Appreciating the Everyday

Friday evening gave me one of those moments when I attended the opening at a gallery featuring an old friend’s photographs.  The images were crisp and clear and exposed perfectly.  Moreover, so many of the photos were familiar places, simple, beautiful scenes others had no doubt passed and dismissed, or more likely, passed and simply ignored. Yet, seen through the right eyes, these everyday scenes made me smile and lowered my blood pressure even as they took my breath away.

This celebration of the everyday was a call to appreciate my own everyday: my husband’s spontaneous laughter, our children’s personal and professional success, the easy company of good friends.  This is the stuff that life is made of, but like the scenes in the matted photos in the gallery, this is often the stuff we take for granted just because we see it every day.

In his professional life, this photographer captures the tragedies of human existence: car wrecks, house fires, death.  But that’s business; the photos in the gallery, those were pure pleasure.  And that someone can be this close to disaster daily and still maintain this incredible eye for beauty, that inspires me.

The lesson?  There’s always a lesson, right? After all, I am a teacher.  So much of life is about what we see.  See it.

What Would Socrates (or Annie Sullivan or Albert Shanker) Say?

Socrates.  John Dewey.  Maria Montessori. Jaime Escalante. Christa McAuliffe. Annie Sullivan.  Even by the most stringent application of the Danielson rubric, these folks are examples of highly effective teachers.  What would they say to high stakes standardized testing, APPR, Race to the Top?

Fade in on the scene: A stark corridor outside the closed door of the governor’s office. Fine mahogany door frame, frosted glass on the door, the governor’s name spelled out in three inch gold letters.    The characters are seated on uncomfortable institutional folding chairs waiting to speak with the governor regarding his educational policy.

John Dewey:  Everyone knows that children will excel when school is experiential.  Great Caesars’ Ghost, man, people  are assessing kids with a number 2 lead pencil?  To what end?

Albert Shanker (excitedly, spitting a bit as he speaks): To tear the heart out of the teachers, that’s what end!   It’s all about breaking the bonds of union solidarity.  I tell you, once teachers are assigned numerical scores, brotherhood will jump right out the third floor window of Roosevelt High School.  Defenestration. When that happens, people, it’s all over.

Jaime Escalante (sporting a a backward facing beret):  It gets worse, Jack-O.  When demographics “prove” that minority kids are destined to fail, some number two lead pencil pushing jerk in the state house or white house will say they cheated because everyone knows minority kids can’t learn calculus.

Dewey:  Surely you jest!

Socrates (adjusting his toga, standing): Say what you want, but teachers are used to being whipping boys for what ails society. When things go bad, it’s always the instructor’s fault.   Look what the Greeks did to me!  But if I may, how will students learn to think if all they are doing is coloring in spherical dots arranged in groups of four?  Moreover, how will teachers know what they have learned?  Likewise, won’t this tempt teachers to tailor instruction simply to meet the demands of the test?

Shanker: Hey, you with all the questions, Socrates, listen for a minute, will ya? None of this is about learning.  Not really.

Dewey: Not about learning?  Nonsense.  Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.

Socrates: The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.  Just sayin’. (He sits.)

Shanker: You are all missing the point here, people.  This about vilifying teachers.  It’s about punishing teachers for making a living wage. It’s about proving we are doing what everyone now believes he can do better than we can. It is about destroying one of the only powerful unions left in this country!  There is nothing in any of this about learning or kids for that matter.

James Carville (peeking around the corner for an instant): It’s about the economy, stupid! (He disappears.)

Annie Sullivan (adjusting spectacles):  But I have questions, too. What about the interpersonal nature of the student teacher relationship? Would anyone deny that the relationship I worked to develop with Helen Keller was an organic element of our instructional success?   Is there any way to give teachers credit for this?

Maria Montessori (with a trace of an Italian accent): Please,  someone, tell me how this system of assessing children and evaluating teachers will improve education, especially the education of the most fragile children with disabilities. I would like to know more, such as how choice and freedom of movement  and self discipline will be part of this instruction. I have always believed that the ultimate goal of education is independence and I would so like to see how this progressive means of  student assessment and teacher evaluation will achieve that end.

