Tag Archives: teacher burnout

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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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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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.

 

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#184: The American English Teacher Makes A To-Do List

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The number and the analogy may have been different,
but I swear I said to at least two of my colleagues today,
“Do you ever feel like a web browser with 2,879 tabs open?”
And both of these colleagues said the same thing:
“All. The. Time.”
If I could make a catalogue of all the issues
that seem pressing to me on a minute-by-minute
basis over the course of my teacher work day,
there may indeed be 2,879 items in that list.
To test the theory, I took 20 minutes of my prep
period, got out my notebook, and wrote at the top
of a blank page: To Do. When I was finished,
I had two pages and they looked (please excuse
my scrawl) like this:

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And I’m starting to realize of late, as if for the
first time in my career, not only is it true that
teachers (especially English teachers)
have 2,879 things to think about and do,
but that, finally, that’s not okay. It’s absurd, in fact.
The teaching gig has become a kind of a
mad juggling act, trying to keep in the air
and not drop a hundred different things at once
while trying to do a credible job,
while trying to meet expectations that seem
almost superhuman or messianic,
while trying to be all things to all people,
while coming to terms with the fact that
as the work gets harder, the expectations
become higher, and as teachers coming into
the field seem to me better prepared,
smarter, more progressive, more caring,
more effective than they have ever been,
the difficulty of the work they’re expected
to tackle has increased to a level that far surpasses
what their preparedness, their intelligence,
their pedagogical acumen, and their kindness
has equipped them to do.
And I fear this response even while
I know in my heart of hearts it’s not true:
Michael, you’re just getting old, tired, burning out;
it only seems twenty times more difficult
because you’re twenty times closer to
retirement than you used to be.
No, I say, hell no. It is not my imagination
and it is not my age and I am not burning
out. I only sometimes despair that I will
never see a day when education works
the way I know it could work, when
teaching and learning are at the core
and the system is built to support
this herculean humanitarian effort,
when theory and practice come together,
when the mantra transcends this line
from Beckett’s Worstward Ho: 

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

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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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School House Rock ‘n’ Sock

rock-em-sock-em

Almost two months ago now, in the throes and excitement and the optimism of a new school year, I found myself writing with my students and posting the results as blog entries here on the Michael Jarmer blog page. I was a happy camper then. Those were truly salad days in September. Fast forward to November 11, two days ago, I make the following post on the social media network I fondly call Face Plant:

On this Veteran’s Day holiday I put in 6 hours toward grading papers and I’m nowhere close to being done. The only relief today was the time I spent uncontrollably laughing at a student’s use of the word “ballstastically” in her otherwise lovely paper about the joys of reading. Ballstastic, indeed.

This to point out, yes, the wonderful discovery of a new inappropriate word, but also to illustrate how impossible it has become to do my job in the time allotted me to do it in the context of the work week. I haven’t posted this on Face Plant, but let’s just pretend, shall we:

On this Thursday, November 13, I called in sick in order to grade papers.  It turned out to be a snow day.  No school.  No snow, either, but that’s no matter; somewhere in our district, up in the hills, perhaps, it was dangerous to drive a school bus or a car, and they closed down the district.  At any rate, I spent another 6 hours grading papers today and I’m nowhere close to being done.  This is not ballstastic.  Not at all.  I have decided that something has to be good to be ballstastic.  Not good.  Or, as Orwell put it in 1984, doubleplusungood.

The good news is that I only have about 90 papers yet to read, papers that I’ve been sitting on for weeks.  Listen, I tried to stagger the work.  One set of the reading journals I call “logs” came in, and then another, and then another, and then three more other sets of logs, all staggered, by the way.  But by the time I got to the bottom of the log jam, the papers started to roll in.  One set, then another set, and then four more sets, all staggered, but all coming in before I am able to vanquish the logs.  Meanwhile, during my preparation period in the context of the work day, there’s this thing called planning to be done: what am I going to do with kids for 87 minutes in six total sections of three different classes?  So, when and where will all of this grading get done, Mr. Smarty-pants?  Why, at home, of course, on my own time.

