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

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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 Humanity

I didn’t say this because I wasn’t sure I should. I’m a teacher, and I’m also a human being.  I know, I know, it’s hard to believe.  First I don’t sleep in my classroom… then this.

People from the National Writing Project don’t ask me to be ashamed of spending time writing.  They softened my attitude toward writing, and myself.  They suggested that the more I wrote, the better I would be able to teach writing to others.  In the world of public education, this is heretical.  Teachers should be grading papers all weekend– not practicing what they preach, right?

I took writing courses in college. The first one usually sent me back to my dorm for a good cry.  The other one bored me to tears.

I still wrote on my own.  Journals, fiction, poems.  I couldn’t stop myself.  But I felt awkward sharing my work, and the process of submitting to journals and magazines was discouraging.

When I started teaching writing to high school students, all I really knew how to do was give assignments and grade them.  Nothing in my education classes covered writing instruction.  During my first Writing Project class, they didn’t tell us how to teach writing.  Instead, we wrote.  We met in an old house that had been converted to a meeting space.  The first time I was asked to read my piece, I wanted to run upstairs and hide in the claw foot bathtub.  I thought I might die.  I didn’t.

With practice, sharing what I wrote was not the same as taking off my clothes.  I realized that I hadn’t charmed anyone with writing since elementary school.  In 3rd grade, I wrote little storybooks for my classmates about the Stuff family.  The Stuffs were little blobs whose chapeau looked suspiciously like those of  the Berenstain Bear family.  I churned out volume after volume for my classmates.  My audience was authentic and receptive.  It made all the difference.

Because my Writing Project colleagues were so open and supportive, I began to think that maybe I could find an authentic receptive audience for my adult writing, too.  They liked my ode to macaroni and cheese, and my serious pieces on teaching.  Maybe I could get things published.  Maybe people could give me helpful suggestions.  Maybe I wasn’t a great writer or a bad one.  Maybe, like most people, I was somewhere in between.  I observed myself as a writer, noticed what I did and what helped me.  I listened to other teachers discuss their writing and how it evolved.  I did my own research about methods of teaching writing.  I was learning to teach writing, not just assign it.

How could I teach my students those things if I didn’t really believe them myself? How could I encourage them to open up when I was so shut down myself?  You can’t teach what you don’t know.

People aren’t multiple choice, and they’re not matching.  Writing addresses their unique human needs, providing the opportunity to reflect and explore and connect. National Writing Project colleagues treated me like a human being.  They empowered me to be more human with my students, and make writing a more authentic and productive part of my classroom.

The National Writing Project has recently been defunded at the federal level, and many of us who have benefitted from their efforts are disheartened.  Taxpayer dollars have been very well spent by this organization, as research has proven, and it deserves continued support.

For more information, see: http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/3507

50 Things Servers Should Never Do

Based on “100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do” by Bruce Buschel on the New York Times website (see link below), I have compiled the “50 Things Teachers Should Never Do,” from his Part I, which perhaps shows that service is service, or perhaps shows that I am an annoying stick-in-the-mud, just like Mr. Buschel.

I can’t say I follow any of these perfectly, but I think they’re all good goals.  I also fudged and made some of them “should”s rather than “should never”s.

http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/29/one-hundred-things-restaurant-staffers-should-never-do-part-one/?em

1. Do not let anyone enter the classroom without a warm greeting.

2. Do not make a kid without a partner or group feel bad. Do not say, “Anyone want to work with _____?” Sometimes let the loner kids work alone. Other times, give them support and structure in finding people to work with.

3. Never refuse to help someone because you are annoyed with past behavior.  If they are respectful and reasonable in that moment, help them.

4. If the lesson is not ready or something goes wrong, have a backup plan for something productive to do.

5. The classroom should be as neat and clean as possible, so students are comfortable.  That said, make them participate in keeping it clean.

6. Do not lead the witness with, “So, you didn’t do your homework again?” or “You’re in trouble again?”  Remain neutral.

7. No flirting, no favoritism, no slyness.  If in doubt, just tell the kids you are kidding or being sarcastic.  It’s not a show.  You are not a character on “Seinfeld.”

8. Listen for a second before you interrupt a conversation. Sometimes the kids are working something out, or they are just about to return to their work or correct their own behavior, and you don’t need to step in.  Wait for the right moment.

