Tag Archives: failure

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: December 4, 2017

Photo on 12-4-17 at 7.26 PM

It’s a Monday and it’s my birthday. None of my students knew and I didn’t bother to tell them. It was a rough day. Last night, I stayed up too late. This morning, and all day really, I was suffering as a result. My cold’s getting better, I think, or, at least, no worse. But what made the day especially challenging, on top of the fatigue, was the growing realization that my students are not ready for prime time, cannot or will not do certain things that seem to me kind of no brainers, hence: they were really difficult to teach today.

I’d like my sophomores to take more responsibility for their own learning. I’d like my sophomores to be able to have conversations with each other about important things. I’d like them to be interested in what they’re doing. I’d like them to be present, to engage fully, to work hard, to monitor their own behavior. They want none of the above. Let me restate: most of them want none of the above. Most of them are either unwilling or unable to do any of these things. As long as I’ve been doing this gig, I feel like I’ve never really mastered how to teach them to do this stuff. It’s like this: they need to be taught how to be: how to be civil, how to be interested in other human beings, when to speak and when to shut their mouths and listen carefully; they even need to be taught (apparently) when it’s the appropriate time to go to the bathroom. And again, I’m not speaking about all of them, but I am speaking about a large enough number of them so as to make three periods in a row with sophomores today feel almost like a wasted day. Is it just that they’re 15 or 16 years old? I know that, partly, yes, that’s the culprit. In large part it’s also a “boy” thing. If I think about every single kid that was making my life difficult today, with a few exceptions, I’m thinking about a boy. They can’t sit still. They can’t take direction. They don’t read. They don’t do homework. They don’t take responsibility. They’re totally self-absorbed. You call them on a disruptive behavior and they look at you like you’re crazy. What!? they say. Or, that wasn’t me. Or, you’re treating me unfairly. It is infuriating. I have to remind myself again and again, (almost impossible to do in the moment), that they will grow out of it and most of them will be okay, will grow into those characteristics I listed above, and that I should just lighten the hell up. They’ll make it.

But many will not.

Over the last few weeks, my department mates and I have been agonizing over what to do about our seniors who enter their last year of high school short the English credits they need for graduation. If they haven’t taken a credit recovery class, summer school or some such band-aid approach, kids who have failed one or more English classes over the course of their high school years find themselves taking LOTS of English as seniors–sometimes two classes at once. And because we are loath to put seniors in classes with freshmen and sophomores, and because we have a limited list of things to take for seniors, they end up inappropriately placed, for example, in College Writing (WR 121). Sure, let’s take kids with a history of failing English classes and put them in a college level English course! It’s ridiculous, especially if the teacher of this class is concerned about maintaining his level of expectation for all the kids in the room, not diluting in any way. The kids placed in this class to make up for lost credits will most likely fail and it will bring them no closer to graduating. The English department dilemma, we thought, was about WHAT courses we’re offering, but I think we should have been talking about WHY so many kids are failing.

I have sophomore boys who come to class habitually late. They come without having done any homework. They come without pencils. They come without pens. Even if they have a pencil or a pen, they come without any paper to write on and they don’t have their composition notebooks. They don’t have the book we’re reading. They have no sense of agency or purpose. They see no value in the process. They see no potential in themselves to change direction. And these are the habits they bring with them through their schooling and these are the kids who will be short of earning enough credits to graduate.

I asked one such student today, in exasperation, trying not to be didactic or sarcastic, if he knew why we were here. He said what he thought I wanted him to say, and just maybe, he believed it: we’re here to get an education. Okay, there’s a start. I asked him if he felt like he was getting an education. He said, not here. Not in English. Okay, fair enough. And I’m thinking, I wonder, you without pen or pencil, you without notebook or paper, you without book, you who are mostly absent and when you’re not absent you’re late, I wonder why you don’t feel like you’re getting an education here. At some point, he or his buddy said something like this: we don’t learn anything in English! We just read and write and talk! Never mind that the teacher has given you a list of thought provoking essential questions. Never mind that the teacher has tried to be super explicit about why we do what we do, about the value of story, about the necessity of hearing from other perspectives, about empathy, about the urgency of being able to articulate critical thought in speech and in writing, about the dangers to us in the absence of these things. This boy was absent that day, I guess. I delivered the little mini-lecture, and he was somewhat receptive. But it’s hard to imagine him turning things around, even though I know that that’s part of my job.

At the lunchroom table today, my friends Richard and Jack and Brad and I were talking about these things and wondering if we sounded like a bunch of grumpy old men. Yeah, we probably sounded like that. We asked the question, are we in a groove or in a rut? Are kids any different today than they have ever been, or is it JUST US? How good do you have to be to love every kid and to communicate to every kid that you are on their side and believe they can be successful? How do we balance, or should we balance, kids feeling good about themselves with the fact that hard work and persistence and failure are the very stuff of learning and of life. Our superintendent and our vice principal are very keen to talk about drop outs as “push outs” instead, shouldering all the responsibility for failing students squarely on the backs of teachers and the institutions for which they work. For many of us, this does not sit well. It’s too much to bear. It’s true that there are many students who are not served well by our schools. They need something else. They need something we are not prepared or equipped to give them. But there is no other alternative and here we are, between a rock and a hard place, all things to all people, trying to do what’s right, trying to keep it together, wondering why Johnny can’t or won’t read, wearing our hearts on our sleeves, rejecting and resisting burnout with every fiber of our being.

All right. That’s out. Time to celebrate my birthday.

 

 

 

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Filed under Education, Teaching

#37: On Failure

I-am-a-failure

I wrote these short little pieces from various failure perspectives.  There’s such an intriguing and wide variety of ways to fail.  Maybe we gain a little bit of insight by reaching into these mindsets–even for a moment–provided we’re not cynical or simply poking fun.  There’s nothing funny about it.  Each represents an underlying problem that needs solving–if there was ever the will and/or the means for a solution.

