In Defense of that BPS Calendar Change

Tommy Chang has recently proposed a change to the Boston Public Schools Calendar that would make the school year begin in late August and end in early June, remove February break, and expand winter break.

Given how stubborn Bostonians are, and how tough change is to make here, and how much is at stake in these negotiations, I am not placing any hopes on the change. In fact, I can see plenty of reasons it’s not a great idea (and according to the Union the idea wasn’t supposed to be made public at this point at all). That being said, since it already has been explained in a Globe article, I want to make one quick plug in its defense.

I teach an Advanced Placement course, and for AP students, the change would be a big deal.

Where I grew up, in Florida, school started in early August (yes, back when I was a child in Tampa, we began school the first week of August) and ended in mid-May. AP Exams were only a week before regular exams, and for some classes, they were at the same time. Then school was out. We almost always covered all content, without issue, before the exam.

Now, I am challenged with teaching students the same amount of content southern students are asked to learn, but with far less learning time. Boston students started this year on September 8 and don’t get out til the end of June. My AP students will take their exam on May 11, which is barely 3 weeks into fourth term. That means they have had 30 weeks to learn content that I, as a child, had 36 weeks to learn.

Perhaps if you aren’t a teacher, four to six weeks isn’t much of a difference, but to the teachers who are reading this, six weeks is enough time for an entire unit of learning. It is enough time to master an entire new skill, to read a whole work of literature, to write an extended research paper. That is a lot of learning.

And Boston’s AP students could use the boost of extra learning time. The most recent data I could find was from 2012, but in 2012 only 45% of Boston’s AP students who took exams scored a passing grade of 3 or higher. And for students of color, the passing rate is even worse: only 25%.

I have 25 students taking the AP English Language exam in five weeks. I have worked them to the bone this year, and I am so proud of how far they’ve come. But even now I can imagine having six more weeks with them to work on content and to solidify writing habits and to teach new strategies and read more great texts… and I wish I had the time!

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How to Eviscerate a Public School: Like Boiling a Frog in Water

 

Dedicated to Detroit, to all the schools that are losing their very sense of self this year in Boston, and to all the schools all over America who have never had a chance to be great because they’ve never had the money.

 

It is an oft-recited fun fact that if you place a frog in room-temperature water and then slowly heat up and cook him, the frog will not realize he is being boiled to death until it is far too late to jump out. I think often of this image when I see America’s public schools and their funding crisis. What we have normalized and become okay with will keep adjusting until it is far too late to save ourselves.

Given that many of my readers may not be educators, as a brief introduction, I would like to explain what makes a strong school. Despite a countrywide measurement system based on test scores and dropout rates, these are the 15 things that actually make a school great:

  1. A sufficient number of excellent teachers who have sustainable workloads
  2. A wide choice of great courses (traditional, project-based, creative/elective, A.P., etc.)
  3. Small class sizes
  4. Extra-curricular options and a good after-school program (sports, clubs, support groups, tutoring, etc.)
  5. A building that is well-maintained and clean (adequate custodial staff and budget)
  6. Materials (whether it’s supplies for classes, a sound system for performances, a working copy machine or intercom, or new books)
  7. Working technology for students to use (internet that works, computers, projectors, etc.)
  8. Enough administrators and staffers to make sure that all students are safe, that learning is kept sacred, and that misbehavior is effectively handled with appropriate and real consequences
  9. A safe and stable transportation option for students
  10. Non-academic resources and opportunities for students: job counseling, field trips, service trips, student leadership, mentorship, etc.
  11. Sufficient support for students with certain needs: mental health counseling, special educators, a resource room or study class, a reading intervention course, a sub-separate strand if necessary, a social worker, etc.
  12. An updated library and engaged librarian (media specialists)
  13. Effective guidance counselors, college counselors for all students to leave school with a plan for the future
  14. Excellent health education (including healthy and edible school food, a sex-ed program, and a way for students to participate in enjoyable physical activities)
  15. Clear communication with family, communities, and students (newsletter, email list, calls home, parent nights, student handbook, etc.)

 

If we were to measure based on comparing these 15 things with the student population each school is given, we may in fact end up with far better models for evaluating teachers, administrators, schools, districts, and states. We also might begin to acknowledge the effects (a) school funding and (b) societal problems can have on school effectiveness, instead of pretending such overwhelming forces are irrelevant.

If I were a wealthy philanthropist (sadly, I am not), this is what I would do: I would create a third party school report-card system that actually evaluated school effectiveness as above and held everyone accountable for that effectiveness: the teachers who teach, the administrators who lead, the politicians who assign budgets, the district leaders who allocate money, the states who make policies. Instead of calling children failures and creating a numbers game that schools have to play, quantify the right things and create an education system in this country we can actually be proud of.

You may not need to read further, but if you’d like to, below is a demonstration of the importance of school funding. While some of what is written here is my personal experience, some of it is an amalgamation of the experiences of my friends, students, and fellow teachers across the country.

 

How to eviscerate a public school:

First, the changes will be slight. The cuts will be small. You may not notice. You’ll only have a nurse on campus four days a week, instead of five. You’ll tell the sports teams that they have to wait one more year to buy new uniforms. You’ll tell that community group that came to work with your school last year that this year we just can’t make it happen. You’ll let one of the custodians go, but there is still a team of four left.

You notice that your enrollment is changing. There are slightly fewer requests for your school from the last year. There are a lot of new charter schools opening that can count on outside funding, run through teachers as fast as TFA, and suspend and expel kids at will. The parents who have books at home and stable lives for their kids are trying to get into those schools. They don’t want to deal with the other kids… the kids with a lot of special needs, the kids who grew up poor, the kids whose parents are incarcerated, the kids who speak some other language at home and need extra help and extra education. They want safe. They want choice. They want better. They will save themselves first. You cannot blame them. If all of America hates public things, who would sacrifice his own child to make a point that we still need to fund those public things?

Your school feels the new load of the changing population. You look children in the eyes who have traumatic experiences you can barely imagine. You watch some of them crumble into hollow versions of media stereotypes but some of them unfold and rise above every obstacle, carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. You teach them anyhow, both horrified and numbed by your inability to do anything for their outside lives. No parent should have to work three jobs. No kid should be alone this much. No family should have to be split up by oceans too big to swim and plane flights too expensive to buy. No kid should grow up thinking the whole country finds him both terrifying and worthless because of the color of his skin. No kid should grow up thinking that drug addiction and incarceration are normal family traits.

The seats in your school begin to fill with children who seem impossibly behind. You watch them look at words on a page, words that seem to grow wings and fly away, fold in on themselves and disappear, reconstruct themselves into other terms. You watch these children struggle with the shame of disabilities in a  cruel adolescent society. You watch their eyes go vacant in front of you, their ears picking up everything but what you are desperately trying to teach them. You look at their writing and try to decipher words that seem like they should be in sentences but look more like random answers to a crossword game. You have no idea how to grade such things.

You take a deep breath and meet them just the same, as readers and writers. You stay brave. You push them. You watch some of them grow through sheer laborious force of will, and you wonder at their perseverance and you worry because they started to so far behind that some standardized test label at the end of the year is still going to tell them they are failures, despite the fact that they have learned twice as fast under exponentially harder circumstances than other more well-off children.

