By Kathleen Melville
On rainy days, the ceiling of my classroom leaks. My students and I know just how to rearrange the room and just where to place the bucket to accommodate the steady drip. It has been leaking for six months.
Last week, the handle of our classroom door fell off. After a few instances of near-panic, when we were momentarily locked in the room, I realized it won’t be fixed in the near future. I taped down the latch.
For over three years, the toilet in our girls’ bathroom was broken, wrapped in a trash bag. This year, someone on our staff finally broke down and hired a private plumber to repair it.
In the School District of Philadelphia, broken things do not get fixed. You can put in a work order, but except in the most dire situations, you’re better off inventing your own solution than waiting on the District to send out a maintenance worker.
Still, my school is one of the places where I am happiest. It’s where my work is. It’s where my students grow up—from nervous 9th graders to self-assured seniors—and where I have grown into the teacher I am today. It’s where I can count on warm greetings, tough challenges, and earnest support from just about everyone. And despite its hazards, it’s one of the safest places I know. It’s our home.
On my drive to school each morning, I pass the old West Philadelphia High School. The looming gothic building is gradually transforming from a historic school into luxury condos. I watch graffiti disappear from the walls and young trees appear in freshly poured sidewalks. The place buzzes with investment, with the anticipation of value, even on rainy days.
In my neighborhood in South Philly, I sometimes pass by the old Bok High School. Another looming stone building, bereft of students, Bok closed in 2013, along with 22 other schools. My friends rave about the views from the new rooftop bar, but I am scared of the ghosts.
In both cases, private investors initiated major upgrades that the School District could never afford. With over thirty percent of Philly’s students now attending charter schools, the District does not have the funds to maintain its schools. So it has sold many of its older buildings, in order to pay the charter schools, which move into new buildings, often at outrageous cost, in order to attract more students from the District. Meanwhile, Bok Bar and West Lofts are enjoying excellent returns on investment. The cycle is maddeningly inefficient and financially disastrous, with private interests exploiting our teetering funding structure for public schools.
I cannot imagine how this two-tiered system of schools will sustain itself. Instead, I hope that charter school teachers and public school teachers will begin to work together to demand more funding, transparency, and accountability of our leaders. We will certainly need to be organized in order to withstand the latest attack on our brick and mortar—cyber schools.
By Maeve Siu
What New Year’s do you celebrate? There have been two constant New Year’s throughout my life. The start of the calendar year brings the promise of fresh personal resolutions. The start of the new school year brings its own resolutions, grounded in a refreshed, post-summer teacher and students. I gained one more New Year after I met my husband, who is of Chinese descent; Lunar New Year has become a wonderful time for family gathering, delicious eats, and thoughtful reflections on our ancestors who came before us and all we owe to them and are thankful for. As a teacher, Lunar New Year had been a welcomed addition since it comes during the difficult winter slump.
Most of us only encounter the new school year from the ages of about 4 to 18 or 22, but as a teacher I have celebrated early September as a time for renewal my whole career. This is the first new school year that I have skipped since I was 4 years old. I went straight from high school to college and straight from college to teaching, with new school years as a beautiful constant each fall. My first new year as a teacher came with a feeling of disbelief, almost like I was a fraud, “they are really trusting me with the math education of 165 students?” In the years that followed, I traded in my insecurity for a feeling of empowerment, making small (and sometimes big) improvements each fall. Changing the seating arrangement, cleaning the piles of crap the former teacher left behind, placing fresh pictures and words of encouragement on the bulletin boards, reorganizing my teacher cart, creating a new system of grading homework -- these may seem small, but they are markers of a fresh start and were wonderful, manageable ways to celebrate the start of the year.
Today, however, I sit in my living room. My twelve week old is on my lap passed out after nursing, and I have no papers to grade. Woah. It doesn’t even feel like fall, although partly that’s the weather’s fault. 80 degrees in October? Really? My reminder that indeed there is school going on around me and that others have started their years are the children that wait for the bus outside my house each afternoon. Loud and full of energy, they are a welcomed reminder of how much I love working with teenagers, because to be honest, most days I am filled with deep sadness when I think about returning to work. I thought I would miss my teacher-self more, but I don’t. I look down at my daughter and I think of how much I have learned about her, how close we are because I have taken this time at home, how bonded I feel to her. Then I think about how much I will miss when I go back to school, and my heart aches.
