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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: August 29, 2017

putnam

One of my favorite words in the English language is the word “penultimate.” It’s a great word. And this school year I will likely overuse it. Consider yourself forewarned.

Today began the (sort of) first day of the (maybe) penultimate school year of my teaching career. I say “sort of” in light of the fact that this typical first day for teachers (the week before students arrive) was preceded by one full day of staff development the week before, and then almost three days of professional development the week before that. So today was “sort of” my first day back after this exceedingly short summer, shortened by snow day make-ups on the front end and lots of bonus development on the other end. And I say “maybe” penultimate because it probably is but may not be; hence, the ambiguity.

But let me first tell you a little bit about how this day began, and you’ll have to help me to believe that it’s indicative of nothing, because it was, sorry to say, a shitty first day, or at least, a shitty beginning to a first day.

To wit: I have made a personal commitment to bicycle commute as much as I can this year without sacrificing my morning meditation ritual. To facilitate that new commitment I set my alarm clock a whole 20 minutes earlier from where it has been set for as many years as I can remember (2), and I sprung out of bed this morning to enthusiastically meet my new commitment. But when I got downstairs I could first smell and then I saw the horrendous mess our old dog made in the middle of the night–all over the hardwood floors.  Needless to say, I skipped morning meditation. Instead, I cleaned up runny dog shit and mopped floors while cursing.

I made it out the door on time and I did manage to climb on top of the bicycle. I didn’t bike nearly as much this summer as I wanted to. The ride up those two hills was kind of painful. Luckily, and for this reason NOT bicycle commuting is pretty much inexcusable, it’s only about a ten minute ride to work. Mercy of mercies.

I am happy to report that there was no shit to clean up at the school house, so the day could only improve. And mostly, it did. Here’s a list.

  • We met nine new teachers to our building this morning. I think it’s been ten years since we brought on as many new teachers. We had some fun watching one of our administrators play Jimmy Fallon’s Would You Rather game with the newbies.
  • Our principal reviewed for us the various driving forces of our work, namely, the the vision, the mission, the WHY, the HOW, and the WHAT. She told us an interesting story about growing up in Alaska, the point of which, I think, was to illustrate to us how she arrived at her own personal WHY for the work that she does, and how that manifests itself in her commitment to us and to students. It was one of the few times she has ever spoken about her life in this kind of public way. I appreciated that.
  • Another one of our administrators brought us (and all of the new kids) up to speed about why the NIKE corporation is helping us and how. There was the grant. There was the implementation of a thing called AVID. There was a rebranding and new art that turned an ominous armored horseman wielding a lance and charging forward into battle into the more protective metaphor of a simple shield, using the now ubiquitous solidarity slogan of I AM before the abbreviation of our school name. It’s clear now why they preferred the abbreviation to the full deal. As we are named after a dude and not a place, it’s easier perhaps for everyone to identify as RP. I am RP. I am not, necessarily, figuratively or literally, a dude named Rex Putnam.
  • And finally, our Jimmy Fallon administrator came back on to lead us into a deep discussion of what is perceived by our leadership and most of the teachers in the building as one of our biggest problems as a school: student absenteeism. How does it affect us, as teachers? How does it impact student success? Why does it occur? What causes it? What can we do about it? All worthwhile points for discussion and inquiry. No closure possible. No closure expected. All of us are likely frustrated by a general sense about this serious problem that we lack agency to make a difference. Too many variables out of our control. We have our classrooms, our spaces, our attitudes, the way that we express to our charges that we want them there, that we will do our best for them, that we care about their lives.
  • And then back to our rooms for a half day of individual preparation. For me, that meant getting my computer back, getting my speakers hooked up, listening to music, cleaning, moving the tables and chairs into place after getting them unstuck from the freshly and beautifully waxed floors, looking at a syllabus or two, recycling some old crap, having a little lunch with a couple of colleagues, helping my teacher friend across the hall adjust her crazy desk, learning about the Hood to Coast relay race from another teacher friend, uncovering the mysteries of two missing English teachers (one totally explicable and the other totally not), and then finally, getting back on my bicycle for a ride home in 100 degree heat. I’m not joking about that. It was 100 degrees out.

I will call that a day.

The first day. Sort of.

Of the penultimate school year of my teaching career. Maybe.

