Yours

DP143725_CRDToday a kid asked me what my religion was, I used to dodge that question, today I just told him.  I don’t know why.

Episcopalian.  I mean Christian.  Episcopalian.  Did you, like, grow up in the church?  Yeah.  My family’s very religious.  He’s Catholic.  Other kid nodded.  He’s Catholic.  I’m nothing.  I mean, I’m a monotheist.  I believe in one God.  Oh.

I am nervous for a student who is performing in front of a huge crowd next week.  Gave me a ticket.  What is this?  I said.  I’m performing.  I didn’t know you did anything.  I do.  Can you come?  Yeah, I’ll be there. Nervous for my student who lives in a shelter, and gets paid to babysit, and is saving up so her parents can go out to dinner on their birthdays, which are close together.  Nervous for my student who was interviewed, suspicion of child abuse, I don’t know what happened.  Nervous for the student I told to be brave, cowards die a thousand deaths, but brave men, only one.  It’s the opposite, actually, I think.

I won’t know how they are this summer, not that I will want to, really, I will, shortly, fall into the deep and peaceful sleep of summer, and my fingers and toes will tingle with remembering myself.

I’m going to this boot camp thing this summer.  My dad is making me go.  But I want to be a Marine, so it’s good to get used to this stuff.

I want to work at a nursing home.  I wanted to volunteer there before, but I didn’t get to.  My grandpa died of Alzheimer’s while I was in my mom’s stomach still.

Can you put your number on these applications?  You’re my reference.  Wait, you were fired from your summer camp job?  No, it just ended.  Well, then, don’t check that you’ve been dismissed or asked to leave a job.  That means fired.  Oh, okay.

Nervous to leave them, it is always hard to let them go. The first kids I let go were my first class of preschoolers, at that preschool all the classes had names, and they were the Triangles and the Astronauts.  I still think about those kids, J, the dark-haired twin who laughed to screaming when I tickled him or when I told him we were having spiders for snack.  B who made me read The Grinch Who Stole Christmas every day for weeks that summer.  B and his best buddy R, always with their arms around each other, side by side, running to the block center to get some building done.

The kids for whom I made The Coloring Rules, a nonlinguistic guide to marker use in our room.  An uncapped marker with a slash through it.  An arrow showing a marker going back where it lived.

I quit my job at the preschool before I had another because I was so pained by the idea of leaving those kids.  They are so intensely yours, for a while, you are the one they will run to demanding band-aids and how to spell a word, you are so theirs, and then they are not yours at all.

A kid I didn’t know at all happened to be in my room today, and while everyone else was leaving class, I saw he was bending over the trash can.  Everyone else from that class had left already, he was alone there, throwing up.  “You’re okay,” I said.  I got him a chair, some gum, some water, a granola bar, Gatorade.  “Thanks, Ms Schurman,” he said, a bunch of times.  I didn’t know his name.

Image: Returning Home, Shitao, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Yer Outta Here

As with many debates in education, the whole thing begins with a problem (too many suspensions), hot button issues are thrown at it to make everyone lose their tempers (racism!), and then everyone weighs in on what should happen, even though most of them have never successfully disciplined a classroom, or worked out consequences with an administrator that were effective.  I have done both.

Suspension is not a punishment, really.  It’s a cooling off period.  For kids and for adults.  When a kid threatens me, makes any kind of physically aggressive move toward me or someone else– then and only then I lobby for suspension.  I don’t always get my way.  Our head disciplinarian makes that decision.

Suspension is not a cure for kids who can’t sit still for emotional or medical reasons, kids who hate paper and pencil work, kids who are depressed or angry.

Unruly kids need quick, practical, consistent interventions. They need the help of a team of teacher trying to figure them out (is it ADD? a toothache? unresolved grief? dislike of the subject? personality conflict?).  They need to meet with teachers and reflect on their own behavior.  Discipline works like a ladder, and knowing all the rungs and using all the rungs keeps everybody calmer.  Work up the ladder, and down it: warning, reprimand, detention, in-school suspension.  I wish there were more use of restitution along the way– having kids actually give back, since they have taken away.  When I’ve offered restitution as a choice (clean the room, water the plants), kids usually like it.

