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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: June 12, 2018

Please excuse my absence. After 30 poems over the 30 days of April, one needs a little rest. But on top of all that, I’ve been having a transformative experience. On Sunday, May 20, I came down from the mountaintop. My hair turned white and now looks blown back by a great force of energy (see photographic evidence). I have seen the fiery bushes and received the tablets. I will present them now to my people.

I’m only being silly in part (in large part, yes, but nevertheless, in part). I am no Moses. And Pendle Hill is no mountain, despite its prodigious distinction as the intentional Quaker community which, during the 70’s and early 80’s, gave rise to the work of Parker J. Palmer. And he is no god, certainly, but he is (and his work is) exceptional to say the very least. I can think of no single figure in the literature of educational philosophy and practice that has made anywhere near the impact that Palmer has made on my career and on my life, frankly.  And I’ve been able to be with the guy for about 10 days between the retreat in January at the Oblate Center in Texas and the experience this May at Pendle Hill outside Philadelphia as part of my facilitator preparation program for The Center for Courage and Renewal. So I have been dying to write a blog post about this experience and this work, but it has taken me some time to digest and compost and winnow and recover from April’s poetry festival and my time at Pendle Hill.

I have written about this subject before here in the land of Blog. I will try not to repeat myself. We call it “Courage Work” for short. The elevator speech for work that defies elevator speeches is this: we try to live with integrity, and that integrity can only come when who we are interacts with and is in harmony with what we do, when soul meets role. It’s inner work, but it requires community. We do not go it alone. So at the center of the work is the paradox of finding solitude within a community, a community whose sole (soul) responsibility is to honor the stories and inner teachers of each of its members–without judgement, advice, rescue, or fixing of any kind.

The work that I am preparing to do may take any number of forms: sessions that last a few hours or a day, a full-on weekend retreat, or a series of seasonal retreats wherein the same group reconvenes four times over the course of a year. My clients might be teachers, they might be other professionals in the helping professions, they might be neighbors, they might be young people. What began as a program specifically with K-12 teachers in mind has expanded over the last 20 years or so to include school leaders, psychologists, physicians and nurses, elder care professionals, and clergy, but what strikes me about this work is its potential universality: if you are interested in living more consciously, more reflectively, more deeply in touch with who you are and more deeply connected with a community, then this work should be extremely relevant. It’s interesting to me to see if a process geared toward groups of professionals might be tested in new places and with more heterogeneous groups. Neighborhood Courage. Courage for Kids. What transformations might be possible for folks who have traditionally been out of reach of the Center for Courage and Renewal? These possibilities have been racing through my penultimate-year teacher-noggen over this entire nine months. And where will I do this work? Also a mystery. Do I stay on and integrate these principles and practices in my school building and in my district? Do I contract with some other institution familiar with and supportive of Courage and Renewal work? Do I build a retreat center in my backyard?  Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, I’m wrapping up my 29th year as a public high school English teacher. After the seniors have flown the coup, I gave my first remaining final Friday to a group of sophomores. Three to go, today and tomorrow. Friday morning I felt a kind of giddiness. It wasn’t the caffeine. And it wasn’t excitement about sending the rest of my kiddos home for the summer. It wasn’t about my own summer break. Maybe it was about all of these things, but it felt more amorphous–simply a deep, abiding gladness, a sense of gratitude to this place, these kids, these people I work with, and my principal–who retires this year. Super happy for her, and sad for our loss of her. She’s worked really hard and shown some super fine leadership, the kind only possible from a principal who started out with a couple of decades in the classroom as a master teacher. I have huge respect for her and will miss her. In a little goodbye ceremony on Friday there were lots of laughs and a good number of tears, a big bbq, and the festivities continued after school hours at a teacher friend’s house on a big covered deck in the rain.

