of English and being a good English teacher are two completely different things.  This is the mistake a lot of current education reformers make.  They think it’s just a matter of knowing your stuff.  But it’s not just that.  It’s knowing how to get 4th period to forget they’re hungry for 50 minutes and it’s knowing when to let the kid whose parents are divorcing turn in his homework a day late.  It’s knowing how to make a 60-year-old book about growing up African-American in the South relatable to a bunch of privileged white kids and it’s knowing how to help the three Latino boys who barely speak English make sense of the language.  It’s breaking up fights outside your door and not taking insults personally and strategically ignoring emails from administration and telling Hollie – again – to put her makeup away and realizing that no one really cares about the standard on the board and learning to treasure those little victories that most people would miss but teachers are conditioned to freeze in time like a wasp in amber.

You have to love all of it, and I had to learn my way into loving it.

That’s why I do it, and why I still can’t picture myself doing anything else.  I do it even now, when the landscape is changing and it seems more and more like what the public and politicians and administrators really want are interchangeable cogs, automatons who can enforce a death march through a textbook, rather than passionate, principled teachers who are experts at what they do and who have made a commitment to the betterment of society.  I have to believe that there’s still a place for those kind of teachers, and helping my students find their teaching voice is the commitment to which I rededicate myself every semester.

Teaching is a leap of faith, and I make it gladly every day.

*****

Current listening:
Tindersticks st i
Tindersticks – Self-titled (1993)

Semi-Pseudo-Sort-Of Plan

The-public-school-assembly-line-is-broken-1tpg0by

A few days ago I wrote about the many challenges facing new teachers and considered whether, if I were a new teacher today, I’d be able to work under a similar system of strictures.  My answer was about as wishy-washy as they come: Yes, but I’d probably hate it.

I lay most of this tension at the feet of the Common Core State Standards, which have been foisted on the public and their schools as the salvation for the broken education system.  Never mind that the myth of the broken education system, like the recent fiscal cliff debacle, was created by the very people who have the most to benefit from it.  And never mind that the standards themselves were largely created by non-teachers.  And never mind that the standards constrain possibility rather than expand it.  And never mind that the standards are the foundation for the most extensive series of high-stakes tests the world has ever seen.  Never mind all of this, because now, fallacy or not, teachers are stuck with them and they’re doing the best job they can with a truly lousy situation.

The Common Core proponents, meanwhile, continue to hammer away at their supposed quality and rigor, brushing aside criticism with a frankly awe-inspiring combination of hubris and denial.  “It’s all about the kids,” they say, because we all know how much kids love standardized tests.

I’ve often considered putting together a list of all the pro-Common Core myths with an eye to debunking each of them.  Fortunately for my lazy arse, Kris Nielsen has done a much better job with it than I ever could.  On his blog he’s currently writing a three-part series about the Common Core disaster, and his just-posted second part is (or should be, at least) the gold standard in Common Core criticism.  If you’re a teacher – or interested in public education – read it, save it, and drag it out whenever someone tries to tell you the Common Core is going to save us all.  In fact, the truth is that it heralds the end of public education as we know it.

Kris Nielsen: Reality Check: This Is How Democracy Ends – Part II

*****

Current listening:
Phantogram eyelid
Phantogram – Eyelid Movies (2010)

I Found That Essence Rare

YAL

When I was a teenager – and even, if I’m going to be honest, into my early 20’s – I was an angsty little dude.  It usually had to do with girls and my inability to date them, and I cloaked myself in self-righteous misery.  Imbued with the solipsism of the young, I knew no one else at my high school – those backwards, cow-town knuckle-draggers, as I viewed them at the time – understood my pain, and so I’d lose myself in music.  Morrissey knew what I was going through.  My awkwardness and self-loathing felt right at home on Joy Division’s icy tundra or in the sonic architecture of The Cure’s Disintegration.  I felt harmonic convergence with Elvis Costello’s bile in “I Want You” and Paul Westerberg’s raw anguish in the Replacements’ “Answering Machine.”  It was comforting, reassuring, to feel like I wasn’t alone.  When I needed an escape, all I had to do was put on my headphones and let my friends sing to me.

But of course I wasn’t alone.  What I was feeling wasn’t singular to me.  It wasn’t even special or unusual.  Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, and looking in the rearview mirror it’s plain that I was suffering from nothing more serious than adolescence.  But at the time it was weighty, momentous – the fate of the world was held in the answer to the question, “Do you want to go to the movies with me this weekend?”  And to ease this suffering, we want to know that someone out there understands us.

I found comfort in music.  Increasingly, today’s teenagers find it in the pages of Young Adult Literature (YAL), which is in the middle of something resembling a golden age.  I keep up with it as well as I can as part of my professional responsibility, and the quality has never been higher.  Sure, there’s purely escapist nonsense like the Twilight series (and just about anything else categorized under the giggle-inducing “Teen Paranormal Romance” section of your local Barnes & Noble), but man, the best of the best holds its own with – and sometimes even exceeds – the quality of so-called “adult” fiction. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (to name just three recent favorites) tackle serious issues (cancer, mental illness, and racial bias, respectively) with sensitivity and sophistication that can be appreciated by readers who haven’t seen adolescence in quite a while.  Like, ahem, yours truly.

