So You Dream of Sarah Lawrence College

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Sarah Lawrence College.  Those words show up yet again on the lips of a young female lead while I’m watching a movie. The writers of these scripts know that Sarah Lawrence is famous for being a number of things: the black sheep of the Ivy League’s Seven Sisters (though not one of the actual seven); expensive education for families who can helicopter their children home for the weekend with their own choppers; artistic and demanding liberal arts icon.

Speaking its name, characters automatically define themselves as people who have big dreams and the necessary ambition to achieve them.  For characters from “the wrong side of the tracks” like Lady Bird, in the similarly named movie, wishing to attend that school also illustrates her desire to cross over those dividing rails from poor to so wealthy that one can afford an education that competes to be the most expensive in the country. Kat Stratford, though more upper-middle-class than poor, was ready to ditch the dull, suburban, cookie-cutter mentality of her peers in Ten Things I Hate about You.  Allie Hamilton in The Notebook illustrates she is the maverick of her wealthy family by returning to her small town from Sarah Lawrence.  Even Mia Thermopolis, a forgotten princess in The Princess Diaries attends SLC.  Mia is the perfect symbol: a smudgy, outsider sort of girl who somehow knows deep down that she is meant for better things, and in this case, she’s blood of royalty. . .she just doesn’t know it yet.  Desiring SLC helps to underscore her crowning.

No other Ivy League school is depicted in this way in fiction.  Sure, in film Harvard or Princeton exudes wealth and snobbery, as Smith and Barnard equal smart, wealthy and serious, but few characters see those places as transformational. Sarah Lawrence represents more, and with more depth, a chrysalis, maybe a crucible.

And having attended, I agree with the writers or directors for their choice.

However, I have a love/hate relationship when I am sitting in a movie and suddenly any character shares the same dreams I had so many years ago: to be an SLC graduate; my experience both met my expectations and also completely disillusioned me.

I write this now to all the young, not-so-wealthy students who look to SLC with starry, unaware eyes.

First, a disclaimer, I attended as a graduate student, so my experience is different from an undergrad’s:  no dorm rooms, no easy access to all the Victorian charms of the campus, fewer classes for fewer years.  And I came in with a college experience in hand which may have stunted or broadened my view.

What I loved so much about Sarah Lawrence College that was so special:  The classes are small, very.  NO huge lecture halls filled with three hundred students where Phd. and Masters candidates grade all papers.  In all of my classes at SLC, typically 8 to 18 students sat around a conference table.  The faculty members do corral the lectures, or in SLC’s case, discussions, but quickly they expect the students to become leaders of the topics.  At no time did a teacher stand at a board and bore me (though I wonder what a math or foreign language class is like there).

What’s even more wonderful is that the students were invested and came prepared to lead the discussions.  And they were smart, clever people, informed, ready to analyze the world.  They were not there to make A’s, but to learn and share knowledge; earning an A was simply a by-product of their enthusiasm.

If you Dreamers like remaining in the background, SLC is not for you: you cannot hide your ignorance or laziness in a sea of anonymity; but I imagine you would not be interested in the first place if you were a wallflower.

Grades were only assigned on transcripts for students who needed to transfer out of Sarah Lawrence, and few students ever bothered to view these transcripts. Otherwise, no individual assignment received a grade.  Papers and projects instead received detailed commentary rather than a simple letter assessment and number range.  At the end of the term, the teacher wrote a summary of the student’s overall performance.  Subjective perhaps, but more meaningful to me.  As an undergrad in a typical university, I was very good at figuring out a simple hoop to jump through for an A.  I couldn’t do that at SLC, thank goodness.  So Grade Grubbers, beware.

I also loved that for every class I met with my “Don” every other week for my own personal research. (Though I would prefer their name to be less Godfather-like, a Don is what SLC names the class teacher, since the college did not have ranked/tenured professorships.)   These meetings were like having a totally separate class.  This meant in writing classes, almost all my work was reviewed by my Don if only a few times by peers in the workshops.  In typical university writing classes, one’s creative writing is critiqued only a few times each semester by the class and professors alike.

My Psychology of Emotion class, made up of graduates and undergrads, discussed the research/readings of the week assigned to all of us.  And I also met with my Don to choose a line of study that was just mine; I had to develop and keep up with it under her vague guidance.  The journey was my own.  She was ultimately impressed by my work (where I used strategies I had learned as an undergraduate in a Methods of Research class).  She was down right excited that I seemed to know what I was doing among a group of students who were wading around in theories but no evidence.

Which brings me to a list of complaints (though I am not finished with my compliments.) Teaching these sorts of solid strategies is not something SLC would be likely to ever do, too methodical and pedantic.  Think of SLC like a large Montessori school for undergraduates with a healthy dose of the Socratic method tossed in.  To learn something as rigid as scientific, objective research practices as defined by the APA seems almost counter intuitive.  I wondered what sorts of dreamy, non-validated, non-empirical conclusions the other students in that class surmised in their personal studies without this foundation.

The methods of exploration and discussion at SLC certainly encourage, sometimes even force students to deepen their knowledge, but some of that knowledge does need to be concrete and structured, perhaps even rote.  What would biology look like at SLC?  Do students memorize the skeleton?  Or do they have deep discussions about the evolutionary differences between the female vs. male skeletons.  I have no idea, though I’d hope both. But remember this is a liberal arts school designed for fresh, creative thinkers, not a research university churning out doctors and engineers.  Plus, my personal research component in my SLC psych class was not encouraged at my undergrad school because it was too busy teaching me those rote lessons.

My next complaint is an important one though it actually might apply to all college and universities.  No Don has been trained on how to teach.  Aside from those Dons in the Early Childhood program, they’ve had zero foundations classes in teaching, or communications classes, or even ethics and law courses related to teaching.  (Perhaps this isn’t necessary since public school teachers study all this which seems to make little difference in the quality of education in our country.)  What this means, however, is that folks who lead classes at SLC are hired for their publications and their work, not their ability to lead or pass on their skill or their honesty and interpersonal skills.  Not every great writer knows how to help amateurs develop into better writers.  Not every director knows how to show future directors how to work the editing machine.

That last complaint literally happened to me. In a Writing and Directing for Film course (where a few famous directors jelled) I had to learn to use a fancy editing machine I had never encountered.  This was before regular, middle-class kids like me had access to digital editing in our homes, before computer programs for such were affordable.  This was for reel/real film, and had plenty of complicated gadgets, entries and exits, buttons and screens.

The teacher met each of us in our bi-weekly one-on-one time to show us how to run the machine.   He showed up to meet me with no handouts, no drawings.  I was supposed to just listen to him as he told me how without demonstration, then as I was listening, I was to work it once, and then remember everything he said for all time. I guess.  And not only that, he got irritated when I started jotting down notes.

“Stop writing and just listen.”

Okay. . .what if I am not that sort of learner.  What if hearing and doing once isn’t enough for little ole me?  And honestly, how hard would it have been to photocopy some simple reminders for nine students?

This underlies a certain laziness that some instructors could, and did, easily fall into at SLC:  compile a list of topics on the syllabus, let the kids lead the class, sit in on meetings with nine separate students and make them do the talking. . .drink coffee and relax.  When the “real work” of reading student papers arrives, make a few standard comments, ditto, and return.  This Writing and Directing for Film teacher was a bit like that on the surface, until he would discuss my work. Then I got real insight.  Plus, we had a number of good laughs in our one-on-ones at the expense of the young men in that class who were strongly influenced by David Mamet at the time and thus believed that tossing in tons of curse words made their work deeply emotional and dramatic, too.  Of course, being ethical, the Don broached a discussion in class after it became too obvious to ignore.

