Friday, October 1, 2010

I Usually Bite My Tongue: A Flood of Words

Typically I don't think my blog is the place for venting such as this. Who wants to read the rantings of an overly-verbose, overly-consumed-by-her-job teacher? Yes, usually I bite my tongue about these situations. Because I try to be understanding, to give the benefit of the doubt to those with whom I come in contact.

I usually bite my tongue when I see the cover of
Newsweek declare that firing teachers will solve this country's educational issues. I bite my tongue when I hear that unions are to blame for the state of American education. I keep quiet when everyone from Oprah to Mark Zuckerberg to Bill Gates chimes in on what they believe will solve education (to be fair, I agree with some of their thoughts). I bite my tongue when people say we teachers have it so easy: our summers off, leaving work at 3 or 4, reading the paper while the kids do whatever it is that they want to do. I keep my mouth clenched tight when I read in Time magazine that the Education field is filled with some of the worst academic performers in college. I usually don't go into any of it because I feel so intensely frustrated I'm afraid I'll foolishly cry or lose my cool. I fear if I say what I think about education, people will mistake my frustration for your average work-related whining. When, in truth, I genuinely love what I do. I bite my tongue because I fear if I open my mouth I will splatter my opposition in such a chaotic rush of thought that my words will need to be scraped off the walls when I finish.

But I have to say what I think. It has been a hell of a week. I'm in my fifth year of teaching and every single day of it has been challenging. And I need to write all of this. I need to say what I feel and think because I'm a dam with too much pressure behind it.

Let me share a few facts (and some opinions) with you:

1. I end my school year long after and begin the school year long before the students do. In between I spend several days (17 this past summer, to be exact) involved in professional development, trainings, conferences,summer writing camps, etc. I also spend my summer refining and designing curriculum, reading books that I can recommend to my reluctant readers, and, frankly, catching up on sleep and my life and those few things I like to do for me.

2. I work 10 hour days on a regular basis. Teaching means I'm preparing 3 different 90 minute presentations (with visuals and handouts and group activities and assessments and more) to several rowdy crowds every single day. I'm contacting parents and troubleshooting and copying and correcting and cleaning and teaching and supporting and encouraging and standing and working all 10 of those hours. I only hit up the faculty lounge to check my box. Technically, I get a 25 minute lunch, but those few minutes are spent helping students and preparing for the next class in between bites of food and sometimes, every once in a while, actually visiting the restroom just once. (Do you have to tell your bladder to wait for an hour because you can't leave your work unattended?) I then bring work home. I'm an English teacher and frequently spend my evenings and weekends grading and giving pertinent feedback on student writing assignments. (Just multiply your one essay by 35 or 40 for your class, and then multiply that by 6 for all the classes I teach. This will give you a more thorough understanding of my exciting dating/social life.)

3. I graduated with honors from what I felt was a great higher education institution. In English (my major), I had a 4.0. I haven't checked my transcripts, but I'm pretty sure I earned all A's in my education classes as well. Because, you see, I was a student who loved learning and her content area and worked her tail end off. Because I've always valued education--which is a trend I've noticed amongst my fellow teachers.

4. My feet and back hurt every single day. This condition magically disappears in the summer months.

5. I work through all kinds of illnesses during the year--typically because hiring a sub means I still have to not only prepare for and grade all the work of the classes, but it is usually mediocre work my students produce if I'm gone. And my classroom is a chaotic disaster upon my return.

6. I want you to think about that big birthday party you let your kid have that one time with all of his/her friends, or that time you had all the boy scouts come to your place for pancakes, or whatever. I want you to think about how insane it was to have 12 children in your home at once. I have between 33 and 40 students in all of my classes (except the two remedial classes of 20--in which behavior issues and 3rd grade reading levels abound.) My students and I joke and say things like, "Stack 'em deep, teach 'em cheap" because what else can we do but make the best of it?

7. I don't think I could conduct a gallbladder surgery simply because I had one a few years back. I don't think you should think you know how to teach because you were a student once.

8. I get paid beans to work the hours I work and to do what I do. But I still do it because I love it. It is my life's work, my mission; call it what you may. My work is essential to society and I don't believe my students can afford for me to do it poorly.

9. I am pretty sure that in several of the nations that are surpassing American students in Math and Science, the country's educational system is designed in such a way that if students are not performing up to par at certain check points along the way, they're gone, blotted out, eliminated from the educational system altogether (or, in some countries, moved exclusively into the arena in which they do show promise). Which sort of means all the failing students aren't being included in these country's testing statistics, right? These scores are only reflective of the best of the best, technically. No?

10. Last I checked, don't we in the U.S. educate everyone, no matter their ability, nationality, race, or culture for 13 (sometimes more) years unless they opt to leave early? Even if students try and leave early then change their minds or incessantly play hooky or get pregnant or go to juvenile detention or fail and fail and fail some more, don't we provide every possible second, third, fourth, fifth chance available? And, for argument's sake, don't we do all of this essentially at no charge to them or their families?

11. Oversimplification indicates an inability to think in complex ways. Education in this country is not broken simply because of bad teachers. Are there bad teachers? Absolutely. And, frankly, I think this issue needs to be resolved. But not at the expense of the good teachers or the unions that serve as a voice for these teachers. Not at the expense of breaking something else in the system.