But some of the children long ago walked down a road you have not been down and cannot save them from. You look at their empty seats. You click “A” on the attendance chart each day. You call phone numbers that never get picked up. You refer them to meetings where their names are repeated. Someone else tries something. The cracks that kids can fall through seem to crack open everywhere.

Your students ask to go on more field trips. You ask about bus costs. The response is a sadly amused smile. You can’t afford to take days off of test prep anyway.

 

Your school is down another administrator, down two more teachers, down two more custodians. The kids are sad; some of their favorite classes have vanished. Some things are getting old, and it’s beginning to show. The laptops on the laptop carts rarely work. You click refresh ten times, trying to update the computers so kids can type papers. You spend half the class trading out computers hoping some of them will work, trying to make obsolete macbooks still functional. The library hasn’t been updated in a decade– no one even looks at the books any more. The auditorium no longer has a working sound system. The science department is begging for new materials– they only have the stuff to run a few experiments a year, and even those aren’t fun. The nurse is down to three days a week. She has too much paperwork to do. The kids know she can’t really do much for them. They stay in class with their stomach aches, their headaches. They can afford neither the doctor’s note nor the absence.

The building is starting to look dirty, unkempt, old. Food splattered on walls begins to look like dried paint, dust on floors begins to build up like a carpet. You can’t get a bathroom latch. You can’t get a window latch. You can’t get a replacement classroom key. That one room starts to leak whenever it rains. The custodian tells you that’s the best he can do. He looks weary and overworked.

Whatever is in the book room will have to do this year. We cannot buy new books now.

You notice children’s behavior starting to change. Things that weren’t okay before become okay now. Kids talk while you are giving instructions and talk back when you ask them to be quiet. You send them to the dean, the dean sends them back. The other kids wonder if it would be okay if they did this too. The hallways start to become meeting grounds for kids who don’t want to be in class. The classes start to look packed like cans of sardines. There aren’t enough staffers to monitor, to give consequences, to hold accountable. There aren’t enough teachers to keep class sizes small. You hear more yelling. You do more yelling. Teachers start to look tired. Teachers start to feel ineffective. Teachers start to wonder how anyone will be able to learn.

McKinsey tells you you all are not being efficient enough.

 

The top floor now has two unusable classrooms, buckets on the floor, gaping holes in the ceiling which on bad days pour water down, and on good days, drip sporadically. The basement teacher has started sweeping her own classroom because a custodian hasn’t visited it in a week. He is now on his own doing this building and the next one over.

The school next door is getting closed down.

There is only ⅖ of a nurse. There is no librarian. The supply room is still there, but sometimes you ask for one thing and get something else. The after school buses have been canceled. The after school program is a three bullet-point list of which teachers stay after to give test re-takes on which days. Extra-curriculars, sports teams, and electives have dried up. There is no money. Your school becomes a building in which federal mandates are executed.

No policymaker has mentioned the joy of children in years, just MCAS scores, dropout rates, graduation rates, retention rates. You are horrified and shocked at the acceptance of imprecise data in order to make incredibly impactful decisions. You wonder when children became numbers, when schools– once nurturing communities of human creativity– became distilled into labels and numbers. You look at the budget cut on the screen. You look at the test scores on the screen. You all used to joke about tests in bitter ridicule. Now you wonder if they are school death knolls hiding as standard deviations. The humor is long gone, but the irony remains.

You start to notice your voice is growing tired. Your spirit is growing tired. You get the letter that your job has been reduced. You tell your older students the news. You try to explain politicians to them.

You watch their faces fall. You watch their anger as they express their frustration to you. They are tired of losing teachers they love. They are sick of coming to school each day in a building that is depressingly unkempt. They are sad from over and over again seeing great programs and opportunities fold. They want to do well. They want to get out. They want to work good jobs in the future, and go to good colleges. They want field trips to see the world. They want you to teach them. They want you to show them how to write better, to give them new books to read. They want things to be better than this for their younger siblings and cousins. They want to have as much opportunity as any kid even though they’ve been landed here. They ask what they can do. They are upset. They are weary of being told there isn’t enough money, there is never enough money.

You see their desperation and their despair: they know it doesn’t matter how much they yell. No one at the state house is listening. No one in the mayor’s office is listening.

 

This is the biggest allocation of public school funding in the history of the city, the mayor will say. No one will mention rising costs and inflation.

The state will stay silent.

What happened to Ms. B’s Job? The facts.

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I am a provisional, third year, Boston Public Schools teacher.

I have been partially laid off for next year.

As the budget stands, I am being offered a .7 position at my current school for next year. That means I would teach 2.5 classes a day (rather than 4). I would be paid 70% of my current salary. I would still receive full benefits and union protection.

Losing 30% of your salary in a city like Boston is very stressful. No more traveling. No more eating out. No more donations to important causes (or snacks for my students on publication days). No more extraneous expenses. No more yoga classes or gym membership. Cutting corners, cutting costs, saving everywhere. As a college student or starving artist, this would be okay. But I am an educated professional with multiple degrees, so it is not really okay. I am facing a tough dilemma in the coming months.

It is tough to vouch for myself as a teacher; it would be easier to have my colleagues or students do so. But let’s say that on an average day if you walked into my classroom, students would be reading, thinking, writing, engaging in text, and generally joyful. Throughout a year with me, they would learn to love reading more, learn to love expressing themselves in writing more, develop their skills in both, and become more confident in their own selves as they grow up. I have been in recent years working on building up the A.P. program and various writing initiatives at my school, and I participate on the Instructional Leadership Team. I am, in addition, a co-coach of the slam poetry team. My students’ writing has been published on both Medium and TeenInk, where several of them have been recognized as daily #1 hits. I have led students through Shakespeare and Steinbeck, through argumentative, analytical, and narrative writing. I still have a lot to learn and many ways to grow, but I do not believe in any bone of my body that my school or students will be happy to see me go.

The reason my job has been reduced is because our school’s budget for next year has taken a roughly $300,000 hit. This loss is a combination of teacher salary increases, the loss of several grants, a reduction in projected enrollment numbers (12 fewer students), and a districtwide cut across all schools.

And since this will be a question, the reason it is me, as opposed to some other teacher, who is losing much of her job, is that BPS, like many districts, operates under a “Last in, First out,” policy. This policy dictates that the newest teacher is the one who must get cut first, the second newest second, and so on and so forth. Budgets are split by department, and I am the newest humanities teacher, so I therefore must go first. My effectiveness (or lack thereof) or quality of performance is not at all a factor in this situation. [If you are curious about my effectiveness or quality of performance, I have received all proficient ratings all my years of teaching. And though it is not in the purview of this op-ed, I believe my students would give you details if you asked them.]. For more interest in opposition to Last In, First Out, you can look out the Vergara case from earlier this year:http://studentsmatter.org/our-case/vergara-v-california-case-summary/)

The reason our school has lost so much money for this upcoming year is that the district has announced that next year we will be operating on a $50 million shortfall. (https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2016/01/12/boston-schools-face-million-budget-shortfall/dg4Emkps2wD06lNLHqvpJN/story.html) Why? The short answer is that the district has lost students to outside schools (out of district charters, private schools, suburban districts) and that state and federal funding has been severely reduced. More and more charter schools are appearing, and more and more wealthy families who can afford to are taking their children out of the district, reducing state and federal funding. This is unfortunately a self-perpetuating cycle. Once people start to leave and funding starts to decrease, quality starts to decrease, so more people leave. And so on.