One of my roommates, another middle-class girl from a western state who was in the Graduate Poetry Program had to deal with a Don who was a famous poet, but one of those ride-his-reputation-lazily sorts that she often complained of.  Plus, he had a tendency to surround himself with the prettiest girls, producing rumors of his sexual-conquest-nature.   He came to my city once (long after I had graduated) for a reading.  I helped host a gathering afterward where he was still giving the attention to the lookers in the group like the rockstar he saw himself as. Even his recent obituary, describing how he had left SLC and moved south to my city to teach at a public university, awkwardly hints at his “social” nature.  This sort of possible lechery is pretty common at many colleges and universities, but the one-on-one coursework that I loved at SLC may, on the flip side, open up opportunity that students must steel themselves against.

There is something too personal sometimes about the closeness at Sarah Lawrence, which might allow some unnecessary conflicts with teachers, too.  Such conflicts probably wouldn’t happen with “anonymous” and “distant” teachers overseeing too many students in too many classes at traditional universities and colleges.

In my Graduate Fiction Workshop, we were reading and discussing important short stories.  Here I was assigned to read Katherine Ann Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” for the fourth time in my education (but the fifth reading of my life). The first time I read the story, however, was on my own out of curiousity.   Porter’s work is a cannon example for symbolism and irony, southern irony by the way, the harshest, most darkly-humored sort.  (Read anything by Faulkner, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, or David Sedaris, and you’ll see. . .)

After each reading, I simply became more soldered to my own first conclusion: Granny was jilted by her lover, but ultimately, she was waiting for death and Death would not come for her.   She had “weathered all” and when ready to stop life, was jilted by Death.

Now THAT’s some southern irony for you.  I do not recall the high school discussion other than the class being divided on this issue of whether Granny lived or died, and the teacher not telling us if this is what it was about, but agreeing it was possible.  My undergraduate discussions were very similar, except that after we read the story, we were then privy to an interview where Katherine Ann Porter herself would not admit whether Granny died.  These were the days before the internet and easy access to all literary explanations, so one can be certain that most student reactions were personal.

All of these former class discussions took place in the south. . .we think in metaphor and symbolism more than the puritanical north.  We personify death in our daily lives and literature, and are more likely to see Death as the suitor who jilts Granny as she lies there in her bed all day long, so hopeful.

Yet at SLC, in my graduate class, I was the only one who saw the jilting this way, and the teacher not-so-gently ridiculed me, arguing to the group as if I were a dumbass who could not grasp that, “No, Granny was jilted by her lover, and the candle snuffs out, symbolizing her death.”

Truly, what sort of good southern writer would pen a whole story about an old, dying woman worrying about once being jilted at the altar?  How boring.  Oh, no, Porter’s title is about the real jilting.  The candle snuffing out is simply Death laughing at Granny, a play on an overused symbol.

The teacher was treating me like such a moron, that I finally got defensive and naively said, “I’m not the only one who thinks this. . .I’ve read this a number of times, and each of my classes and teachers thought this was possible.”

And this “leader” says to me in front of everyone: “You need to learn to read deeply instead of parroting what some high school teacher tells you. . .”  I was mortified.  I couldn’t even tell her about the interview; she cut me off and said, “That’s enough about that.”

I had come to my own conclusions, and I’d still argue I am right.  My point is not that I have to be right, nor do I have to have the professor or Don sooth my tender feelings when I need to consider another possibility or truth.  Importantly, my experience really is about intellectual discourse and good teaching practices. 

Sarah Lawrence touts itself as the center of intellectual variety and depth.  In what context does SLC ever argue that the majority thought rules?

But let’s say I am/was wrong.  My perspective was at least intriguing. Alas, I could not begin to utter these words then.

I should never have been put into a defensive position; I should never have been dismissed so summarily.  And most definitely, based on SLC’s supposed interest in diverse thinking, I should have been allowed to explain the southern cultural difference.  However, the Don was as disinterested as could be in diversity that was not “popular.” (A Ukrainian immigrant’s kid, Military Officer Brat, now residing down south.)

Had this Don been a better communicator and leader, she would have stopped and allowed me my own reader’s response instead of belittling me for being on a different path, especially a response that is not off the grid.

Could be she just flat didn’t like me. . .but should that come into context here?  Does it ever say in any of the SLC brochures: “We intend to graduate likable people?”

But then, perhaps she was simply harboring resentment toward me for another event that had occurred at SLC, which leads me to my next complaint.

The faculty then was political beyond typical politics of other schools, especially the writing faculty.  It was small, tightly knit, and seemingly expected everyone on staff to be on the same page.  I had no idea of this.  I had no interest in this.  I was interested in their talents and their insights, but I was unaware of their interior issues.

While there, I served as the treasurer of the Graduate Student Council, a group funded by the student activity fee.  Students petitioned us for money to pay for events, and one petition was for the writer, Cynthia Ozick.  Apparently at the time, though Jewish herself, she had an unpopular opinion about Judaism and Israel.  To be honest, I did not even recall who she was.  I had read her works before, and liked them, but she did not take up space in my head the way other writers had.   Still, she had clearly impressed the group of students who asked the council to fund Ozick’s visit.  The council voted and handed over small change to pay for the woman’s train ticket, dinner, and reading fee.

Wrong move.  Members of writing faculty, primarily Jewish themselves, had some dish with Ozick’s politics and became livid.  Since I was the only writing student on the council, I became a target for their anger.

“You should have known.  You should have asked us!”

Really?  Graduate student councils are in the business of checking with faculty before making decisions about student-funded, student-requested, student-attended author readings?  It had never occurred to me.  I had been on a Visiting Lecturers Committee at my undergraduate school, chairing readings by people like Kurt Vonnegut, Garrison Keillor, and Elie Wiesel that drew full city-sized arenas, and we answered to no one over who came and went. Pleasing our faculty was never part of our agenda.   But at SLC,  I was told I should have known better since visiting authors reflected on these writing faculty members.

If I had been sagacious and gone to the writing faculty and said, “Hey, what do you think of this author?  Should she be allowed here?”  Would they have told me a reason why not? Would I have seen it as a good reason to deny her? Probably not.  I might be wrong, but I believe Ozick is still a talented, respected author, and students have a right to hear dissenting, educated opinions.  Does this fit with how SLC sells itself as open-minded?  No.

The irony is that I was completely innocent of any of it.  I was even accused of doing so to cause trouble, though I was simply an ignoramus. Causing trouble might have been the intention of the group that petitioned the funding, but I am not even sure of that.   A better reaction might have been for the faculty to let the students hear Ozick, and then hold a chat afterward to educate us on their reactions to her rather than to blackball the woman.   More than likely, that would have been too subject to the community spotlight.  Better to passively censor whatever Ozick might say than openly deny what she does say.

But I got the sense that internal clucking and fission was the nature of that particular faculty dynamic (and student body).  So the SLC experience is completely colored by the intimate, particular group of teachers that are in residence while you might attend, Dear Dreamers.  You could end up with the joy of Dons like Joseph Campbell, one of life’s natural educators, or an angry finger in your face.

Another sly group at work caused yet another conflict for me.   Each term, different faculty members took over the Graduate Fiction Workshop.  At that point I knew nothing of our latest Don, other than there were some students who groused about her taking over. To me, she came across as warm, boisterous, slightly goofy, but loving.  That was my take on her after our first class.

Then I came to my first one-on-one meeting where writers share whatever new ideas we have.  I brought my journal of thoughts and story beginnings, as I might have with previous Dons.  She welcomed me in her roomy office, asked me to sit, and after a moment of polite exchanges asked me what I was working on.  I opened my journal and within minutes she was literally shouting at me and accusing me of incomprehensible things.

This woman I barely knew seemed off her rocker, and I was dumbfounded. My first offense was that my work was hand-written and not neatly typed for her perusal.  I’d never brought typed-up perfect work at a first sit down since we are just getting to know one another, and we were not “turning in work” yet.  I still often write first drafts in cursive rather than typeset.  My second offense was apparently that I had been seen socializing with people whom she regarded as enemies.  I had no idea what she was talking about when she stuck her finger in my face and said heatedly, nearly snarling, “I know about you!  I knew you were trouble from the moment I met you!”