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Letter to a Colleague in Her Second Year of Teaching

 

class-size

Dear Friend,

I don’t pretend to be able to advise you, but I can tell you what I have done to ensure that I do not become a casualty of the oftentimes insurmountable and sometimes impossible demands of the profession. In your second year of teaching, if you find yourself in a perpetual state of exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed, always behind, despite the fact you might be working at home every single day of the week and many more hours on the weekend, and if you find yourself on top of all that feeling under-appreciated and sometimes deliberately undermined by the people you are trying to help, perhaps you might try this:

Stop it.

Take care of yourself.

If there are things you love doing, activities or hobbies that feed your soul, make sure you’re doing them. If there are people that you love to be with, make sure you are spending time with them. Is there a book you’d love to read? Read it. Would you like to write a book or a poem? Do that. Listen to music. Dance. Learn how to play an instrument, or give yourself permission to start practicing an instrument you know and have neglected. Write a song. Go to the movies. Plant a garden. Craft something beautiful, whatever that may be. Go on hikes in the woods. Do things you love and do them often.

Realize, that in order to do these things, you will have to work less or not at all at home. You will feel guilty about it and that guilt will haunt you for awhile. Eventually though, doing that thing you love, being with those people you love, reading or writing for yourself, listening, dancing, playing, or allowing yourself to do or experience whatever brings you joy, these things will make you feel happy. And I’d argue that a happy teacher that protects herself and her time away from the job is infinitely more effective than an embittered and exhausted teacher who is always grading papers at home to provide substantive feedback that students often won’t follow. Your job then is about trying to make each moment you spend in the schoolhouse, with and without students, your very best work.

These kinds of things sustained me for 26 years, or, more accurately, after I figured it out in the first five or six years of my career, they have sustained me until now. Will they sustain me for another four years? Lately I have had some doubts about this. I have fought against cynicism and struggled against the idea that my last years in the profession have to be hard. I’m trying to think about ways to achieve some extra tenacity and to enhance those things and discover new things that will sustain me. I try to be reflective about and remember what drew me to teaching in the very first place, and I am savoring the joyful moments I have with my charges and with my colleagues whenever they occur–and they do still occur–on a daily basis. I am confident I will be successful one way or another and I will make it 4 more years. And in large part, I will be able to sustain myself because I am protecting my time away so that I might drum, sing, dance, write, read, and be with my friends and family. You, my friend, however, have a longer road to travel–28 more years; and that’s kind of scary if you are feeling in your second year the way I have felt in my 25th and 26th.

You might find you have to leave, either to do something else completely or to find a place where you might be able to affect some significant change. What’s clear to me is how much you care absolutely about the work of a teacher. It’s also clear to me that it would be a shame to lose you. Our young people need you and your colleagues need you. No one would blame you, though, for making the decision to bail that so many young people in the profession are making. Everybody understands that the odds are stacked against you, that teaching in this day and in this climate is a Sisyphean labor. But maybe, as counter-intuitive as it might be, if you take care of yourself first, you might find that you have the energy and the drive to work inside the profession toward a day when public school teachers are not asked to do the impossible, are not expected to be super human, are compensated fairly for the work that they do. You may see that day, and it would have been worth the wait.

Until then, I encourage you to hang on–but understand completely if you cannot.

Sincerely,

 

 

Michael Jarmer

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#142: This School Year Has Not Been, Thus Far,

snake_dove

On this second day of National Poetry Writing Month, compliments of the prompt for the first day on the http://www.napowrimo.net website, a poem of negation, a poem that describes a thing in terms of what it is not:

This School Year Has Not Been, Thus Far, 

soft and cuddly,
a baby blanket;
warm and inviting,
the embrace of a friend;
easy, easy like
a Sunday morning
or any number of
other schmaltzy
but irresistible
Lionel Richie tunes;
a slow dance with
Gillian Anderson;
a romp, a joy ride,
a ticket to paradise,
a frolic, a jaunt,
a walk in the park.
Three quarters
of the way through,
it can only get better,
I tell myself,
hopefully, not only
through its cessation,
its culminating
conclusion, but
rather, through its rally,
its redemption, its
hidden possibility,
its potential to be
not quite the sucker
puncher it has proven
to be thus far.

