Against a Wall: A Teacher’s Manifesto

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It has been coming on for a year or two, maybe longer, but I feel it now in my 28th year of teaching more keenly than ever: I have come up against a wall. This is the condition in which I find myself professionally. It may be that things have always been this way and I adjusted and made do because I was younger, more inspired, more energetic. But I rail against this supposition. I may be no younger, but I am hardly uninspired and I have energy to spare. No, I insist that things are in fact different now, that things are worse, harder, less forgiving, less supportive, less creative, less humane than they have ever been in the entirety of my career.

I want to be able to describe this feeling, this reality of mine. And I want to be able to unpack what’s causing it and to see if I can discover how much of it is systemic and how much of it is just me, and once I can discover its causes, see if I can’t do something to make things better for myself and maybe even for others. Personally, the stakes are high. I do not wish to go out of the profession kicking and screaming, anguished, embittered, embattled. I want the last years of my career to be the very best years of my career. And I fear that if I don’t do something toward creating this more positive reality, instead, the conclusion of my teaching life will be a train wreck, a professional, psychological, emotional train wreck, something I must escape from or survive. I do not want that. That is the last thing in the world I want.

I find that I need to talk or write about this. I’ve thought about therapy. I’ve thought about a sit-down with my principal. I’ve thought about early retirement. Generally speaking, I love teaching, I love my colleagues, I love my school, I love nearly all of my kids (nobody’s perfect), I have a good time doing my job and until very recently I have never been the kind of person that counts down days, weeks, months, or years until the next Friday, the next break, the next summer, or retirement. But now I find myself doing it often and I don’t like it.

What’s the problem? Let us first describe the problem. I have been, perhaps for the last two years running, in a constant state of feeling absolutely overwhelmed. There is simply not time enough during the workday to do all the aspects and complete all the responsibilities of the job, and as a result, some important things are in perpetual neglect.

It has seemed to me that, in a kind of hierarchy of what’s most important for a teacher, the first thing on the list beyond determining what students need to learn and how they should grow academically would simply be to figure out what it is I’m going to do with students for 87 minutes in 3 different classes of which I have 6 different sections (3 preparations, 6 groups of students). Planning takes the priority because one of the worst teacher fears ever is to face a group of between 25 and 40 students with absolutely nothing to do for an entire period. And so I find, that for three different classes, two of which are pretty much brand new for me, I spend my entire preparation period planning, designing assessments, creating handouts or visuals, making copies, gathering materials, answering and writing emails, and composing letters of recommendation for seniors. It is a pretty regular occurrence that just as I finish the work to get ready for classes, the bell has rung and students have begun entering my room.

And then, in the course of the work I’m doing with the curriculum, I ask students to produce things: log entries, dialogue journals, exit notes, graphic organizers or illustrations, poems, on-demand essays and formal papers. These are the items that typically form a picture of each student’s progress and ultimately result in final grades. So here’s the question: if all or most of the time I have during the work day for preparation is spent on the nuts and bolts of planning and getting ready for 6 meaningful 87 minute class periods, when does the grading get done? Aye, there’s the rub.

I know I’ve talked about this before in previous blog posts, and I don’t want to be a broken record, but this is a math problem. I have 180 students (a number which, over the last 28 years, has exploded from 125—no small potatoes, I might add, and I would also add that among English teachers in my building, my load is nowhere near the largest). I try to stagger the work so that my three different classes are never all turning in work at the same time. But here’s the reality. My 70 sophomores do an essay exam on To Kill A Mockingbird and turn that in to me. But because I’ve been spending all of my time during my prep period planning, I don’t start them right away. I find 20 minutes here or there to get started on them in the days to come, but I’m nowhere close to being finished, and then, suddenly I realize that a couple of weeks have gone by and then, lo and behold, my 80 seniors are turning in written commentaries on various poems by Seamus Heaney. I’m still not done with the 70 sophomore Mockingbird essays; I’ve been sitting on the Seamus Heaney Commentaries for a week and a half; and then, oh no, but yes, it’s true, my College Writing students, all 30 of them are turning in an Expository Essay! Even though I have staggered the work, I end up with a stack of 180 things to grade—and if, god forbid, I’ve asked students to turn in anything else, there may be another few stacks of things to get through. I begin to feel thankful for the students who are neglecting to turn in their work! And I begin to hate grading, period.

