Take A Load Off Annie

Parents versus teachers: we’re sort of on the same team, and sort of not.  When we clash, it’s ugly.

I didn’t go into teaching to sabotage or attack students. In fact, it hurts like the dickens when you suggest I haven’t done a good job.  When left unsupervised, about 1/4 of my brain obsessively catalogues my shortcomings.  I know my imperfections well.

It doesn’t help that our culture has put more and more of the responsibility on teachers, less and less on students and parents.  I kind of get off on everyone thinking I’m so powerful, but let’s face it: I can’t make a parent pay attention to a kid’s grades.  I can’t make a kid work.  I’m a stubborn, insistent motherfucker of a teacher, but I have my limits.

Ninety-five percent of the parents I’ve dealt with are supportive and respectful.  Five percent ignore their child’s schoolwork and academic progress, and then, at some point, abruptly demand to know why I didn’t alert them to it.  It takes every ounce of my self-control to not say, “I have a hundred kids.  How many do you have?”

Infuriated, I start mentally listing my responsibilities (just skip to the end of this when you get bored): supervise 100 kids, monitor their academic and emotional and physical health, plan three sets of activities for the three classes I teach, five days a week, constantly revising them to fit the particular group of students, time of year, day of the week, their other courses, current events, and mood in the building, check on student work while they’re working, keep everyone engaged all hour in productive work, vary social and individual and visual and kinesthetic and oral activities, balance writing and reading, create and grade homework assignments that are meaningful practice, choose literature samples that are compelling and both connect and challenge students, choose grammar exercises and explanations that are accessible and clear, and most helpful to the particular writing problems of that group, tutor students after school, offer extra help to the weak and extra challenges to the strong, clean my classroom, monitor the halls, sign demerit cards for uniform infractions, language, and lateness, meet with the disciplinarian about serious discipline issues, tweak assignments and tests for students with IEPs, meet with my team of teachers to discuss discipline, curriculum, scheduling, and education theory, make sure everyone gets lunch and snacks, refer the suicidal, pregnant, and self-destructive to the social worker, alert student to changes in the schedule or upcoming events, encourage them to monitor their own progress and reflect on their work, encourage age-appropriate developments toward abstract thinking and reasoning, give mints to the sleepy, comfort the sick, encourage the English department and protect them as much as possible so they can do meaningful work, read widely to stay abreast of educational research and current events and literature, and write frequently and seriously so that I can be an authentic writing teacher, offering advice that reflects how people, in all their various approaches, actually write.  Also I occasionally hold poetry readings.

Here’s what I want our parents to be responsible for: know what your kid’s grade is, and let someone at school know if you want to talk to us about that grade.  Here’s what I want the students responsible for: asking for help when they need it, pointing out my mistakes, and accepting a grade based on what their work (or lack of it).

Through the wonders of the internet, parents can look at student grades any old time they want to.  Before we had that system set up, I sent paper copies of grades home every week. Still, in meetings, parents would complain that they were in the dark.  (My students are older– as I like to remind them, old enough to drive a car.  I think if you’re old enough to drive a car, you must old enough to take some responsibility for yourself.  At least the state of Missouri thinks so.)

Often, they ask me to call them when their student has grade problems.  I do not have time to consider all 100 grades every day or every week or every month, and I don’t have time to ponder if you think the grade is appropriate and need a phone call.  (Parents also, of course, receive grades mailed home eight times a year, as long as we have an up-to-date address.)

Let me say again: 95% of our parents come in for meetings and tell the kid, “You better listen to your teachers and straighten up.”  I love that.  I especially love the ones who are frustrated or depressed or anxious, which is most of them.

The problem with putting more responsibility on teachers is that it cripples students.  If you work with students in poverty, encouraging a sense of helplessness and a lack of personal responsibility is the best way to keep them poor.  It’s hard for a school that serves such a population to make any demands on parents or students.  We know how much they are struggling with the basics.  But responsibility, even a little bit, is empowering.  We flatter ourselves when we say they have to rely on us, that schools have to bear the burden alone.  We don’t, and we shouldn’t.  It’s not helpful.

The Look

Jacob Riis is famous for having photographed the tenements in New York City. Real estate rules about rooms having windows, and indoor plumbing, and fire escapes, did not descend upon us from angels.  The relative liveability of modern cities was won by Mr. Riis and other activists.  Today is his feast day in the Anglican calendar.

In many countries, people still live in such tight, filthy conditions.  Riis made people look at the poor.  After looking, they were moved to make changes.