9. Do not present information too fast or robotically or dramatically. It is not a soliloquy. This is not an audition.  Repeat yourself.  Clarity is king.

10. Inject your personal favorites, but don’t ever make the class about you.

11. Hustle them constantly.  Push, push, push.  You may fall asleep, but you won’t sleep well.

12. Touching of arms or hands or shoulder is acceptable for greeting, expression of sympathy, and waking up a sleeper.  You probably don’t need to do any other touching.

13. Clean the doorknobs, desks, keyboards, stapler, pencil sharpener, and mice (mouses, whatever) like crazy.  With bleach.

14. When you ask, “Does that make sense?” or “Do you understand?” listen to the answer and fix whatever is not right.  Ask another, more open-ended question, if it is obvious they don’t understand.

15. Never say “I don’t know” to any reasonable question without following with, “I’ll find out.”

16. If someone requests a book or a supply, always suggest that they help themselves.

17. Do not offer up the answer just because you’re getting bored with the lesson or the kids. Wait, wait, wait.  They don’t learn anything by you announcing answers like a trained parrot.

18. Know before approaching a kid what their basic mood and approach to school is.

19. Offer students fun supplies to get them going: sticky notes, highlighters, art supplies.

20. Never refuse a reasonable request from a kid.  If you have time, go ahead and think it through: is it going to hurt anything?

21. Never try to teach a lesson that you don’t understand.

22. If someone is unsure about choosing a topic, help him. That might mean offering different examples or talking through his interests.

23. If someone likes a book, make sure he gets the author and suggest he get it from the library, or let him borrow it.

24. Never use the same example if it didn’t work the first time.  At the very least: ask the kids for a better example.  Sometimes they have one.

25. Make sure the handouts make sense.  The clearer they are, the fewer annoying questions for you and the less time spent repeating yourself.

26. Never assume a student’s question or area of confusion. Inquire.

27. Whenever possible, offer students choices and let them choose

28. Do not be up in a student’s face when you discipline.  Your power does not come from physical intimidation.  This also lets the student save face.

29. Do not make noise while students are working quietly.  Protect them from intercom and hallway interruptions whenever possible.

30. Never let students touch each other inappropriately.  Say something.  Observe and explain.

31. Never move on from a pile of failed tests or assignments without spending some time asking: was it them, or was it me?  And: what would I do differently?

32. Never touch a student when you are angry or disciplining, except to stand in front of them to encourage them not to leave the room.

33. Do not bang on things or make loud noises to get attention.  One loud “Hey!” is the limit.   If they don’t listen to that, you have to try something else that doesn’t require noise.

34. Do not have a personal conversation with another teacher within earshot of students.

35. Do not eat or drink during class.  Except water, coffee, or tea.  You are, after all, the teacher, and you need to preserve your voice and to stay alert.  Your job is harder than the students’ (and their job is very hard).

36. Never reek from perfume or cigarettes. You are in the personal space of a lot of people.

37. Do not discuss your own views on alcohol, religion, or politics on the job, even if invited by the students. “I don’t discuss that with students, but we can talk about it after you graduate, if you want.”

38.  Exaggerate your manners.  Be more polite than necessary.  Use “sir” and “ma’am.”  Sometimes call your students “Ms” and Mister.”

39. And be relentlessly polite.  Especially when they are in a bad mood, or when you are disciplining.  It’s very hard for students (or parents or administrators) to get any leverage against you if your tone of voice and your language is courteous.

40.  Describe their work as “effective” or “ineffective,” “working” or “not working,” “clear” or “confusing,” not “good” or “bad.”  The quality of their work is not an ethical issue.

41. When you need to get really harsh, go there.  Then pull it back and get really nice to balance out the energy.  Always try to end class on a positive, or at least neutral, note.

42. Rarely compliment a guest’s attire or hairdo or makeup. Kids spend a lot of time thinking of themselves as their physical appearance, and they don’t need their teachers reinforcing that.

43. Always mention your favorite fields of study, favorite books.  Model academic enthusiasm.

44. Do not discuss your own opinions without acknowledging and explaining the logic of the other side.

45. Do not curse, no matter how young or hip the students.  Model a full vocabulary and a respect for your audience.

46. Never acknowledge any one student over and above any other. All students are equal. You can easily spend half the class dealing with one kid’s behavior or questions.  Discipline yourself to evenly distribute your time.