I was startled for she erupted so suddenly and unprovoked. Imagine standing in a grocery store and some stranger suddenly screaming at you and accusing you of unknown offenses.  This is what her behavior felt like to me.

I said, “What?”

My initial response was to glance around for video feed. If the show Punk’d had yet existed, I would have been certain.  She was so filled with vitriol.  No one had ever spoken to me this way, even times when I probably had deserved it.  My second thought was she is confusing me with someone else.  I tried to ask her what she was talking about, “I don’t know what you mean?  I think you think I’m someone else. . .”

She yelled, “Oh, I know you.  I know who you are.  I was warned about you!” I was sitting right next to her, side by side, so she could see my journal and with each sentence, her spittle was landing on my cheeks.

This had happened after the Cynthia Ozick debacle, but before the Jilting jilting.  Yet, neither of those could explain this attack.  Who talks like this? And who was talking about me to her? Whaaat?

Now, I’m thinking, okay she has Alzheimer’s, she’s drunk, she’s insane.  I pleaded, “Ms._____________, I honestly think you’ve got me wrong.”

“No. . .it’s you!  You horrible person.”

Given a natural fight or flight situation, when attacked, I almost always fight.  “You’re crazy, Lady!”

She continued, “Look how disrespectful you are!  Bring me such shit!””  She ruffled my journal pages in my face. “What the hell is this?  NEVER bring me something that is not typed!”

Her face was red and right up in mine, “You will never make it here!  I do not want you in my class.  You’re out!  You’re out of this school!”  I felt like I was in some 1930s movie;  I could hear You’ll never work again in this town! echoing through the walls.

We heard a sharp rap on the wall. This startled us both. Grace Paley, whom I loved, had an office right next door, and I was beet red with embarrassment that she could hear this outrageous confrontation.  Paley had seen me go in as she had welcomed one of her current students into her office.  Was she telling us to quiet down?

I started to defend myself and my decision to bring my journal, but this woman screamed “Get out!  Get out!” I just said, “Holy Shit!” and got up and left her office, she still yelling at me to not come back until I apologized. . . for what, I’m not sure.

I fled in tears and found Linsey Abrams who taught the workshop the previous year, and she let me in her office, astounded and probably worried that I had been physically attacked.  I was in such a panic and crying so hard that I couldn’t speak.  All I could think was that I was going to fail this crazy woman’s class and be drummed out of SLC.

Eventually I learned that there was some group of students who had tried either to get the new Don fired or at least stopped from teaching at the graduate level.  And that she must have had me confused with that group.  I was not yet the sort of person who felt that much power that I might plead with a school board to undermine a faculty member. . .and I also had no idea who she was before she walked into our first class. None of this truth mattered.  I had become her target in that brief, hot moment.

However, the next week in class she acted like nothing had ever happened and smiled and joked with me and the class. And then when I had to return to my one-on-one, she met me at the door, hugged me, (you can imagine how stiff I was) and said, “I’m so glad you came back.  Let’s start over.  Abrams told me you always write drafts by hand. . .” as if THAT were all that had upset her.  As if her reaction to handwritten notes were normal.

Obviously, there was something going on with this woman. Though in her sixties then, she went on for twenty more years of publishing, so I don’t know what it might have been.  She turned out to be a supportive, spirited and interesting teacher though waffling and forgetful.  But the experience marked me, and though I only told my roommates, the story got around.  I think there were students who liked her and thought I was one of those that had undermined her.  There were others who did not like her, and wanted me to report her actions to a higher authority.

Again, the small, intimate style of Sarah Lawrence allowed events that could not and would not occur elsewhere.  Or perhaps the entitlement that goes with being rich allowed this student body to think they had the power to oust their leaders?

I just kept my mouth shut and tried to lie low, which was sad because this teacher, this woman and writer, was worth knowing more deeply; she had accomplished amazing things in her life time, one of which was to start the Women’s Seder, now an international Passover phenomenon.  But whatever political machine that had gotten in her way and caused such rash behavior was too big for me to truly let my guard down again with her.

My mistake, to those of you with dreams of being an SLC graduate, was that I was an outsider in all of these cases or complaints.  And though older than the undergraduates, and world-travelled, I was inexperienced in their mores.

I was not one of the rich kids.  I was not one of the transfers from one of the other ivy league schools or a graduate of expensive private boarding schools whose parents knew people on the SLC board (and knew whom to complain about and to whom to complain).  I was not privy to these behind-the-scenes politics and strings that stained this community of leaders who studied, worshiped and debated in groups outside the school.  Instead, I had come from a system where students and teachers had very clear boundaries and too many moving parts to bother with small issues.

Plus, like I said teaching, being great teachers was not the priority for some of this faculty.  They seemed to be hired based on how they got along with one another, how they fit some ideal.  Not whether they were right for the students.  And perhaps this woman who screamed at me tyrannically should have been retired earlier, but was being protected by her colleagues?  Or maybe the Graduate Fiction Workshop, with its own special baggage, was a tough group to lead so, hey, her colleagues foisted her on us and maybe it was insulting for some students to complain?  Maybe if I had been the person she thought I was, her reaction would have been rightly placed?  I have no idea.

As an outsider who only had two years to become an insider, I was clueless. 

The worst faculty experience, however, came the next year.  I entered an African-American Literature class led by a man of great repute.  I had read and studied a number of celebrated works by African Americans, and I had loved and been inspired by all of them.  As with many courses there, students had to pass interviews to be allowed entrance into the class, and I was excited to be one of the 15 women in the group.  I was one of two white girls “accepted.”  In so many ways this great class taught me much that I later was able to impart to my own students; it allowed me a tenuous grasp of issues that are nearly incomprehensible that I would not have otherwise.

I also learned to keep my mouth shut more than open. The other white girl was an undergraduate from Boston who kept trying to explain how she could relate to the racism and prejudice in the novels because poor Irish kids went through the “same thing” where she was from.  She was too young to understand her ignorance.  And no one in the group had any interest in validating her experiences.

I was feeling proud that I knew enough to sit quietly and absorb.  I now suspect that the whole reason I was there was not because I had anything to offer the group.  I was so open and willing to learn, and the Don decided to teach me not just about the insights in the literature, but a mean lesson.

I owned a bootleg tape of a rare interview with Zora Neale Hurston that a professor from my undergraduate school had given me; (yes, she was African American herself, and it is important to share that here).   I loved how Hurston played with the reporters as she sang old, very bawdy ditties to these uptight, overtly polite male journalists; I proudly shared it with the Don of this SLC course, who seemed as excited as I was when told him I had it.  We listened together in his office, and he asked to borrow so he could make a copy.  I nervously handed over my only tape.  After months, I had to repeatedly ask him to return it, worrying it would be lost.

He did not lose it.  He supposedly shared the copy with a buddy from People magazine. Finally, the Don told me I would never get it back because, “I’m really sorry, but my friend says he doesn’t believe this tape belongs in the hands of a little, white girl.  I wish I could help you. . .but he won’t let you have it back.”

He said this with a smile on his face.  So one professor of color happily wanted to educate me about Hurston, but this man from SLC wanted to educate me about life.

Stunned, Flummoxed, I came home and cried to my roommate, and knew there was no authority I could tell, and nothing I could do about it.  He had my grade in his very subjective hands, and this is when “no grades” on assignments gets iffy.   If he decided to, at the end of the term, fail me, what records did I have that I was performing well previously.

It’s not like I could prove what he had said either, our one-on-ones were private.  And who would have thought to tape all our behind-closed-doors sessions secretly just in case something truly unethical occurred.  Again, his actions underscore what I mean about faculty not necessarily being teachers.  What did he teach me?  Hate?  No, I can see more than that, but his lesson was wrong.

I came to SLC to have that artist’s experience, to enjoy all the things they advertise, talented writers, small classes, intelligent peers, and even the NYC experience. I did get that.  And I will never regret going though some of the teachers had hurt me personally.

As I said, that advertised experience is probably different yearly depending on the group of teachers that swing in and out of Sarah Lawrence College’s gates, and the students who sit next each other.  Which is something else you dreamers should ponder.

