Tag Archives: teacher workload

#342: May 8, Soul Work

It’s May 8.
I sleep in an extra hour.
I make myself a kick-ass scrambler.
I pick my brother up
at 9 and we drive toward
I-84. There’s a bunch
of teachers on an overpass
wearing red and hanging
their banners and I honk
at them. My brother and I
make our way to the Gorge
to visit the retreat center
I have chosen for some
fall Courage work.
Afterwards, we drive
to the Vista House, and
yes, by god, it’s a vista
all right. On the way
home we stop at Edgefield
for burgers, beer, bourbon.

This day is for the kids.
My t-shirt says that I stand
for students. And I do. No doubt
about it. But I’m also struck
by the notion, the conviction,
that teachers can’t take care
of students if no one
is taking care of teachers.
I’ve had to practice self-care;
additionally, I’ve tried self-medication,
but I find I have to balance the two,
which is hard. I try to err
on the side of care.

So much about what happened
today I find totally inspiring,
all my colleagues out there in their
red shirts holding their signs,
thousands of them. But it’s also
exceedingly sad. It’s like if firefighters
had a massive demonstration to call
public attention to the dangers of fire.
People don’t understand in the way
they understand that fire can kill you
that ignorance and stupidity and poor
mental, physical, and emotional health
are just as deadly–even though it’s staring them
down every single day in the person of the
president of the United States.
Democracy is at stake and we are
well on the way to losing ours,
and losing our souls into the bargain.

Souls need tending,
They whisper their sweet nothings
into our ears, and if we can’t listen to that,
we are doomed. Soul, Jarmer, what are you
talking about? Parker J. Palmer tells us
that it doesn’t matter what we call it
as long as we call it something, as all the
great traditions have: the great mystery,
the spark of the divine, big self, true self,
inner light, inner teacher,
“the being in human being,”
the wild animal in us all, resourceful,
resilient, strong, yet shy–and in need
of the greatest respect and care.
You do that for teachers by making
the conditions of their work
as humane as you possibly can make them,
and give them not lists of standards
and administrative hoops of fire
to jump through and an impossible
student load, but the appropriate
space and time and creative freedom
to cultivate the minds, the bodies, and the
souls of their students, together.

I checked out the setting today for
some October soul work in the Columbia Gorge,
I spent time with my brother,
I took a nap, I had pizza with my family,
and I wrote this poem.
This is the best I can do.

 

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#341: You Do What You Need To Do

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You do what you need to do.
If you want to hang a banner over an overpass,
you go ahead and do that.
If you want to stop by the union office
and write a letter to your representative,
you do that.
If you need to go downtown to be
inside of a crowd of people who cheer things
and hold up signs that say things, you go.
If you want to hang out at a transit center
and greet people getting off and on the train,
answering questions they may have about
why their children aren’t in school and
why their children’s teachers are hanging out
in transit centers, you go ahead and do that.
If you are an English teacher, and the most
needful thing for you is to have an extra eight hours
to grade all those fucking papers, you, do you.
If sleeping an extra hour is your protest, go ahead, sleep.
If you need to drive to a retreat center to check out a venue
you have booked for October to bring educators
together so they can figure out how they can stay
in the profession, you do that.
Maybe you want to write a poem or an essay
about what it’s like to be a public school teacher
in 21st century America. You do that.
And maybe you need to sit on a meditation cushion
for an hour instead of your daily fifteen minutes
in order to breathe more deeply than you usually do,
breathing out everything that makes the gig suck,
breathing in everything that makes the gig the greatest gift,
you go ahead. Myself, not a banner guy or a cheer guy
or a press the flesh kind of guy, I still may do a number
of the above things on May the 8th.
I vow to do at least three of the above things on May the 8th
and you can do as many or as few of them as you desire.
You do what you need to do.
And maybe it goes without saying: do something.
Please, do something.

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#340: Why Teachers Walk Out (A Short List)

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Here’s a short list of reasons
why teachers in Oregon
are walking out on Wednesday:

First, some math:
40 kids in a class room–
times six. A student load
anywhere between 160 and 240.
6 sections of up to 3 distinct
courses to teach, 87 minute periods.
An 87 minute preparation
period to plan a meaningful
261 minutes of instruction.
Another 87 minute prep
period to grade 240 papers.
If a teacher is smart and doesn’t
ask all 6 of her classes to turn
in papers at the same time, best-case
worst-case scenario is that she
will have from her three 9th grade
classes only 270 pages to read, on
which she should provide timely
and meaningful feedback.
When she puts response journals
into the mix (an English teacher
staple), she’s looking at closer to
thousands of pages of reading
for only 3 of her 6 total classes.