The simple but insane solution to this problem is to just do the grading at home! How easy is that? Plan at work, grade at home. Well, when you consider that it might take me an entire day, the equivalent of an 8-hour work day on a Saturday or Sunday to get through ONE group of formal essays, about 30 papers, attempting to give students meaningful and substantive feedback, you can begin to see the problem. The fix here would be simply to NOT give meaningful and substantive feedback. And this is what it really comes down to most of the time, because to deliver meaningful and substantive feedback to student work takes time. If I were to do that for each student who turns in a formal piece of writing, I would never sleep, I would not eat, I would not socialize, I would not write fiction or poetry, I would not pay any mind to my wife and my son, I would not play music—I would not be doing anything to take care of myself or my loved ones. And I cannot do that. So the stuff piles up. And the anxiety grates and grates. And I lose sleep. The stress of the workday compels me to do mindless things at home. And I eat less or poorly, the social calendar is empty, I spend less time with my family, I play less music, I write little or no fiction, and I drink more than I should, all while I’M NOT WORKING AT HOME—or at least, working as little at home as is possible.

The voices inside my head tell me: So minimize your grading work load! Stop telling your kids to write! Stop asking them to turn things in! Whenever I confide with students about the enormity of the grading task, this is the advice they give also—even though they know it’s ridiculous.

I have never in my 28 years given a single test that could be graded by a scantron machine or by a student aid with an answer key. I feel that in order for students to become better writers, they must write. In order for students to become better thinkers, they must write. And when I can give them substantive feedback, I do, and when I can’t, I say to myself and to them that the thing was worth doing in and of itself, that the very act of going through the process was instructive and caused learning to happen. I believe this. But then, there are the exams in IB, the state tests in The Common Core Standards, the PSAT, the SAT, the grades, the student growth goals and the accompanying exhaustive paperwork, the burdensome record keeping we’re expected to do in order to track student learning based on data—all of these factors clamoring for student proficiency instead of learning for learning’s sake. Much of this is new to the profession, and, as well-intentioned as it might be, it is sucking the life out of teachers. At least out of this teacher.

Did I mention that I am legally responsible to keep track of and make sure I am accommodating every student of mine out of 180 kids who might be on an Individual Education Plan, or who have been graced with a 504 accommodation, the numbers of which seem to grow exponentially every year? Did I mention that? Did I mention the expectation that I initiate contact with parents by email or by phone when their children are in academic danger or are disruptive in class? Did I say that I almost never write referrals for behavior or lunch detentions for tardiness, that I almost never write up a student for chronic absences, not because all my students are angels and always present and on-time, but because the labor involved to follow up on each case would be more trouble than its worth, or rather, the trouble might be worthwhile, but the exhaustive nature of the one hundred and one other responsibilities makes taking the time for the trouble well-nigh impossible? That’s another anxiety producer. Jarmer doesn’t care—that’s the judgment from students or from colleagues that I fear most—and even though I’ve never heard it, except maybe from kids regarding minor infractions like tardiness, the nag of that imaginary criticism still tugs, the fear that I will be caught and called out for negligence, for ineffectively dealing with student accommodations or for being permissive around issues of discipline. I cannot win for losing.

Regarding this tenuous and crazy balancing act between planning, grading, accommodating, and general classroom housekeeping, I’m sure there are master teachers out there holding PhD’s and working at teacher-training colleges who have written books during their research sabbaticals who can tell me exactly what I am doing wrong. But I don’t have time to read them, to study them, to gather advice or research about best practice because I am consistently and overwhelmingly swamped. Even staff development, when it is not delivered in house during the two to four days given up for it in an entire school year, has been offered only in sessions after the work day hours, or in sessions that require one to have a substitute (the preparation for which is always more labor intensive than delivering the lessons oneself), or in evening classes. And these staff development activities are often about NEW stuff to do or new expectations to fulfill or new ways teachers can become the Super Human Everything to Everyone kind of person the universe wants us to be while the media demonizes us for constantly falling short of expectations.