The long answer is that the funding given to us by State Laws Chapter 46 and Chapter 70 is not equitable. Chapter 46 provides compensation for losses of large numbers of students to charter schools from a public district by reimbursing the district for the loss of these students. Chapter 70, perhaps the more important law here, is a law that grants state aid to public school districts.**

 http://www.doe.mass.edu/charter/finance/tuition/Reimbursements.html

*The paragraph below has been REVISED (thank you to commenter below for the sources!):

Unfortunately, Chapter 70 is calculated based on a combination of property tax revenue and income taxes. (http://www.doe.mass.edu/finance/chapter70/chapter_15.html) Given that in Boston, property values are disproportionately high (even if only half of the property is taxable and therefore included in the calculation) and a huge portion of the population makes a lot of money working for tax-exempt organizations, so income is also measured very high, Boston is seen as a very wealthy district and this calculation gets skewed out of our favor. In fact, BPS pretty much never sees the money Chapter 70 assumes we have; those people’s children for the most part don’t go to traditional Boston Public Schools, and their income tax goes to the state. This is like a perfect storm for BPS: unlike an area like Lawrence, which has low property values, low incomes, and a student population that represents these issues; the Boston that Ch. 70 is measuring is a very different Boston than you see in a school like mine. My school is 75% free and reduced lunch, 97% minority. If a student is in my school, he or she almost certainly knows about welfare and food stamps, knows about the criminal justice system, is an immigrant or refugee (first or second generation), or lives in a rented home or in public housing. Sometimes all four.

Also unfortunately, the amount of money the state is allocating to Chapter 46 is also declining. While I cannot pin down a source on the decline or on if the state has been sufficiently compensating BPS (among other districts), rumors abound that Chapter 46 is a law that the state hasn’t exactly stood behind. The rumors say that the state is not allocating enough money to Chapter 46 in the budget, so the money isn’t making it to school districts like ours, who need it desperately[the latest amount I heard is $18million short, but, again, I do not have a source other than general BTU/BPS hearsay].

So, Boston Public Schools is $50 million short. In a time when education reform is a hot topic and the XQ Super School project is getting people excited about rethinking schools and our own Boston Teacher Residency is innovating the way the whole country thinks about training teachers, we cannot find enough money to pay for the bare minimum of the schools we already have, nor the teachers who teach in them. What is innovation for, if we can’t even pay for what we have?

I wish I could say my school is alone in these losses, that it’s just me facing a tough dilemma. But it’s not. Articles and Facebook posts are pouring out. People and schools are reeling. It’s bad. It’s been bad, and it’s been getting worse and worse slowly, but this year is a particularly heavy hit.

And the reality is: we need more money. Not less.

People have been looking for someone to be angry with.

Do not be angry with my headmaster. While he cannot save my job as is, he has salvaged a part of it.

Do not be angry with Superintendent Tommy Chang. He is between a rock and a hard place.

I’m not sure how to feel about Mayor Marty Walsh. He has increased the funding he’s given to BPS for two years in a row now. It is hard to pin all the blame on him. But perhaps he could be doing more, or lobbying for the state to do so.*(Again, my commenter below argues that the city should be doing more, based on the Ch. 70 formula).

I’m also not sure how to feel about charter schools. It’s great to innovate. It’s great to serve kids well and teach them well, and many charter schools do so. I do believe that charters have inspired innovation and reform in public schools by challenging us to do better. Clearly many parents are seeking what charter schools offer, so we still have a lot to learn. And many of my good friends teach in charter schools (honestly, I will probably teach in a charter school some day; it seems to be where we are heading). But the facts are also clear that charters can have a large and negative impact on district funding, causing stress for the local traditional public schools like mine. (http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/choice/summary.html)

But do be angry with our state legislators. Be angry that they passed a law that treated Boston’s kids unfairly; be angry that they didn’t do better math. Be angry with Charlie Baker. Be angry that the people in the State House don’t seem to recognize the desperate situation of our students. Be angry that they are out of touch with what it is like to be poor, to be middle class, to have to eat school lunch, to have to live by the bell. Be angry that they have prioritized something other than children, other than the future, other than education.

Be angry with the federal government too. Be angry that Congress can fund a military that intervenes in over half the countries of the world but cannot seem to pay so that the ceilings on the fifth floor of my school don’t leak when it rains. (https://apps.irs.gov/app/understandingTaxes/whys/thm01/les01/ac3_thm01_les01.jsp )

Be angry with those philanthropists and reformers who insist on fancy initiatives and consultants, trying to find the silver bullet to solve education, instead of just funding our schools. I appreciate that wealthy people are interested in supporting education, that they are as passionate as I am about fixing schools. I just wish that money would go straight to where it is needed most. (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/opinion/sunday/how-to-fix-the-countrys-failing-schools-and-how-not-to.html?_r=0 ; http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/05/19/schooled)

Be angry that people do not listen to students and do not trust teachers when we try to speak up about what is going on.

Be angry that people are not voting– that people are not paying attention. Be angry that people can live their lives thinking that policy does not affect you or me.

And whatever you do, spread the word: all policy is personal. Call your legislator. Post on Facebook. Email your congressperson. Go to a protest. Go to a local election.

Please, please please: do something for this nation’s schools. We need your help.

**Update 2

A commenter below has indicated that the calculations of Ch. 70 that are currently in place may in fact lay more blame on the city than I originally surmised from my research. See the DESE work here: chrome-extension://bpmcpldpdmajfigpchkicefoigmkfalc/views/app.html

Please note that there is a student-led protest happening at the State of the City Address on Tuesday. You can join.

** Update:

What can you do?
1. Go to the following website and look up your state senator and representative.

http://openstates.org/find_your_legislator/

2. Send them an email like the one below.
Dear Senator/Representative X,
I am deeply concerned about the BPS budget shortfall this upcoming year. Boston Public Schools cannot operate on the limited budget that has been proposed, and it is clear that the calculations in chapter 70 are inequitable. In addition, we need more money allocated via chapter 46.
The district’s needs are urgent. Our children need your help.
Sincerely,
(Your name, phone number, address, and email)
3. Call them and reiterate what the email says so that there is a sense of urgency to the matter.
4. Spread the word. The more people who do this, the more movement we will get.

—-

The writer is a third year Boston Public Schools teacher and a graduate of the Boston Teacher Residency and Yale University. She teaches tenth through twelfth grade.

What the HONY Story Tells us about Education Reform

If you follow the photography blog Humans of New York, you probably know that several weeks ago a young boy named Vidal told HONY that the most influential person in his life was his principal, a woman named Ms. Lopez. Vidal explained, “When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.” It was a pretty remarkable quote by a child about what an adult has done for him. HONY recognized this and decided to go find Ms. Lopez.

Only a few weeks later, the story has blown up. Ms. Lopez turned out to be the principal everyone hoped she’d be. Her school was in need of money and HONY’s followers willingly opened the floodgates, providing the school a short eternity of money for an annual field trip to Harvard and an annual summer program. And HONY continued digging up stories from more students, from families, from the teachers and coaches at the school. HONY and Vidal have ended up on front page news, on TV shows, and, of course, all over my Facebook wall.