Because the alternative
to hope is despair
and I don’t play that game;
I am armed to
the teeth against it
and I refuse to go out
kicking and screaming.

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Of Fatherhood: The Most Difficult Job Ever Invented

Outside of motherhood, that is.  The way I see it, the three most difficult jobs ever invented, in this order, are motherhood, fatherhood, and teaching in an underfunded public school.  I’ve taken on two out of three.  I find fatherhood exceedingly difficult and this perturbs me.  Whose big idea was it in the first place, inventing fathers?  They’re inefficient.  They’re inconsistent. They don’t know what they’re doing most of the time. They’re trapped in patterns of behavior or responses to behavior that betray their better selves and butt up against what they believe.  They allow 7 year olds to the get the better of them. Some fathers have three college degrees and still–the 7 year olds get the better of them. They can be even-keeled, relatively mellow individuals, and be put often in a state of utter frustration, moral or emotional devastation, and sometimes blind fury–by a 7 year old.

Why is this?  Why can’t it be easier? And here’s the creepy part of it.  Growing up in the world, having been a 7 year old once themselves, perhaps, having become teens, young adults, and  men, accumulating years and years and years of being fathered and watching fathers, either they don’t remember or they never see the kind of difficulty I’m speaking about.  And no one ever discusses it.  Not once did I ever hear my father or my older brothers say about fatherhood, “Man, this is hard, maybe the hardest thing ever.”  I think, if someone would have said that to me, I would have listened, and maybe I would have done some studying over the subject. It’s like a kind of conspiracy–one that was perhaps crucial to the evolution and survival of the species, because, if fathers talked openly to other potential fathers about how difficult the job is, no one would ever take it up. That would be the end of us.  I guess I’m glad my grandfather never had the opportunity to tell my dad how difficult fatherhood had been for him before he keeled over mowing the lawn and died. I might not be here today to have such difficulty being a father.

I recently blogged about a project I’m participating in with my students to follow Benjamin Franklin’s lead to become, by conscious, deliberate effort, morally perfect.  It’s not going well for me.  And TRANQUILITY, number 11 on Franklin’s list, is the virtue that I find most severely lacking this week, especially in relation to–actually only in relation to–fatherhood.  I want to go one day without losing my cool with the resident 7 year old.  One day would be good.  It’d be a start. Listen, I am not a hot head.  Rarely do I get hot headed.  Only in the realm of fatherhood and in the presence of the resident 7 year old do I get hot headed.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t regret becoming a father.  Regret is a fool’s game. And despite the fact that my son is, for the most part, the only one I get physically and verbally angry at, I love him more than any other human being I have ever loved.  When it is good, I can find myself weepy with happiness at his beauty, his wit, his curiosity about the world, his budding bilingualism, his artistic streak, his lovely singing, his rare but heart melting tenderness. When it is  good, it’s really good (and first, I must confess, that it is good 80% of the time, and I’m sure that compared to many fathers on the planet I’ve got nothing to complain about); but when it is not good, it is bad, bad enough to bring a grown and relatively happy man to despair.  That despair is temporary; it passes–but it is about the most awful feeling I know and I wish there was a cure.  To my credit, perhaps, the reason I despair sometimes is simply because I give a shit.  I don’t want to be so lackadaisical about fathering as to become permissive, or to relegate my parenting to television and video games, or to simply walk away from the oppositional and sometimes nasty resident 7 year old, or to be oblivious, uncaring or dismissive about my own anger .  At bottom, and most terrifying, is the fear that the lesson won’t take, that he’ll become resentful, that the opposition will grow, that his teenage years will be just as difficult if not more so. This is a trap, too, I know, and I try diligently not to fall into it.

I have worked with teenagers every day of my real working life now for about 25 years.  It happens that sometimes they get under my skin, make me lose sleep, disturb my tranquility, make me angry, but it is rare, especially in comparison to the challenges presented by the resident 7 year old.  So, I take that as a sign that every year fatherhood will get easier and easier.  But I don’t have to live with the teenagers under my charge–so maybe it would be totally different and equally difficult if we were under the same roof on a permanent basis.  That’s not a happy thought.  It’s all relative, right? And most of it is dependent upon the kid and the family and the happiness quotient of both.  In the end, I imagine that all of this is the stuff that every parent and every father deals with to lesser or greater degrees, but most don’t talk about it, they keep it mum, they don’t let on, they put on the peachy-keen mask.  Parenting is hard, fatherhood is hard.  As is everything that is worthwhile doing, I suppose. I know I can’t be the perfect parent.  I just want to be better.  But I want it to get easier, too, which is, in a way, lame.  I’d prefer it to get easier than to have to develop new skills for the difficult stuff. Somebody, tell me it gets easier, or, tell me I will get better at this most challenging work.