Enough math. Let’s talk about
some conditions: Let’s say, that
in each class of 30 to 40, a number of her
kids, maybe a full third of them,
are impaired somehow: resistant,
recalcitrant, angry, depressed,
hungry, homeless, violent, distrustful,
absent, disengaged, disinterested,
high, attempting to vape inside their sweatshirts,
attached to their stupid smart phones
as if these devices were evolutionary
appendages, functionally illiterate,
and finally, learning-disabled in a myriad
of ways, towards all of which, as their teacher,
she is legally bound to be aware
and accommodating.
She is not afraid of her students,
but she knows that some of them
may be dangerous, and she’s
crossing her fingers.
She cannot take comfort
in the fact that there
are only three full time
counselors in a building of
approximately 1300 students.

Step outside the classroom.
There are two staff bathrooms
in the entire building and they
are about a football field
or two apart from each other.
She’s got seven minutes in
between classes to go to the
bathroom, but that’s only
if she talks to zero kids after
class is over, and spends zero
time greeting kids from the
next period as they come in
her room.

Generally speaking, her work
life is frantic and frenetic, and
while she is a deeply reflective
person, there is no time to be
reflective long enough to result
in significant advances in
her never-ending desire to be
more effective at her craft.
She sincerely wants this for
herself and her students, but
the reality is that her job does
not afford her the opportunity
in time to do her job, at least not
in the way she would hope to do it,
not within a 40 hour work week.

For this teacher, simply because
she is who she is, money is not
the issue–but she knows fully
well, that compared to other professions
requiring similar schooling and
accreditation, pay for teachers
is low and has fallen precipitously
over the last decade or so.
She cannot live her
modest middle-class lifestyle
unless she has a partner
who also works full time,
or by living with a room mate
or extended family members.
It is, at the end of the day,
perhaps, a living wage.
But she has not had a pay raise
in a long time; when she reached
the top of the pay scale 15 years
into her career, having tapped out
years of experience and having
finished that other 3rd degree,
she understands that
cost of living is the only adjustment
she will see for the rest of her
teaching life. While there are lots of
opportunities to do more work
for free (serve on committees, mentor
other teachers, lead workshops
in her school, attend after school
study sessions), there are no extrinsic
or monetary incentives to do more or to be better.
In actual fact, when she thinks further
about it, money is the issue. Schools
in her state are poorly funded,
perpetually operating in a shortfall
and this results in the large classes
and the mediocre pay and the lack
of supplies or new materials and
the dearth of support for kids
who need what their teachers
are not prepared to give them.
Sometimes she despairs.
She may as well phone it in, she thinks.
But she doesn’t. She doesn’t phone it in.
That is not the way she rolls.
Because she cares so much,
she is used to doing everything
she can do to make the very
best of a bad situation, even while
she understands her middle school
and grade school counterparts have
it much worse than she does.
She’s done this for a very long time
and she’s tired of it, frankly, so on
Wednesday, she’s walking out.
She’ll leave that stack of papers that
need grading behind in the classroom
and she’ll walk out. She’ll walk out
so that people will ask, listen, and learn.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: We Should Be Angry Most of the Time, But for Some Reason. . .

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There are things that should infuriate public school teachers about our jobs. Here’s just one:

  • It is an impossible gig; to wit, there is not enough time in the work day to do the job we have been asked to do, or rather, the job that we would like to do, the job that we know is best for our students and our schools.

Exhibit A: I have a student intern who has, at this point in the school year, taken over one of my six classes. So that means to me, while I am not inside the classroom observing and my intern flies solo, that every other day I have an extra 87 minutes to plan and grade in addition to my daily 87 minute preparation period. The extra time afforded by having an intern should allow me to get out from the perpetual work load hole. So I sit down first period today with a stack of response journals to grade–just one stack out of four stacks that await my attention. But I realize, even though I know exactly what I’ll be doing with my seniors next period, that before I can begin grading journals, I must figure out what I’m doing today with my freshmen the period after that. This should take a few minutes. Okay, do I have the poem of the day? Yes. Do I have copies? Yes. But before I give them the excerpt from The House on Mango Street, I need to deliver that mini-lesson about symbol. Okay, let’s look at that power point slide. No, I don’t like this. I don’t like the examples here. The examples need to be more clear, closer to something students will recognize. So I take 10 minutes to revise that slide. Okay, what’s next, after the mini-lesson and the warm-up, I wanted to do that exercise where the students look at one of Cisneros’s vignettes and make a claim, provide evidence for the claim, and craft an explanation about why their evidence supports the claim. Okay, do I have a handout for that? Yes. But I don’t have copies and I don’t want to give them three handouts today, so what if I just put the instructions on the next slide in that power point? Good idea, let’s do that. This takes another 15 minutes. Okay, we’re about half way through the plan. What’s next? Oh, students need a prompt for the original vignettes they’ll be drafting today. Do I have that? Yes. Let’s look. I don’t like it. These prompts are boring; I’d like to give students more choices. Oh shit, I have not yet reread the pages I assigned students for today. Well, I can’t write this vignette prompt until I’ve done that reading. That takes 20 minutes. As I’m reading I am writing prompts inspired by Cisneros’s vignettes in Mango Street. This is much better, but I don’t have copies. 15 minutes making copies, three copies of the assignment on one sheet, and then the work with the paper cutter to make a handout for 110 freshmen. Okay. Good. Back to my workspace only to realize I’ve got paperwork to do and emails to send and there’s an incidental but important conversation with a colleague about the site council meeting yesterday and suddenly I have five minutes left before the bell rings to start grading that stack of response journals. That’s not happening.