Middle class, and below middle class kids/students are distinctly different from the rich kids, the ones who already know how to use the film editing machines because their parents bought them one for their 5th birthday.  Different from the majority whose parents vacation with famous artists, directors and writers; the same famous folks who then sit and discuss at the host’s dinner table the politics of Cynthia Ozick or the injuries behind Cultural Appropriation.  Different from the ones who could host Grace Paley for the weekend,  from the ones who no longer care about seeing the Nutcracker for Christmas because their Daddies have taken them back stage since they were two years old,  different from the ones who reside overlooking Central Park in the same building where Yoko still lives without John, and who look at you blankly because you find that thrilling.

You will not be able to Uber your way into NYC for a party, and must take the train.  You will not be able to drop $1700 for a pair of boots that look just like the ones you are already wearing because they have tassels and yours don’t.  You will not be able to pay a local from Bronxville to type and edit all your journals, essays and stories or an actress to perform in your first student film.   Your clothing from Target will look not so much like Goodwill chic, as well, Target, and calling it Tar-Zhay will simply embarrass the other students for you.

These are not people who are looking to learn from the diversity offered by middle class or poorer students (who are supposedly accepted in order to secure diversity.)  As much as SLC argues for this, the rich majority doesn’t find it intriguing or cool, but droll and annoying.  Afterall, you cannot chip in when they want to literally jet over to Martha’s Vineyard for a lobster roll.

And Dreamers, you will probably not move to Spain upon graduation and run an organic Iberian pig farm, or backpack through China until you come back to start a Yoga pants line for Bergdorf’s, or open a soon-to-be Fortune 500 company offering solar-powered water filtration tanks for third world countries no matter how many of the school’s graduates seem to achieve such between the pages of the school magazine.  Those lofty pursuits cost big start up bucks:  You won’t graduate with a dime to your name after paying the $60K yearly tuition.  Plus, you will have to work your way into the world on your own.  Even with a Sarah Lawrence College degree, you still have a Dad who cannot open career doors for you by rubbing elbows with investors; your Mom still cannot buy you a company. Neither will SLC plot it out for you or hook you up.

But. . .But you will have an education that no one else has.   Your peers will be smart and curious and insightful. And talented.  TALENTED.  TAL-EN-TED. You will sit in classes with future JJ Abrams, Julie Shigakunis, Julie Hesslers and Dani Shapiros-my peers.  Or Alice Walkers, Yoko Onos, Barbara Walters and Carly Simons who came before me. Or Jordan Peele, Brooke Anderson, Adam Goldberg who came after.  You could possibly be mentored by the likes of Grace Paley, Joseph Campbell or Mary Karr all former teachers.  You will experience a learning ideal that strengthens your perspective, opens you up to pushing yourself past the normal limits set by other schools.

You will also have an education to brag about. I’m certain that just the name Sarah Lawrence has opened a number of doors for me, earned me my first faculty teaching position at a State University, (though I “only had” an MFA,) and weirdly made a few folks swoon at cocktail parties.

Understand, Dear Dreamers, that the drive that will open SLC to you is the same drive that will allow you to be successful whether you matriculate there or not.  The SLC experience is one I will cherish forever.  IS that worth $60K a year?  Maybe.  You’ll have to tell me.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you about the nooks and crannies first!   Just go in knowing that what they sell you is not always there, unless YOU bring it and establish it.

I recall one of my very last group lessons.  Grace Paley had put together a long Saturday workshop for just the Graduate Fiction Program students on short, short stories, her specialty.  She and the group loved my writing I shared.  One of my peers named Annie, who was a year behind me, responded that she wished I had shared more of this sort of work in the other classes.   (Realize that of all the fiction you write only a very small percentage will be presented to class simply because of time constraints.)

I said, “Why? I bring the stuff I am struggling with, the stuff I need help with, not my BEST work.  I’m not here to impress you, but get help.”  She looked surprised.  She sat back and said, “Huh.  Wow.”

My obvious annoyance was truth.  Often in weekly workshops my peer writers were too concerned about being special or even politically correct than on solving their own or your writing struggles. They might want your characters to be more dynamic than real, more feminist than weak, less perpetuating of the human condition, while you might simply be examining reality for a different purpose.

And then later Paley asked those graduating second years to share advice to the first years, sort of like passing batons. I remarked on how whispered complaints over how the student council would not help with the cost of graduation and gowns, among other things, had surfaced to me (on the council).  I said, “You know, I hear whining and finger pointing, but few people are willing to step up or even directly ask; none of you came to the council meetings to vote though you all are welcome. It’s like those people who complain about the president but don’t vote.  Only five dollars of your activity fee comes to the council. Not enough to cover your gowns and boards.  What’s more I’ve experienced people going behind closed doors to make trouble for this teacher or that student.  My advice?  Next year get involved, go to  council, and change things rather than assuming. . .be more open and honest.  Solve, don’t create problems.”

Again, Annie reacted.  She said, in awe, “Keren, this is the first time I really feel I know you. I really respect you for saying this.   And that story was great. I wish I could see more of that. I wish I had time now to get to know you.”  (Disregard that she had not really bothered to try before.)

I said,  “I appreciate that, but one more thing, you all need to try and help writers do what they are trying to do with their work.  Like I said, I bring things I’m struggling with, not the stuff I’m happy with.  And instead of help, I get all this advice on how to make it yours not mine. . .Like Shapiro’s work (which became her first published novel and focused on a troubled, seemingly selfish woman transforming herself).  Her writing honestly is the only stuff right now coming out of our group that is ready to publish.  But you all wanted to insult the main character, the events, change the people over to something you respect, to some other ideal.  THAT’s not DANI’s story.  Next year, try to figure out what your classmates need and give them that, not what you want them to write.”

The others sat there dumbfounded.  I’d found my voice at the last second, maybe because I knew I was leaving and there could be no more blow back.

BUT, Dreamers, learn from me.  If you are lucky enough to be accepted to Sarah Lawrence College, and you choose to embark, Use your voice early on. Bitch openly if a Don steals your property or doesn’t give you clear, written directions, or forces your valid opinions down or screams in your face like she is having a stroke.  Tell off the peers when they are trying to make you them, or are undermining the sanctity of the group.   No matter how tightly held the line of the community pushed you away, push back.  Then you just might get the SLC experience it brags about in those brochures you have been collecting.

Good Luck, and may I see your name as a famous graduate of Sarah Lawrence one day, You black sheep, You.


School Marm Ghetto

Image result for San Francisco Bay Area Traffic

San Francisco has returned education to its roots, by attempting to provide “affordable” housing to its educators.   Like the 1800s, when teachers of the plains and western states were required to live in or near the one room school houses, the city is converting an old school into barracks-like apartments for teachers-only to rent. Of course, the people behind this plan think it is a meaningful, maybe even a humane solution.   At what point will they realize that by providing housing, in the same way they provide housing to low-income families in many other cities, they are literally and conceptually ghetto-izing the job of being an educator?

The Golden Gate City is one of the most interesting, attractive cities in our country, with a rich history and cultural landscape; intriguing foods, distinct villages or boroughs, tantalizing vistas all add to define it as an original.  And for years the variety of dwellings has also allowed its citizens to remain inside its boundaries with generations of people  who have called themselves San Franciscans.

But then the tech companies landed. With the money that many of its workers earn, land and buildings have disappeared into their pockets, which then has allowed a competitive market to open up where property costs have sky rocketed. A place where the average worker-nurses, electricians, teachers-could still live is harder and harder to find inside the city.

Add that teachers are notoriously underpaid for their degrees and expertise, especially new teachers, and the city now has a problem on its hands.  Where do you find people to teach your children, when they can’t live within the community?