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Of English Teacher Math: Teaching 200 Students How To Write

Here are some numbers to consider for the end of the semester.  I asked 140 IB English students to turn in their logs, into which they have composed over the last 4 weeks anywhere between 20 and 30 pages of response to the readings we’ve done out of The Best American Essays of the Century. Let’s just take the lower number for shits and giggles, do a little math, and say that my IB English students turned in at least 2,800 pages of writing for me to peek at.  I also asked that same group of 140 students to write their own 1000 word essay on a topic of their choice inspired by one or more of the mentor texts from the anthology. Let’s say, that at 12 point Times and double spaced, that’s about a 3 page paper. So there’s an additional 420 pages of student work they have gifted me.  And let’s say, for a final exam, students will be writing a draft of what will become an oral presentation in the first weeks of second semester about their growth as writers during our first semester course in Creative Non-fiction.  I imagine that over the course of an 87 minute final exam that these go-getters will be able to carve up another 140,000 words, or another 420 pages of text, which brings my whopping total number of pages of student work that I must now DO SOMETHING WITH up to an impressive, daunting, fever-inducing, gut-wrenching, weep-worthy 3,640 pages!  And guess what?  Those 140 students producing all of that beautiful prose represent only 4 of my 6 classes.  What are the 60 kids in those other two classes doing for a final? Well, of course, they’re writing!  And grades are due in about a week’s time.

Hello, my name is Michael Jarmer, and I’m a complete idiot for assigning so much written work at the end of the semester.

No.  I can’t let that stand.  I would only be an idiot if I read every single word and every single page and tried to comment on all of it.  That would be ludicrous.  That would be physically, logistically, humanly impossible.  That would drive me certifiably insane and wreck my life.  So I am writing this little blog entry today to articulate finally a philosophy of teaching writing that might help my students or their parents or anyone who’s interested understand why I do what I do. It might also help colleagues in the profession, especially teachers of English, survive the math that has become the central most difficult aspect of working in an underfunded public school system.

I believe in the deepest possible way, at the core of my core, that human beings become better writers by reading and writing.  Beyond anything I could ever tell a student about their writing in the margins with my little red pen, their learning about what great writers do (and what they as emerging writers can do) will ONLY come through close attention to the very best writing they can find, and through repeated, concentrated, sustained, uber-conscious efforts to practice those moves.

You may have some questions.

What do English teachers do, then, and why do we need them? We’re tour guides, essentially.  And we all know how great the tour can be in the hands of a really great guide.  We try to be really good at that.  We model inquisitiveness and curiosity and enthusiasm about the written word. We introduce readings to young people that they would not likely ever find left to their own devices.  And we trust students to find their own way after we’ve led them down the path. There are some English teachers who cart papers home with them every weekend.  I’m not one of them.

What about bad writing or persistent errors that never get corrected?  There may be some of those.  Oh well.  When the writing REALLY matters, however, and when the reading is careful and close, those errors will diminish over time. I don’t know that in my own personal experience as a writer I ever improved as the result of some punishment meted out (in the guise of a depleted grade or a smattering of red marks) for errors I made in my writing.

What about bad writing that ends up earning a passing grade or better? This may also happen from time to time, or even often.  But this is what we have to understand.  Writing is hard.  Writing well is really hard.  Some students, to say nothing about their intelligence, struggle mightily with the written word.  We take them where they are and we push them as far forward as we can with lots of practice, experiences with masters of the craft, and lots of encouragement.