To be honest I haven’t thought much about school. I’ve tried to keep up with emails and have promised seventeen students and counting that I would write them a college recommendation.
My new year will be celebrated after Thanksgiving when I go back to work. Now that I’m sitting and reflecting on that prospect my mind is flooded with a list of questions:
The professional and the practical: How will it feel to be out of step? Is it going to be weird to learn my students’ names partway into the second quarter? How will the students react to me after having had a different, and highly qualified teacher for their first term? (yes, I am lucky, my long term sub is an experienced math teacher!) Will they buy into the culture I’m trying to create without their own adrenaline from their new year? Will it even feel like my classroom? How will I manage the workload with a growing, teething, sweetie pie babe at home? How long will my daughter scream the first day I’m back at work? How long will it take her to get adjusted? How do working mothers of little ones do it!!!? Will I be able to give my students as much attention and love as I have in the past, now that I will be spread more thin?
The more personal: How long will my heart ache without her? (I can’t even leave her for 20 minutes without feeling a part of me is missing) Will I be able to function on the little sleep I get? As it is, my brain still feels like mush from the sleep deprivation even though my daughter is giving me longer sleeping chunks at night. As a nursing mom, will all my prep time at work be spent pumping? And will that even be enough to “keep up” my supply? Where the heck am I even going to pump in our overcrowded building with no private classroom and really no privacy at all? I’ve been told the pumping spot is the nurse’s office. Gross. Kids are sick in there, and what if I’m pumping and a kid needs to see the nurse? Again I think, how do working moms do it!!?
And the more superficial: None of my clothing fits, what will I wear? How am I ever going to fit in exercise to lose this baby weight on top of everything else?
I get overwhelmed as I list all the questions with very few answers. Motherhood is brand new for me, but teaching isn’t new. I’m reminded that teaching is always a series of questions and reflections, of thoughtfully making changes to be better for ourselves and for our students. This year, my questions will just be different, be shifted to include what’s best for my child too, and certainly have a different timing and pace thanks to my delayed celebration of the new school year 2017.
Working mamas everywhere, I praise you! I’m humbled to be joining your ranks soon.
By Amber Burnett
The night before the school year is about to start, educators have only one life saver in our sea of anxiety; there is almost always an inservice or professional development a few days before the students arrive. In that final week, as we can practically hear our summertime recess clock ticking it’s final seconds, many of my colleagues and fellow educators dive into a period of deep reflection and we incessantly make promises to ourselves. We hope and recite that this year will be easier, and that reciprocity and gentleness will flow from our students and school administration more plentifully than the many tasks we are given. We promise to be gentle with ourselves and have a renewed passion and energy for our course design, field trips and instructional plans. However, within a couple of days of inservice and professional development we are compelled to swiftly alter our resolve as we must meditate or pray for the serenity to accept the things we can not change about our school systems.
Indeed we find out that there are some things we can not change no matter how logical or beneficial to the students that change may be. We can argue, show research that proves our correctness, or beg, but small class size and a teacher’s student load is never considered by some of our schools administration when discussing enhancement of instruction. We find out or reaffirm that the true educational growth a school desires for its students is relegated to a mission statement to lure parents and appease communities. At the same time, we know we can’t change our school policy makers’ misplaced obsessions with standardized tests. We can’t change the fact that often teachers are put under a surmountable pressure to “pass” failing students or that teachers are often punished for demanding work ethic and effort from our students. We can’t change the fact that students come to our class completely unprepared with the basic skills needed to produce in our class. We can not change the fact that our profession as educators in the United States is given no reverence. We can not change the fact that educators are often seen as expendable caffeined chattel by school systems and that there is no such thing as a teacher having a family or any life outside of their educational duties. For a teacher to demand time to rest, be with family and enjoy recreation is sinful and is seen to surly diminish the education students deserve. We can’t change the fact that teachers are hardly ever consulted about designing a class, even if they have proof that the design will be effective. Although teachers are key change agents of a community, we are often discouraged from offering any real input and designs for educational or pedagogical practices. Course autonomy and respect for our expertise in instructional strategies is utterly non-existent in most school systems. And no matter how loud the opportunity gap or academic performance deficiency is , the educator’s opinions and expertise on how to mend those gaps is often dismissed and in some case not even welcomed to be voiced.