It is not because luxurious living conditions make people happy (though horrible ones do make them miserable).  Rich people need poor people to remind them that we are all poor.  That no matter who you are, materially speaking, you struggle against your own demons, and you will die and all the junk you have will get thrown out and parceled out.

In fact, you may be rich in family, spiritual fervor, talents, creativity.  Any of those can be taken away.  Any of them can go.  The truth is that any richness can become poverty, and everyone is struggling with some kind of poverty all the time.

Looking at poverty is the important thing.  Poverty of all types breeds humility, and humility is a great good.  What troubles me most is not that people refuse to give to the poor, but that they refuse to look at them.  Often I’ve heard people speak with disbelief about the treatment of the poor after Hurricane Katrina.  It’s good that they were shocked, and felt compassion, but we have to look at how are poor people treated every day, not just when a major disaster hits.  We have to look, and know, how the poor suffer, and ask ourselves, is it too much?  Is it fixable?  Or is that level of frustration for some the cost of letting the luckier or the harder working or the more ambitious take their turns in a free society?

In fact, it may be hardest to look and do nothing. We want to glance and act, feel guilty and move to distract ourselves.  But looking is important.  It is always the first right thing to do.  Look and listen and consider.  What does it mean that some people are born “rich” and others are born “poor”?  What does it mean that some people are born physically and mentally sick?  How much can we change about that, and when do we have to leave the ugliness be and just hold it tenderly and helplessly?

It’s sort of like when you have a friend who loses a loved one– you don’t “fix” that.  You don’t always jump to action.  You listen, and you are present.  Sometimes that is the only thing you need to do.  You have to look and listen first, to find out if there is more.

Riis is sometimes criticized for meddling– if people want to live dirt cheap, sometimes they are saving up for something better, and they want the choice to live bare bones.  He is also rightfully criticized for nasty stuff he said about Jewish, Asian, and Italian folks.  I do appreciate one thing he did well: he made people look.

So, look here:

http://moma.org/collection/artist.php?artist_id=4928

Teachers and Undertakers

I was not invited to the economic meltdown.  I went to work in a field with little prospect for financial advancement and infinite job security.  (Teachers and undertakers remained solvent during the Great Depression.  I’m the former.) 

Even worse: I didn’t invest.  My only retirement savings has been through the state pension fund.  I own my car, and I rent my apartment. 

I’m not throwing this out to brag.  It’s just strange that in the eyes of the world, I’ve gone from silly to sagely stable in the last year.

The other strange thing about this economic crisis is that suddenly being poor seems worthy of compassion.  I’ve been working with poor people for about eight years.  During that time, Oprah has gone from interviewing families who make $100 grand a year and still bury themselves in credit card debt to spotlighting tent cities.

Not so very long ago, the only relief I found from a relentless march of sloppy consumerism was a “Roseanne” rerun, where a character would sometimes dare to say, “We can’t afford it.” 

Since Americans believe so passionately in individual opportunity, they can easily fall into an old-fashioned idea of poverty.  Before modern times, most people believed the poor were lazy or stupid or immoral.  They deserved to be more physically uncomfortable and emotionally drained than the rest of us.

But when jobs fall away and credit dries up, we have to admit that this cannot be the case.  Suddenly everyone is too close to poverty to associate it with laziness, stupidity, or immorality.  And if we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that we are one serious illness away from bankruptcy, health insurance or no.

Back to Oprah’s homelessness show: what shocked me most about the feature was that many people living in the tent city said they had family they could be living with, but they were too ashamed to ask for help.  I have a huge family.  I imagine that I am at least 30 couches and basements away from being homeless.  I hope I wouldn’t be so wedded to my individualism and pride that I wouldn’t sleep on a perfectly good couch.  But I don’t know.

One of my friends recently insisted that we had to change our safety net.  This every-man-for-himself thing, she said, has to stop.  We have to become more like the Europeans.  Individual fates are too fragile, and families are too fractured, to make our society stable. 

She insisted we need the government to step in more often, and more reliably.  This is not about emotional concern for the poor.  It’s about building stable social structures, which benefits the rich as much as the poor.

Although I’m firmly on the left, I still find these idea a little strange.  What would that be like?  What would it be like to know that your access to health care was not dependent on your job or (bizzare as it is) your health?  What would it be like to know that your retirement was not dependent on the stock market? 

What if the government prevented loans from being given to people who clearly can’t afford to pay them back?  What if the government stopped big corporations from becoming so powerful we had to “save” them to save ourselves?  Could we make that happen?  I guess we’re about to find out.