DP817868.jpgI have wolves.  I went to the cathedral on this, Dr. King’s day, and the lesson was about caring for your flock, which was the last thing I wanted to hear, as I want to quit my job, I have wolves.

The first half of my career I was told I was a good teacher, so I think I was.  I felt I was getting better and then that I was maintaining a strong and useful program of work, I taught other teachers, I presented at national conferences.

Then I spent most of a year arguing about if I needed the books I ordered in my classroom, if I was losing students’ papers and if I was bullying them by asking them to be quiet so we could start class.

I have been a “bad” teacher because my lessons were not engaging and I could not control my students, these two things being frequently connected.  I never aspired to be entertaining or intimidating, though, I only try to be thoughtful and trustworthy.

Some of us must be “bad” to keep the show going, so we know who to hiss at.

When I was told I was good, I was better.  This is the story of your life as an agreeable white girl, I know, people tell you are good and so you are.

If a kid refusing to sit down, pushing me, throwing things, and using profanity results in leaving class for a good while, I am a good teacher.  I can control my students.

I hate that word, anyway, it should be that kids find it easier to decide to be productive because the environment they are living in makes that the easiest choice.  It should be hard to be bad.

I work hard at putting myself back together.  Still, I haven’t been sleeping more than two hours at a stretch, and I have headaches.

On my way up to the cathedral, I heard the begging-on-the-subway speech five times.  Three times from the same guy, a big guy with a deep, lovely voice.  I changed cars because something was buzzing unbearably in my car, and the beggars change cars, too, so that’s why I heard that guy twice.  The third time, I guess, I took the train so far, probably 3/4 of its route, that was my fault, too: we overlapped again.

I thought, I know I don’t have change, I just did laundry.  And I didn’t want to give any money today.  I don’t want to give anything.  Not a thing.  Not to anyone.

Then I thought: this guy’s job is better than mine.  At least no one was jumping up and yelling at him or calling him names when he asked for what he wanted.  No one was throwing things at him.  Then I thought: goodness, that’s an offensive thought.

If I wasn’t a city teacher, someone people admire for toughness and virtue, who would I be?  Maybe no one would admire me, maybe I would not be likable at all, if, say, I was a person who left urban teaching, like everyone else I know.

Exaggeration: I know one person who has taught in urban schools a long time, and is still teaching in an urban school.  Most of us, almost all of us, get picked off by administrators, our own exhaustion, financial pressure.

How foolish it was for me to borrow thirty grand and then take the lowest-paying jobs in my field, over and over for ten years.  I really did that.  And all the money on my own office supplies and stuff for the kids— notecards, pens and pencils, treats (bribes).  I’m stingier than most teachers, honestly, but it still adds up.

For a long time, I felt I was making up for something, paying back my great public school education, paying back being white, for having a good family, for being loved.

People say, you’ve been on the front lines a long time, it’s okay to fall back.  Maybe nobody should do these hardest jobs, caretaking at our fringes, for a long time.  Maybe it just isn’t healthy, or can’t be healthy, right here, right now.

Friday I packed up all my stuff in front of the kids.  I was that gone. I was telling myself, I’ll protect you.  I won’t let anyone scream at you anymore.  I won’t let them disrespect you.

I must have scared them, by doing that, and by being gone the last two hours of the day.

I’ve spent the weekend thinking in flashes that of course I will go back, I’ll figure it out, as I have many times before, I’ll figure some way to limp forward, if not to march.

Things you would not, could not do, then you do.  Move to New York.  Kiss.

I became a city teacher because my parents divorced at the same time I learned about the civil rights movement in school.  That’s not fair, I thought, and it was all launched, tied up together.  It wasn’t a bad reason.  When I started teaching, though, I promised myself if I felt I was becoming lost, I would quit.  That doing good shouldn’t mean losing yourself.  That I wouldn’t teach somewhere kids threw things or where I felt unsafe.  But I do.  And I haven’t quit.

Along with “That’s not fair” and paying back my good fortune, there is also enjoying the weirdness of teenagers, their openness and fear together, their first shoots of adult life coming up, enjoying being a person they go to for help, and knowing the answers.

I think Dr. King would say, we are all sheep, but there are wolves in us.

I know they are sheep.  My meanest kid sneers, “She’s still here?” but there is a hint of relief mixed with his nastiness.  I hear it.

Image: Wolf, Anonymous, 17th Century, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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

On Offense

There are two kinds of teachers: conservative ones who valiantly sacrifice themselves to maintain our nation’s greatness, and teachers who won’t shut up and do as they’re told.  As you may know, I’m the second kind.

Both kinds of teachers can have self-esteem issues.  In a capitalist consumerist country, no matter how many times people at parties tell you you’re a saint for teaching, you still go home knowing money talks.  If you were so valuable to all those people, they’d tax themselves enough to pay you like a doctor.  Doctors save lives.  Teachers saved my life.  I know that.

I remember a male relation telling me he made $100 an hour, back when I was a kid.  I’ve always remembered that.  My time isn’t worth $100 an hour to the marvelously wise free market– not yet– but it’s worth way more than that to me.  I’ve worked my whole life to become an educated person (inside and, mostly, outside of schools).  I have enough life experience to know how to find common ground with students and give them honest, unbiased answers to sticky questions.  I can defuse ugliness by holding up my palm.  I can stop you from doing what you shouldn’t do by looking at you long and hard.  Sometimes by just standing in your sightline.  And those skills didn’t come easy.

