On Wednesday my head exploded. Or maybe it was my heart. My soul? Something. Everything?
Maybe it didn’t explode. Maybe it just boiled over. I have known for weeks that something was building under the surface. Bubbles of anger kept rising within me, occasionally splattering some mess over the stovetop of my day, but I’d just slap a lid on it and do my best to turn down the heat (which looks a lot like eating chocolate and watching Ted Lasso every night).
On Wednesday I had a meeting with my principal to discuss the class she’d observed as part of my formal evaluation process for the year. She opened with: “When I left your room, I walked back to the office and announced to the office staff: ‘And that, folks, is how it’s done!'”
Isn’t is strange how, sometimes, affirmation and praise can be the things that push you over an edge you didn’t fully realize you’d been teetering on?
The news is full of stories of all the ways in which students, teachers, and school systems are struggling. On Tuesday we learned that a local middle school (one that some of my school’s students attended) was shifting to remote learning for the next three weeks because student behaviors have become so unsafe.
Meanwhile, in my classroom at a public charter school that serves students who attend our local public high schools half-time, things are going great–better than they ever did when I was last a classroom teacher, 12 years ago. The class my principal observed is full of 16- and 17-year old boys who like to design and build things (they are in our engineering and manufacturing program), and they have stayed with me for 6 weeks focused on reading complex informational text and writing summaries. (Yeah, that’s as dry and academic as it sounds.) Many of them have told me how much they dislike English class because it’s just not their thing. And yet, I have never had a bad or even difficult day in class with them. (Truly. The biggest disruption thus far came from one boy bringing in a bag of candy the day after Halloween.) I have been keeping this state of affairs mostly to myself or downplaying it when others ask how things are going. When I listen to my colleagues in other places, I feel guilty to be having it so relatively good.
But I have also been feeling angry. Angry about nothing and everything. The anger seemed so wrong–how could I be angry when things are going so well?–that I stuffed it as soon as I became aware of its presence. Wednesday, as I processed with my principal the lesson she observed, I finally understood where it’s coming from.
As we talked, I began to see clearly that things are going great not because I’m lucky, and not because I’m teaching in a charter school, where students have chosen to be, and not because I have especially “good kids.” (I’d tell you how much I hate it when teachers and others declare some kids “good,” but that’s a digression I’ll save for another day.) Those first two things might be at play, but other factors are far more important in explaining how I knocked my lesson out of the park:
- I’m working in a small school with a healthy culture and strong leadership, where students are known and structural components of the program make it possible for them to form positive relationships with staff and each other.
- I have reasonable class sizes (24 and 27 students).
- I’m working my ass off, struggling and generally failing to limit my work to 1/2-time hours (20 per week) for my contracted 1/3-time job (13.2 hours per week), but because I can afford to teach only two classes and my personal life demands are manageable, I have time (no, am giving time) to do all the things we know are part of good teaching practice.
- I know how to implement good teaching practices because, thanks to my years as an instructional coach, I’ve had the opportunity for deep, sustained learning about how to teach well.
Because of all these things (take away any one of them and the outcome would be different), in spite of everything we’ve all been through since March 2020, I’m able to be a really damn good teacher this year. It’s hard for me to write that last sentence, socialized as I have been to be modest and avoid any behaviors that look like arrogance, but I think it might be the most important thing for me to say–because it’s at the root of why I’m so angry and sad and disheartened about the state of public education.
I’m not a good teacher because I’m especially talented at teaching. I’m not. In fact, teaching is, in many ways, a poor fit for me. I’m deeply introverted and probably further along on the neurodivergent side of the autism spectrum than most people know and I hate being the center of attention. I’m not charismatic and I’m not a performer and, frankly, I’m not anyone’s idea of fun. I’m serious and earnest and I often don’t get the joke.
But I’m a really good teacher these days–the best I’ve ever been–which means that most people who are teachers could be, too, if they had what I have and were given what I’ve gotten. (Hell, most could be far better than me because they are so much more suited for peopling than I am.)
But I’ve had all of these things, and that’s why I’m not experiencing the kinds of distress that most teachers are this year. It’s why I am having the best teaching year I’ve ever had AND I’m not sacrificing my own health or my family’s needs to get it.