Doesn’t this make it easier for students to cheat? Because I did not read every page of those 2,800 pages in their response journals, it is highly possible that some students copied their entries verbatim directly out of another student’s log.  First of all, what a pain in the ass that would be.  And how embarrassing, too, to say to a friend, in essence, I’m a tool, I can’t do my own work, would you let me “borrow” your log?  And how embarrassing for the friend, to give in to that kind of pressure, to lower herself by giving her hard work away.  For what?  Out of what impulse?  Guilt?  Kindness? Desperation for approval?  All are shams.  The parties who collude in the cheating–they both lose.  They are both cheating themselves out of learning.  They’ve been punished already by the stunting of their brains, whether I’m able to catch them or not.  Plagiarizing an essay is exceedingly more difficult.  I make them write these babies in class.

Would I do things differently if I did not have nearly 200 students on my roster? Hell, yes.  It’s not that I believe that teacher feedback is never useful, only that it’s not the most useful, and in our current climate nearly impossible. The kind of feedback from teachers that is most helpful to a writer is the kind of feedback that’s most like a conversation.  Once upon a time I taught 125 students.  I could sit down with them and talk.  I could write them a note and I often did.  I’ve never been a fan of line-editing student work, but sitting down with a student one on one and addressing a few key issues in their writing was a real boon; or being able to write individual letters to students where I could get beyond technical issues and talk about big ideas–that was phenomenal.

My school had a visit last week from an Oregon State Legislator who represents our district.  It’s the first time that’s ever happened, at least in my sometimes fuzzy memory over 24 years of teaching.  And he wanted to chat with us about our current state of the school.  Teachers in my building shared thoughtful and sometimes carefully prepared descriptions of their professional lives.  He listened respectfully.  Most everything that was said made me sad.  And nothing he could say to us provided much comfort or hope.  I didn’t speak, but others spoke eloquently for me about concerns I share.  But what I’ve explored in this rather long blog entry, I think, is really about this:  I’ve managed to make some sound pedagogical decisions about how to grow stronger writers, but I also know in my heart that I’m not giving them the attention they deserve. I understand, coupled with the idea that students get better at reading and writing primarily by reading and writing, that if I had the time to look at their work more closely and have meaningful conversations with them about that work, things would be much better, perhaps infinitely so.   Class size matters.  Student load matters. It matters, if not immediately and measurably in student performance, most definitely and palpably in the work environment or conditions for the teacher.  I don’t read all or even half of what my students write because it would not be humane to expect me to do so.

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An English Teacher Doesn’t Do The Math: The Trouble With Assessment

It’s Friday and I’m not at work. It’s a furlough day, one of the 14 days cut from the school year in our district’s belt tightening regimen. I’ve got grading to do, but I’m not going to do it. Hell no. Instead, I’ll write about doing it. I want to conclude this part of my blog series about the difficulties of teaching English in a suburban public high school by talking about the king of all difficulties, the crowning glory of obfuscation and muddle, the most mysterious of mysteries regarding classroom practice, that is the problem of assessment. I know I’m doing it wrong. With the best of intentions, I think I’ve been doing it wrong for twenty years. Let me see if I clear this up. First of all, there is, has been all along, as far as I can tell, fundamental differences between what I DO and what I BELIEVE. Cognitive dissonance abounds on a massive scale with regards to measuring student achievement.

I give grades to students. I am expected to give grades to students; giving grades is, as far as I can tell, part of my job description. I hate grades and if I could abolish them, I would.

I believe students should be motivated because a thing is worth doing or knowing, not because some teacher is giving them ten points or a hundred points for an assignment. I give students an assignment and, while I try to communicate to them as clearly as I can why the assignment is worth doing for its own sake, I give them ten points or a hundred points for doing it.

I despise standardized tests, and yet, I routinely sacrifice a couple of weeks of instruction every year to administer these bad boys.

To wit: I know the only way students get better at reading and writing is by reading and writing. So I ask them to read and write. I think I should know what they’re reading and something about what they’re learning and thinking, so I ask them to write about their reading. Let’s say I get two pages a week from each kid about his or her reading—that’s about 360 pages of student work every week that I have to do something with. Then they’ve got to learn how to write by writing so I ask them to do some formal written work, say, a paper or two, between 3 and 10 pages—that’s potentially 1800 pages of student writing for each paper I assign. Let’s just pretend that in a good year I ask all of my students to do three or four formal pieces of writing in a year. Okay, I’m an English teacher—you do the math. It’s a hell of a lot of reading. I’m embarrassed to say it, but there’s a little bit of giddiness that bubbles up from deep inside me when they don’t all turn in their work. There’s something wrong with the picture when a teacher is made happy by the non-performance of a group of students.