People are hating on teachers a lot lately.  Civilians don’t know that spring break is the time when every teacher goes insane.  Teachers start saying all manner of crazy things at this time of year.  Everyone is quitting.  Everyone is changing schools.  Teacher happy hours last longer.  The tabs are more expensive.  By mid-April, we’re so exhausted we don’t even have the energy to threaten to quit anymore.  These are the “zombie” months.  So don’t worry, we’ll all calm down and stop protesting and making signs.  We’ll be too tired from all the effort of shaping up those kids to convince them to be good citizens, not to break into your car or destroy the economy with their financial schemes.

What encourages me is that teachers have been on the defensive, and now we have the opportunity to go on the offensive.  Not what we hate about school reform– let’s scream about what we want.  What would make schools better?  What analogies or soundbites would help people understand the real problems in education, and the real, small, slow solutions?  It’s not that we need to defend the territory won for us by the labor movement and feminists and the great educational theorists, it’s that we need to expand our sense of entitlement.  Who else is going to do what we do?  Who can do it better?  Let’s be honest: the country can’t run without us.

Not only should we be paid like doctors or lawyers, we should have their autonomy.  Not only should we have job security and academic freedom, we should have sabbaticals around year seven.  Do we need unions for that?  Maybe, maybe not.  Unions for teachers were a compromise, a rather ill-fitting solution at times.  They served a great purpose, but there could be other answers.

I know.  That’s as crazy as a black man running for president.  Or someone surviving a concentration camp having the chutzpah to get married and have kids.  People who were told they were completely worthless, not shutting up. Instead, accomplishing the impossible. They set the example.

Getting Your Sea Legs, or The Secrets of My (Wobbly, Five-Year) Success

I know, you want to help people.  Change lives!  Reach out to the disenfranchised!  Create educational equality in an unequal world! My goal was to do all that, and to make it through five years in teaching.  More than half of our new teachers in America quit before five years.  In schools with lots of poor kids, like mine, it’s probably much worse.  I promised myself that I would quit if I was burned out or losing my mind.  I didn’t.  I’m now just a few months from achieving my goal.

Teaching has challenged me mentally, emotionally, and physically.  Many times, I wanted to cry uncle and say the challenge was too much.  I limped through these times, half-blind or sullen or broken, and eventually felt energetic and optimistic again.  How can you help man the ship of education through its always-stormy seas?  How can you keep your balance and hold the vomiting to a minimum?  Well, here’s how I did, anyway.

1. Where you work is everything.  You won’t survive as a lone crusader at a dysfunctional school.  You can’t set the world on fire for learning if the kids set fire to it first.  Don’t try to be a hero.  You’ll do more good with five years at an okay school than with six months in crazytown.  My school has 80% poverty, but it’s a pretty happy, friendly, comfortable place.  Just because you want to work with kids who really need you doesn’t mean you have to get treated like shit, or feel unsafe.

2. Your coworkers are your salvation.  No one else understand what you are doing, and the kind of tired you are.  If your coworkers (teachers, but also janitors and cafeteria people and security guards and adminstrators) are assholes and you can’t talk to them, you are going to be miserable.  Once you’re there, invest in these people like they’re Apple in 1980.  You can’t do it alone.  No one can.  My coworkers taught me a lot of the rest of this stuff, and thank you, thank you again.

3. Devote yourself to a mentor you trust.  Teaching was my first “career” job, so it was my first experience with locating a Yoda.  I was lucky to have two wise mentors right from the start, one a fellow English teacher, and one a fellow freshman teacher.  I asked a million questions.  There was no question I was too proud to ask.  I revealed my mistakes and how bad things really were.  Otherwise, I couldn’t get help.  (This goes for family and friends, too, who have donated time and treasure to support me through some rough times.)

4. Take care of yourself. This isn’t a good time to skip meals or exercise.  I know, you’re so, so busy, and so, so tired, but you’re just going to feel worse if you don’t eat and sleep properly.  I’ve tried to get a massage once a month (a student massage at a place nearby is $30), and I really think those should be mandatory for teachers.  You have to exercise.  I have to go to church and meditate and do yoga and take long baths.  I can’t eat junk, or I will not have the energy to make it through the day.  Part of taking care of yourself is also attending parties, seeing friends, and keeping up your hobbies.  It’s better for you, and your students, long-term, to keep your sanity with a healthy lifestyle.

5. Don’t even think about teaching summer school after your first year.  I don’t care how poor you are.  Dig ditches.  Anything.  I would avoid summer school in the subsequent years, too, if you can swing it.  It’s a grand or three versus the risk of complete burn-out.  Dangerous.

6. Be patient with yourself.  There is no perfect teacher.  There is no perfect student.  You don’t know what effect you have on students.  It’s impossible to judge.  Life is too complicated.  You’ll never really know– for good or for ill.  All you can do is try your best and know you’re part of something positive in the world.  Be thankful you have a job that gives you a sense of purpose.  That has to be enough.

7. Take a day off. No one needs you that bad.  Get over yourself.  Let the kids go crazy with a sub and do nothing for one lousy day.  Take that day off, even if your pay is docked.  If you’re maintaining your healthy habits (and washing your hands), you can save your days off for mental health recovery, rather than physical health.  Get your head back on straight.  Sometimes when the kids think you’re being a bitch, you are, and you need a day off.

8. You’re not going to like this, but you can only control what you can control. See?  I told you it was rough.  The main thing that will waste your time and burn you out is obsessing and slaving away at problems you cannot fix.  Your time and energy are invaluable.  Think carefully before you take on an extra project.  Don’t do extra work to “save” a student who won’t work for you.  That’s not helping– that’s enabling.  Especially because students and administrators might not respect your time, you have to guard it carefully.  It’s more valuable than money.  Which you already knew, or you wouldn’t have taken this career path in the first place.