Every kid is forced to sit down with the books in in-school suspension.  It’s what some kids need, to avoid spending the whole day engaged in distracting conflicts.  It’s what the other kids need, to keep them from being robbed of quiet work time and fruitful collaboration and smooth presentation of information.  If a kid needs in-school suspension like, every day, they’re a good candidate for an alternative school of some kind.  No one school can work for everybody.

Kids who hate paper and pencil work need teachers to make things as hands on as possible, and some of them need to move into more hands on work as soon as possible.  Vo-tech schools are supposed to serve these kids.  Sometimes having multiple gym classes and/or art classes is enough.

Kids who are depressed or angry need counseling.  The big news in Texas about minority students being disproportionately suspended is really no surprise.  African-American kids are more likely to be angry.  They have good reasons.  A disproportionate number of their people are in prison, victims of violence and perpetrators of it, living in poverty.  Hispanic kids see how their folks get blamed for ruining our country, and they see their language denigrated, as if English has always been somehow ordained by God for America.  I’m pissed off about that stuff, too.  Depression and anger are two sides of the same coin, and are often expressed in similar ways– violence against oneself, or objects, or other people.  All behaviors that will get you suspended.

Teachers from peaceful neighborhoods might not understand that presenting yourself as powerful and capable can be a safety measure, not a rebellion.  If in your neighborhood, you have to walk like a gangster and talk like a gangster to keep from getting the shit kicked out of you, I’d guess it’s hard to transition to a school atmosphere.  It’s not necessarily that you want to bother the teacher.  It may be that you need to show the class that you aren’t someone to mess with, or you are someone who will protect them.  Self-representation is just different where personal safety is at stake.

People are more likely to perceive any angry expression or posture as a threat if it comes from a minority kid.  We all live in this soup of society, and it’s contaminated with our assumptions about each other.  Or, as they say in “Avenue Q,” “Everyone’s a little bit racist.”  This is likely to lead to harsher consequences for minority kids.

We need more counseling provided in our schools.  Our anger management group has turned kids from explosive to merely grouchy.  Counseling is cheaper than prison, which is where some of our anger management kids were headed.  A lot of them have parents in prison already.

It’s unlikely that things will change without better training for teachers, more collaboration with discipline (something we frequently do at my school).  Nothing in my teacher training addressed conflict resolution.  No one showed me how to present myself as an authority figure.  No one demonstrated how to shut down a kid while allowing her to save face in front of the class.  I figured that out on my own, somehow.  At least enough to keep my class rolling most of the time.

the story on Texas school suspensions: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/19/education/19discipline.html?_r=1

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 One

I teach about 90 juniors a year.  Ten or fifteen of them will, in the first month of school, identify themselves as troubled.  Academically, emotionally, cognitively, what have you.  Students who won’t turn in work, won’t study, or won’t shut up or stay awake in class.

About seven of those fifteen will leave: change schools, get arrested, get really sick, or move away.  Another seven will find a way to tread water through the year, spending most days in in-school suspension, or getting their wild behavior issues under control, but not completing nearly enough assignments to pass.

I don’t use this observation to dodge responsibility, or to prejudge the kids.  It’s just me reminding myself, “This is how things usually go, even when I’m doing my best.  It’s not me.  It’s life.”

Of this year’s fifteen, here’s who I have left:

One is still quiet as a mouse, rarely speaks, but started doing work, slowly but surely coming up to a C.

One recently incited a perfectly level-headed girl to start smacking him, and still needs me to guide him back, about every five minutes, into something that fascinates him.  Otherwise he will joke loudly and continuously about marijuana.

One got really into our letter writing project, and spent time after school researching and correcting other students about pregnancy myths.