I have been admittedly unsure how to respond to the story. My first instinct when my non-teacher friends started posting and reposting the images and quotes, framed and reframed by enthusiastic captions, was deep mistrust. I’ve been on the other side of how journalists and scholars narrate positive school experiences. There’s a lot of picking and choosing, a lot of silencing of politics, a lot of savior stories and cinderella stories and untold endings swept under the rug.

The reality of education is that it is always more complex than any retelling or research can explain, and it is always far more political than an unbiased story can withstand. There are too many stories— too many humans— in the room. Since becoming a teacher, I feel I have developed a sort of allergy for education journalism. Sure, the New York Times may have sent a journalist for a while into a school to watch restorative justice practices, but that doesn’t mean my school can implement that tomorrow. (I am a fan of restorative justice, for the record, but it needs to be implemented well by competent adults within a system designed to nurture students).

But, I’ve been thinking about it, and putting my doubts aside, I actually think HONY got something really right here, and I’m still not sure if we’re recognizing it, even if it’s right under our nose.

First of all, HONY, perhaps by its very name and the simplicity of its narrative structures—chosen cuts of monologue and dialogue—recognizes the humanness of individual people in education. (I don’t mean humanity, the valuing of another person by virtue of sharing our species’ DNA. I mean the admission that we live complex, storied existences threaded together by our character and experiences, by our beliefs and backgrounds. There are no right answers or quick fixes to anything human; it is inherently messy. It is our humanness that makes growing up, and therefore education, so wonderfully fraught and fragile and promising.)

The implementation of excellent education depends vastly on the individual people involved. That includes kids and teachers and colleagues and bosses and staff and secretaries and principals and disciplinarians and deans and every other kind of relationship, individual, or authority. It includes values and beliefs, integrity, patience, chemistry, energy, good days and bad days, attitudes, intelligence, competence, experience, skills, talent, and a host of other things.

But education policy is a cold, blunt thing. It insists on things like hours and days, dollars and contracts, numbers, building standards, and test scores. It hungers for a stability that would come from a level of organization that it cannot seem to implement and a uniformity that simply does not exist.

Secondly, the HONY story— simply by virtue of how it has unfolded— makes clear the desperate financial situation in education today. We can battle all day about teachers and test scores, but when you need to hire a reading intervention specialist, create a team of tutors, hire teachers for electives, fund summer programs, buy books, fund scholarships, hire a team of counselors, fund field trips, refurbish your library, fund laptop carts, buy sports uniforms, pay for buses, repair door locks and window latches, start an after-school program, buy paper and ink, and do everything else in between, you need only one thing: money.

The desperate situation of education in our country is mostly financial. There is no single issue (teachers, families, or poverty) and there is no silver bullet (teaching practices, charters, or tests). Schools today are asked to do far more than they were asked to do 50 years ago— everything from mental and physical wellness to skill-building to data collection. But we aren’t operating with any more money; in some cases we are operating with less. And the money that does exist seems to disappear quickly: political apathy allows legislatures to reallocate funds; districts are re-segregating by class while funds are generally distributed within districts; and/or money is being given our in contracts to outside companies for vague things like school leadership consulting, test prep kits, online assessments, and ‘resources for teachers’ (see the wonderful New Yorker article about the failed education reform in Newark).

I am happy for the school that HONY found; they are set to give their students a good education for years to come. They now actually have the real, on-the-ground resources to do so. I wish that this would happen thousands of times over for schools everywhere.

Lastly, the HONY story highlights one vastly underrated aspect of education reform: school leadership. In all the testing and teacher reform craze, no one seems to be talking about the importance of a strong administration or how to put more of a spotlight on what headmasters and deans should do. As a teacher in a school with both competent and compassionate leadership, I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. If a school has a bad leader, whether incompetent, untrustworthy, or unable to cope with the political challenges of leading a group of headstrong teachers, the school will not do well. The good teachers will leave. The sickly politics among the adults will seep into the student body. The stress of doing what we do every day will pervade all interactions and pervert the systems of the school. But a leader who is respected as hardworking and trustworthy, who keeps the school running smoothly, supports teachers, listens to and implements new ideas, and clearly invests in individual students with time and energy, can keep the ship sailing.

I doubt that any powerfully philanthropic education reformers are reading this post, but if they are, I hope they consider investing more in the humanness of education like HONY has. I hope they consider abandoning silver bullet reforms for floods of cash right into schools, and I hope they think about highlighting and investing in amazing school leadership.

When I first read the HONY stories, though I chide myself for this, I felt a bit of but how is this different from our school? indignation, something I suppose I can only admit was envy. Why does this school get the attention to its human’s stories, the funds it needs, and the love and affection of America, when we also desperately crave the same— and perhaps deserve the same? But how many other schools too?

For the rest of us, the battle rages on. But congratulations to one school who has found some new hope to pass on a new sense of promise to the next generation of scholars. Shout out to Ms. Lopez, Vidal, and the whole team at Mott Hall Bridges Academy. I wish them the best.

Letter to a Philanthropist about Education (unedited)

(This letter was a response to this article, Schooled, in the New Yorker, May 2014)

Dear X,

As a traditional (i.e. non-charter) public school teacher in the Boston public schools, I want to write and tell you that this article made me cry. I honestly bowed my head in tears. What I could do with a thousand dollars in my classroom, much less millions of dollars in a district! God, if the money could just avoid all this strategy and institutions and consultants and foundations and get to us REAL people in the trenches!!!

I think the quote that really struck me was this one:

Decades of research have shown that experiences at home and in neighborhoods have far more influence on children’s academic achievement than classroom instruction. But reformers argued that well-run schools with the flexibility to recruit the best teachers could overcome many of the effects of poverty, broken homes, and exposure to violence.

It’s just so so so much more complicated (and yet also so much more simple) than people want to assume. People want to act like the achievement gap came out of nowhere, like it’s a surprise. That’s crazy! You think that historical discrimination and exclusion from advantage leaves no legacy of disadvantage? That’s crazy to assume you can fix in three years what stems from three hundred years of history. In fact, that is so stupidly culturally American. It’s sort of like people who try all these newfangled diets to fix their weight quickly and get to an ‘ideal body’; and they’re actually convinced it’s going to work! It’s not. The only way to lose weight and gain health is to steadily and realistically pursue holistic health over a long time… and to balance your resources: calories in, calories out. Similarly, the only way to improve education is improve our children’s lives and invest, long term, steadily, in improving the many factors that contribute to education… and to balance our resources: money into schools, education out.

I also think that it’s time we recognize that reform cannot simply be about education policy. If we’re talking about children and justice, all policy is connected. People think that kids don’t bring anything into the classroom; that they can perform and succeed at school no matter what’s happening at home. I cannot think of anything further from the truth. People think that school success can fix broken families, unemployment, violence, health problems, mass-incarceration, gang culture, rape culture, income inequality, or hunger. But classrooms can’t do that. In reality, those things come first. I build on what the kids have going for them, and I have to put in more work to compensate for everything going against them. It’s utterly intertwined. Sure– there are exceptions. Everyone loves a Cinderella story, so we all have heard about the one teacher who made a kid think differently and change his life and then the kid goes to Harvard by the sweat of his own brow on a full-scholarship and YAY! But Whitney, Cinderellas are exceptions, and we are trying to change the rules. I’m no fairy godmother; I’m no miracle worker. I’m just a worker.

