“Like” A Teacher Today

Yesterday, I checked in on a Facebook group, an alumni page devoted to people who attended my high school.  Along with catch-up chit chat and reunion info, someone posted a comment about our former math teachers.  Responses show teachers do make a difference.  So many years after we had all moved on, fellow grads still recall people who worked to make them math literate.  In my case, that was a task of mythical proportions.  Think Sisyphus. God love Mr. Roy Rich who gave me confidence to challenge/train my left brain to master both logic and geometric proofs.

Teachers Make a Difference

We all know them.  They are the people who taught us to share and to wait our turns.  They are the people who gave us the magic of reading, music, numbers, history, art and the value of fair play. They are the people who may not have loved us unconditionally as our parents did, but who none the less labored to make us our best.

Everyone can name their favorite teachers. Most of us can name our best teachers, too.   They weren’t always the sweetest, the prettiest, the gentlest, the funniest, or the easiest teachers, either. Kids don’t always see that.  As adults,  however, we know better. We know that  sometimes, the tough teachers– the ones who challenge us, who force our reach to exceed our grasp—are among the finest.

Now we need a public service ad 

If we all know them, if we all can name them, then why do we need this:

Ads like these run on my local network affiliates:  teachers featured in thirty-second sound bytes reassuring viewers that they do indeed work hard, love kids, and know their content.  Is that what teachers have been reduced to doing to assert their worth? Really?

Rationally, I  totally get it.  It is in our own best interest to publicly share the great work we do. I understand that we must be proactive. Education has become part of the political fabric of  the country in ways most of us never considered when we were studying pedagogy and child development.

Most teachers are not political animals.  Most of us simply want to continue what we do best: teach.  Yet, we seem to be forced into the fray, particularly during these challenging economic times. Tenure, pensions, living wages seem to be what outsiders resent most about teachers.   So, I understand the need to self promote.

But, that doesn’t mean I have to like it.  Part of me still finds it offensive.  (It’s that right brain again hindering rational thought!)   I wonder why we need to show and tell so much.  Is this our our Sally Field moment?  We want them to like us, really, really like us?  Watching television ads makes me feel that our profession has been somehow been cheapened, reduced to the same slick advertising copy used to hawk the latest electronic consumer good.

Like a teacher, today 

The teachers I know are professionals.  They take their jobs very seriously, well aware of the responsibility.   They have earned advanced degrees.  They work within a network of lifelong learners who share the vision of effective education as essential to the common good.

Teacher Appreciation Day has come and gone.  But it’s still OK to “like” a teacher today.

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Dear Andy:

Dear Andy:

You probably don’t remember me.  We were classmates at Fordham University , many years  ago, before you were elected governor and before I became a wife, mom, grandma and, oh right, a teacher.   Yeah, I was the little red-haired girl in sociology, sitting all the way at the back of Keating auditorium with the pre-meds. Gosh no, that wasn’t me reciting complicated organic chemistry formulas.  I was English Lit and Journalism. Sitting with the pre-meds was merely symbiosis: they tutored me in my required math and science classes, I supported them in humanities. Back then, I planned to either pen the next great American novel or win a Pulitzer for cracker-jack investigative reporting.

But not long after Zbgniew Brzezinski delivered our commencement address, I found my way into education and I never looked back.  Lucky thing, too.  I love what I do.  Every day.  It has been far more rewarding to share Fitzgerald’s truly great American novel with kids than it would have been to try to write a weak imitation of Gatsby.  As for that Pulitzer, I discovered the free press wasn’t all Fordham Jesuit journalism professor, Ray Schroth assured me it would be.  I guess I wasn’t predatory enough to be a real reporter.

But I digress.  Andy, surely you must know you are the Big Kahunna of the Class of ’79. No kidding.  I tell people all the time that I went to college with two big shots of contemporary culture: Denzel Washington, Class of ’78 and you, governor of the great state of New York.  In truth, though, we both know that Denzel spent most his college career at Lincoln Center.  We two, however, are Rose Hill stalwarts, comrades, fellow alum of the parking wars and survivors of the infamous trestle and The Jolly Tinker.

Well, I was back on our beloved Bronx campus recently, Andy, and I hardly recognized the place.  Really.  So much construction. Our alumni dollars at work.  You should see the new library and the new dorms.  Amazing. Remember when a suite in Martyrs Court or an apartment in 555 were the best accommodations an upperclassman could hope for?