My belief is, again, though, that if the work is worth doing, it’s worth doing, not because it’s worth ten points or a hundred points or because the kid will get a “good job” note or a gold star from the teacher, but for its own sake. I don’t even have to look at this stuff and there would still be value in the endeavor for a student, provided that the work is meaningful. But teachers, parents, administrators (and students too) are conditioned to believe or at least practice in such a way to suggest that no kid in his or her right mind would ever do an intellectual job because it was worth doing, without any kind of extrinsic reward for the doing of it at the end. I know it’s not true, but we all buy into this error and I sit several times a year at my desk buried in 1800 pages of the worst writing in the known universe. I don’t mean that as a disparagement, only a statement of fact. My students are, most of them, in varying degrees, beginners all. There are moments of sheer joy at reading competent or highly creative or immensely improved pieces of writing, but the tonnage of work I get from students reveals a dearth of these characteristics. Perhaps I would find more reasons to celebrate if I were not so heavily weighted down. Then, maybe I could look for the best stuff in even the worst work and that would likely be well worth it for all parties involved.

So how do I assess this mountain of stuff? By necessity and for survival and sanity, I do it quickly, so quickly, in fact, that in many cases, the end result, in terms of its value to a student as feedback, is so minimal as to make my intensive labor completely superfluous and ineffectual. Ouch. I can see my education professors wincing and squirming. I don’t blame them. I’m wincing and squirming myself. Why would you DO something you know to be ineffective? Well, here’s my quick response. The following is true: effective assessment, just like effective planning, takes time and careful consideration. And the realities of the public education work place are not conducive to these things. Zahir Wahab, a professor from Lewis and Clark College, planted this image into my head more than two decades ago and it stuck and seems absolutely appropriate here, and frightening, that public educators are sometimes no more than intellectual worker bees. I’m betting the bees are more efficient and effective. But teachers are busy. Like the bees, we’re very busy.

I believe students should be met where they are and a teacher should take them as far forward as he can while they’re in his classroom—forward in skills, knowledge, thinking, awareness of self and others, general humanity. Achievable goals should be agreed upon. Improvements and epiphanies should be measured and recorded. A conversation should take place about barriers broken and territory explored. Evidence of the learning should be gathered and shared. There should be much rejoicing. And I think these kinds of things could be, and sometimes are, achieved without stacks of paper. And the results would be so much more powerful and meaningful than the scores received on a standardized test, which my district has kids taking again and again and again, every year, often more than once, so that maybe, one day, on one test, they may reach the benchmark of one point above passing. These results would be more meaningful than where a kid falls on some rubric, which, more often than not, measures at once too broadly and too narrowly and never personally or individually. And these kinds of results would also blow points and grades out of the water. Here’s a portfolio of evidence. This is what has been accomplished and learned. Who needs ten points, a hundred points, or a grade? You do the math.

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An English Teacher Does The Math

Teaching is like this:  I can never get it right.  I will never feel like I’ve mastered the craft;  I am always learning it.  If I think for a moment I’ve mastered it, I’m a fool.  There will always be days when I feel unstoppable and totally effective followed by days when I am sure I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.  There are more days like the latter than the former.  What I learn if I am paying any attention at all is that there are smart things to do in a classroom and dumb things to do in a classroom.  I try to avoid doing the dumb ones but for some reason I do a certain number of them over and over again.  I believe the following statement:  teaching is one of the most complex social interactions ever undertaken by a human being.  Think about the sheer mathematics of it, and thus, come to understand the profound opportunities that exist for making mistakes.

At home, you have a relationship with your roommate or your spouse and your units of children.  In your job you have a relationship with your boss, your coworkers, and your clientele, which, for the most part, you deal with one at a time.  These are all complex social interactions, don’t get me wrong about that, and I know, these are gross simplifications.  But consider this:  I have interactive relationships with my teaching colleagues, a close relationship with my two teaching partners who share students or curriculum with me, and with the department of English which number about 10 more individuals, say.  For ten of the twenty-two years of my tenure in my high school, I was a member of a committee called a Site Council, an elected but voluntary position which put me on a panel of about 18 individuals made up of an equal number of teachers and parents, an administrator or two, a few classified staff (secretaries, assistants and the like), and a couple of students, whose charge it was to meet a couple of times a month, a few hours at a stretch, and to facilitate staff development and school improvement for a facility serving about 1400 students and staffing about 50-some teachers.  Working closely with this group over a three year commitment, our job was to make the school a better place and to make everyone in the building happy.  In short, considering only my peers and colleagues, already the job is chock full of extremely complex social interaction.