Annie Sullivan: Children require guidance and sympathy far more than instruction.

Shanker: Those days are gone, Annie.  Now it’s every man for himself.

Jaime (bitterly):  Yes, dream on, sweet lady. Leave no children behind, unless they are minority kids.

Annie Sullivan (sadly):  Or deaf and blind kids.

Montessori: Or disabled kids.

Christa McAuliffe: To think I used to really believe that we touch the future because we teach.   People used to like us.  Teachers were respected.

Socrates: You think so, huh?

(The door opens and there is a collective sigh of relief among the waiting educators. The governor appears, nattily dressed in an Italian suit. He conspicuously adjusts his silk tie and clears his throat. He stands waiting as if there should be some type of acknowledgment of his presence. When no such gesture is forthcoming he addresses the group.)

Governor: Sorry that you all have been waiting so long, but I am afraid I am off to a press conference now followed by a fund raiser.

Dewey: But what about the children?

Shanker: What about the teachers?

Governor: No time for them right now.  I have a state to run and people to pander to.  See ya!

Fade out.

3 Things I Do Better Because I Teach

So, I was thinking about how being a teacher has actually helped me strengthen some other essential skills –things that have nothing to do with instruction–and here are three things–in no special order– I do better because I teach.

Playing golf 

Image result for images of golf    Because I teach, I have talked myself out of the all-brawn, no-brains links performance assessment.  I started playing golf when I fell hard for my husband’s driver.  It was big and shiny with a fine titanium shaft that quivered ever so slightly on the backswing.  I loved the resounding ping when the driver and the ball met on the tee.  But, for far too long, my game was all about heft. I was intent on muscling the ball to the green. Some times it worked; most times, it didn’t.   Now that I am a loyal devotee of the Core Curriculum, however, I understand the value of depth over breadth.  I am making friends with the other clubs in my bag. Though I still have a love-hate relationship with the nine iron and though a great tee shot still leaves me breathless, teaching has helped me find honor in the short game.

Interior Design

Being a teacher has also helped me expand my limited decorating know-how.  Other than a youthful, errant fling with a tangerine semi-gloss in the kitchen (I know, but it was the 80s and the Formica countertop was orange), my design palette is populated by timid hues all variations of well, white: antique white, cream, eggshell, coliseum white, winter glaze, full moon. You get the picture.  Teaching has shoved me out of my color comfort zone. When the only roll of paper left was lime green, there was no other choice. Warily, I stapled green panels to the back bulletin board.  Lightening didn’t strike. The sun rose in the East.  I grew a bit bolder and tacked up a geometric border of black, yellow and hot pink.  Still no unnatural disasters.  I applied this new found audacity of color at home and painted my bathroom baby blue.  OK, so the towels, shower curtain and bath mats are all pure white.  But the walls are blue.  Baby steps.

Car Maintenance

A trusted colleague often reminds us of  wisdom acquired from veteran city teachers in the Bronx: “Take care of the little things and there won’t be any big things.” Well who knew this sage adage applies equally to car maintenance?  I used to be of the opinion that when the tranny squealed, a good first line of defense was to crank Springsteen a little louder. OK, a lot louder.  And that works fine for awhile, until you notice the greenish puddle of transmission fluid around your parking space in the mall.  What about that annoying service stabilitrack dashboard light? As McGuiver would know, silver duct tape, of course, until the wheel  locks up as you are about the hit the exit ramp going a tad above the posted 40 MPH speed limit.   Yup, just as “the look” in the general vicinity of  potential classroom disturbance can avert disaster and detention, attending to the little things can prevent that urgent call to AAA towing.

It’s all about those teachable moments, right?

Let Teachers Teach

You wouldn’t want your surgeon’s hands shaking because someone who had never gone to medical school was suddenly redirecting the way she should perform your appendectomy.  You wouldn’t want your pilot repeatedly second guessing himself during turbulence because someone on the ground had a better idea about handling the controls.