Anyway, being back on Edwards Parade really got me thinking, though.  Both you and I are the products of a liberal education, right?  We were both fortunate enough to take the core courses the Jesuits required so we would leave Fordham truly educated, not just schooled for a job.  Both of us heard the same convincing messages about the importance of education for civilized, democratic societies.

Why then are you so intent on wrecking havoc with NY’s education system?   I mean, I am open to change.  That is something else the Jesuits taught us, right?  Change is good.  But for it to be successful, that change has to be intrinsically sound.  It has to be motivated not by political gain, but for the public good.  Is it in the interest of the public good to dismantle the existing system without proposing a stronger, smarter replacement institution?

I won’t deny that there are many weakness in contemporary education, not just here in NY, but across America.  We should be preparing our students to read more carefully and write more clearly and to perform basic mathematical calculations. Kids have to be able to meet the challenges associated with both college and the workplace.   And we should also be insisting that they know how to think, that they become independent learners.  There are very few teachers that I know who would ever argue that these are among our basic professional responsibilities. In fact, there are no teachers I know who would disagree with this. Not a single one.

The paradoxically piecemeal/wholesale change you are imposing on schools and educators, however, is already showing signs of distress.  Schools don’t have the resources to manage the paperwork.  Schools don’t have the resources to support increasingly needy pupils.   Testing—especially flawed testing—cannot be used to measure teacher effectiveness.  If you want to apply test scores to teacher evaluations, then surely those tests must be well constructed in order for the scores to be reliable and valid. Pearson’s questions for The Pineapple and the Hare should never have made it to NY.  Concerns about these questions have been circulating since 2006. There are too many variables that remain unaccounted for. What about inconsistent attendance?  What about kids who routinely arrive at school hungry or sick? What about all of the other intangibles that are part of every day in every classrooms, those things we can’t see or hear or touch, but that impact instruction?

Our old Fordham professors insisted that we examine every angle of a question in order to formulate a postulate that would hold up to scrutiny.  Call it a Jesuit obession.   Could you really look Father McDermott in the eye and say that you have done that with education reform?   There has to be vision.  Andy, I am having trouble seeing your vision for our state’s public schools.

Can I go to the nurse?

“Ms. D, can I have a pass to the nurse?”  Sometimes the voice is deliberately distant, punctuated by panting.  Creative kids add a sniffle or a rasp for good measure.  Some clutch their guts and buckle at the knees, while rolling their eyes.  All in all, the effort is admirable.

Over the years, I am sure I have been scammed by legions of kids who just desperately want to put off a vocabulary quiz or avoid writing a critical lens essay.

But be honest.  When they are standing in front of your desk, giving you an award winning imitation of post-apocalyptic survivors, you never know, right?   You never know which kids are legit:  who is really about to puke or otherwise combust, who has a rash, a migraine, athletes’ foot.  So you write the pass. But you don’t always know what happens after they gather their things and head down the hall.

We don’t always know how often and how well our school nurses patch up our kids.

Too often, we take the nurse’s office for granted. The daily attendance goes through here. Cutters get a comeuppance here.  The nurse applies ice and gives out band-aids and takes temperatures.  She examines eyes for conjunctivitis and heads for lice.  In extreme moments, she calls 911.  For most kids, though, a trip to the nurse is a one-time deal.  They get to school, and feel sick.  They go to the nurse, call home and get better and come back to school in a day or two.

But for other kids, the nurse’s office is a refuge, a sanctuary where someone actually listens to them, where someone serves them the breakfast they didn’t get at home. The nurse has stickers for scared kids or lonely kids or kids who are having a really bad day. The nurse has beds for kids who need a nap, blankets for kids who need to wrap themselves up to feel safe and the nurse has the patience to deal with so many patients.

Every year, our 8th graders write thank you letters as part of their autobiography projects and every year a couple of kids choose to write to the nurse.   Every year. They thank her for supporting them while their parents split up.  They thank her for helping them through tough times in the cafeteria or on the bus.  They thank her for making them feel special.  They thank her for things she doesn’t always even remember doing. Every year.

When one of our families fell on hard economic times, our nurse solicited the staff for donations so the kids would have food.  She orchestrated faculty support for another school family facing a baby’s illness, making sure that the school age kids had Christmas gifts and the family had meals. Her heart spoke again when our cafeteria manager had a fire in her apartment and lost almost everything.  Our school nurse found time to take up a collection for gift cards for clothing and basic household supplies.  It is little wonder that kids write her thank you letters every year.

So when I heard last week that our school nurse is retiring after nineteen years with us, my head ached and my knees buckled.  I guess I needed a pass to the nurse myself.  Though I am happy she will now have her days free to spend time with her husband and lavish attention on her grandson, I also selfishly know we will miss her TLC and her 41 years of medical expertise.