And this talk of the potential goodness of teachers (despite the bad press) and the nobility of the profession, brings me to the honorable and good work our district is doing around issues of equity for our students. It is our district’s primary goal that NO student in our classrooms gets less educational opportunity because of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, socio-economic status, physical disability, or learning disability. So we have begun, really for the first time ever in my career, to look closely and deeply at disadvantages caused by the institution or by individuals that may be obstacles to any of the above students, whether these obstacles are blatant and systemic, or whether they are micro-aggressive and barely conscious. And while every fiber of my being believes in this work, internally I am struggling mightily with the dissonance between what ideally we would love to do for kids and what in reality can actually be done in this current climate. It is a fact of having 180 students assigned to me that there are a great number of kids of mine representing these disadvantaged groups above that I hardly know. They are virtual strangers to me. And this is wrong. It is wrong that I don’t know my students well, and it is wrong that I am expected to eliminate or minimize educational barriers for children that I cannot reasonably get to know well. And while I do love most of my students, there are some students, a good number of them, actually, that are difficult to love; they are resistant, defiant, unwilling, disinterested, apathetic, anti-intellectual, and sometimes just nasty people, people whose disregard for the work we’re trying to do for them makes teaching especially difficult, disheartening, frustrating, demoralizing. In this sea of 180 humans, my natural tendency (and the wrong one) is to help those most who are receptive to the help and let the others try to figure it out and hope they do. They need far more than I can possibly give them, and perhaps, they really don’t need (at least now) what it is I have to offer. But there are no options. And the idea of differentiating for them in a setting that defies differentiation is absurd. My only method, the best I can do toward individualizing my instruction for them is to be as flexible as I can be—but this is, I think, a far cry from the kind of differentiation and individualization that could truly approach equity of opportunity for all students.

And how can we seriously talk about equity for students when clearly there is no sense of equity in our buildings between teachers. Some teachers have permanent computer labs in their classrooms. Other teachers must race to sign up for mobile labs or classroom labs that must be shared by the entire staff. Some teachers have a load of 200 students. Other teachers have 140 or less. Some teachers, by nature of their discipline, must work at home in order to fulfill their professional responsibilities. Other teachers, also a feature of their discipline, NEVER take school work home and earn the same pay as the teachers who are working the extra hours. It is often true that beginning teachers are given the most difficult classes to teach, classes that require the broadest teacher skill set, because veteran teachers do not want those classes. And when it comes to cultural diversity, our district teaching staff does not represent our community. In my building, which employs maybe 45 teachers, there are two individuals of color.

And then, finally, and strangely too, in a different direction and on the broadest possible scale, the very unraveling fabric of American culture and society, specifically, that of political and ideological gridlock and divisiveness unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, where politicians who might one day lead our country seem to be the stupidest people to ever run for office and whose ignorance of global warming may one day be the cause of the demise of the human species; that coupled with the more immediate and terrifying preponderance of gun violence in America—these things have created a very subtle but nevertheless toxic environment of future uncertainty and fear for our safety in public education. I am not always aware of it. But the necessity of doing a lock down drill in a classroom with kids where we pretend that there’s an active shooter in the building who wants to kill us, where we lock all the doors, turn off the lights and find places in the classroom to hide, undoubtedly creates psychological damage. On these occasions and at other random times in my waking hours, as I’m sure students and their parents do and other teachers do, I find myself having these morbid fantasies about how this might go down, how I might behave and what it might be like to die in my classroom or to watch students die or even to survive such an event. Never mind that it’s statistically unlikely to ever happen. Never mind that it’s a fact that most schools are likely some of the safest places on the planet. That’s no comfort to the people who have suffered through one of these tragedies. And it’s no comfort to us when we see a new mass shooting unraveling somewhere in the country on what seems like a weekly basis, or as some media outlets have claimed, on more than a daily basis. It takes a toll.