One will get a good enough score on the Advanced Placement exam to change her “I don’t finish homework” F to a “Let’s face it, I certainly don’t need summer school” C.

One, in February, figured out how to pass a vocabulary quiz, and then never studied that way again.

One turned pretty quickly toward the light, and then, with time, pulled a less-gifted sibling onto the road to passing.

One left today, coming up to give me a hug, taking my card, and a library book that I didn’t care if he ever returned.  One made me sit a full five minutes doing nothing, just sitting at my desk, aching, looking past my computer monitor, and to remember this advice about students: “They”re all on their own journeys.”

Avoidance

Some of the most painful things that ever happened to me happened in childhood.  One day after school, I sat in the car with my mom, facing the tree in our side yard, and crying and crying and telling her I was never going back to school.  I had no friends.  My only friend, in my class, was pretending she didn’t know me, so she could hang out with more popular kids.  Much to my surprise, I did not die.  And I went back to school.  It’s not all sunshine in childhood, and if it was, adulthood would be impossible.  People need practice in working through trouble.

The New York Times has been doing a series on cyber bullying:  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/05/us/05bully.html . There’s been a lot of bullying talk lately.  The Times piece reminded me of a book I’ve been reading about anxiety.  It suggests that living with your anxiety is better than trying to train yourself out of it, or medicate it off.  Anxiety, they say, is normal.  Anxiety is pain, and pain is normal.  Better to live with it than try to kill it.  It won’t die until you do, and if you kill it, you’ll kill a vital part of yourself.  I don’t love the idea.  To accept and work with anxiety is hard.  The trouble is, it also works a lot better for me.

The discussion of bullying often presupposes that pain is a bad thing.  That kids will be irreparably damaged– a parent in the article told her daughter, who was bullying, that her victim would “be destroyed for the rest of her life.”  Really?  “Destroyed”?  “For the rest of her life”?  Humans have survived the Holocaust and the slave trade.  Surely this girl can survive some nasty comments, uncomfortable feelings, and being alone.  I’m much more worried about us telling kids that they are fragile and weak than I am worried about temporary pain.

When people are cruel to you, you can learn a lot.  You can learn that other people don’t have to define you.  You can learn that a sting of insult that feels like it will never go away… will, eventually, go away.  You can even learn to forgive.  Suffering is a great teacher.  Like a lot of your teachers, you hate her, but you can’t deny she is instructive.

It’s not that adults don’t need to step in, or kids don’t need comfort and advice and boundaries.  The ultimate goal, though, can’t be about stopping cruelty– an impossible task.  It has to be about making kids wiser and stronger.  Helping them learn who to trust, and how to be assertive.  How to persevere through hard times and built up their stamina.

When students poked at me and tried to provoke me, my first year of teaching, I had enough sense of myself to remember, “I didn’t dress to please 15-year-olds.  I like my shoes.”  I’m really not sure I could have done that without the kids who bullied me over the years.  I wish there was another way I could have learned that, but I don’t know what it would have been.

Last

What protects you, at the end of the school year, is that you are so tired. My first few years, I was frustrated by how dead and hollow I felt.  I wanted to feel sad to lose that group of kids, but they were like ghosts to me in the last weeks of school.  Or worse than ghosts.  They were things, and they were in my way.

Now that I can anticipate being worn down, I don’t react so defensively to my numbness.  I know it doesn’t mean that I don’t care, or that my work was meaningless.  It just means that it’s time to stop and rest.

When I taught preschool, the last, most tender moments with the kids were the last days we were together.  Four-year-olds are mostly in the moment, so saying you’ll be gone, or they’ll be gone, next week, is not that meaningful to them.  I would tie their shoes for the last time, or hand over a treasured stuffed lamb for the last time, and the emotion of that was mine alone.

The tender moments with high school students are when they come back.  It’s not until I am released from the teacher role that I can be freely warm and friendly.  I get to hug those kids, and coo over them, without worrying about any power issues between us.  I do try to stop and feel some sadness and momentousness when a class of kids moves on, but it’s hard, on both ends, to have a nice, neat goodbye.  I am grading you, and you are letting go of me as your authority figure.