I’m finishing this blog entry, having graded everything I could grade from my first finals yesterday, while my 7th period sophomores are taking their final essay exam. It’s my most difficult class, only because a number of them are anything but serious about academics, but today, for the most part, they are quiet and working hard on their essay on the novel Frankenstein. One little guy, super frustrating, is playing video games on his phone, claims his final is finished, pulls it out of his bag as proof, and I have to remind him that he wasn’t supposed to work on it at home. Here’s a kid who is absent mostly, does nothing when he’s present, and then miraculously shows up weeks late with work completed. Of course, I have no way of verifying that it’s his work and doubt that it is. Another guy shows up a half an hour late to the final. Also super frustrating, because here is a kid with a good mind and decent skills who believes he can’t think and can’t write. Instead of completing part one of the final the last time we were together, he writes a note to me, sincere, well-written, impassioned, basically begging me to fail him for the semester, saying he’d rather take the class over again to learn what he was supposed to learn during his sophomore year than feel like I allowed him to squeak by. Ironically, he comes into the final at 64%. Some energy toward doing his best work could conceivably bring him to a C. But he’s convinced he can’t write. He’s convinced he’ll never be a good student. His please-fail-me letter belies both of those claims. Now, though, it appears that instead of giving up, he’s giving it the old boy-scout effort. He’s writing and I’m happy. I think I will have to defy his wish for failure.

One of the things my experience with The Center for Courage and Renewal has done for me is to make me question most things I do as a teacher of English Language Arts, except in cases when I can defy a student’s wish to fail. It has changed my work, certainly, made me a more reflective practitioner, made me more authentically human and more authentically ME in my work, but I long for a classroom that somehow transcends evaluating, sorting, fixing, ranking, testing, grading and competing, the way every Courage experience I’ve ever had has transcended these evils. How could the classroom be not those things and equally rigorous and valuable? Could it be, that in my 29th year in the teaching profession, that I have finally come to understand the true purpose of education, or at least, the true purpose of an English Language Arts education, and that maybe I’ve been doing it backwards all along?

Better late than never.

I know I’m being hard on myself. I know that I’ve done good work. For the most part, I’ve done the best I can. But I also know there’s another way, one that through all the years of my long career I’ve been grasping at and reaching for, always just out of reach for a variety of both good and stupid reasons. I would like to lay my finger on it, to experience it, to arrive, at least in brief, before I walk away. I’m on the verge of something.

I can feel it.

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Letter to a Colleague in Her Second Year of Teaching

 

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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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#74: The American English Teacher is Worried about the Burnout of His Colleagues

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Perhaps, they love teaching and learning.
And while they may not love children
just because they’re children,
they love the idea of helping young
people reach their full potential,
navigate the waters of young adulthood,
use their minds well, think about important
things, become more humanely human.
It’s all noble, noble, and good.
And yet, something is amiss,
something is afoul, something is rotten
in the state of the classroom
when good teachers–when the best
teachers–consider leaving the profession
or at least leaving the public high school
because they are demoralized, defeated,
angry, and tired. Especially those coming
late to the profession, who may have
everything together except for the fortitude
of a twenty-something, these folks,
who can never retire, really, not in the usual
sense, find the forces against them
greater than their capacity to soldier on,
from the gigantic class sizes, a culture
often antithetical to intellectual work,
the impossibility of knowing students
in a way that could really make an impact
on their learning and their lives, to
the top-down and corporate driven
standards and standardized tests,
one set after another, always different
but always the same, interrupting and
displacing what good teachers do best.

And of course the best teachers
often find these things under their skin,
preventing them from sleep–
and it’s not because they’re obsessive
but because they care deeply.
But at some point they decide
perhaps that they care more
about their own health and sanity
than about the schoolhouse.
And this makes perfect sense–
but losing our best teachers is bad for schools
and bad for kids and bad for democracy.
And it’s bad for me–I will miss them
when and if they go, those who have
enriched my life and my teaching
beyond all reckoning, whose energy
and spirit and humor have prevented
in me the very burn they experience now
that makes them want to leave.

I’m not burned-out, in part, because,
despite all the issues that make
the job more difficult than it should be,
sometimes impossibly so,
I like the work far more often
than I hate the work, am happy more
often than I am despondent, and
because I have made compromises
to protect myself; but also in part
because I can see the light at the end
of the proverbial tunnel, am getting
close to this strange thing called
retirement of which the elders often speak,
and perhaps, if and when my
colleagues move off before I do,
these are the things that will
keep me going until my final
and penultimate
high school graduation.