To give some context for my words, I am highly educated (Ivy league undergrad, Boston Teacher Residency for my Masters), and I have scored very well on all my evaluations. Even my students rate me highly. I am, by most accounts, a pretty excellent teacher (though I still have plenty to learn!). I am also a union member. No, I don’t like how the union protects bad teachers, and in fact, if you care, in the teacher’s room (where we are all union members), we actually talk about this. We know which teacher at the school isn’t very good and yet still is coming back; we know who is awesome but just got bumped. We think it sucks. Surprising as this may be, we do care about our students’ learning. We care about our schools. What you seem to be forgetting is that unions are just like political beings; the people running things are the old standards (just like in the Democratic party, where people who are running things have money, political connections, age, and somewhat moderate stances). That’s how politics works and you should know that. So, no, I don’t want to leave the union. I will explain. My job is a nearly irrational choice, given what is available to me; I work 60-80+ hours a week for not a whole lot of pay and for very little status or respect. And if you’ve never taught (I don’t know if you have), I cannot express to you the sheer level of exhaustion that one day of work brings. Until you’ve done it, you do NOT understand. I love my job, but it is incredibly tough work. When I think of the consultants paid to think about the schools I work in (as if I can’t think. ha.)– they get so much more money than I earn for so much less work– it’s a bit of a slap in the face. I went to college with a lot of those kids; and these days they have money. They have a voice in education reform. But me? I’m making my way into the middle class. And when I say I’m a teacher, people treat me like I’m some well-meaning do-gooder with an empty head instead of an educated professional with a master’s degree. I don’t tell you this to sound bitter; I tell you this to help you understand the realities of what you’re hoping for. You want smart, motivated young highly educated effective teachers. The union is one of your best starting allies for this. The union in Boston is one of the best in the nation, and as a result, my job is something I can handle. I don’t think I could handle the choice to be a teacher in many other districts; their unions aren’t strong enough and therefore the job isn’t feasible, particularly financially. In Boston, I get paid better than most teachers in the nation, and I feel safe in my job, not so I can be evil and lazy and incompetent, but because job security and healthcare and personal days are important, especially for those of us who have foregone more lucrative career pursuits. Do I agree with everything the union does or says? No. And I hope I have a say in changing things one day. But the union is what makes it possible for someone like me (who, as I understand, is exactly who you’re hoping to be one of your teachers) to stay in my job.

In addition, the union understands, which many reformers seem to willfully ignore, that funding education must be an all-or-nothing endeavor. This stupid charter v. public debate is a massive exercise in public ignorance; so many meaningless numbers and statistics are thrown around that we might as well be in the marketing field instead of in education. I could write a whole paper about how so many of the numbers by which we are measuring schools just lead to flawed educational practices. But look, if you want to know what it feels like to work in a traditional public school that is actively losing funding and actively increasing in concentration of need because of charters, I can happily tell you. I will write you every year and tell you how the emotional/personal and SPED needs of our students are increasing each year and how we are given less and less each year in order to do something about it.

Reformers like to make unions out as the enemies of charters. This would be hilarious if it weren’t so messed up. I don’t hate charters. I don’t sit around thinking about charters at all. I don’t have time for that! What we hate is not having the resources to do our jobs, and then looking bad for something that is not our fault. It’s really simple. You can fund as many awesome schools as you want, but it’s super messed up to take the table scraps from one school and toss them at another one, then blame the first school for worsening. Make your charters– But can we have money too? Especially if the result is that we’ll be left with a huge concentration of need that charters don’t have to (or simply won’t) deal with. We’ll need more resources to compensate for the shift, but we’re happy to educate all students. That is why I’m in public education. So my only request is resources. Give us after school programs. Give us money for classroom libraries. Buy my slam poetry team the hoodies they’ve been asking for. Pay for us to go on a really cool field trip for once. Fix our windows so they can actually latch closed. Pay for people to come work with kids on arts and theater after school. Pay for counseling for the kids, or a new restorative justice program. Pay the price of an extended day program. Pay for more and better special needs support. Pay for the snacks for a publication party, or the printouts of the photography project we did, or for our classroom decorations.

My guess is that is too simple. Those little tiny details are too small. They are, in fact, what make an education, in addition to (1) excellently trained teachers, (2) a whole lot of social reform to create stability in a child’s life, and (3) competence and integrity in school/district leadership. But reformers don’t seem have the patience for that equation. Instead, everyone is looking for a silver bullet. I hear so much about ‘fighting battles’ and ‘investing money.’ Ed reform is led by people who want sweeping, quick, miraculous change on a large scale. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that is wise.

The number one rule of classroom management is to build strong relationships with kids as soon as possible and then plan lessons that respect and value student voice and thought. Kids know when they are in a space like this or not. They can tell right away when someone is genuinely on their side and respects them and when someone just wants to control them or fix them. In all the reform efforts I’ve heard so far, I’ve seen a whole lot of people interested in controlling and fixing kids, and very few people willing to simply be the facilitator of the genius and giftings that already exist within schools and school systems. Why make enemies out of parents and teachers? Why keep parents and students silent? Why homogenize and dictate? Why speak of teachers and administrators and unions as if they are all evil? Many of us, in fact, are just what you need. Instead of alienating, it might be wise to start with us.

Teachers know that the best feedback is based on a skill the kid already knows how to do well. We can only learn by building from what we already know. I assume that in reform, it’s the same way. Underneath all the anger over educational injustice in this country, I do believe that there are some powerful beginnings to Rousseau’s original dream for public education. We are managing to educate and move children forward in some truly awful circumstances. Their educations are sometimes inadequate. And often the circumstances prevent the education from moving forward at all. But I do not understand why you take this as a sudden crisis and are desperately looking for a quick fix, nor do I understand why you blame schools for society’s overwhelming social ills. What is entrenched is economic and racial injustice, cultures of violence, language disparities. What we’re facing doesn’t need a quick fix. It needs transformative change. We don’t put band-aids on bullet wounds.

There are a lot of really good, and really brilliant people, working incredibly hard every day in education in the hope that schools can help these kids find freedom and power. It would be really great if society could get on board. Maybe take on mass incarceration and give kids their dads back? Maybe take on unemployment and start a small urban business corps? Maybe start a great teenage afterschool ‘job’ program where kids learn important skills, interact with adults, and mature into employable, success-focused people? Or improve wages and benefits for the working class? Somehow relieve the stress load on working mothers? Clean up and redesign the most unsafe neighborhoods to reduce homicides? Provide stress-relief and healthy social and productive options for teens to keep them out of gang violence? Improve standardized tests so they don’t bias certain class or language backgrounds? Increase funding for sports, parks, mentorship? Give families money who need it? There are so many things we can all do to fight injustice and aid in children’s educations. What if we all got on board together?

You write, “We are going up against very powerful, entrenched forces, who only have to defend the status quo… There’s no question in my mind we’re still winning.” I don’t think those words show an understand of the actual fight. You think you’re fighting against unions? Then your fight is too small. Political bodies are political bodies. They are neither enemies nor superheroes. Half of every union or more agrees with a lot of your opinions anyhow! Politics is like a blunt instrument; it just whacks things, hopefully in one direction or another. But if you want to change things, you need to lead people bravely, and you need to see the whole picture. I teach history, so I do know a bit about transformative change.