47. Do not gossip about parents or other students within earshot of students.

48. Ask the kids for help with as many physical and housekeeping tasks as possible.  Say “please” and “thank you.”  They like to help, and it builds community.

49. Never mention how many As, Bs, Cs there are.  Let kids compete with themselves and work with their own abilities.

50. Do not be merciful in passing kids with a 50%.  That’s not mercy.  It’s pity or guilt.  Do a better job of teaching next time, but also let the kids own their mistakes.

Scenes from the Chemistry Lab

D and I often experiment in the chemistry lab together.  I have a student teacher right now, so I have the luxury of pulling out my most egregious troublemakers (like D) to give them my full attention.  The chemistry lab is usually unoccupied, and right across the hall from my classroom, so that’s where exiles retreat to.

Our school was built almost 70 years ago.  The cabinets in the science rooms are formerly gorgeous, glass and blonde wood built-ins.  Quite a few of the floor tiles are missing.  It smells mysterious and dangerous.  The windows are huge: maybe eight feet tall.  They present a panoramic view of fast food places, shops, and trees.  None of the windows have screens.  One of the windows has a neatly lettered sign that says, “Do not open this window.”  I think that’s because it would fall out three stories and break.  Half of the stool seats are chewed up, so the wood snags your clothes. 

In spite of all that, I find the lab generally pleasant.  There is one comfy orphaned office chair.  I sit in that, in front of the wrong side of a desk that has a splintered seat attached.  It’s a great place to look at the sky.  The lab is where the chemistry teacher maintains our the third-floor coffeemaker.  My coworkers drift in and out, and we joke and gossip about the kids and sometimes I pantomime wringing their necks. 

When the class is reading “The Crucible” and D gets kicked out, we sit on stools next to each other.  I read half the parts, and he reads the other half.  I hope that he will read John Proctor’s part, although I would prefer to.  I add some explanatory asides.  D tells me he doesn’t know anything about the play, but then I ask him questions and he generally answers them correctly.

For a while, D worked at the Jiffy Lube around the corner from my house.  I saw him one Sunday afternoon, holding up a sign advertising $19.99 oil changes.  He looked sheepish when I stopped to say hello.  Apparently he works at least two jobs.

D has drifted between homes.  We always have some kids like that, who are not always sure where they are going to sleep that night.  Whose parents and grandparents get frustrated and kick them out of the house.  I understand why you would want to kick D out of the house, though.  He’s smart, snarky, and stubborn.  He can really drive you nuts. 

The reason he’s still in school and not expelled is that in between driving you nuts, he is smart and good-natured.  He still has baby fat in his face.  When the teachers complain about him, they do it with an affectionate hint in their voices. 

Today D got yanked from class for yelling across the room while he was supposed to be listening to the instructions about outlining.  When I went over to give him a warning, he waved his hand around theatrically to show everyone how bad my breath was. 

Although he walked across the hall with all deliberate slowness, once he was actually installed in the chemistry lab, he asked some good questions and started his outline.  He will again say, “I don’t know anything about this,” and then I have to cajole him into admitting what he does know.  That’s what we do in the chemistry lab.  Put things together carefully, so they don’t explode.

Playing God

I’m fond of the concept of “playing God”  as presented in The Cider House Rules.  It’s a novel with a good old-fashioned modernist directive: someone is going to play God, someone is going to wield terrifying power like a gun or a doctor’s kit, and maybe, since you’re a reasonable person, that person ought to be you.  (Thank you, John Irving.)

I joke about “playing God” as a teacher, which is one way of dealing with the knowledge that mutters in the background every day… I will say something that someone will remember forever, but what will it be?  Will it be some stupid off-the-cuff sarcastic remark?  Will it be, “You’re a good writer”?  Will it be, “I don’t have time for you to get your act together”?  Or something nastier?  There’s no way to know.  You talk almost all day, almost every day.  And you’re only a dumb human being, distracted and annoyed sometimes like anyone else.

You have to have confidence in your decisions and your instincts, although there is often no one to offer you confirmation, or even serve as a witness.  I feel lucky to work at a school where my colleagues frequently collaborate and commiserate, rather than competing or backbiting over test scores.  I probably have a lot more support from my fellow teacher than most educators enjoy.  You say, “Oh, that kid is driving me crazy,” or ask how the kid acts in another class or if the kid can read or do math or if the kid has something crazy going on at home.  And then you should have a better grasp on what is the kid’s craziness and what is your own craziness.  Maybe you’re just having a bad day.