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Why I Am Totally Bugged By This Video

http://www.upworthy.com/student-freaks-out-in-front-of-his-class-and-says-what-were-all-thinking-about-our-education-system-3

The video making the rounds Thursday on facebook was of a young man who stands up in the middle of his classroom and goes on a little tirade against his teacher, accusing her, essentially, of malpractice, of making no effort to teach, of handing the kids packet after packet, worksheet after worksheet.  He implores her to actually teach, to give up the busy-work in favor of something that will really reach her students, something that will “touch their frickin’ hearts”–I think those are his words.  Meanwhile, his teacher is heard (and seen very briefly sitting behind her desk) repeatedly asking him to leave the room and telling him that he is wasting her time.  When he has had his say, finally, he does leave. There seems to be very little reaction, in support or no, from his classmates.  One girl sitting by the door where he makes his final exit appears not to even acknowledge what is happening. The video ends before any reaction from the class as a whole can be recorded.  Some words are spoken right before the video ends that are difficult to make out.

I have several issues with this video–not with the video itself, but with the way it is being used on the internet in social network forums to say “something about the state of our educational system.”  This video actually says very little about the state of our system.  What does it actually speak about?  Well, for starters, because the video gives us absolutely no context for the rant, it mostly tells us about how this particular kid feels about this particular classroom.  That’s mostly it.  And maybe it tells us how this particular teacher handles such a disruption: not very well, poorly, in fact.  To draw blanket conclusions about schools in our nation based on this one and a half minute worth of angry student rant is blatant misrepresentation and tom-foolery. It’s not a serious criticism of what it (or the person sharing it on the web) purports to be criticizing.

First of all, the video cannot validate the kid’s criticism of his teacher.  It provides no evidence that she is guilty of that which he accuses her. Now, if what this kid says is true, that this is a classroom in which students are handed packet after packet for mostly seat work independent of any real instruction, coaching, or interaction, then his rant and his sense of outrage is totally understandable and his behavior justified and admirable.  But again, this is an indictment then of the teacher in this classroom and of the administration that hired her and then allowed her to keep teaching. It’s an indictment of absolutely nothing else.

The publisher of the video, a website that I find often to be inspiring and thoughtful, http://www.upworthy.com, posts this puzzling commentary from contributer Adam Mordecai after the video clip:  “This was not an indictment of his teacher; to me, this was an indictment of the entire teach-to-the-test standardization that has been forced on our teachers and has broken our country’s education system.” Well, amen to that anti-standardization sentiment–but I don’t know, in my personal experience as a high school English teacher for the last 24 years, a single teacher who has bastardized his or her teaching wisdom to this extent because he or she has been forced to “teach-to-the-test.” Additionally, this short video gives us NO indication that these poor classroom practices have anything whatsoever to do with standardized tests and curriculum.  And the dangerous implication is that the standardized movement has somehow reduced all of our classrooms to this kind of practice.  It’s fundamentally untrue.

The standardized testing movement has not forced teachers to engage in poor classroom practices. It has simply stolen class time away from both teachers and students.  Kids and their teachers are giving up  the benefits of maybe two weeks of instruction or classroom experience in a testing year in their English classes alone.  And when students don’t pass the reading test, for example, they’re asked to take it again, and again, and again, which pulls them out of the classroom for another week of class time for each retest when they could be in a classroom learning about and practicing the skills the reading test is purportedly measuring!

Good teachers, despite the pressures to raise test scores on standardized tests, will continue to do their best work to engage and challenge students.  Bad teachers, as they have and always will do if given the freedom to do so, will provide students with packets and worksheets and seat work.  Don’t allow video clips like this one to make you believe, first of all, that the kid, no matter how articulate he is (not extremely in this case), is always in the right, but secondly, and more importantly, that this is in any way indicative of the whole.

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