A pass to the nurse?  Just this once, OK?

School Heroes

 

My first heroes were my parents. My mother and father loved me unconditionally and in addition to providing me with the staples of survival, taught me the tenets of morality and humanity that have guided me through life for some fifty years.

When I was old enough to go to school, I discovered another class of heroes: teachers. I n red brick public schools , in the care of those heroes,   I learned to read and to write.  I learned long division and later calculus. I learned about democracy and Buddhism and the Congress of Vienna.  I saw Dick and Jane and Spot run and I embraced the genius of Shakespeare and Fitzgerald.    But perhaps more important than academic data acquired in those schools, were the daily challenges to live the ethical ideals my parents expected me to apply even when out of their sight and earshot.  It was in these experiences that my school heroes helped me most.

They were always there: in the front of the room, looking over my shoulder, at the head of the line, appearing whenever, where ever they were needed.   Some marched in impossibly high heels, a comforting cadence on linoleum corridor floors.  Others glided effortlessly among our desks in colorful, flowing garments of the counter culture.  So many years later, I remember their names, their faces, their expectations.  These men and women demanded that I never settle for less than my best.  Though I tried repeatedly to evade them, they accepted no excuses for late work or unkind actions.  “What do you mean you don’t have a pen,” Miss German asked in front of the rest of the sixth grade.   That day, I also learned the meaning of a rhetorical question.   The consequences varied from classroom to classroom, but there remained the explicit understanding that what I did—or more often, did not do—was my own doing—or undoing, as it might be.  My school heroes taught me early on to man-up, that a lesson learned would never be  an error wasted.

And it didn’t occur to me to complain to my home heroes about a scolding or a detention, either.  I just knew that my parents wouldn’t be any more pleased about transgressions than my teachers had been.  When Mr. Danzig sat me out of kickball for unsportsmanlike behavior, I didn’t mention it at home, praying the rotary wall phone wouldn’t ring with the news.  The same held true for talking incessantly in Mrs. Horan’s global studies class or neglecting Mr. Kanze’s sixth grade arithmetic assignments.   The heroes on the home front were united with the heroes at school.  It was a brilliant alliance, one that gave me the priceless chance to live up to my potential every day, in every subject.

For this—and so much more– I thank my parents and my teachers. Together, my home heroes and my school heroes made me accountable.  With one voice, they reminded me to be my best.  I am ever grateful.  Their continued collaboration on my behalf helped me discover my talents, confirmed the rewards of hard work, propelled me toward personal and professional success.  When people expect you to do your best, more often than not, you do.

Remember Why We Entered This Profession

Everyone has heard those jokes about the allure of teaching: summer vacation, holidays,  short work days.   To the uninitiated, these apparent “perks”  have come to define our profession.  Those of us who teach, however, know better.

I found my way to teaching via the scenic route, by way of a BA in English, a brief stint in the world of print journalism, and the lifetime committment to motherhood.  With the support of my husband and with two small children at home, I enrolled in graduate school and earned an MS in Teaching, finishing with a 4.0 GPA.   Back then, teaching secondary English represented a chance to combine what I already knew I loved– kids, school, reading, writing–into a career.  And almost as soon as I addressed my first class of eleventh graders, I knew two things. One,  I really might enjoy teaching.  Two, teaching well was going to be so much more challenging than I ever imagined.

The first year or two were simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating.  Some days, my high school classes were a series of wild fires that I was barely able to contain, much less extinguish. I forgot to assign/collect/correct homework.  Classes were interrupted by (pick one or more): assemblies, fire drills, band lessons, play practice, class trips,  the occasional  lovers’ quarrel or fist fight.   Planning lessons and correcting an endless supply of essays instantly became a second full time job.  But then, something about Jay Gatsby’s love for Daisy or Atticus Finch’s courage in the face of blatant racism would evoke a sigh or a cheer and then, the class and I collectively soared.

Eventually, I mastered the planning, managed the pacing and became more optimistic about my chances of being a five year survivor, the point at which my more experienced colleagues said they had become somewhat better at this very demanding and very complex job.

In the years since, I have taught AP Literature and now share my love for language with seventh and eighth graders whose energy and angst keep me on my instructional game.

Though the rules of the game have changed, it helps me each day to remember that I love what I do.  I still belive what I believed on my first day on the job: next to parenting, teaching is perhaps the most important job on earth and just like parenting, the only way to get good at it is to do it.