So make the teachers commute.  Big deal.  (Except this is not true in any other major city to this degree.  Even teachers in Manhattan can live in Manhattan.) Commuting takes away precious after- and before-school time that teachers use to tutor and connect with their students.  It takes away moments of comradery between faculty and administration which is essential to build a strong school family, an hallmark of a “good school”.  It also removes the teacher from the community, which in my experience, is a wonderful part of teaching.  Kids who run into Ms. Sneed or Coach Bowen at the grocery store or the local burger joint feel a stronger sense of pride, respect, and even identity than those who think teachers fold-up into drawers at the end of the night.   Toss in the stress of the extra hours on the road, fighting traffic, and even the cost of gas and wear and tear on the car, and commuting is forcing some teachers to vacate not just the city, but the profession.

Now realize that all educators are paid with money from property taxes, and you’d think the solution was built into the cause of the problem to begin with.  Land values go up, salaries do too.   Right?  Well, not quite. They have both risen since the techies arrived, but not in comparable rates.  The value of property has risen by 40%, but teacher salaries have risen by 15%.  So Ms. Sneed, young teacher, now makes $4000 more a year, hardly enough to keep up with the newer rents, where the average rent is $4200 a month.  (Because, guess what, the cost of everything inside the city limits has risen, too; food, gas, health activities all range between 25% to even 70% more than the rest of the country. )

Enter the politicians.   Recognizing that they were struggling to find educators willing or able to make those commutes, and were limited to a smaller pool of the most-qualified applicants, they made a decision:  “Let’s revamp that old building in town into lofts for teachers. . .”  Yay!

But what they are doing is keeping the educators segregated from the community, physically underscoring that teachers don’t fit in with the very children they teach.  Politicians are also labeling them as people who need to live in “the projects.”

NO matter how cute the floors are or how attractive the landscaping is outside, everyone nearby knows. . .”Those folks living there. . .they are the teachers who couldn’t afford to live anywhere else here.”  And if the residents have kids, their kids will most likely be grouped with other educator’s kids only, much the way kids in the project hang with kids from the project. Teachers living there also seem to hand their independence and privacy over to the city-Managers can come in and monitor, even define, the lifestyles inside the building. . .just as they did over 100 years ago with the young, unmarried women of the 1800s, who lived in the back of the school, and followed a strict code of behavior.

Can you imagine the  uproar if they did the same to any other “degreed” profession?

The worst part about this is that it signifies what the U.S. has been guilty of doing to teachers throughout public schooling-treating us like servants (civil servants, of course) rather than private citizens. We are nearly a class of soldiers, with separate rules of living and now the housing to go with it.

One Foot (and a Whole Heart) Still in Childhood


My youngest son, Evan, is now a freshmen in a local high school.  He was anxious about going because he’d heard the rumors that every rising ninth grader hears: the upper classmen target you; in fact, they will target YOU specifically especially if you are short.

All summer he has been measuring himself against me, having grown about five inches in the last year.  I now look at his chin.  But this doesn’t mean he is tall yet.

The men in our family are average height. . .not short, not tall.  They tend to range between 5’10” and 6”, if you leave out a set of cousins whose Dad was 6’5”.  The man was not a blood uncle, so my sons can forget that gene pool.

My youngest was born an average length and a solid weight of 8 lbs. 4 oz.  But he has been below the curve of average size most of his life.  Some of this is heredity; some the fault of the ADD meds he has had to take which curb his appetite. But no matter what I do to circumvent these effects, my boy is simply built like his Dad in bone-skinny, and me in height-short.

I am certain he will catch up to his peers soon since he is still hovering on the child side of puberty, while many have gone far beyond.  And having taught high school for years, I know a growth spurt when I see one coming on.  I’ve watched countless boys 5 foot and some odd inches leave ninth grade and come back men in the fall of their tenth grade year, or even the eleventh. . .or twelfth.

No big deal.

To me.

But to him, he knows that there are ADULT males at the school: seventeen and eighteen year olds who weigh 250 pounds and roam the halls looking for kids like him to carry around by the hair.    Good thing Evan is witty.  And he tries very hard to hide these superstitions, too, posturing as older and wiser than that.

But here’s the thing that makes my tears well.  My youngest is still the youngest of not just my family, but of his peers in terms of maturity, and I’m watching him struggle with leaving childhood behind.  He shifts between being stoic and manly, and whiny and emotional, between knowing things he shouldn’t yet, or oddly innocent of common knowledge.

A few weeks ago, he did express this fear of these giant upper classmen and their possible hazing of the freshmen.  I comforted him by saying, “That’s mostly rumor and lies.  Seniors and Juniors are far too busy just living their lives, dating, working, applying to colleges.  The tenth graders are the ones to worry about. . .”


“I’m just kidding.  Sort of.”

We smiled, but we both knew it was simply one of those rites of passage he’d have to face, just like the inevitable teasing he and his buddies have gone through as their voices began to squeak and squawk into something deeper. (His is still wavering up and down.)

Then toward the end of the week, I had to get a document notarized.  As we waited for the UPS store to open, he said, “How am I going to handle being an adult?  I hardly know anything.  Like Notary. What the heck is a Notary? There’s so much I don’t know.” He listed a few things from the previous week that were news to him.

I said, “Relax.  No ninth grader knows what a notary is.  I’m sure I didn’t at your age.” And then  I explained their duties.

But he’s right.  There is so much Evan doesn’t know that I or his brother did know at his age.  My youngest, because of his dysgraphia, is not a reader, and readers are filled with information, even if much of it is useless.

“Well, you know how you fix that. .Read more, watch more news, get out of the house and do more stuff. . .” I said, mentioning how he had been attached to the same pajama bottoms day in and out all summer.  “The more you experience. . .the more you know.”

Luckily, this is our son who loves to travel with us, and he does love new experiences, so his fear of being an adult ignoramus is somewhat baseless.  But I knew I was listening to a child face his future as a man who had to “know stuff.”

Then this past weekend. . .after snapchatting or tweeting or whatever young teens are doing now, with a girl who might or might not be his girlfriend. . .he came downstairs and asked if we could watch Harry Potter together.  After thirty minutes of digging, we located our DVD collection.  We hadn’t touched them in probably four years or more.

Tony and I sat with Evan, inside on a sunny Sunday afternoon, while we watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, for the Brits.)  At the moment Harry enters Olivander’s store to get fitted for his wand, my youngest raced upstairs looking for his two wands that we had bought the year Universal opened its version of Diagon Alley.  Again, I had to help poke around to find where the toys were.

And my boy, who just a few days before was yucking it up with me as we viewed a particularly adult version of Key and Peele, spent the rest of The Sorcerer’s Stone watching with a wand in both hand.

Yesterday was Evan’s first day of high school.

And many of you might know, there is a vast mental age gap between middle school and high school.  Students go from being led in a formal and silent line down the hall to the cafeteria, to near autonomy at lunch time.  Their lockers in middle school are usually inside their homerooms and assigned to them.  In high school, they buy them if there are any left over, and rarely see the little closets all year.  He’s moved from a school with 1300 pupils, to one with 3400.  He has more teachers, more subjects, and more strangers in his life than ever before.

He came home exhausted.  We went over his homework, and organized his new notebooks to his teachers’ liking.  I fed him pancakes and bacon, a special breakfast-for-dinner occasion.  He asked to watch Chamber of Secrets, another Harry Potter, this time without the wands.  And my child, beat from getting up at 5 a.m. and navigating pending adulthood, went upstairs to go to bed early.

When I came up to kiss him good night, I found him already sleeping.  But not in his room. . .instead, he was curled up in my bed, on my pillow, soundly out.  How many years has it been since he stopped climbing into our bed at night?

And I can’t tell which made me more weepy: the joy or the pain that both come from watching him cling to his childhood, or from knowing this would be probably one the last few moments I could baby him.

In a few weeks, he won’t even remember how uncomfortable starting high school was.  He will be fine.


When a Parent Backs Off

I have two sons, with almost eight years between them. On most days, watching us from a secret Big Brother-like camera, our interactions and love are enviable. Some days you might consider calling DEFACs, or whatever family services acronym works near you. Both of my sons are gifted, based on their IQs. Both sons, to varying degrees have ADHD; my youngest, whose ADD is bad enough to warrant meds. also suffers from dysgraphia, the outie to dyslexia’s innie, and a mild memory issue. These keep him locked in special education, rather than soaring in “gifted” classes.