First, transformative change requires lots of time. Please make your timeline more realistic. We’re talking 20+ years to start to see shifts and understand them. When you’re losing weight, if you get on a scale every day, you can’t tell anything from it. Your body needs time to shift and adjust. Second, transformative leaders make friends everywhere. They see through institutions. They see through cultural norms. They know what they’re looking for and they know what they’re fighting: injustice, not people. Great leaders can build unlikely teams across boundaries (of class, race, authority, status, etc.), and forge strong alliances. I really think the education reform movement needs this. All the drama and name-calling is absurd. Even Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were more respectful of each other. A great debate requires many opinions. Great thinkers need people to disagree with and help them refine their ideas. Why make enemies out of people with differing opinions? That is too small-minded for this fight. Third, and most importantly, transformative change must have the backing of the people. Hitler’s actions, Gandhi’s actions, MLK’s actions, the Vietnam war protest, and the Rwandan Genocide all transformed the world in some way; they also all demonstrate just how powerful the opinion of the people is. I don’t think this is something that can be underestimated. And to clarify, I don’t mean that we should go get a new popular politician as a figurehead for this ‘movement’. I mean that genuinely, if we’re doing stuff and the people our actions are supposed to serve aren’t on board, we really should stop and check ourselves. That is probably the most crucial thing. Successful change will never happen without the people.

Okay. I apologize that this is probably just as long as the article itself. I realize you have no obligation whatsoever to read this, and I am not sure if you will find it enlightening or useful at all. I hope it doesn’t make you angry; I truly intend to offer a perspective that I simply don’t see often in your emails. I just couldn’t read that article and your words and stay silent when I resonated so much personally in my experience. This is the same fight I want to fight, and I really think it could be done better. It sounds like you do too. I hope my thoughts are helpful.

As always, at our children’s service, with you–

Sincerely,

x.

Honor the Children

    Today in class we discussed whether killing is ever justified. One of my students, typically a truant wanderer that has no entry point into class, decided to join in. He said that it’s never okay to kill a person who can’t defend himself, when no one would be able to stand up for or avenge him. He likened it to beating up a disabled person. He didn’t like the power difference; that made it unjust. Then he brought in a real-life example; he mentioned how our administrators were unjust at times because students can’t defend themselves. Administrators can yell at students, speak disrespectfully and make jokes out of students, and students can’t do anything about it except feel embarrassed and angry at the injustice of it all.

    I was so proud I could cry.

    Jared* may not be an obedient, scholarly-minded student. He may lack organization, self-control, academic identity, or whatever other things he was supposed to pick up along the way. Schools have failed him in too many ways to count. But he–perhaps more clearly than any of us– sees the truth at the heart of our education issues. It is a problem that has fallen under the radar of the education reform movement, a problem that never comes up in my Educational Theory classes, a problem that is rarely, if ever, talked about at all. Schools, schoolboards, classes, administrations, policymaking bodies… all have one thing in common: people. Real, live human beings with feelings and character and skills and sense-making and needs and wants of their own. Real children and adults with insecurities and imperfections, good days and bad days, moods, emotions, and identities. Human beings who fear and fail, who at times are lazy, who lie and gossip, who stand up for things, and who stand by silent.

    We who analyze and criticize schools too often fall into language that suggests that schools are more like factories than families. We assume that if we only make our methods more efficient, if we only create practices and materials that are more effective, then students will become better products. We start our movements, give them catchy names, write op-eds about them, and assume that, implemented, they will be effective. For sure, the methods we use to teach are important, and the details of our systems no less. But any teacher or student can tell you that people and relationships are just as big a part of learning.

    We who work in schools—teachers, administrators, specialists, counselors, parents, mentors—are responsible for the creation of students as people, not just as workers; we have a responsibility to their selves as much as their skills. At the end of the day, as much as our official goals for students may be about their literacy or math abilities, our students’ goals are mostly about figuring out who they are, who is in charge, and if they are loved. This is the task of every child, and so we must take it as a first order to honor their priorities and needs: we cannot treat our children as anything less than real people, worthy of honor and respect. The messages and expectations we hand to kids will shape their identities and choices for their lives. So I urge us to consider: What relationships do we offer students? What experiences are we creating for them?

    If we do not model integrity for our students, how will they know it is important? If we do not treat students politely, how will they learn to respect others? If we do not ask what is wrong before we tell them they are doing something wrong, how will they learn self-control?

    Do we give each child a chance, or do we judge first? Do we like having power over children, or are we seeking to empower them? Do we want to control children, or do we want the children to have security enough to control themselves? Do we see children as worthy of honor and respect and admiration, or are we too busy hushing them, yelling at them, seeking obedience from them? Do we distrust children, or are we willing to offer children the opportunity to become trustworthy? Are we focusing on all the things they lack, all the things that need to be ‘fixed’? Or are we getting to know the children in front of us, admiring and adoring them as the delightful children they are?  

    When we demand changes in kids, do we provide an entry point, or do we just verbally abuse kids without ever providing hope? Are we responsible holders of power—wise, cautious, and humble–, or are we the worst kind of bullies, adults whose power over children has become corrupt?

    Have we considered things from their perspective? Are we, deep down, afraid of the teenagers in front of us (and the adults they might become)?

    I do not exempt myself from the limits of patience and compassion, the temptation to despair and cut children off from their umpteenth chance. I too have spoken carelessly of and to children, creating identities in them that they will probably remember long after I have forgotten the words I let slip. I, too, in fear and confusion, have stood by rules when I should have given second chances, given answers when I was too tired to keep asking questions. I too have lost hope on some days for the ‘bad’ kids, and created expectations that made it impossible for a child to re-enter. I too have found myself in power battles I never meant to get into with teenagers who have less identity than I to stand on, been too tired to back up and see the world from my students’ shoes, stood by silent as they are scolded and threatened for something they are told not to question in the same breath with which they are encouraged to think critically.

    But I cannot express how wrong this is, and the depth with which this obsession with control is entrenched and accepted in our culture and our schools makes it no less terrible an abuse of power, made more terrible by the very powerlessness of children. They have neither the knowledge, nor the rights to defend themselves against our fears.

* * *

    To clarify, it isn’t that all structures and rules are wrong. Quite the contrary. Teenagers struggle with self-motivation and self-esteem enough that an adult telling them to get to work and stop talking or it will come out of their grade can be as relieving an entry point to success as any other. A well-designed system of accountability, feedback, consistency, and structure is foundational to our students’ development. Even we adults—childlike that we still are—benefit from such systems. Solidarity amongst adults regarding which messages to be insistent on and consistent about makes a huge difference in what messages children internalize. And I do not discount the importance of learning real scholarly knowledge: the successful achievement of standards and skills is essential to a child’s understanding of her identity, so academics must be a priority. Children, and especially teenagers, need adults, and they need school.

    I think the difference lies in our reasoning and our approach. We must let them try out their adulthood, their full selves, and be there to catch things when they fail. When I was young, my dad used to stand next to the hoop as I tossed basketballs in its direction. When I didn’t make it, he’d rebound and give the ball back to me, or he tipped it in the rest of the way, so that I still scored once or twice. This is our work as adults: even when our children’s aim is off, we make sure they get another shot.

