When the Sun Hits

PoehlerThis is and isn’t a review of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please.

I’ve been in my current position in teacher education for nearly eight years – roughly 2,750 days, excluding weekends and breaks. I’ve been comfortable in this position for exactly zero of those days.

I’m a self-aware enough guy to have recognized this for years, even if I haven’t really been able to diagnose the problem. I mean, I’m a bouillabaisse of anxiety disorders at the best of times, but recently it’s also felt like more than that, and somehow inherently different than just garden-variety mopes (which I can usually cure with a good record on the turntable and a slug of scotch). I never felt discomfort and anxiety this acutely as either a high school teacher or Ph.D. student, and I’ve spent the last year in a fairly profound depression, only some of which is Trump-related. Of course there were challenges in my previous positions – shots to my self-esteem from students and parents and my own restless brain, and the process of researching and writing my dissertation was its own unique test of my tolerance for failure – but there was never a persistent voice haranguing me about my inadequacies like there is now.

But Amy Poehler kind of helped me figure it out.

Early in her book – part memoir, part humor – she writes about her days as a developing comic and actor, first with ImprovOlympic and Second City in Chicago, then as one of the pivotal figures in an early incarnation of the Upright Citizens Brigade. She relates those times as a crucible of inspired creativity, where she met and first acted with some of comedy’s future big names (Tina Fey, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser) and started developing the voice (and, really, the style of comedy) that has become one of the most pervasive in 21st Century pop culture. She tells of their successes but, crucially, she doesn’t discount their failures. In fact, she goes out of her way to mention on more than one occasion that her failures outnumber her successes. At one point she says she and Fey have done “hundreds” of improv shows together and “perhaps ten were very good.” There’s some false modesty there, to be sure, but as someone who knows a little about the combustible, crash-and-burn nature of improv, I understand the feeling.

But the key (for her and, in a moment, me) seems to be this: you grow with the support of other people.

It is, as Poehler says, “easier to be brave when you’re not alone.” There’s a cushion when you fail and a team of cheerleaders when you succeed. It’s that supportive environment that enabled her to take risks as an early actor, to fail and learn and grow.

And so, for me, this:

I read most of Poehler’s book at 30,000 feet. I always have a greater propensity for sentimentality on airplanes – it’s something to do with the lack of oxygen, I think, or my discomfort at being so physically close to strangers – but as I reflected on the confidence I felt as a high school teacher and doctoral student versus how inadequate I’ve felt for the last eight years (and how it’s actually gotten worse the longer I stay where I am), Poehler’s words felt exactly right.

As a high school teacher I was lucky enough to fall into a group of veteran educators – who quickly became my friends – who were patient with me, sharing what they did in the classroom, helping me get my feet under me, and providing a constant sounding board for new ideas I wanted to try. They provided me with the helpful criticism we all need to evolve professionally – “I’m not sure that lesson will work that way; let’s try it this way instead and see what happens” – but importantly for me they weren’t stingy with the praise. They always let me know what I was doing well. They borrowed my ideas – the good ones, anyway. They asked me what I thought. They recommended me for opportunities in which they felt I would thrive. I grew the most in my early teaching experience the year I taught a class for special needs students as well as a class for honors students. Both those classes were offered to me after being recommended for them by my friends.

It’s now a well-cited statistic that roughly half the new teachers leave the profession by their fifth year in the classroom. I, on the other hand, felt constantly supported and validated. It was an exhausting and frustrating and wonderful time. I’d go home on Friday more tired than I’d ever been, but somehow Saturday and Sunday would recharge my batteries to get me ready to do it all over again on Monday. And my colleagues were instrumental in that. By letting me know what was working and treating my missteps as opportunities to get better, I didn’t suffer the steep learning curve so many teachers seem to feel.

I owe my career to those friends, and I’ve not shown them nearly enough gratitude for their professional generosity. Jeannie, Norb, Sharon, Mark, Richard, Marcia: thanks. And thanks again.