All things school came easily to me. Sure, I whined over the real life value of torturous calculus, but once I stopped weeping, I did it. For my youngest, this is not the case, and it makes it hard for me to relate. The current structures of the American school system frustrate him even more than you could understand. He faces ridiculous tests that, being a teacher myself, I know often cover irrelevant information, or worse the test writers phrase questions in such a way that the original intent of the objective is lost.

(For example, “Objective: students will apply a variety of sentence patterns in their writing.” Resulting Multiple Choice Test Question: “Read the following sentence, then choose the correct pattern that correlates with these sentences” is different from being able to actually create varied sentences. Thus, kids are drilled on recognizing these pattern types. Worse this question carries as much weight as recognizing poor verb usage, because each objective gets a question on the multiple choice test. I think the average American should be able to use verbs, but not label a sentence’s pattern as SVDOIO, right? Do most people even KNOW what I just wrote?)

Besides pointless testing that determines his future, every year my son meets teachers who, because of pay for performance rules that measure their failure rate, seem less interested in breaking his code and reaching him than in covering their asses. From the moment they meet him they begin collecting evidence of why it isn’t their fault he is failing, and send me messages, which go straight into their files: “Your son is very smart but he did not do his work. Your son sat and stared off into space. Your son took an hour to do what took everyone else ten minutes.”. Then they dust off their hands and say to themselves, they’ve done all they can do.

Because there is controversy over the existence of ADHD, some teachers just shrug it off, and gossip among themselves about my parenting, thinking if I just took his video games away, that boy would learn to work. Duh. Why didn’t I think of that?

Apparently, I put my child into the stigma saturated hellhole called Special Ed, because I want him to have more time on his Play Station, playing Destiny. I’m trying to cover up his “poor work ethic” by damaging his reputation with riding “the short bus.”. I prefer him to be called “dumb” by his mainstreamed peers, rather than cracking the whip.

I go through this the first few months every school year until his teachers realize I mean business, and I expect them to do their jobs, explaining, “The fact that he stares off in to space and cannot easily put his words on a page is WHY he is in special Ed. You cannot simply say he isn’t working and then wash your hands of him. That’s like saying about your deaf students, they can’t hear my lessons. You’ll have to solve that at home.” They squirm and get pissed off and often decide to pit themselves against me, sending me little CYA notes almost everyday.

Apparently, in order to allow a child to fail, teachers just have to say, I assigned XYZ, and he didn’t do it.

But here’s the thing about special education. It is supposed to be SPECIAL. If you recognize that my child is “super smart” and YOU are the expert, then you need to figure out how to get knowledge into his head, and then glean evidence that he knows it in some other way.

When we were kids, teachers could do just that: shape a lesson in a special way for a special kid. Can you imagine Annie Sullivan trying to teach Helen Keller in today’s schools? Would she have said, “Ma’am, your child seemed to stare off into space when I assigned that reading passage. She fails because she didn’t complete her work.”. The girl went off to Princeton because she had a woman who cracked her code.

SO, each year, I get riled up; it takes me months to get teachers on board with the whole it is your JOB thing. I understand their frustration; I struggle during his homework time. ( I mean WHY does a kid who can do the word problem in his head have to explain his process in WORDS? Why can’t he just write the answer in numbers? And why does it take my kid two hours, filled with tears and hair loss.) I get the teachers’ frustration But they are his teachers not I. If I were,I could adjust his lessons; if I were, I’d have a special degree in his disability, right?

I was particularly riled up this past week, facing the, “your kid’s lazy” crap from a fresh batch of teachers. I have a number of “Twelve Steppers” in my life who advise me; from an anti-codependent stand point, trying to change his teachers is too controlling of me. I’m supposed to “let go and let God.” I hear, your son is old enough now, he can suffer his own consequences.

I heard the same advice when my oldest was in the ninth grade and not working up to his potential. But what if he flunks? Well, summer school. Well, what if he doesn’t get into a good college because of that! Well, he’ll figure it out on his own.

I yelled, punished, rewarded, all things a parent does to try and get their kid in line. But I eventually took the advice and let go. He got himself through, improving as time went on. He began improving. No, he did not go the Harvard, though he had the IQ. He goes to a community school by choice to save money, and lives at home still, and we have a calm, loving friendship now. The twelve steppers say it is because I backed off.

But I just don’t think that advice will work with my youngest. To say that he has to live with the consequences of his actions assumes he has a choice here. His disability doesn’t allow him many choices. He cannot choose to spell that word right or even notice it is wrong. He cannot choose to ignore the misbehaving kids in the next row (and special Ed classes lump learning and behavior problems together. There are plenty of actions he struggles to ignore.) So does that make me codependent because I am trying to control his education?


Sorry. I’d rather continue to mother him properly and be labelled a control freak than let him slip through the giant cracks in our education system. Too many of his teachers would be relieved to just ignore him.

Can Competition and Collaboration Co-exist?

Is true collaboration possible in a competitive environment?rolling

I recall a rush of articles about the American Business Model decades ago
asserting that though the foundation of capitalism was competition, as our world went global, Americans needed to examine a new model: cooperation, collaboration.

Group work? Seriously? Sure, we learned in Apollo 13 that a small group of men collaborated with an inner tube, a box and some toothpaste to bring home a space capsule of Americans. . .but how often do we really need to do that?

Group work over individual accomplishments has gone in and out of fashion in the classroom far longer than businesses have attempted it, because it cuts the grading work load by half for teachers, (though we slyly argued that it helped in student engagement, and we quoted all the business magazines about the futuristic wave of collaboration.) However, Americans notoriously have a love-hate relationship with group work; we all know that one person seems to get the brunt of the work, others resent feeling unheard by control freaks, and still others exploit riding on the backs of the workhorses. This has been sticky enough-uncomfortable and unnatural to our competitive roots-so much so that whole businesses have developed just to cash in on ridding us of our ignorance of how to behave productively in group-work situations.

And when that fails, group work in schools is discouraged, considered unfair, even sometimes called lazy. There was a point as recently as ten years ago when my own school made group work against the rules, simply because of potential law suits in “truth in grading.” (Read, Parent A didn’t want Parent B’s kid to affect or benefit from Parent A’s kid’s work/grade.) So out the door group work flew. Slowly as power changed hands in my school, people forgot it was against the rules, and it became again de rigueur, to the point where it is now the trend, not just in the classroom, but in the conference rooms among teachers, across the nation.

The American redesigned business model has finally filtered into the mandates (not just the personal preferences) of our teachers’ work lives. Instead of working in isolation, building our lessons from books, online sites, and our own creativity, we are encouraged to, in some cases forced to, meet with our colleagues and plan, even submit, lessons together on often a weekly basis.

By now, however, I question in a different way those articles of years ago: can competition and collaboration thrive together? Sure athletes can be friends with those against whom they compete, partly due to admiration, partly due to common burden, but they rarely will share their secrets to success if it means the opponent has an edge over them. Think of what the NFL goes through to make sure the opposition doesn’t get hold of their play-books. Omaha! Omaha! Omaha! Indeed.

In the education setting however, we are forced to collaborate, but then often we are held in competition. Teacher of the year? Teacher of the month? Teacher who gets verbal accolades of any kind. Those things alone might not slow us from sharing. . .but a fan base of students might. Or far worse, a conniving powerful administrator.

I have sat in collaboration groups where Teacher So and So is held up as superior. . .”The rest of you should be more like him. . .” He is notorious for not playing well with others; he balks at collaboration; he shoots holes in other people’s ideas vocally, cruelly. Okay, how much of that is arrogance?