The summer recess of a teacher is spent participating in revitalizing activities be that a margarita at the beach or a professional development opportunity! We are fortified and encouraged by our successes of the previous school year and haunted by our failures. At the onset of the school year that starts with in service responsibilities or professional development, educators seemed plagued with a summer glow, resident smile and exciting plans engaging young people. But then we are smothered with the anxiety of all of the things we can not change or even influence in some way. How do we keep that renewed energy and passion for our course design, instructional strategies, and student engagement? How do we keep a resident smile and summer glow all year in spite of our hopes and dreams for our students being undermined by administrative practices? The following are a list of promises that I have made to myself over the last 7 years of my 17 years of teaching. It took me a while to learn that these are the only real promises I can keep to sustain myself.
1. No matter how frustrated you get, STAY SOLUTION ORIENTED !!!!
First, know that you are not alone in your frustrations and sometimes utter disgust with what we see as injustices towards our students. These frustrations can range from the injustice of not having a registered nurse full time for students who absolutely need their services to having to buy your own supplies just to have the basic needs any educator would require to do the job. While it is important to lean on, cry, vent and have an “amen corner” in your colleagues, it is your duty to create solutions and innovate practices to minimize these frustrations. Even with your colleagues problems, after intense listening, try to offer a solution. Being in the habit of this creates an empathetic working environment and creates a deeper rapport with your colleagues. We are educators. Our jobs require constant innovation. We must use that constant practice of being instructionally innovative to give us confidence in creating solutions for problems we can not control.
This sometimes requires we educators to be somewhat rebellious or discreetly insubordinate, most especially when we are held to a uniform curriculum that does not allow for teachers to create lessons that respond to how her students are truly engaged. When you close your classroom door ALWAYS make sure that the learning environment belongs to you and all that your students’ need to learn and stimulate their interests in learning. Your classroom, your students and your ever evolving and responsive instructional strategies do not belong to district mandates. They do not belong to your principal’s mandates. They most especially do NOT belong to some corporation’s successful bid to mandate a uniform curriculum that they convinced the school system to buy. I tell all first year teachers that I have mentored that when you make your classroom yours and your students, everyone and everything else will work itself out, most especially when you focus on be responsive to their academic needs. In short, “always ask forgiveness and never permission” Your students will know you as their advocate and will always help to sustain your declarations of instructional sovereignty!
Being instructionally effective comes with a wide range of challenges including school policy makers lack of focus on deciding what’s best for maximizing a learning environment for students. So when your principal proudly announces that your school will be receiving 500+ more students, know that you’re right to be still emotionally tangled. You are right to worry about what that means for your new student course load. True, there may not even be enough seats for each student to seat themselves, but try to open up your classroom space as much as possible. Indoor plants help too, especially since oxygen and peace will be most sought after! Another solution would be to see of you can balance the student load with a common content colleague, if they are not overwhelmed with their classroom numbers as well. The most powerful solution to this sort of problem is to try to encourage the parents of our students to speak out against these practices.
All and all, we rely and must rely on our colleagues to solution storm inside and outside of district mandates that may hinder our instructional effectiveness or enhance our stress level.