12. Last I checked, everyone is diverse. Our schools, especially, are uber-diverse: in culture, language, etc. At my school, for instance, 51% of our student population falls in that "minority" category. 42 different languages are spoken in the homes of our students. Because we're all diverse, everyone learns in different ways and is good at some things and not so good at others. A standardized test which is culturally and linguistically biased seems a silly measurement of what a diverse student population does or does not know, is or is not capable of, or how far a student may have come over the course of a school year. If the standard is set at this spot and this spot only, it doesn't account for the student that started way down there and made it clear up to here but is still below that spot.

13. Learning happens both in and out of schools (at least, ideally it should). Children are nurtured and taught in the home AND in the classroom.

Which brings me to what is/are sort of, kind of, in a round-about way my major point(s). I think? (Like I said: scraping my words off the walls, floods, and other metaphor mixing.) Just as a person can't perform all that well if they have no physical fuel in their system (sleep, food), I don't think anybody can perform all that well if they don't have the emotional and mental fuel they need.

Kids need adults to provide a lot of things for them: a stable home environment, mental stimulation and challenges from the earliest of ages on, love, acceptance, safety, and all those basics of physical survival. Kids need home. Kids need school. Kids need an intricate system of visible (and some invisible, behind-the-scenes) adults and peers that support them into adulthood.

As a teacher, I can't fix an unstable home life. I can't ensure that someone living in poverty has the time, money, and/or resources to take their kid to a museum or has the ability to tell them what kind of tree they're looking at or that Shakespeare was the guy who first coined that phrase. As much as I'd like to, I can't tell the media they are sending the wrong messages to our society's children about what is most valuable in this life. I can't put books on the shelves of homes where there are not books. There is a lot I cannot do in the years before a student enters my classroom. There is a lot I cannot do once a student walks out my classroom door. But I can control those 90 minutes that kid is in my classroom. And I do my very best to take a student where they are at (3rd grade reading levels and all), and teach them that good, thorough reading takes more effort than they've been giving (this happens at every level). I can help them find their voice in writing. I can teach them skills they didn't possess before. I can work my tail end off for those 90 minutes (and all the prep time before and grading time after). But, for some, those 90 minutes won't make enough of a difference. Because there is more to their success or failure than little old me.


Jen said...

I really enjoyed this post. Alex and I were discussing this with a teacher (my sister's MIL, who drove back with us from the hospital) the difficulties our teachers face with all of the new testing and requirements.

She is disappointed that so many programs right now add money to administration, and cut funding from her teachers aid, who sits and reads with that child who is struggling.

I dropped out of the teaching program because of the grading. I just felt that to do it the way I wanted to do it, I would have to give up every other aspect of my life. I salute you. You are awesome, and I think though some underappreciate teachers, many of us know you (good teachers) are the unsung heroes of the world.

Sephalo said...

1. I think you are awesome and I am extremely grateful for you being a teacher, I know you do an amazing job, and
B. (This is the honest truth) whenever I blog I think of your face reading it and shaking your head in disappointment at my grammar and syntax. :) You have made an impact in my life and you're not even my teacher, I can only imagine the impact you have made on your actual students!

Thank you for all that you do!

kathysette said...

Thanks for posting your cogent thoughts! My two cents is - where are the competent administrators who observe teachers and provide meaningful feedback, help teachers improve their skills, and get rid of people who just can't teach? Why is it ok for administrators to give teachers a blanket stamp of approval when they have never even been in the classroom? Our teachers are taking the blame, but administrators are hiding in the sand and hoping noone notices!

I applaud your devotion to teaching and hope you receive the satisfaction of having students come back in the future to thank you - just as you have done for me. It is a great satisfaction for all the hard work and passion we put into teaching. Teachers DO have an impact. God bless all of you who are talented, sincere and hard-working!

Stine said...

You, little sister, make me emotional with your skill, your caring, and your brilliant writing. I hope you don't mind me sharing this link on Facebook, because I think that everyone should read it.

Preach on Ms. Ipson!

PS - My favorite:"I don't think I could conduct a gallbladder surgery simply because I had one a few years back. I don't think you should think you know how to teach because you were a student once."

Lisa S said...

This post is exactly how I feel about teachers. I was once a substitute teacher, and I might add a very good one. I took great pride in maintaining the environment the teacher had created. It was always a pleasure to be in the classroom of a teacher who was well organized and had a good management plan.
Keep up the good work and in the next 5 years you will have kids returning to you saying you inspired them to do well.

Alice said...

Friend, I love this. Teachers really deserve far more credit than they are ever given. I think this needs to be published somewhere, more people need to read it. There is so much to say about this post but I am pretty sure you know how I feel.

Bottom line, I hate the over simplification (is that a word?) that happens when it comes to huge issues. It is not even logical to say that new/different/better/whatever teachers would single handedly fix education and all that comes with it.

Thank you for the hard work you do. You are making a difference and I am proud of you.

Lildonbro said...

Standing and clapping...and oddly enough feeling ready for a fight! I think I loved best when you said you couldn't perform gallbladder surgery just because you had had it, therefore you can't decide what makes a good teacher just because you were a student. Amen!

I applaud your work and your efforts. I wouldn't be able to do it.

Stephanie said...

You pretty much kick ass. Thanks for being willing to do what you do.

Libby said...

I concur!

Bless you for all of the time, thought, effort, love, etc. that you put into your job. You are appreciated, my dear, even if it seems like you're not.

Keep on, keepin' on!!