And how much of that is trying to keep more of the praise spotlight for himself?competition

The same conniving administrator, whose job depends on students’ scores, likes to pit teachers against each other, making it seem like a friendly competition to see whose state mandated test scores will be higher. (Then administrator rewards winner with smaller class sizes, the room with a window, the course everyone covets teaching. Puppy-treats to teachers.). So then. . . why would teachers share lessons with each other if this comparison results in honor or rewards from winning? (Wouldn’t that be like Microsoft passing along tech ideas to Apple?) Recently, when someone noted how different a colleague and I are in style, I heard from conniving administrator: “Ewwww. I can’t wait to compare your AP scores. . .it will be exciting to see whose are higher.” Does this encourage my colleague to help MY students do their best?

In one weekly “team”, members were once told that another teacher, let’s call her Ms. CheaterButt, had the lowest failure rate (as in zero kids ever fail her classes; we collaborators all know she just passes kids because she doesn’t believe 9th graders should fail, even students with a 27 average days before grades are due suddenly pops out with a 70.) Then we heard we have to sit there and learn “from her” how to design our lessons because she beat us at some unseen competition called “failure rate rally race.” Again, we would have, at one point, happily shown her how to design her lessons so that she doesn’t just have to arbitrarily pass her students, and we certainly don’t want to take any of her lessons. But we won’t now. Instead, we resentfully sit quietly on top of our knowledge. . .while conniving administrator sings CheaterButt’s praises. This particular collaboration group got so competitive that the only time people shared any novel, effective ideas at the weekly meetings was when the conniving administrator occasionally appeared; suddenly we were cutting each other off at the feet to dazzle our boss.

I admit it: I am sometimes guilty of not wanting to share simply because I like being my kids’ favorite teacher. I am a natural competitor. I like having lessons students both enjoy and learn from, and yes, then silently lording it over my pals when kids want me, not them, for a teacher. Who doesn’t. This is probably the same as an actor winning the People’s Choice Award. But the trouble is, this attitude isn’t good for students. Yes, it motivates me to come up with good plans. But it keeps many of us from wanting to share lessons. I force myself to ignore my inner emotional beast because. . .well. . .it is the right thing to do. I have friends with whom I collaborate nicely, and I always have, even before it was fashionable; and I am always open to sharing with anyone, competitors and cheaters alike. But even then, the open ranking of my being “better” can cause people not to want share with me, or even hear my ideas (Oh, she thinks she is such hot shit. . .) Competition when it comes to collaboration does not necessarily lead to mature thinking. . .

In one of those popular American Business Model articles of years past, there was a story of an American Technology Company that had opened a location in Japan, hiring some of the brightest, most innovative people in the country. They were hoping to have fresh ideas, growth, etc.. The employees were set up in groups, departments, teams as they saw themselves. The company started a program, where individual employees could suggest ideas for improvement, cutting costs, enhancing productivity, design ideas. The single employee who suggested that month’s best idea, would win a dinner to a local restaurant. Months went by with not one idea in the box. The company repeatedly upped the stakes, even offering a weekend trip away, to no avail. NO ideas. Where were these Japanese brains, the American owners wondered.

Eventually the American manager heading the idea box pulled one of the Japanese managers aside and asked for his opinion. What he found was that competition among individuals of a team was considered bad form, dare I say dishonorable. To take an idea for improvement, to call it your own, to lay claim to the individual rewards was an insult to your team members, since very few of us work in a vacuum. This concept of pitting fellow employees against each other was distasteful, and went against the sense of community and family that was traditional in Japan. As soon as the company began rewarding teams, departments for successful ideas, the box was full of innovative ideas.

The lesson learned here has filtered to some of the most successful American companies today: Apple, Google, Ford, even Starbuck’s. They have all embraced collaborative thinking, and team reward to obvious results.

collabThis sticks with me as I continue to be forced to collaborate under the rule of a competition loving boss. Are children benefiting from such open individual comparisons between teachers? Is it really good for me to be Teacher-of-the-Year, “Most Inspirational Teacher”, or will it cause my peers to withhold their successful lessons from me, and thus my students. . .? Yes, I hate group work for the same reasons everyone else does: I sometimes end up writing more than my share of documents, or doing more research than others, but collaboration isn’t group work exactly. It’s idea firing. It’s sharing of what works, what can be improved. If honors, awards, titles, and even Pay-for-performance falls to individual comparisons between teachers, who will ever want to pass along effective plans? Only those with children’s best interests at heart. I’d like that to be every teacher, but it is unlikely.

Five Things You Hate about Teachers and What You Can Do About Them. . ..

5. We Have Summers Off.

(And Christmas, and Easter, and Thanksgiving. . . ) so many breaks, you’d expect EVERYone would try to become teachers. I can’t count how many times people work this issue into the conversation once they discover I am a career teacher. Currently, close to two-thirds of newly minted teachers quit the profession within three years of gaining a full-time teaching position, never to return. Maybe they were women with a “Mrs. Degree” who were just waiting for Mister Right to marry them, so they could work at home raising their own kids and not yours. Maybe they landed a rewarding spot on American Idol. But whatever it is, the summer breaks were just not long enough to keep that two-thirds in education for a career.

Just the other day, a man I had just met, literally, said to me, out of the blue, upon discovering I am a teacher, “You know, I hear these complaints about them teacher salaries (I had not been complaining about a thing.). . .Y’all got three months off in the summer, go get a job in the summer if you all want more money instead of sitting on your rear ends.” He said it with a pleasant smile like it is completely socially acceptable to insult someone you just met about their profession as so many people do to teachers.

I just sighed and did not correct his grammar, nor his incorrect count of how much time I have off in the summers. I didn’t even try to discuss how many hours we work in a year stuffed into ten months. . .or how many redundant classes I have to take each Summer.. . .or explore the salary scale/experience/pay-per-hour-worked ratio compared to other careers. I learned to stop doing that a long time ago. I simply smile now and say, “Oh, I agree. Why don’t you go into teaching, so you can enjoy summers off?” and walk away.

4. We can’t be fired.

I know. That dirty thing called tenure. First, be honest: every job has due process, every single one. If you have not enjoyed due process when you were let go, then either you were screwed and you need a lawyer, or you were laid off. Teachers get cut when there are not enough jobs, and we sometimes meet the nasty end of due process. I have known teachers who have lost their jobs for being drunk, stoned, or just bad. I have known drunk docs and immoral lawyers who are still practicing, protected by members of their profession. All it takes in any case is a boss who is willing to do the paper work, willing to go through due process, yet often they are too busy, or too political, or even too lazy to do so.

To fire a teacher brings public scrutiny that doesn’t happen in most jobs. (How often do most jobs and their failings get accounted for in the media? Education is always in the media. In fact, I recently heard yet another dig at tenure on Tim Allen’s latest comedy.)

But imagine you have a principal willing to do the due process and bring on the public scrutiny: to prove someone is a weak teacher is difficult since the standard for quality varies and seems subjective Sure, you’d think that the public would all agree about who is good, but people really don’t. For instance, the guy who curses in class, yells at your kids till they cry, has a high failure rate, but gets great results on Nationally Normed Tests. . .or the teacher who is positive, supportive, motivates quality projects from children, coaches everything, has a high pass rate, but a somewhat questionable result on national tests. . .which educator is best? Not everyone values nationally normed tests as the only indicator of talent in a teacher. Many principals face these conflicts: teachers who have strengths and weaknesses. It is rare to hire perfection, which is what we want in our teachers. And the principal also knows the old adage: the devil you know is sometimes better than the devil you don’t know.

Due process takes any boss precious time to document; when a principal finally succeeds at letting the weak teacher go, and then hunts for someone better, he or she takes months sometimes to find a strong applicant. You’d think in this economy, there would be talent climbing out of our pores. But, no, not so. And trying to hire qualified replacements in classically “tough” schools with higher crime, higher failure, is nearly impossible; few apply. So stop thinking that we can’t be fired. We can, just as easily as you. The difference is that when people lose a job in most industries, the boss just makes their colleagues pick up the slack. Principals cannot do that.