* * *

    I do not deny the agency of many of my students in getting themselves into the situations they are in in the first place.  But teenagers everywhere do stupid things- what we need to understand is the bias of opportunities and consequences that we have created. For one child, being bad is having a drink, for another, going to a club, for another, trying hard drugs, for another, running away. For one student, being bad is forgetting one night’s homework, for another, being bad is telling a teacher to fuck off and leaving the building. And these opportunities and consequences are normed by stereotypes as much as they are by parents and teachers. School culture is far more often modeled and enforced by the kids than by adults. Boys are expected to ‘man up’ and be cool and not be nerdy or sensitive, to not be intimidated or dominated by their [often female] teachers. Girls are expected to be pretty and obedient and still. The kids tell each other who to be and what to do. And, heartbreakingly, we all play into it. Our children have plenty of agency in creating themselves and creating their cultures.

    But honoring our students’ agency doesn’t necessarily look like abandoning them to their mistakes and washing our hands of the matter. Turning a life around is immensely hard work. In fact, the inertia of relationships, habits, expectations, discrimination, and opportunity make it nearly impossible for many people. For adolescents, for whom peer opinions are so important and identities are so fragile, it is even harder. If we cannot be adult enough to respect our students and have compassion on them and allow them to make those mistakes, we should not be around them. Children—no matter if in fifth grade or tenth grade—must be allowed to mess up, and they must be allowed to remake themselves. We cannot give up on our troublemakers; we who can see the whole picture must help them get out. When Jared tells me in one breath that he wants to go to college and in the next that he’s the real deal and he’s “gonna be in the ‘life’ forever”, I cannot abandon him to the consequences of decisions he made as a 13-year-old without telling him a real option for how he could get out if he was considering it. He is so entrenched socially in gang culture that an adult telling him to ‘turn his life around’ means nothing. He hasn’t got a path unless we make one for him. When Stacey tells me she’s going to be the first in her family to graduate high school and get to college, and then she doesn’t show up at school for a week for personal reasons, and her grade drops in my class, I can’t abandon her to the consequences of her mistake and just shrug her off as unreliable. She needs real, plausible hope, and she needs it consistently. When we adults become so attached to justifying our own ideas about the people around us that we cling to our bad opinions of children, we have failed them. When we lose the energy to push students to remake what we know about them into the better versions of themselves, providing them hope and eternal second chances, we have failed them. When we tell kids to change because we see their futures, but we don’t help them find a way, we have done nothing but laid a judgmental charge on their heads and washed our hands clean of the responsibility we still have to help.

* * *

    We cannot treat our children– and especially young adults– as if they are something less than human beings. They only ever deserve the utmost respect from us. They are capable of a fuller and deeper hope, a truer sense of justice, a purer form of morality than we adults can often reach. Even the best of adults need children to remind them in one breath to take life less seriously and yet to see justice more clearly. Children can still see outside the box. They see the world for what it is– and schools for what they are– and say the truth, unlike we older people who, tired and worn enough to choose our battles, turn away and shrug and say ‘that’s just how it is.’ They respond intuitively to love and respect; they say what they think and do what they feel with a true honesty. The part of my students that is still childlike should be treasured and honored. It will pass away soon enough, and my students’ character will solidify, their hope will be tempered, their view of the world less rosy. But now, they are those members of our society closest to God in honesty, in freedom, in joy, in hope. They only ever deserve our admiration.

    Honoring children feels uncomfortable and foreign to many of us adults. It is not what we do. We reward obedience and we punish rebellion and we go back to our own lives. We need children to behave, to be quiet, to not disrupt the big, real world around us. It makes sense: it’s embarrassing when the kids over whom we supposedly have authority are out of line. It feels scary and unpredictable. It’s annoying.

    But what if we reconsidered? What if we lived in a world in which people climb tables and shout for joy and dance in public? What is so wrong with a world in which singing and jokes are more important than being productive, where creativity is as important as productivity? What is so wrong with a world in which people are actually proud of their accomplishments and excited about what comes next? Our kids can see it. Can we think out of the box enough to even consider their vision? Perhaps it is immature. Maybe our kids have some really terrible ideas about how the world should work. But none of us lose when we remember our childlike sides, nor when we practice compassion.

* * *

    I teach ninth grade, so many of my students are already half-adult, trying out what it’s like to have power in their hands, making mistakes with it. I do not wish to gloss over those moments of cruelty, of savagery, of power-mongering and tyranny and all the abuses of humanity that I see my students testing out. My classroom is full of young people who are trying to figure out who they are —and who they are not– each day. But we all have fallen short like these– better that those experiments be had while the children are still teens and there are still many more chances. We should not treat these mistakes with fear, with life-long consequences. Rather, we must treat them with compassion; modeling the character we wish our students to develop, and blinking again and again to forget those try-out identities we never wanted our kids to keep.

    So this is a call to honor our children and our rising adults. There are young people all around you every day, people with dreams, fears, hopes, interests, insecurities, and ideas. Every child has these dreams. Even the supposedly lost causes. Even the ones who drive you crazy. Get to know them. Try on their shoes and their shades, see the world from their perspective. Ask them questions until they know you’re really listening. Honor them with your utmost integrity and honesty. Don’t be in such a hurry to prepare them for your grown-up working world that you quash all the vision in them to change it. Don’t be so panicked about keeping things under control that you never even listen or give them a chance to earn your trust. Don’t be so sure that your knowledge and questions are better than the intellect and thinking of your kids. Be ready for when they ask why.

    And fellow teachers, treasure your troublemakers. Let them burrow into the soft spots of your soul, long-lived reminders that the world is not about you or your agenda, and that there is more to life than our productivity goals and standards-based test scores. Who knows? Maybe the world our kids are creating is a better world than we would have imagined. If we’re lucky, we’ll get to see it lived out.

*All names of students in this piece have been changed.

On Teaching in May and Other Difficult Endeavors

Part 1. 2013.

It is 6:55 a.m. I am still in my pajamas, curled up in a fetal position underneath my blankets. Discarded clothes from previous work days crown the armchair across my room, and in my head, the thought crosses my mind that I must get dressed. I can wear jeans and sperrys today, and I can just wear my glasses, but I must be in makeup and I must have some kind of blazer to make it decent.

I have been debating in my head for fifteen minutes if I can call in sick, because I feel nauseous and exhausted and anxious and tired. I am tired of teaching, I am tired of teenagers, I am tired of people, frankly, and I haven’t felt this grumpy since junior year of college. It is a beautiful day out, which only makes me hate the sunlight more bitterly.

I then idly wonder why on earth an introvert like myself ended up as a teacher.

It is mid-may. We have six more weeks. Why on earth Boston Public Schools decides to start and end so agonizingly late in the year, unlike the southern public school systems in which I grew up, flabbergasts me. Particularly right now, in May. This is awful. If we had just started in August, we could have been done by now. It’s like systemic procrastination, and I hate it too.

I pull teeth and show students how slowly paint dries– or at least that’s how it feels– for an entire day, and after my part of the day is done, I find out that my lead teacher took her keys with her to her field trip and I cannot lock myself in the room with the lights off and hide under a blanket, which is what I’d like to do. Instead I shuffle papers around and click “Inbox” over and over again on my computer screen even when there are no new emails. I count down the hours.

My book on Introverts sits next to me on a desk. I have been reading it in between moments to avoid the students with whom I don’t have to speak. When I started the book last Friday, it made me feel so special and normal. Today it just makes me feel wretched, and a string of expletives that I have adopted from my students thankfully never makes it out of my mouth.