But here’s a thing you should probably know about me, and maybe you do if you’ve been hanging around the blog for any length of time.  I am one of those teachers who has become, out of necessity and survival, unwilling to work a 60 hour work week. I am often unwilling to work a 50 hour work week.  This means I have made certain compromises over the years as my class sizes and other responsibilities kept growing. I never stopped assigning work because the work, I’ve always believed, is good work. But I stopped giving detailed responses. I stopped reading student writing closely.  I dipped in and out.  I checked for a few choice things to give them feedback on, such as, this thesis is unclear, or wow, I don’t see any text evidence, or boy, you need to work on your spelling, or, hey, you can’t do that with a comma.  And sometimes I did what I am only slightly ashamed to call “fake grading.” In essence, I’d say to a student, “you’ve done this thing.  It appears that you have followed the instructions.  Doing the work, in and of itself, was a good, instructive experience for you. 100%.”  I became aggressively protective of my time at home as a husband, a dad, a writer, and a musician.  Teaching is not my life.  It is a significant part of my life that I don’t think I would trade for any other career, but it is not the only thing I live for.

Still, I resent the compromises I’ve had to make and have sort of bitterly come to the conclusion that the job a teacher absolutely should be doing, the job that I would really love to be doing, is next to impossible in the current climate–with massive class sizes and common core, with data-driven, student-growth teacher goals and site councils, with standardized tests and the consistent and obscenely absurd underfunding of schools–impossible.

So why am I now spending 12 extra hours over two days away from the school house with a promise of another 6 or 8 tomorrow?  That’s a really good question. What’s changed? I’m teaching freshmen for the first time in many years and many of them can’t write.  That’s part of it. I want them all to be capable of entering  IB English as juniors if they want to, and even if they don’t, I want them to have the skills. That’s part of it.  I’m trying proficiency grading with freshmen. This means that if a student’s work doesn’t meet standards, rather than slapping a D on it, end of story, instead the teacher asks the student to do it again. And again. And again. This takes longer. A lot longer. This is also part of the story.

But this might be the chief inspiration toward this madness. I’m partnering  with a couple of professionals who are much more hard core than I am–and I both love them and hate them for this.  Both, earlier in their profession than I am, both, idealistic and compassionate, both, stupendously positive forces for young people, but both suffering tremendously under this same load. It’s stupid and it’s my problem, but I can’t NOT do what they’re doing. I’m going to say the first part of this sentence over again: it’s stupid and it’s my problem. It’s both the blessing and the curse of refusing to teach in isolation like some of my colleagues continue to do.  It’s good work we’re doing and we’re proud of it, but it is absolutely, positively unsustainable.

People of Earth, citizens of Oregon and of these United States of America.  Stop pretending that simply raising the bar will achieve great results. Stop comparing apples to oranges by pretending the United States is remotely like Finland. Stop beating up on educators and walk instead a mile in their shoes.  Please sit down with 200 pieces of writing from 200 different teenagers and in less than 5 or 10 minutes per student try to give each of them meaningful feedback in writing as opposed to circling numbers on a rubric.  And don’t say you’re serious about or that you support education until you have figured out a way to create a work environment for educators that either provides the resources and time on the job to do that job, or that pays teachers for a 60 hour work week. Otherwise School House Rock becomes School House Rock ‘n’ Sock–which is nowhere close to ballstastic, but rather, doubleplusungood.

 

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#103: Third Time’s The Charm (A Self-Spell for Teacher)

Today, on this third day of National Poetry Month, we are encouraged, if we need encouragement (and tonight at 7:45 after a 12 hour work day I DO need the encouragement), to write a CHARM poem. All right. And just in case you thought me incapable of rhyme:

A Self-Spell For Teacher

After twenty-five years of teaching,
after all the conferences, meetings, and movements,
after thousands of attempts at reaching
a thousand different types of students,
let there be in my last five years in the game
a sense that I have figured it out;
that my philosophy and my practice are one and the same
and of my efficacy I no longer have doubt.

 

teacher_apple+desk_gift

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