On Failure

I
I can’t read
and I can barely
write a sentence.
but I’ve been passed
along from grade to grade
and here I am
in high school failing
every single class.

II
This is just stupid
and I can’t be bothered.
Yeah, my skills may be low
but perhaps not nearly as low
as my interest in everything
except gaming.
Not to mention my family
life is shit and I hate my parents
and I stay up every night until 3 a.m.
playing world of warcraft.

III
I like good grades
but I don’t care much for learning.
Just tell me what I have to do
and I’ll do it, expending
the very least amount of energy
it takes to get the A.
Potential schmential.
If it doesn’t show up
on a transcript somewhere,
I’m not interested.

IV
I don’t know what these tests
are measuring but it must not be
what my teachers are teaching.
How can I do so poorly
on a standardized test
and pass my classes, and
why does my friend do so
well on these stupid tests
and fail his? Somebody has
it all wrong; that’s all I know.

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Filed under Education, Poetry

Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better

The following is the prologue for a work in progress about—you guessed it—teaching. It may become a real book some day, I hope, or, at the very least, a series of related blog entries.

Prologue

Imagine, it’s August, and I am in the last few days, minutes, and moments of what we call in the field of education, the summer break. I have four week days and a weekend, plus what remains of this day, a Monday, in which to do all of the things I have not yet been able to do, more of the things I have been doing and would like to do more of, and some things I’m sure I do not want to do, like anything related to going back to work, like planning, or work in general, like painting the house. And yet, here I am at my laptop, about to begin writing about WORK, or about teaching, probably in order to avoid planning or painting. I have wanted to write about my life as a teacher for many years now. I have written about it in a number of ways, in fits and starts, off and on since I began in this career twenty some years ago. I’ve got a lot to say about that twenty years but what I have been searching for over the last five or six years in which I have been actively thinking about a book, is a form, a way of speaking, a kind of writing, an appropriate vehicle for what I have experienced and learned and for some god awful reason feel compelled to share with others. I’ve written some fiction about teaching. I’ve written a number of poems about it. I’ve written op-ed pieces for the edification of my colleagues. I’ve written memos. As I write this, though, I still don’t know what my book will look like. I know what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to write a book for teachers about how to be better teachers. I don’t know the first thing about that. I don’t want to write a book for students about how to be better students. I know a little bit about that but I think it would be didactic and boring. I want to write about what I’ve experienced and what I’ve come to believe about all things educational with a general reader in mind, involved in education or not, one who cares about what teaching and learning is like in an American Suburban High School, one who has concerns about the way education is or is not shaping up in this milieu, one who thinks it’s important to think and talk about these things, a reader who has a head on her shoulders (though she does not have to be a woman), one who simply wants to go on a little exploratory ramble through the heart and mind of one who is, as they say, in the trenches. I guess this is a kind of memoir, or a manifesto, or right now, a blog series. You’re welcome to join me.

Twenty years is a long time. But who’s counting? Ten years ago, I thought no way in Hell would I be doing this same work for another twenty years until I retired. Ten years fly by and I’m two-thirds of the way there, and I’m thinking, wow, that was fast, and twenty years doesn’t seem like such a long time anymore. I could blink right now and when I opened my eyes I’d be 55. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not counting. And I’m not ready to be 55. And I enjoy this work. It’s rewarding. It feels, for the most part, like a good use of my skills and my time on the planet. I’ve flirted with the idea of teaching college students because I thought that that might be a better fit for me, and I’ve flirted with the idea of other careers, both fantasies that are mainstays from my youth, those of being a professional writer and a professional musician. I say fantasies, not because I think those things may never happen for me, but because they are dreams, quasi-practical vocations, extremely compelling hobbies, ones I plan never to give up on and ones at which I still believe I stand a chance of attaining some success. But if I do, like I say I do, enjoy the work of a high school teacher, why all this flirting, then, with college kids and writing and music? I’ll tell you why. Public high school teaching is difficult work. And herein lies the general thesis for the book, or the blog series, on which I am embarking, and of which you are probably reading this minute, god bless you.

While I read them and am inspired by them to a certain degree, I am tired of books written by people who know all the answers, who have a “thing going on,” who pretend to have a great number of issues figured out. Maybe I’m just jealous: I don’t know any of the answers, I don’t have a “thing going on,” I have a number of issues figured out that I could count with two-fifths of the fingers on one of my hands. My feeling has been, no matter how solid their research and how impressive their credentials or how brilliant their ideas, they’re always writing about and recommending something that is just outside the realm of possibility. Why is that? Again, because the work is difficult and the answers to our problems and our prayers, if we pray, that come to us in these manifestos written by Education Professors are not entirely practical in the everyday real life of teachers. We can only flirt with these things, experiment enough to make us dangerous, implement enough to make minute differences in the lives of our students or in the tenor of our classrooms, but not enough to make substantive changes in our field. I understand that reform in education moves at the pace of evolution, almost, you know, like it has taken us almost 4.5 billion years to question the standardized test.

So, here’s what I plan to do. I plan to talk about the difficulty of this work. I plan to describe the fundamental facts of the life of a high school teacher, the facts that make substantive reform and change nearly impossible. But the last thing I want is a piss-fest. I love my work and I hate it. I want, through the course of writing this book or these blogs, to figure out how to love teaching more, how to love it better, how the work might look if we could make substantive changes, what those changes might be; I want to figure these things out, even if, ultimately, this means only that in the end I simply find ways of failing better.

Let’s begin, shall we?

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Filed under Introductory, Teaching