3. We were often “C” level students in college or high school.

The most embarrassing statistics prove this true. While that doesn’t describe me or many of my fellow teachers, it is generally correct. What’s worse, teacher’s education programs are notoriously tedious in work load, but lacking in intellectual demands, so we are talking about “C” students in non-rigorous degrees. What are you willing to do about it? You demand excellence from medical students and law students and even engineers, why not education majors? (Well, I personally think there should be no such thing as education majors; I am as appalled as you when I discover one of my children’s teachers is a numbskull).

Much of my explanation about tenure and summer breaks applies here. The trouble is. . .whenever any state does raise standards, folks stop going into the profession (or worse, fewer folks qualify), and then there is a teacher shortage. With that, we are forced to hand out provisional teaching certificates to people with no training at all just to fill the seats. Does this problem exist because academically sound graduates have plenty of work options. . .? School systems are victimized by supply and demand (Not enough high level graduates going into education), by their funds (richer counties hire the better candidates), by even the colleges and what they are doing with their students (some colleges are paper mills).

2. We are with your kids more than you are.

Admit it. When you first sent your babies off to school, aside from the secret joy you felt that you had more free time, or that your day care bill was going down, you were uncomfortable with someone else being so central in your child’s life. Studies in child development show that children shift their hero-identity focus from parent to teacher around first grade. So instead of a child believing your word is like God’s, now it’s “Mrs. Belachik says this. Mrs. Belachik says that. ..” ad nauseum. This does not sit right. In fact this sits so poorly that I have watched my friends and neighbors tear apart teachers behind the closed doors of Bunko Games, Book Clubs, and Scrap booking meets, discussing their children’s teacher’s clothes, their personal lives, wedding faux pas, pregnancies, husbands, as if we teachers are cast members of Housewives of Education County, not the professionals who love their kids. Jealousy is an ugly beast to feed.

Add in that we are around your kids for 8 hours a day in elementary school while you are with them, once they finish their bus rides, perhaps 6 waking hours- some of which they spend away from you with buddies, computers, television. . .You should be a little jealous. Even in high school, teachers seem to spend more time with your kids than you do, since as teens mature, they spend even less time with their parents; today’s families rarely eat, ride in cars, or watch television together.

1. We are the government (who once controlled you.)

I know you try to overcome this truth by acting like you are the boss who pays my salary. Never mind that you pay the salaries of anyone who provides you a good or service. . .what makes you so irritable is that this salary you pay us just pops right out of your paycheck and moves into a system that the media loves to tell you is failing.

Think of how we feel. Imagine when you have been shaped to question any form of government, its intentions, its policies, its spending, its system of “checks and balances”, its buddy politics. . .and then you go to work for that very government. It is your boss.

Most people I know who stand around at cocktail parties complaining about the governor, the president, the Republicans, the Democrats, etc.. are the same ones who complain about education. Ironically, they don’t seem to know that any education system is one of the most political machines out there. Who sets the education budget? The government of that state. Who defines standards? The government of that state (along with people who moved out of the classroom usually within seven years of their teaching career to become politicians/lobbyists on some governor’s panel.) Who runs your local system? A board that campaigns for office. Who puts principles into power over your teachers? That very board. How does one get notice to earn a position of power from the board? Play into that board’s belief system. Who earns leadership roles under those same principals? The ones who say, “Yes!” to his/her every whim, no matter how ridiculous it seems. The system is designed to eliminate individual insight and creativity, and endorse sycophantic behavior. I imagine this is true in the business world too, or comic strips like Dilbert wouldn’t be so popular.

Teachers are at the mercy of any politician who is staging a campaign to his constituents. If you voters make it sound like you want higher standards, he says he will attach pay to performance. He doesn’t care what it does to your kids in the long run; he doesn’t even care if it’s a valid performance evaluation system. (Before you get all up in arms over student testing linked to teachers; I am all for it, once it is fair, infallible, irrefutable, and valid.) If you demand more discipline, then he creates a zero tolerance law. Or the opposite, if you are tired of zero tolerance rules, suddenly there are no rules. . .

And here’s a dirty secret. Many politicians use studies to prove whatever their whims are. Now those same studies were typically performed by students in education programs. . .education programs that are not rigorous. . .education programs that don’t care that the study sample was too small, or even “made up.” Education programs that never truly require validity testing in their published studies. Yes. True. Scary. (Did you not see my answer to number 3?) And if the studies are performed by a group that is not in an education degree track, then the group is trying to make money for their products, or a political lobbying group. The evidential studies the politicians lean on are not standardized studies like the sciences perform. They are filled with flaws, and distortions.

What can you do about a;; of this?

So then here we teachers are, hated for our free summers, hated because we are par-educated, hated because we get to see your kids more than you, hated because we are “the man” and toss in that, even though we suffer from the very government you do, we whimsically were at once in charge of you when you were a student. We gave you tests someone else told us to give, we demanded that you read things that some board approved, and sometimes we were rude to you because we were too busy with the other 37 kids in class. Probably. No wonder you hate us.

Resentment doesn’t bring change. Don’t just vote your people into office; examine the promises they make against reality. (You Floridians once actually believed your governor when he promised to cut the sizes of English classes in half. Californians at one point believed that every kid would get a state provided laptop. HELL, a whole load of people believed The Clintons and then The Bushes that everyone could be above average by this century. Really? Do the math.) Examine who moves into power and why in your entire education system. And definitely pay attention to how the money is spent.

Help come up with a clear cut picture of a good vs. a bad teacher. Discuss this seriously with your friends and coworkers. Principals and parents now have their personal opinions that vary vastly. I have known bad teachers-ones that seem illiterate-whom parents will defend to the end. I have known great teachers whom parents want to lynch simply because they weren’t passing out “A’s” like candy. So collectively, as a country we have to agree with what defines good teaching. As it is now, many of you don’t even agree about norm testing. And if you know of teachers who are truly bad, like grading arbitrarily, sleeping at their desk, drinking from their cupboards, writing illiterately in their email. . .document it, take it to the board, force the principal into due process. Don’t just criticize it.

Require improvement in the talent pool. I personally believe teachers should have to have Bachelor’s degrees in a tough core subject, then complete a rigorous Masters degree in Education before being credentialed. Getting into these graduate programs should require stellar GRE scores, not the current, lower than national average scores. Then, prior to being certified, teachers should pass boards that are as strict as those for other important professionals.

Ask yourself why this profession doesn’t draw/keep its intellectual talent. What can we do to make it more, say, palatable to smarter people? You know the answer to this is very difficult to find, which is why you probably are not a teacher with your summers free. It’s a tough, sometimes completely unrewarding job; as a taxation-based field, it can never offer financial rewards on par with other intellectually demanding careers. My own scores and records could have led me to med school or law school. But I wanted to be a teacher. I didn’t care about the money. I hate blood and I hate legalese. My career rewards are my students’ success. But this isn’t enough to draw everyone to teaching.

Since the certification methods are unlikely to change, you must press your administrators to hire folks from the toughest colleges, with the highest scores on whatever test is most current for certification. Make it public. Make it embarrassing if you have to. Right now, pretty much all level colleges, from the “we take anyone with a pulse” community colleges to the private Ivy League offer teaching degrees. Only three in my state now offer law or medical degrees. You want “smarter” teachers, you have to change THAT-selectivity in education programs.

About your jealousy…It doesn’t matter how normal it is for your kids to transfer hero worship to us; even I, as a parent, want to clock a teacher now and then when I think she thinks she knows more about my kid than I do. I completely understand your discomfort. Once I became a mom, I learned how to communicate with parents of my students, for I suddenly related to what they fear. Build a relationship with your child’s teachers. I can tell you as a teacher, for parents who talk to me as a partner, not a servant, not an enemy, not a rival, somehow, I am psychologically unable to neglect their child. I try hard to see my children’s teachers as part of my team and make sure they know it.

There is much you can do to improve education. Do something. Don’t just walk up to a teacher you have just met and unload your personal bitterness. We are not the enemy, no matter how much you hated your 11th grade calculus teacher.