The weird thing about the preschool kids was that, as precious as they were to me, most of them won’t have any memory of our time together.  I happened to see a kid at another day care center, a year after he had been in my class, and he just looked at me quizzically, like I was a character from a dream he had.  Yet I had handed him his lamby, so many times!  And he had once said to me, in a sly bit of genius, “Oh, my dad doesn’t want my shoes juggled, Miss Elizabeth.”  Apparently he found my shoe-juggling trick discomfiting, and created this perfect excuse to thwart me.

On the plane back from Rome, I had a blister the size of a dime throbbing on my big toe.  On the plane back from London, I was so dazed with exhaustion that I almost burst into tears in the sad part of my book.  I wanted to stay longer, but physically and mentally and emotionally, I could not.  And this is how the end of the school year feels, too.  It doesn’t matter if I could have done more, or if school should go year round.  I am very sure that I can’t do any more.

George Bernard Shaw explains it: “Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it onto future generations.”  That’s a nicer way of describing the emptiness.  I don’t feel dead or disillusioned, really.  I just know I am completely out of fuel.  It’s a wonderful feeling to know you used yourself up.  Not burned out, but burned up clean and free.

Alarms

This year, at the senior banquet, I got the first shout-out. I don’t like being the center of attention, so I was both pleased and embarrassed.  What does the graduating senior say of me, after two years in my class?  “I remember Ms Schurman always used to say, ‘Wake up!”

The purpose of education is, basically, to say “Wake up,” all the time.  After everyone chuckled over this remark, I noted every senior I had woken up.  I mean literally “woke up,” not in some kind of sweet hippie or Zen master way.  The seniors were coming up to get their various awards, and some of them I remembered waking up, over and over again.  How angry they were at me.  I’m tired.  This is boring. I was offended and discouraged.  They were angry and sleepy.  Not our happiest moments.

Usually I jiggle the forearm to wake up the sleeper.  As you would expect, the student is often unhappy about being bothered.  My theory is that you may sleep in my class, but you won’t ever sleep well.  Usually we just get annoyed with each other and move on.  But once a kid got really angry.

Kid was older than most in class, and more mature, definitely.  Sometimes felt the assignments were below him, and maybe sometimes they were.  The first time I touched his arm to wake him, he said, “Don’t touch me!”

I was even more irritated now.  “I don’t want to touch you,” I said.  “But you have to pick your head up.  Sit up and I won’t have to touch you!”

Several more times, over the course of the year, we ran this little script, with him flinching and me griping back.  The last time, it was different.

He had his head down, I shook his elbow, and he leaped up out of his desk and lunged at me.  “I said, don’t touch me!”  Everyone in the class stopped and looked at us.  I stood my ground as my heart pounded, and he backed away to the corner of the room.  He hadn’t made any move to hit me, but that was the energy in his body.

We went on with class.  He worked.  I worked.  When I was calm, I thought, what the hell am I doing?  What kind of person touches someone who asks not to be touched, over and over again?  A bully.  A molester.  Or in my case, an asshole.  What was I doing?

I pulled the kid out in the hallway, and he looked worried.  I told him it was wrong for me to touch him when he asked me not to.  I could have sent him to another disciplinarian, or set some other consequence for putting your head down.  I should have listened to him.  Then I explained how insulting it felt to have someone check out, mentally and physically, while I was working so hard.

I felt guilty about the whole incident for a long time. I had to keep reminding myself that I had apologized, and tried to make it right.  The kid seemed satisfied by my apology.  I could have been more sensitive to him,realized he might have some personal history that made even a little touch feel dangerous or invasive.

That kid woke me up, really.  And I woke up the kid who graduates tonight.  The whole system doesn’t work very well unless we’re all waking each other, on guard for each other’s invading unconsciousness, all the time.