I bring up the issue of content – and these three books in particular – for a couple reasons. One is, as I described at the beginning, the importance of seeing yourself in art.  Just as it was infinitely reassuring to hear Morrissey sing, “I am human and I need to be loved/Just like everybody else does,” I think I would have immediately been drawn to It’s Kind of a Funny Story (had it been written in 1988) and its thoughtful depiction of a teen dealing with depression and anxiety.  Similarly, for teens dealing with physical illness, The Fault in Our Stars treats its cancer-afflicted main characters with dignity, respect, and humor, and Alexie’s Part-Time Indian is a powerful (and powerfully funny) account of growing up as the Other, torn between two cultures who seek to hold you back in different ways.  This is what the best of YAL does: It holds up a mirror to the reader, letting him know he’s not alone and giving him the tools to survive.

But the mirror can also be flipped around to reflect the outside world to someone unfamiliar with it.  Growing up in small-town Ohio, at a school whose demographics skewed nearly 100% white, Alexie’s book would have been just as much a revelation to me then as it is to the small-town Georgia teens who populate the schools around me now.  With its accessible language and relatable characters, YAL can do immense good in helping younger readers broaden their horizons and deepen their empathy.

But of course some people just don’t get it.  What prompted me to write this post was discovering this article from England’s Daily Mail, which completely mischaracterizes YAL as “sick lit” that morbidly traffics in human misery, apparently for the purpose of exploitation and book sales.  Or, as the author herself states, “Since the vampire book bubble burst, publishers have been looking to find the next big thing in the lucrative world of young adult fiction.”  That’s right, folks: cancer sells, dont’cha know.

I’ve had a problem with this kind of reporting from critics before.  It’s the same kind of blinkered, short-sighted ignorance that led many respected movie critics (including my beloved Roger Ebert) to heap praises on the film Waiting for Superman, despite the fact that it’s a thinly-veiled propaganda piece (funded in part by the Gates Foundation) attacking public schools in favor of private charters.  The critics reviewed it as a movie without fully (or even partially) understanding how it plays into the current debate about education reform.  So they bought the movie’s bogus thesis that there’s an education crisis and promoted the movie in their reviews as a solution to the fabricated problem.

The same thing happens in Carey’s article about YAL.  Instead of exploring the mountain of research that discusses the benefits of YAL for readers of all kinds, Carey instead calls on “children’s book expert” Amanda Craig, who says authors have “a moral and social responsibility” when they write for children, and books about illness, suicide, depression, etc., shirk that responsibility.  The implication is that the books are exploitative (she specifically singles out Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why), using serious issues like depression, illness, and suicide as cheap plot devices to sell books.  

Which is absolute nonsense.

Roger Ebert (if I can mention him again for just a moment) wrote something that has often guided my response to both books and movies, and I’m paraphrasing: “A movie isn’t what it’s about.  It’s how it is about it.”  Of course a book about teen cancer can be exploitative. But to say all books about teen cancer are exploitative is to completely ignore just how nimbly, sensitively, and respectfully Green writes about it.  Vizzini doesn’t cheapen teen depression by writing about it, nor does Alexie sensationalize racial prejudice.  In talking to other people who have read these books (and other YAL like them) the reaction isn’t, “Cool cancer book, yo.”  It’s more like, “This really helped me to understand what people endure when they suffer from cancer [depression/prejudice] as a teen.”  The books have an impact not because they titillate, but because the best of them have important things to say about life with all its challenges.

It’s tempting, I think, for adults to want teens only to read sugar-coated tales where the most serious adversity is forgotten lunch money.  But teens face ever more serious challenges, and YAL is just one way of helping them negotiate this minefield.  To ignore the way literature can be a place of solace seems to me to be an even bigger avoidance of moral and social responsibility than to write a book that helps teens find comfort in their – and our – imperfect lives.

*****
Current listening:
Low curtain
Low – The Curtain Hits the Cast (1996)

These Things Are Sent to Try Us

educationcorporateschool

I started teaching in 1995.  I was 22, straight out of my teacher training program, and completely ignorant of what I was getting myself into.  My first assignment was four sections of 9th grade English and two sections of 10th grade English.  During my first day on campus, my department chair handed me a slim binder containing the required curriculum for my two classes.

9th grade
Semester 1:
To Kill a Mockingbird
Short story terms (exposition, conflict, climax, etc.)

Semester 2: 
Romeo and Juliet
Job prep (résumés, cover letters, interview skills, etc.)

10th grade
Semester 1:
Black Boy
Poetry

Semester 2:
Lord of the Flies
Research Paper

And that’s it.  Aside from a book room filled with class sets of supplemental texts to use alongside the required ones, that was the sum total of the curricular oversight I received as a new teacher.  In some ways, this was intimidating. Contrary to the labor-free wonderland envisioned by non-teachers, where lesson plans are apparently stolen wholesale from colleagues or divined straight from the ether and students are grateful for the opportunity to work industriously while the teacher kicks back with a mug o’ joe and the newspaper, good teaching is hard.  How would I teach and assess the required texts?  What other books would I choose to complement them?  How would I make literary terminology not just interesting but useful?  And – most importantly – what would I do when I wasn’t teaching the meager curriculum required by the district?  In an 18-week semester, Mockingbird and short story terminology represent at most eight weeks of instruction.  Ten weeks is a lot of time to get to play with.