Surgery and aviation are precision professions, though, and most laymen are smart enough to know that in addition to training and experience, a healthy degree of self-confidence is required to make an incision or land an aircraft.

So why then are laymen empowered to make teachers’ hands shake and constantly second guess themselves?

In trailers for the film Won’t Back Down, Maggie Gyllenhaal says, “Wanna take over the school?”  Really?  Is it that simple?  Can anybody do this job?  Would she be having this conversation about the operating room or the cockpit? Probably not, but lately, it seems that anyone who can read and loves her kids can do a better job teaching than the people with the training and experience, who, by the way, also happen to love kids.

The longer I teach, the better I get at it.  I studied literature as an undergrad and education in grad school. As a student, I distinguished myself academically in both of these arenas. But it has required years of classroom experience to mold me into the competent and confident teacher I have become.  Years of good–and yes, some not so good–lessons contribute to the daily evolution of my professional persona.    However, like so many of my colleagues across the country,  I am now suddenly plagued by anxiety and self-doubt, neither of which are productive.

It seems no one trusts teachers to do their jobs. Everyone’s an instant critic.  Suddenly, it seems everyone believes wholeheartedly he can teach and teach better than those who have been at it for a while.

So, what do you say, wanna take over the school?

It’s not that I think I have reached an instructional pinnacle. The harsh reality of teaching is that everyday provides indisputable evidence that tomorrow could be, should be a better day. The teachers I know reflect, adjust, research, learn…every single day.

Perfection becomes an elusive possibility, though, when public distrust morphs into an occupation, and the day-to-day elements of instruction are continuously under such siege that teachers devote more time to defensive strategies than to designing engaging lessons to promote intellectual curiosity. Perfection becomes less–not more–likely when so many cooks are stirring the broth simmering with conflicting ingredients, seasoned with distrust and contempt.

Like surgeons and pilots, to do our jobs well, teachers must be confident.  And like patients and passengers, pupils must have faith in the people in charge.

So, I teach; what’s your superpower?

Hate Mail from Math Teachers

I like the Common Core Curriculum Standards. 

You’re rolling your eyes, muttering, if not swearing,  “She teaches English. Duh, no wonder she likes the Common Core.  But what about those of us trying to seat kids at the periodic table or draw them into angle construction? Huh?  Our instructional time is already spread too thin. There aren’t enough minutes in our class periods to get to all the things our curriculum demands and now we are being required to teach reading and writing, too?”

So before I start fielding hate mail from math teachers, let me explain.

Reading well and writing clearly are at the core of the Common Core (apologies for the bad pun–an occupational hazard).  Literacy is essential to every discipline.  In order to complete geometric proofs, kids have to be able to read carefully.  To write coherent lab reports that require more than the fill-in-the-blanks, kids have to be able to write concisely.

But even more than these basic skills is the thinking that close reading and crafted writing nurtures. When kids are asked to scrutinize passages, extracting details to support original assertions, they are developing intellectual patience and experiencing the frustration/success associated with providing evidence for their ideas.

And yes, the shift to the Common Core is less overwhelming for English teachers than for algebra teachers or chemistry teachers.  Our curriculum is skills driven as opposed to the sequential natures of math, science and even social studies where my colleague must guide her students from the Age of Exploration to this year’s presidential election.  English teachers can devote two days to a text by redesigning the core reading for the quarter. We are more able to trade depth for breadth. But make no mistake, it is a definite change for us, too.  We have to find the companion informational text to correspond to our other “literature.”

I am not saying it is easy for everyone to love the Common Core.

But occasionally giving kids logic games to solve or  reading an article about pros and cons of hydro-fracking as part of an Earth Science class  or perusing an excerpt from Common Sense in American history are examples of reading within the content areas that can be used to support the objectives of the Common Core.  No doubt that this is a shift in how we all approach instruction and no doubt it is very challenging to find appropriate and relevant readings.  But isn’t it possible that a little reading will go a really long way?