2. Do not fight battles and whole wars you can not win!
Beyond fighting the insanity of some decisions by school policy makers, some of our battles are with our students destructive habits and disengagement in our classrooms. Just like fighting school policies you can not change, fighting or spending too much time focusing your attention on a student’s undesirable behavior is a robbery to the 29 + other students’ needs and academic growth. If the school does not have a strong enough policy to enforce certain behaviors or academic accountability, then educators have no choice but to document accurately and reprimand the student quickly, almost as just a reminder. For example, the educator’s battle with student cell phones is very real. No matter how many studies come out to show us how damaging and distracting the cell phone is in class, you will have some parents that argue for student rights of personal property and that is why some school policy makers concede to that right. Frankly, if it is not a battle your school district or school is willing to get into, then you must look to the small victories that exist in record keeping. During report card conferences, it may impress a student or their parents to see the number of days their young person was distracted by their cell phone per the number of days that exist in that quarter’s marking period!
3. Teachers gotta have a life too! Our health is truly our wealth . . . and our students’ wealth too!
I have been a teacher for 17 years and in that time I have attended 4 funerals of educators who died due to failing heart conditions and high stress levels. You would think that would make school policy makers reconsider the ever mounting workload that is placed on teachers. But it will not. We have to do that for ourselves. No one is built to teach all day, deal with and redirect student behaviors all day, lesson plan, and then come home and grade papers all night. If you want to be a better educator, you must remember that you are a human being and you need time for rest and recreation too. Here is a list of things I commit to every week during the school year that may help you. Do I keep to it every week? No. But it is an anchor for me and helps me to have optimum energy for facilitating instruction.
4. Do not “pass” a failing student. Let the admin change grades if they want to.
Educators can lose their certification falsifying grades in any way. Administrators have a unique power to change grades with the caveat they have a compelling reason to do so. Keep and print your records. Most importantly, keep some student work to demonstrate either what the student has done or what they have not done. I keep a master binder of student assignments
5. If you are not enjoying what you are teaching, change it!
Your job is to connect with and engage your students which is impossible if you are not into what you are teaching. Within optimum instructional autonomy, as long as you are focusing on the core standards and a clear objective, there is no opposition to you being creative and even re-writing the curriculum. For example, when I was forced to impose this scripted, direct instruction, phonetic awareness drill on my 8th grade students, my students were not only disengaged but they began to hate reading. Every morning, for the first hour, we would do call and responses of random phrases to practice reading aloud. Although the students, I worked with were reading below grade level, they did not need to be tortured with rote practices that most especially turn students off from seeking literature. I decided to rebel and changed my class into a class we called “The Literary World of Music”. Every morning started with a song chosen by me and then Fridays the students could select our Monday song. We would read the lyrics and have dynamic discussion on the meaning of some of the lyrics. We would analyze the use of literary devices and figurative language constantly. Gradually, I would add some poetry or an intriguing short story or article but we NEVER went back to that scripted curriculum again. Reading levels absolutely improved and more importantly, my students learned to have a love affair with literature.
6. Develop partnerships and good collegial relationships with your colleagues.
Be it your content area team or your colleagues that share your students with you, often we are all we have to sustain us. Isolation is the worst habit of some educators and it does nothing but reduce morale and make one feel as though they are all alone to face the constant challenges we have as educators.
7. Create a positive jar or journal.
Write down 2 or at least one positive thing that happened per day. On bad days go back and read some of these journal entries.
Here’s the truth about teachers who love what they do. One teachable moment can cause us to chip off resolutions 2 and 3, easily! Those 2 out of 7 resolutions focus solely on the well being of the educator. By October, most of us have forgotten it is okay to want to just go home after school or, dare I mention, use a personal day!
By Scott Storm
Many people binge on Netflix or mac and cheese as a way of experiencing a pleasurable and cozy sort of comfort. I binge on those things too, but I am also a teacher who binges on education research conferences. Some may groan at the thought of attending a research conference. Many may critique these events for using inaccessible language and being soporific experiences. However, I am drawn to these conferences because, like comfort food, they bring me joy. Sitting in a room where lots of thoughtful researchers are trying to puzzle out the fundamental tensions and problems of teaching is exhilarating. It can feel as if you are right on the edge of solving some big issue in your classroom, your school, or your nation. I have become addicted to making sure that I can hear--and be part of--the conversations that academics are having about our classrooms.