Okay, then there is the issue of these 200 students of mine, which, truth be told, has always really hovered for me between 150 and 170 (the day has passed when contractually English teachers were limited to 125 students—that language that was dropped from the contract altogether).

All of these kids have parents or guardians, sometimes multiple sets of them.  This potentially creates another 300 to 400 relationships to negotiate over the course of my work year.

But when I walk into a classroom, 6 times over the course of my teaching schedule over two days, I am faced with about 30 warm bodies and the expectation on both my part and theirs, not to mention the administrators who hire me or the taxpayer who pays me, that I will make something happen.  Now this is where the real complexity begins.

I have a body of knowledge with which I am supposedly conversant.  Let’s see, we’ll call it the literary survey of the United States of America and the United Kingdom, from, say, about 800 a.d. forward, all major periods and movements, current trends in contemporary literature, the new research in that field to include oppressed and suppressed literature (from women and people of color) throughout history, and a general knowledge of the ever mutating multicultural cannon from around the world.  I should also be conversant in the current trends in educational theory and practice and be able to incorporate those into my classroom work.  Oh, and then there’s this simple matter of teaching young people to write well, or, at least, competently, which, after 22 years in the profession, I’m still not convinced is even possible.   So the first part of my relationship with these 30 kids (x6) is to communicate to them somehow something of what I know and what I believe they need to know in a way that is engaging and meaningful.  If that were it, teaching would be a piece of cake.  But every kid in that classroom has his own agenda.  Much of that agenda is usually counter to mine.  Additionally, every kid in that classroom has a unique perception of who I am and what I’m about, as I have of her, as she has of the kid sitting next to her, and that kid has of her and of me, as all kids have of each other and the group as a whole and of me, and as I have of the group as a whole, with all of its various and sometimes contradictory needs and desires and levels of skill and academic readiness.  It boggles the mind.

Ultimately, as I believe I am teaching the whole student and not just that part of him that writes or decodes symbols on a page, something of a relationship is an important part of the mix.  But what happens in a room of 30 (x6) students is that I end up getting to know only a few of them well and sometimes for the wrong reasons.

I get to know the names of the trouble-makers and clowns first by necessity. And then I continue to devote far more than a fair share of my time and energy to their shenanigans.  There are two or three of these in any given class in a good year, but it’s important to note that just ONE of them can cause monumental disruption in a classroom.

I get to know the ones that are socially really needy, who want to talk to me or have my attention as much as they possibly can and tell me things I don’t want hear about their mothers and their aunts and the boil on their grand daddy’s ass.  I get maybe two of these in every class.

I get to know the ones that are precocious and sharp and outgoing, the ones I can always count on to speak when no one else will speak or who are just highly motivated and play the game of school very well and turn in all of their work.  There might be four or five of these in a group of 30.

I’ve counted 10 students there in a class, generously, that I will potentially get to know much better than the other 20 in the room.  Of course, there are skills that we pick up or intuit to prevent these 10 kids from totally derailing our attention and hi-jacking or dominating our classrooms, tools for drawing out or getting to know the silent majority.  But they are subtle skills that require a masterful handle on the management of large numbers of adolescents in a single room that I wager not very many human beings and not a large number of teaching professionals ever get a handle on.  So it is a constant battle to avoid ignoring the vast majority of the students in my room, let alone get to know them all in any significant and meaningful way, let alone allowing them to know me in any significant and meaningful way.

It’s not very sophisticated math, I’ll admit, but the most difficult things about teaching in a public school setting have to do with sheer numbers—numbers of relationships, numbers and various kinds of interactions, the complexity and unreliability of human behavior times 200, numbers of preparations, numbers of names to learn, numbers of minds and lives to access.  And next, in another blog entry, I think, because it has its own set of mathematical and pedagogical and philosophical problems, I’ll try to deal with the most difficult number of all: the number of papers to grade.

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