Creating home

“Sometimes it is hard to believe we raised two kids in this space,” my husband has said more than once.

He’s right.  By modern Westchester standards, our house is tiny. Before we carved out a bedroom in downstairs space that was once a garage, our kids shared one of the two main floor bedrooms and one bathroom, share being the operative word.  The “yard” is a mini lawn, too small for real sports, but big enough for a sprinkler and a sandbox, though not at the same time.  With some sidewalk chalk, however, the driveway–the steepest bane of our winter existence–became a pastel canvas, a new gallery with every rainfall.  We nurtured a family botanical garden that, over the years,  yielded roses, tomatoes, sunflowers,  marigolds and spices.

What our house lacked in square footage, we more than made up for in warmth.  Our kids agree that as children, they never felt deprived. Our house was truly a home where family and friends–theirs and ours– felt welcomed.  The dining room table was the hub of activity: dinners, homework, snacks, holidays meals, games. Yes, everyone adapted to share the space–a lesson not always easily learned–but generally, we were–and still are– happy.

OK, fine.  But what does this have to do with teaching?

Only everything.

Like a house, a classroom doesn’t have to be decked out with the latest and greatest gadgets to be a home for kids. The best educational toys–at home or at school– mean nothing if all we do is throw them at kids, expecting results.  An effective classroom, like a comfortable home, does have to be a safe environment where it is OK to make a few mistakes and take some risks.  There should be structure and routine and there should be humor and kindness, none of which are available in stores or on line.

Learning communities are built around the human elements in the room, not the space, not the accessories.  Instructional bells and whistles are like 4th of July fireworks: loud but ephemeral. Smartboard  lessons and technology can be engaging, but it will always be  teachers who nurture curiosity and confidence–with or without iPads — who create classrooms where kids will see learning as a life long adventure.  Scholarship is embedded in the culture of these classrooms.  So are self-esteem and pride and dignity.

Families–in homes, in classrooms–evolve out of people.  When kids feel loved and safe, the sky’s the limit.

Old School 2

It’s an unscientific sampling, agreed.  But reader responses to Old School confirms it.  Our earliest school experiences do stay with us.

As we boomers age, nostalgia is in.  Everything old is new again, from the Converse sneakers we wore for gym class to 70s comfort foods like meatloaf and mac and cheese now on the menu in upscale eateries.

It’s no surprise, then, that readers responded to Old School with memories of their own. Whether it is a convent school in Maryland or a red brick building gone coporate, there is nothing more nostalgic than a visit to your elementary school.

Our second grade teacher was Mrs. Carlson.   She taught us to work independently and to add columns of numbers by carrying tens and ones.  She helped us get library cards and when one of the boys showed up with a couple of tadpoles in an empty milk carton, she did her best to create an environment where they could–and did–grow into tiny tree frogs.

So, uber- props to colleagues who work with our youngest students. Their days are devoted to helping kids construct essential foundations for future academic and social success. They teach sight words and sharing, numbers and patience, phonics and fair play.

But wait, there’s more. Forty years from now, those kids will remember story hour and that time they got to be first in line, holding the teacher’s hand on the way to the art room.  They will remember who they sat next to and where the pencil sharpener was located.

No pressure there, right?

Talk to kindergarten teachers. Ask them about their work.  I did.  It’s not all fun and games in those primary classrooms. Though one of my NYS certifications that says I could do what they do, I could never do what they do. Never.  In addition to the academic demands these teachers and their kids face,  there are the intangibles, the emotional attachments that evoked the instant nostalgia among Old School readers.

That’s why we remember singing with Mrs. Beatty. That’s why we remember jumping jacks with Mr. Danzig or spelling with Mrs. Lutri. That’s why we remember Mr. Kanze walking to school every day right along with the kids.

Those of us teaching secondary students manage unique challenges to be sure, but we also depend on our colleagues’ hard work, setting the groundwork for all future learning.  Middle schoolers may be in hormonal turmoil and may sometimes assert their independence in ways we would rather they didn’t, but they come to us with the academic and social skills essential for success.