The same kind of thing can be said of my time in graduate school. I was expecting a confidence-shattering siege in which my ideas were briefly considered and roundly dismissed. But again, I was lucky to be surrounded by a small community of people who challenged me in all the right ways while helping me understand how to leverage what I was good at. Central to this development was my adviser and eventual dissertation director, who is unique in his capacity to make you feel like you’re the smartest person in the room while still helping you strengthen your thinking. There’s nothing quite like having him read a section of your dissertation, lay a level gaze on you and say, “That’s really, really smart.” And then keep reading, as though I actually had something to say.

Which isn’t to imply that my time in grad school was one long victory narrative. There were frustrating conversations where I tried to figure out exactly how to finesse the approach my adviser seemed to want me to take (but which I wasn’t smart enough to nail) and emails with written feedback where I had to swallow my pride and just soak up the criticism, as well as torturous periods of revision where I had to constantly tamp down on the sneaking suspicion that I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. He pushed me and challenged me and reminded me how much I still had to learn, but it was tempered with a steady stream of compliments that never left me questioning my worth.

And that, as it turns out, is the perfect transition to my current situation as a teacher educator, where questioning my worth is pretty much all I do. I see now that I’m one of those people who needs validation and support to grow. I don’t need applause 24/7 – as I mentioned above, well-meaning criticism is hugely important and I welcome the opportunity to get better by recognizing my faults – but because of my knack for self-sabotage I really don’t have a clue as to what I do well. Ask me to summarize my first eight years as a Ph.D. and you’re going to get a laundry list of failures with a single footnote that reads, “Here’s one day where I didn’t suck too bad.”

So, to turn this back around to what I’m learning about myself from Poehler’s book, I can start to source my perpetual discomfort to the nature of validation (or lack thereof) in my current position. I talk a lot to my students about how teaching isn’t the job to take if you need instant gratification, but the gratification you get as a high school teacher is U2-at-Red-Rocks level intensity compared to what I’ve experienced as a professor. In teaching, one form of validation comes from seeing your students’ development, and I could usually see the growth my high school students were demonstrating. I could see them become more sophisticated readers, writers, and thinkers. I could take a piece of their writing from August, put it alongside a piece of their writing from May, and see the difference I made. I had students who began the year as non-readers asking for book recommendations by the next summer. The other form of validation is the same in teaching as it is in every other field: simply hearing you’re doing a good job. And I have a grocery bag of notes from students (and their parents) thanking me for the investment I made in their (and their children’s) lives. It wasn’t a standing ovation at the end of each class, but I could feel pretty satisfied most of the time that I was tipping the scales in the right direction.

But now? It’s much harder to point to student success. They write learning objectives better? They really aligned that one assessment with the standard at the top of the lesson plan? The growth I see within a course is largely facile, which is no knock on the students; it’s just the nature of the work. And what about praise for my teaching, that other external support mechanism? Once a year I sit down for my annual review, I get a pat on the back for staying so busy, and that’s it for the next 364 days. Maybe it’s because we’re expected to have figured it all out by this point.  Maybe the assumption is that once you’ve worked your way up to a Ph.D. you’re beyond such earthly concerns as routine praise. But for someone like me whose default setting is, “Well, at least nothing’s on fire,” I’ve found university teaching to be a solitary, uncomfortable time where I don’t really know if I’m doing anything well at all.

I should add that I don’t necessarily think I’m unique in this. The lack of a support mechanism for faculty is, in some ways, a product of the way the university system is set up. We’re all in our offices or teaching our classes or working on our individual projects, and the kind of supportive cross-pollination I wish I had more of isn’t easy to come by when the very framework of our profession is scattered. I just think some people are better at dealing with it. They either find other ways to derive satisfaction from their work or they’re simply more confident and don’t need as much external validation. (Alternate scenario: We’re all just a bunch of seething malcontents who never give voice to our collective frustration.) But when you combine the fundamentally diffuse nature of the university with my own introverted, standoffish nature, it actually starts to make a lot of sense that support and validation would be hard to come by.