My first conference was the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention nearly a decade ago. I went with two colleagues and at first we went to some really terrible sessions where presenters would get up and lecture for the entire time about a short story that they taught one time. They would recount the plot of the story in tedious detail but never actually offer any ideas about pedagogy.
But then we started going to sessions marked “research strand” or to see people who colleagues had recommended. And the world opened up. Suddenly, we could tell that there was a sustained conversation going on with a particular group of people about what English was and should be in high schools, about what audacious things students knew and were able to do with literacy, and about how social justice and systems of unequal power played into all of this. Suddenly we felt awake.
I remember one of my colleagues asking, “why isn’t this room packed? Why isn’t everyone here?” as we listen to a researcher unpack issues in students’ reading comprehension over time. As we sat in this session, we were forced to think about the ways that our classroom talk before and after reading might build reader-identities in students and ultimately make our students more or less successful readers of school texts. For example, starting the class saying “open the text to page 200 and read the first paragraph” could potentially have a very different effect than saying, “yesterday’s reading made us question what it meant to be an ethical person, and today we are going to get to explore this thorny issue even more deeply.” The first way of opening the lesson assumed an ideology of compliance—the statement is a command and all personal pronouns are stripped away. Further, there’s no guiding question or reason for reading embedded in the statement. However, the second way of beginning the class uses pronouns like “we” and “us” to build the shared class community. It employs words like “yesterday” and “today” which situates this lesson as a step in a larger arc. And this opener ties the text to cognitively demanding and engaging tasks—puzzling out what constitutes an “ethical person” which is seen as a “thorny problem” without clear right/wrong answers. It sets students up with a guiding purpose for reading and invites them to do intellectual work.
Obviously, the way you frame a text before reading is not alone going to magically make everyone read perfectly. We still need the scaffolds, graphic organizers, and other supports as we go through the reading process. But listening to this talk at this conference made me forever shift the way that I teach reading. It made me realize that the language of the lesson matters and that how you frame reading experiences set students up for success or failure before any eyes even glance at text. Attending this session made me a better teacher and made me so excited to be thinking about my practice in this way. I remember sitting in the audience and madly scribbly notes to the colleague next to me—notes filled with exclamation points and emojis.
Attending that session was such an enjoyable experience that I never stopped conference binging. My colleagues and I go to several conferences each year and we still sit next to each other and wildly scribble notes and questions about our practice of teaching. Sure, we end up in some bad sessions sometimes, but we have gotten better at knowing how to pick sessions that will temper our insatiable curiosities. As time has gone on, we have more and more wanted to not just listen to the conversation that researchers are having about our classrooms, but to also be part of that conversation. We have conducted our own research projects and been presenters ourselves at the conferences. Unlike binging on mac and cheese or Netflix, which are primarily about consumption, conference binging has also become about production for us—as we actively try to help produce answers to some of the thorny questions and dilemmas of our professional practice. And while some may still find conferences useless or boring, for us a conference always brings excitement, practical ways to improve our teaching practice, and unbridled intellectual joy.
By Jarrod Green
Inspired by Stacey's piece, "Baby Birds," we took her first line as a prompt at our June meeting. We all wrote pieces that began "This is the time of year when . . ." The results were a delightful mix of humor and heartfelt reflection.
In March and April at preschool there’s a lull, a false sense of security, that is in no way mitigated by the knowledge that May and June are coming.
When I went to college in Rhode Island every year there was a week in February when the sun would come out and all the snow would start to melt and we’d all wear t-shirts, ignoring—by senior year, willfully ignoring—the fact that a hard freeze was only days away and we were all guaranteed to slip on the ice and bruise our tailbones. That’s March and April at preschool. The kids are older, more confident and competent, comfortable but not yet cocky. The teachers have worked out the kinks in the system, and their relationships with the kids have gotten reliably fun. The administrators have crossed a lot off the year’s to-do list, and there’s still enough time to get the rest of it done. The weather is fine, and we’re all wearing t-shirts.
