Another Year: What Numbers Will Not Tell

As we prepare our rooms for the summer camp that takes over the school in our absence, even we right brain humanities types run a mental recap, remembering what worked and what flopped.  For teachers, it is always about “how can we be better?”  As we record exam grades and strip the bulletin boards,  we are all hoping that the year has been productive and positive for the kids who had seats in our classrooms, and we are already looking toward next year when we can make the learning experience even better.

We have been informed that education is all about data now, that the numbers will tell the true story of how well we have done our jobs, of what students have learned with us over the past 184 instructional days.  Standardized test scores and the point values assigned to Danielson’s four domains will be computed and we will soon know who has met the established goals for the year and who has fallen short.


Even my esteemed math colleagues across the country will concede that teaching is as much an art as it is a science.

A few things numbers will never show us:

Numbers won’t tell about the tireless principal whose kindness, honesty and civility daily demonstrate to staff and students how life should–and can– be lived.

Numbers won’t tell about the teachers who labor with quiet dignity on behalf of their students, always doing what is best for kids, not just what will boost their composite scores or FB ratings.

Numbers won’t show the students who have grown into themselves, whose new found confidence makes them willing and able to take the academic and personal risks necessary  for them to find success.

Numbers won’t show the strong collegial relationships that simultaneously  inspire and humble.

Numbers won’t show a staff whose collective generosity never falters.

I have forgotten the calculus I was forced to take in college and I never did get the hang of the slide rule, so please excuse my inexact computations. When my instructional box score for this year is finally calculated, I don’t know where I will stand; I don’t even know what the data will actually mean.

North White Plains Elementary SchoolBut I do know this: when we all rewrite the history of our own school days, it is the warmth, the enthusiasm, the excitement we remember, not the numbers.  I fervently hope that I have sent my students off for the summer with lasting memories and a passion for learning.


Old School

I recently was in the old neighborhood (people who know me will find this mildly amusing) and stopped to admire my old school.  This is what I found:

The red brick building still stands and from the outside, it looks at least a little like an old-school school. The Amoco station next door where we pooled lunch money to buy candy and gum (and later tried, unsuccessfully, to buy cigarettes) is now a full service BP station with a mini mart in place of the automotive bays.  The municipal bus still stops in front and the hot dog/ice cream shack is still across the street serving up fries and cones.

But the school property was sold soon after I was promoted to junior high and has since been reinvented as a commercial building.  The classrooms are now offices, some further divided into cubicles. The asphalt playground where we skinned our knees and picked teams for kickball is a parking lot.

None the less, this is what school looks like to me.  It’s where I first let go of my mother’s hand and joined a community larger than I was.  Even though I am a teacher now and have learned and taught in a number of other buildings, this is still school.

And school is so much more than reading and writing and arithmetic, isn’t it?   It’s learning to play the flute (How do those instrumental music teachers get kids to make music?).   It’s the annual gym show, performing calisthenics to music.  It’s the unmistakeable aroma of pencil shavings and poster paint and eating lunches at long tables with attached benches.  It’s flipping baseball cards by the monkey bars and holding back tears while handing over an Oakland A’s Catfish Hunter card. For me, it is–and always will be–that red brick building on Broadway.

If you ask a dozen people about school,  I think they will go back to their primary experiences–huge kudos to colleagues who make these memories for kids every day.  A child’s first years in school form the foundation for everything yet to come.   School is where the heart was when we were very young.

What does school look like or mean to you?


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?