Student evaluations get their own paragraph, because end-of-semester feedback would seem to be one concrete way I could point to specific successes. These evaluations can be nice, but they’re largely too anonymous and general to be of much use. It’s like a Yelp review from a total stranger. “I learned a lot in your class” is the educational equivalent of “Your taquitos were just the right amount of crispy.” It’s fine, but what am I really supposed to do with that feedback? It’s so vague as to be virtually meaningless. I’m not going to win many awards with “The readings were appropriate and not to [sic] long.”

This, too, is important: I’m completely cognizant of the fact that I may not deserve praise in the first place. If I felt like I was doing a solid job, I’m not sure I’d care too much about what anyone else thought. I’d be all, “Suck it, world,” and go about my business. But when you feel like you’re largely a garbage fire on legs, praise from other people becomes more important than perhaps it should be. I wish it wasn’t. I wish I was wired in such a way that I could go about my business with little input from the rest of the world. But this particular garbage fire needs a little encouragement from time to time.

And yeah – maybe I should stop being such a ninny and ask for feedback when I need it instead of waiting for it to come to me.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also talk a little bit about writing, since that’s another metric of success at the university level and an additional way to receive validation and support. But that presents its own set of problems. When it comes to the research component of the professorship, all that matters is publication. You can tell me, “That’s a fine piece of writing,” but a folder of “fine pieces of writing” means absolutely zero if no one wants to publish it – which actually means that as far as the profession is concerned these aren’t “fine pieces of  writing” but are, in fact, garbage. It would be nice if man hours counted for something in terms of promotion, but unfortunately a folder of unpublished writing is useful as wallpaper for my office, but not much more.

So, if I’ve got a largely unsuccessful track record of publication (which I do) and not much validation for my teaching (which I don’t), that only leaves me with the third component of my job: professional service, as the undergraduate adviser. And that, friends, means my big contribution to the field is clerical work. Which, when I think about the people in my own life whom I want to emulate, is just too depressing to think about.

I’m drifting into gripe territory, which isn’t my intent. To be clear: I work with world-class colleagues who are all doing amazing stuff (winning awards and publishing books and making a difference for their students and all that) in a department that’s stacked with talent, and it’s their own dumb luck to have to work with someone who’s the Adam Sandler to their Daniel Day-Lewis/Jessica Chastain/pick your favorite thespian. I don’t mean for any of this to come off as a criticism of them, and it shouldn’t be read that way. I’ve tried to make clear that I situate most of this on my own (surprisingly broad) shoulders. And, of course, on the very nature of teaching at the university level. When you’re working in an environment where you have less contact with your students and your colleagues have less access to your teaching, it only makes sense that if you don’t have a pretty strong faith in your own ability you’re going to wonder if anything’s working.

So.

What’s the takeaway, then, from Poehler’s book and my midair epiphany? I don’t really know. It’s a problem without a simple solution. I’m not just going to wake up one day and suddenly feel good about my work when I’m lacking the evidence to support that feeling. A solution to this problem will be labor intensive, and who needs that in his life when he’s already got a digital stack of lesson plans to grade? But I guess I know this: I’ve either got to figure out how to muster up some personal satisfaction in what I’m doing or I need to make a more concerted effort to go somewhere or do something where I’m going to get what I feel like I’m missing.

Also, therapy.

But this, too: My dumb brain circles around to gratitude a lot of the time and how it seems as though Facebook likes and Instagram hearts and whatever the hell it is we’re supposed to do with Twitter has somehow replaced substantive acts of generosity among friends. I’m guilty of it, too, clicking the “like” button when it’s been years since I told that hypothetical person how much I (hypothetically) value him or her as a (non-hypothetical) person/friend/colleague. I think we all (me included) need to remember to show more gratitude for what we recognize in others. And I’ll be the first to admit I fall short much of the time. I’m uncomfortable with emotion and the last thing I want is to seem like the skeezy dude who overshares. But be the change you want to see in the world and all that. If I feel like my world isn’t supportive enough, what am I doing to be supportive in my world? It’s a fair question.

Poehler writes at the end of her book, “The only way we can get by in this world is through the help we receive from others.”

Indeed.

Also, because this is (and isn’t) a review, Amy Poehler’s book is really, really good. You should read it.

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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)

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)

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)