Exhibit B: My intern is teaching while I’m in the staff lounge alone with Exhibit A. There’s a seven minute passing period in which restrooms are used and a.v. equipment is made ready for my second period senior class. The bell rings. My second period students in an astounding display of commitment to unpacking the reading for today from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, discuss the novel, with me directing traffic and trying to ask good questions, for an entire period. It is exhilarating and exhausting. Before I know it, it is time for lunch, a duty free 30 minutes to eat and chat it up with colleagues. And yet, because I want to know, and because I enjoy the interaction, I ask my intern how first period went. He’s on his way out the door to get to a class at Lewis and Clark College, but my question and his highlights from his morning turn into a 10 minute conversation. Then there’s the logistical preparation for my freshmen coming in after lunch. Consequently, I have 15 minutes to eat. Oh, I have to go the restroom again. I have 12 minutes to eat. Off to spend an 87 minute period with my freshmen and my new slides and my new vignette prompts and a plan that’s far better than it was the last time I taught it.

Exhibit C: When my prep finally arrives fourth and last period (the worst), I am toast. It takes me about 20 minutes to muster up the energy to face that original stack of response journals. I face them. I sit down with them. I proceed to grade. In an hour, give or take, I finish grading half of one class set of response journals out of the four sets that await my attention. The day is done. Tomorrow I will be just a little bit less behind than I was today, despite my extra and luxurious and bountiful 87 minutes to plan and grade.

These first three exhibits are only about one day in one teacher’s classroom. If the teacher above were to get out of this perpetual grading and planning hole and stay there, he would have to do one of three things: 1. work hour upon hour outside the work day and on the weekend, at home during his own time, 2. call in sick often enough in order to get caught up, or 3. make compromises to the quality of the work he does. The alternative to these three options seems to be a perpetual grading and planning hole that comes to a close only twice a year: at the end of the first semester and again at the end of the school year.

And then there’s the work that somehow the staff, as a collective, must do together.

Exhibit D: As a staff, we are trying to be an IB School, to be an AVID school, to have effective Professional Learning Communities, to have effective and cohesive departments, to implement brand new science and social studies curriculum, to attend district wide staff development, to have meetings regularly in which a large group of teachers, counselors, administrators, and support staff talk about single kids who are struggling, to get through the accreditation process, to do the ever important work of reflecting about why we do what we do, what we do, and how we do it. We have 40 minutes or so in a 40 hour work week, and perhaps 8 to 16 hours spread out over the entire school year to do all these things well. And that doesn’t happen. As individual teachers in an academic classroom, we don’t have enough time in the work day to do our jobs, and as a staff, while the possibilities of what we could accomplish given the time to really dive deep are mind-bogglingly profound, we find ourselves constantly scratching the surface of a half a dozen things, all equally important and relevant to the work, but always infuriatingly out of our reach.

I said this to a colleague today almost as if it were the first time it had ever occurred to me: Given these parameters, it seems like we should just be walking around angry all the time! I have an impossible job! But lo, I have been at this for 30 years. Am I angry? Yes. All the time? Sure. Do I have high blood pressure? Yes, I do. Does it physically hurt me inside to realize that I will likely work an entire career without ever having the experience of the work AS IT COULD BE IN A PERFECT WORLD, or even in a slightly less imperfect world? Yes it does.

And yet, do I love this work? Do I think there are very few things in the world that I would rather do for a living than teach? For some reason, the answer to both of these questions, for me and for many of my colleagues who have been at this game for a long time, seems to be a definitive YES. Go figure.

 

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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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Filed under Self Reflection, Teaching

#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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Filed under Poetry, Teaching