So a lot of my first few years of teaching were spent experimenting: inventing lessons, collaborating with colleagues, trying things out and then modifying them for future classes. It was exciting.  Thanks to my teacher education program I had a solid theoretical foundation from which to draw (even if my experience with educational technology began and ended with the Apple IIE), and at my school a handful of young colleagues – and one old, cranky colleague to whom I will forever be indebted – who were just as jazzed as I was about being in the classroom and who were happy to share and experiment with me.

My first few years of teaching were terrifying – I had the same challenges as most new teachers, figuring out classroom management, motivating students, contacting parents, etc., etc. – and they were exhausting.  Twelve or fourteen hour days were the norm, and I remember collapsing in a heap on the weekends just long enough to recharge my batteries for Monday when I’d get up and do it all over again.

But more than terror and fatigue, exhilaration is the emotion that really stands out to me when I think back on that time.  How many teachers currently feel like they have the freedom to  to experiment, to play?  I was in the enviable position of actually having my administration  trust that I knew what I was doing, and feel that I should generally be left alone to do it.  How many teachers today feel that?

If the preceding paragraph feels like a transition, it is.  I currently work with pre-service English teachers in a university teacher preparation program, as well as with practicing teachers through an affiliate site of the National Writing Project.  My dissertation was on standards, assessment, and education reform.  By necessity I’ve kept a close eye on the development of the Common Core State Standards and their implementation in my current state of Georgia.  I’ve made a career of trying (and, I hope, mostly succeeding) to be an intelligent, reflective educator who provides his students with a meaningful education.

All of this build-up has been to get to this reveal: If I were a new teacher – now, in 2013 – I think the current state of education would break my spirit in no time at all.

New teachers are facing challenges unlike any I’ve seen in my lifetime, and the truly shameful thing is that these challenges are caused by people who supposedly support education.  In my conversations with new and veteran teachers alike, I hear stories of low morale, early retirement, and administrator coercion, of being made to teach to scripted curricula, of being told the Common Core doesn’t just dictate what to teach (an important enough issue by itself) but how to teach it.  If teachers are so important – as I believe they are and as the educrats behind the current reform initiatives claim they are – why in the world are they being treated as borderline incompetents who can’t be trusted with a piece of chalk?  This loss of agency – and the subsequent effect it can have on professional identity – is of paramount concern.  If we want teachers to stay in the classroom past the long-established five-year “burn out” window – becoming, in the process, career teachers who have the ability to do the most good for their students – why are we now making conditions for them so untenable?

If I were a new teacher and, instead of the thin binder of curricular objectives I was handed in 1995, I was instead given the Common Core State Standards – an exhaustive list of narrowly-defined tasks that treats the teaching of English like an autopsy – I’m not sure how long I’d last.  Take a moment, if you have the stomach, to take a look at the linked document and compare it to the short list of curricular objectives I was handed as a new teacher in 1995.  I’m not arguing that my list was superior – I could, for instance, see a poorly-prepared teacher being a total disaster with the short list – but that it allows for a kind of freedom and autonomy that I’m not sure the Common Core permits.

Is there still room for the kind of experimentation I enjoyed?  I’d like to hope there is, but the catch is that administrators have to support it.  What I’m increasingly hearing from teachers – and what is just now being reported by the press – is that this isn’t happening.  In Georgia, for example, the Department of Education Common Core frameworks that were supposedly created as “guides” have been interpreted by some site and district administrators as mandates.  The result in some schools is that there’s now an artificial 50/50 split between reading literary and informational texts and explanatory and argumentative writing.  Teachers have been told that this is what they will do, and in some cases have had texts, assignments, and assessments selected for them.

As a new teacher, I’m not sure I could do this.

Well, okay.  I could, but would I be in it for the long haul?  Would I love it?  Would I make a career of it?  And, most importantly, would I be any good at it?  I’m less certain of those answers, and I find myself increasingly saddened that my current students may not have the chance to experience the joy and excitement of finding their teaching voice in the way I did.

There’s some truly excellent writing being done by folks who are pushing back against the current education reform initiatives (people like Diane RavitchP.L. ThomasAnthony CodyStephen KrashenSusan Ohanian, and the collaborative website Schools Matter), and, personal bias aside, their work is more compelling than anything so far published by the Gates Foundation or the other pro-Common Core voices.  What they’ve all rightfully pointed out is that the biggest problem facing American public education isn’t the perceived “brokenness” of the system, apparently embodied by legions of underworked, overpaid, unionized teachers.  The problem is the shameful proliferation of poverty – and especially child poverty – and the effect it has on student learning.  Read their work, and if you find it convincing, please consider adding your voice to the growing numbers who want to see American public education preserved, not destroyed.

Current listening:
Graham a
Graham Coxon – A + E (2012)