I have a student teacher this semester, which is teaching me mostly about myself, and how I have a hard time holding any gray area of control.  Either I can use the iron fist to regain control for her, delivering the Royal Bitch speech about how the class was unfocused, or I can walk out of the room and read a novel across the hall and let her fend for herself.  The gray area is where I need to be sometimes: listening, encouraging, insisting.  I hate that area.  I’m nothing like God at all in that area.  In accordance with a popular story of human origin, I am eager to resemble God. 

I came in to work this morning with an unusual degree of self-doubt.  I’ve been watching my student teacher building her confidence, and it reminds me how deliberately constructed my own confidence is.  Today the student teacher is gone, and I’m back to doing things myself.  Can I still do it?  Can I do what I’ve been telling her to do all these weeks? 

When I began teaching here four years ago, I thought I could do a good job.  I thought, I’m an educated person, and a smart person, and passionate about the kids.  I can do this.  These were reasons to try, but hardly guarantees of success.  

I don’t even know how to define success here.  Grades are artificial, attention can be faked, knowledge can be short-term and meaningless.  They suck at tests– ask them half the questions right afterward, and they’ll show more understanding.  And when the kids learn and grow, it doesn’t mean it’s because of something I’ve done anything right.  Abraham Lincoln learned real good, and he didn’t have a teacher in his log cabin.  And children mature naturally, whether or not anyone pushed them to.

I am most encouraged by moments when my students treat me with respect.  That is something I trust.  It means we have an environment where people can learn, might want to learn, and might want to change and grow, regardless of the quality of my lessons, or the stupid things I might occasionally say. 

The day turned out well.  We had some strange moments of comfort when the kids realized their “real” teacher was back, if only for a day.  There were fewer arguments than usual.  My quick, vehement yanks on the discipline leash were generally acquiesced to.  (The highest level of this is requesting apologies for misbehavior.  I requested a couple, and I received them.)  Maybe, God or human, they missed me after all.

The Student Massage

I needed massages when I became a teacher. If you sit at a desk and type all day, you don’t need massages. You like them, your eyes roll up in your head, but you don’t need them. You need a massage if part of your job is telling people the same thing 6-100 times a day, and occasionally being called a bitch for not accepting late homework.

However, teaching didn’t provide me with the salary for frequent professional massages.  That’ s an expensive habit.  Other teachers advised me that cheaper options were available: you could go get the discount massage at the massage school in town.

Professional and twice a year had been white towels, fresh flowers. Once a month, student, half-price is ER-style curtains and uncertain direction. You sign in at a desk more medical than cosmotological. The student takes your clipboard and says, “Is there any particular reason you’re here? Just to relax?”

“My shoulders,” I say, following into the huge room. The masseuse-in-training leaves you to undress. I hang up my clothes. I slither under blanket, sheets.

There’s nothing unpleasant about being rubbed down by a well-intentioned healer. It’s always good to be warm and naked and touched—whether it’s personal or not. But these beginners, who charge half price, make you realize what can go wrong.

You can run out of lotion. Burn! You can rub nicely, without digging the creases out of a muscle. You can lean over and push your boobs onto somebody’s leg. Tucking those sheets in six different configurations to hide the gynecologists’ territory is not easy. It’s not that I’m so modest, it’s just that it can get chilly.

“I’m sorry,” says the sniffler. “I have allergies.” Don’t be alarmed that I’m rubbing my germ-infested hands all over you.

“You doing okay?” the talker interrupts, while I’m busy visualizing the light opening in my forehead.

“Is that good?” More experienced massage therapists ask this some other way, because the question elicits either an inappropriate, “Oh yeah!” or a grunt. You can’t really say, “No.”

The cushion thingy that’s supposed to go under your ankles can be under your feet instead. Your head can hang too low on the support, dropping your chin or lip on the metal bar underneath. Cold metal. Like getting braces, or lockjaw.

Whatever the misstep, I want to just shut up and take it. I didn’t come here to teach any more. I tolerate the metal under my chin, a little too slimy on the lotion. I’m breathing and sinking, to restore whatever has been eroded in the last few weeks.

Still, afterwards I will fill out the little survey. Drink my cool water. Give her a 3 out of 4 for sheet tucking. I can do that much.