Quit worrying, our math teacher friend from downstairs tells me at the staff luncheon, taking another unconcerned bite of his couscous. I realize that my body is crooked and my shoulders are gravitating toward the sleeping-on-the-desk stooped position, and I feel suddenly awkward about how incredibly asymmetrical and strange I must appear. My eyes drift around the room. Only half of my brain seems to have come to school so when I wonder if he thinks I am particularly weird, I realize that I am too tired to care. This is BTR, my mentor teacher says, when she returns with her keys in the middle of the last class of the day. This is teaching in May.

Well, teaching in May sucks, and I’ll tell you why: despair.

Today is when you realize that your babies aren’t yours after all. Today is when my top student came in too grumpy to do her work, the one student who if she kept her head could make it to a real school and get the hell out of here, refused to accomplish anything. Another high-achiever slept through class because his uncle got shot yesterday. Another student I always count on has been doped up on allergy medicine for days and hasn’t done a lick of work despite my urgings and encouragings. And then the students who are flunking this school year already know, and so they have begun wandering, making circles, doodling on the board, ignoring me, getting themselves kicked out of class. The classes are breaking up. The students are angsty. They are learning about the world, and how it is, and they feel it, and they are lashing out. I am also angry, so I don’t mind.

I see the world around me and everything seems to come at me in a different light, from foreign, adolescent eyes, and all I can feel is the crushing disappointment of disillusionment, at the pit of my sympathetic stomach. I hate this world, because I do not want my children to have to grow up into it. Into jail cells and drug deals, hyper-competitive colleges and soul-selling careers, social media superficiality and lonely isolationism. Meaninglessness, consumerism, sexism, racism, deception, corruption… I wonder if there is any goodness to be found. I hate this world.

Oh Lord, what awaits them?

What will become of these kids? What the hell do Shakespeare and Steinbeck have to do with their lives? Why do they need to know how to make inferences and cite quotations? Why does character motivation matter? What does an analytical essay have to do with their future lives? How many of my students will actually go on to college? How many of them will get stable jobs? How many of them will be successfully and happily married? How many of them will make good parents? Good friends? How many of them will be secure, forgiving, compassionate, confident? How many of them will be happy? Today, I feel like teaching is like a giant shot in the dark. All of the standardized tests in the world cannot tell me what I most want to know about the kids I have sat with this year.

Teaching is my ministry, but I cannot figure out whom I am serving, nor if I have done it well. Have I served God? Have I served the schoolboard? Have I served my students? Their parents? I wrote on my application to this program that language is an issue of power, that I want to teach students independence and self-advocacy and how to write clearly and authoritatively, I want to teach students to love to express themselves through writing. But I do not know even if I have helped my students figure out who they are and what there is to express, much less taught them what makes a good sentence.

Teaching in May is humbling. This is when I know just how small the difference I make is. Just one year of a bumped up reading level, some writing lessons, and a few experiences and memories, and they’re on their way. All Kingdom work is humbling, though. Our visions falter and the fruition seems to fail. This is the fallen life. And we should grieve it. If we cannot grieve the fall, we will not be ready to pay any cost for redemption. So, today, I am grieving.

And this was all so short– was this what it is to support a child? 9 months of 75-minute group lessons? Some grades and written feedback? Content objectives and language objectives? This cannot be right. How can I let this system be? Yet what power have I to change it? I have never felt so powerless before; I wonder little at my students’ beliefs in their own inefficacy. I wonder if they are wrong.

And I am so small. So impermanent.  Both in God’s eyes and in my student’s eyes– I wonder if there is much of a difference between the two perspectives.

I leave school so fast after the bell rings that I accidentally forget a meeting with a teacher friend. I doubt she minds either, though, because it’s May.

I unlock my front door, raid the kitchen for girl scout cookies and change my jeans for sweatpants. I crawl back under the covers I left nine hours ago. My bag full of papers to grade and lesson plans to do and IEP reviews to write is across the floor, where I stubbornly ignore it. At least for right now. While under the covers, I idly wonder what God is doing here at this school, with my kids, with the children of the whole world, with education in general. What is his plan? Why can’t his kingdom just come already? Words like faith, and hoped-for and unseen come to mind. I’m too tired to figure out the verse, but I hope that whenever tomorrow comes, his spirit has filled me up with the love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and gentleness… and hope… that I can’t seem to find right now.

I remember now that when I became a teacher I loved that it was a job that forced me to pray daily. So I am praying now, full-force, but my eye-lids are drooping heavily. I wonder if I should set an alarm, since I have work to do later, but all my limbs feel so heavy and I can’t figure out why I should care if God grants me just a bit of rest from a world I hate bitterly right now. What does it matter — I’ll figure it out later. I curl myself up more tightly into a ball and screw my eyes shut.

When I awake, perhaps there will be a few mustard seeds tucked in between papers and to-do lists, tiny signs of hope that the kingdom has not yet forsaken us.

Part 2. 2014.

   Last year, when I posted about teaching in May, my father called me and told me none too tactfully that I need more hope and that my piece was really depressing and worrisome. I nearly hung up on him, I remember, not because he was wrong, but because when you are in the depths of despair and you’ve written some piece of art that expresses that adequately, the last thing you want is to be fixed. 

   This probably says something about my problematic pride, but swallowing the encouragement and the worries of all the people who love me was hard. Grief is a hard thing to share; we cling possessively to it, thinking we’ve found ourselves in it. Somehow in darkness and in woundedness, we find a despair that is safe. Hope, on the other hand, isn’t safe. It is risky, and it is often unreasonable. To hope, honestly, is a little crazy. Yet hoping is so very human– and so very divine.

  I like that idea. I suppose I am a little crazy, anyhow. And if it’s for hope’s sake, I’m okay with that.

    It is May again, one year later, and things are not the same. I am writing to let you know that I am happy. Lest you assume that this is by some miracle of luck or even some self-transformation, let me make a quick policy plug: I am convinced that the kindness of my colleagues and the functionality of my school (Yay admins!!!) deserve the most credit here.

   But I am also happy with my work, and that is a beautiful thing in a human life. I’m not sure how much my students have learned, but it’s something more than zero. I’m not sure if I’ve prevented any terrible life disasters, but I put in a decent effort for each student. I’m sure I’ve made a fine set of mistakes, but I also have been working diligently on my many “oops!” faces for a new series of selfies I’m going to entitle, “Get Over Yourself and Stop Beating Yourself Up: Haven’t I Learned This Before?” And I’m not particularly interested in saving the world– Jesus can do that–  but I love the company I’ve had this year. I’m even pretty sure we’ve been good for each other; there’s a lot of love in me for the kids who taught me this year.

   I may have another season like the one I wrote about. It’ll probably happen. When you care about human beings, you inevitably get caught up in a lot of mess, and grief is a part of that. We must grieve brokenness, and we must persevere through despair, and we have to get out of bed and slog through the toughest days, the days when we suck at what we do and when what we do sucks. 

   But we also need to be a little crazy, find something to laugh about, and be grateful for the company along the way. And like all of you (and Jesus) said: keep hoping.

   Tomorrow is National Teacher Appreciation Day. I’m sure someone at Chipotle will thank me for investing in America’s children when I try to get my free burrito, but to be honest, I have all the gratitude I need. These days, I appreciate being a teacher. There is no better job in the world.