So why am I so angry? BECAUSE EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE WHAT I HAVE AND THEY COULD IF WE WOULD PULL OUR COLLECTIVE HEADS OUT OF OUR ASSES. BECAUSE IT’S CONFIRMATION THAT ALL THE BULLSHIT ABOUT SELF-CARE AND HOLDING BOUNDARIES TEACHERS HAVE BEEN SURROUNDED BY FOR YEARS IS THE GAS-LIGHTING TOXIC CRAP I ALWAYS THOUGHT IT WAS AND I SUFFERED NEEDLESSLY THINKING MY INABILITY TO BE OK IN THE EDUCATION SYSTEM WAS MY OWN PERSONAL FAULT AND FAILING.
(yeah, I’m shouting)
I have confirmation now that it wasn’t my fault. I have confirmation that things can be different, even in the midst of multiple kinds of existential crises and systems failure. I have confirmation that all the contortions I’ve put myself through trying to make things better were a waste of time. I have confirmation that the system is as broken as I’ve feared.
We know–from all kinds of research–what our kids need to learn. I know, from both research and deep anecdotal evidence, that the biggest factor in student behavior and success is what the adults are doing. Not the adults in their homes, but the adults in their schools. My students have chosen to attend my school, which is an indicator of factors that might make it more likely that they will be successful, but collectively they bring with them the same full range of challenges that exist in most public school classrooms. I am not perfect in my practice, by any means, and not all of my students are thriving, but what’s happening in my classroom is so relatively good it often feels unreal, and if we truly valued our children the way we like to say we do, we’d put our money where our mouths are and do school differently so that teachers could have the time they need to learn, collaborate, plan well, and respond to students as individual learners because that is what’s best for kids.
Other countries do this. But we don’t. That’s the bottom line. (Insert screed about capitalistic values and how our children should not be treated like products or commodities.)
Instead of figuring out how to give teachers and schools what they really need to do a good job, politicians and school board members and parents are fighting over mask mandates and library books and the non-issue of CRT, generally to advance their own political agendas. We’re using our limited educational resources to manage a public health crisis and to comply with superficial directives (such as taking time for add-on social-emotional learning activities rather than making structural changes that will actually provide social and emotional supports) that will allow people in state-level administrative positions to look like they’re addressing our problems. I am so sick of what we do in schools being driven by adult needs to justify our practices, and too many days, I feel like I just can’t fucking take it any more. I retired earlier than planned because the system felt so damn broken and I couldn’t stomach being complicit in pretending that it wasn’t or that if we just tried harder or did some superficial things differently we could stop harming students. I couldn’t stomach being complicit in asking teachers to do more with less and contributing to the unmanageability of their jobs. I walked away from something I gave my life to and believe in the value of to my very core because I lost faith that things could be different.
And then I took this job. I took this job because it is both part of the system and apart from it, and I wanted to see if that was enough of a difference to make a difference. I wanted to find a way to not give up and to give to my community without having to give too much of myself. I have told myself over and over and over to focus on what I can control (my classroom) and the good I can do (for my students and school community) but I’m too angry at the ways in which all of us are being used and misused and how my continued willingness to be used (my true hourly rate is paltry, I don’t work enough to earn benefits, and my goal that I’m failing to reach is to work only one day a week for free) is part of what allows the brokenness to continue. I’m too angry about how all of this mangles my stupid heart and the hearts of so many people who want to serve and support our kids. Even though I’m a socially awkward introvert who often finds humans exhausting, I still love us, especially the youngest of us, and I’m so bone-deep weary of the ways in which we keep actively choosing to fail each other.
I have no grand conclusions here. I know that writing this here and publishing it on my little personal blog won’t change anything, and that I’m likely to have even less impact than that character in Network shouting about being mad as hell, but I want those of you who read here to know that our schools aren’t all right, and that our issues have not been caused by the pandemic, just revealed and exacerbated by it. I am writing here to bear witness, more like the people in that same movie shouting from their windows and fire escapes than the network executive having a televised meltdown, but maybe if enough of us do that it can be the starting place for putting broken things back together. Or, at the very least, for cleaning them up.