Such are the conditions in the schoolhouse and in the country that have caused me to feel like I’m hitting a wall, coming finally face to face with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, obstacles to successful teaching, obstacles to a sense of accomplishment in my work, obstacles to a sense of joy that teaching has given me in the past and continues giving me to this day, but now only in fleeting moments, most often when I am with a group of students and the learning and excitement is palpable in the air, or when we’re sharing a good laugh, when it feels like we are together in something significant and meaningful, in community. But at all other times at work and at home I am burdened by the sense that I am running on a treadmill that will never cease spinning,

Are the problems systemic or is it just me? The answer: both.

What can I do about systemic problems? After all these years it’s difficult not to feel a little bit helpless. There seems to be little or nothing I can do, except to vote, maybe, and continue doing this kind of writing and talking that might raise awareness somewhere about what it is we’re asking our teachers to do, as if people didn’t already know. I don’t have a lot of hope that within the last two or three years of my career radical changes might be made in the way that we fund schools, the way we treat teaching professionals, and most importantly, the way we take care of the minds and the souls of our children. I am not without hope entirely, because that would truly be a defeat. But if I have noticed anything in the way that school systems change over time, it would be “not very much,” or “at an exceedingly slow pace.” And I would also note that the changes, while many of them have been progressive, most of them have been rather backwards, and they have failed to produce significant evidence of success. The last to benefit from them are the students. The beneficiaries have mostly been test-developing corporations and media outlets, who can publish meaningless numbers in the newspaper to “objectively” measure how schools are doing compared to other schools in order to satisfy our hunger for competition and to see how we are “measuring up.” The most positive developments along the way have almost all been dropped because they were too expensive and could not be staffed.

If I have brought on to myself a good deal of my current difficulty, what can I do about that? The time I took to write this I could have been grading papers! Lots of them! But how would I feel about the weekend I spent writing this, if I would have instead been grading papers? I would be miserable. I would have felt a sense of relief at having just that little bit of grading work off my plate, but it would be a temporary relief, lasting only moments before coming face to face with the next pile of stuff to grade. And I would still have all of these words you see on this page or on some screen scrambling around in my brain looking desperately for a way out. Walking away after 28 years does not seem like an option, or at least, not one that appeals to me. Making demands of my administrators to fix things they themselves have little control over seems counter-productive. To make demands of them that I be assigned certain classes that would lessen my workload seems unfair to my colleagues, insofar as whenever an English teacher gets a cushier assignment, somebody else’s assignment becomes more difficult. Continuing in this state of feeling constantly overwhelmed would be unwise, unhealthy and dangerous.

How do we survive and thrive, then? Notice this use of the first person plural. If I assume I am not alone, and I do, this might be the best way to conclude. It seems to me that we will need to keep making unwelcome concessions, that we will continue to make undesirable compromises, that we will continue with the notion that students need to keep doing meaningful, significant work, even if we cannot give it the attention that it deserves. And until our student load becomes humane, we must not simply continue to work harder and harder. We must refuse to be martyr teachers. We see it all the time and it makes us sad and it makes us feel guilty all at once. And in that last bit, I think, might be the key to our future happiness and success. It’s not that we need to care less, but that we need to forgive ourselves that our capacity for care has its limits. We need to let go of the guilt we feel when we “fake grade” or when it takes us two months to grade for real. We know it’s not the best way. And we know we would do it differently if we were given the resources to do it differently. We must let ourselves off the hook for the things we cannot do: we cannot save every kid or individualize for every kid; we can’t always make that phone call or fill out that paperwork; we can’t serve on that committee or attend that workshop from 4 to 7:30; and we can’t make the violence of the world disappear. And we must hold on to and foster anything and everything about the job that still brings us joy and makes our classrooms joyful places. Meanwhile, toward the day when our politicians and governments, and our citizenry figures this stuff out, we must advocate and we must speak and write for change. Taking it up. Breaking down the walls. Building cadres of equity. The phrases and slogans we have come to know so well in the push to make us better educators must actually mean something for everyone working and learning under the glorious and unwieldy umbrella of the institution of public education.