Now it’s mid-June, though, and despite the uncomfortably humid weather, we’re in the metaphorical hard freeze. There are some joyful moments of course, seeing projects wrap up and children reach milestones—the snowball fights and hot cocoa evenings of my college days, so to speak. But (he said, continuing to torture the analogy) it’s hard to ignore the icy streets and the knee-deep snow that makes walking anywhere a dangerous, tiring slog. Teachers are stressed by the tasks yet to do and the limited time in which to do them. Children are alternately cranky because they’re hot and sweaty and cranky because they played in the water and now their clothes are wet. Administrators are spending more of our time putting out fires—or, whatever, thawing frozen pipes—and less of our time getting things done that have to be done before the end of the year. There hasn’t been a day this week when I’ve accomplished even half my required to-do list, and there hasn’t been a moment I haven’t been doing something urgent.
We’re all looking forward to summer. It’s only, god help us, two and a half weeks away, but it feels like I’m back in college, trudging to class on a dark gray morning, watching my breath freeze, and thaw, and refreeze on my scarf. June at preschool can be a long, cold winter.
By Stacey Carlough
This is a piece that Stacey wrote in spring 2017 and shared with our group in May.
It’s the time of year when baby birds fall from nests. You’re walking along the city sidewalk, lost in your thoughts about the day ahead or the day that’s done, and there, a step ahead, lies a fuzzy broken body of potential, gone. Light, extinguished. You wonder for a moment how this fragile fledgling fell, what series of events led to its death. Was it the accidental knocking of a sibling’s naked wing? Some sloppy, inefficient predator? An overwhelmed mama bird driven to desperate infanticide? Or is it just something that happens. One of a statistically predictable batch of baby birds that just don’t make it. We accept these deaths because the majority--those with better built nests, access to more nutritious worms, protection from bored cats on afternoon joy rides--they survive. We don’t remember the hollow skulls smashed against the pavement because we see the survivors flying high and free above our heads, and we maybe even envy them their freedom. So we step over, and we keep walking.
It’s no small coincidence that this is also the time of year when the reckoning comes for many of our high school seniors. Unexcused absences, chronic tardiness, messes of missed homework assignments and failed assessments can no longer be ignored or promised away. The numbers speak, and they say to our students in no uncertain terms that they didn’t cut the muster. They aren’t, apparently, College and Career Ready. And we sit at tables and talk about why and how. We blame them. We blame ourselves. We blame the system. Black Lives Matter, right? Make America Smart Again, right? But we’re exhausted. We’ve all been doing our best, even if those bests contradicted each other at some point. And they’re exhausted. They’ve been doing their best, or they haven’t been for some reason or another. And it’s one month till graduation and we’ve got to figure something out because as it stands, one-third of our baby birds are about to fall hard and fast from this here nest.
So we look to the sacred gradebooks. We evaluate the weighting of projects and essays and fiddle with recalibrating points and percentages. We consider extra credit and study groups and extensions and revisions. But what about all those chances they already had? What about the teacher who came in Sundays for months for the fistful of students who bothered to show up? What about the opportunities for purposeful relearning and growth they squandered time and again? If we rewrite history with our school community as the villain who failed them, and pass them along to colleges or the workforce, who are we serving? Surely not the students who haven’t actually learned the value of a deadline or that writing a powerful paragraph isn’t supposed to be easy. That teachers don’t give grades; students earn them. If we give in and say, well, yeah, we really could’ve, should’ve, needed to’ve done this better, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, then our graduation rate stays within a respectable range and the overlords won’t come snooping. No one will ask why we’re dropout factory-ing the poor brown kids. And you know what, though? We need to ask this question. We need to ask it of ourselves, and of our schools, and of our cities and of our parents and of the students themselves. And we need to examine why they’re struggling to fly and work, as a community, as a city, as a nation, as a people, to fix it. It’s bigger than us, sure, but it’s also right in the palm of our hand. A hundred tiny, frantic hearts beating wildly and a hundred pair of tiny eyes staring wildly out over a foreign horizon. Our students deserve better than even the most well meaning nudge over that precipice.