 

7 Comments

Filed under Self Reflection, Teaching

7 responses to “Against a Wall: A Teacher’s Manifesto

  1. Oh, Michael. So many of the things I felt when I was teaching. I was never as dedicated and inspired as I think you have been, never had your energy and enthusiasm. Both teaching in public schools and as an adjunct for ten years or so, I was always overwhelmed, behind in grading, barely ahead of the class in planning. Feeling like a fake. At one community college where I taught, during an Eng Dept meeting, we were all given sample student papers and the teachers who graded the fastest, “won.” Ugh.

    • Thank you, Faith. This story about a “grading race” is so absurd–but perhaps, a kind of cynical but necessary reaction to the absurdity of the gig. I’ve never had a grading race with my colleagues, I’m happy to say. I can’t help but think about my experience at Warren Wilson–and how crucial it was and heartening and mind blowing it was to receive those faculty LETTERS in response to my work. What if we could do that for young people? The world would change, I’ll bet! Thanks again. Love you.

  2. The word “institution” is the key word. One of my best friends and one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever known, she was a teacher as well, used to remind our staff often that we worked in an institution and we needed to remember that we were working within the confines of that institution. We couldn’t necessarily be the teachers we knew our kids needed, the teachers we wanted to be, within the boundaries of the institution. We have to do the best we can and accept that that is what our boundaries allow.

    She also reminded us that on an airplane they always tell you to put your mask on first and then assist the children. This is what you are doing when you go away to refresh yourself and write this instead of grading. If you don’t have your mask on first, you will not be able to breathe.

    She was an amazing woman. She passed away ten years ago now, so apparently things have been rough for a while, but I agree they’re getting rougher. I still think of her often, and more than I like it’s those two things I think of. Ken Costa taught with her, too. I’ll bet he remembers these lessons. You should ask him.

    So now, forgive yourself and breathe.

    Be well, my friend, and keep speaking the truth.

  3. Pingback: Mindfulness in 2016: A Silver Bullet Resolution? | michael jarmer

  4. The experience you’re writing of and the feelings you are experiencing are nearly identical to what I’m going through in my own career – albeit not in education – but in Tech with many of the same challenges.

    It seems to me that we are all being pressed to report, accommodate and produce at rates that are frankly inhumane and possible only through grand levels of personal sacrifice. A decade ago, we were being told to focus on doing great work – we had bandwidth to do it. In-between the sprints of productivity, we had breathing room. Time to compose, consider and plot our next moves. Then, as time went on, that “home room” time was taken away. It was no longer a question of what we would do during that unstructured time, but a question of how we would do it all in that time.

    This doesn’t work when we can’t make something more efficient than it already is. Writing is an art-form, not a science. We can’t push an essay through a computer and get a score with any sort of meaning. It takes someone to read it and give it the consideration that it deserves to turn out a grade – but more importantly, a sense of where that student is at and how we can help them. I experience the same thing in my work – how I provide customer service to Architects as a software company is an artform that cannot be effectively forced into a “template for excellence” defined by someone who’s never been in the shoes of either side of the transaction.

    In the 22+ years I’ve known you Michael, both as a student and as a friend outside the classroom – I’ve always seen you as one of the most grounded and enthusiastic of educators I’ve known. You are gifted in so many ways that enable you to connect with students, gain their trust and prove to them that an education is worth their effort. The world needs many more Mr. Jarmer clones. In the time you have left of your tenure prior to retirement, don’t give up hope or fight. Push back on the nonsense, even when it’s frightening.

    They can’t eat you. And there’s always a chance that they will spontaneously combust.

    • Greg, thanks so much for this. I appreciate it immensely. There’s too much of this attempt to turn art into science and I’m glad, but disheartened, to know it’s happening in other fields as well. Those of us most bugged by this stuff are likely the ones who care the most. At any rate, thanks for reading, thanks for the kind words, and thanks for the assurance that my kids might spontaneously combust before I do!

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