NPR and the Teacher Shortage Crisis

Image result for why teachers quitAs I was riding along the other day, my favorite topic came on NPR:  teacher shortages and why no one wants to become a teacher anymore.  I hooted.

The announcers tossed out loose statistics that had no edges.  Here’s one I remember from 20 years ago:  3 out of 5 new teachers quit within three years of starting their careers.   Apparently, hiring and retaining has only gotten worse.

But before I get into why this is true, let me say what I always think when I hear about this loss:  What are these freshly hired, and quickly disenchanted workers supposed to do now with that degree?

Back in the day, universities placed education majors in their “field experience” the very last semester of their schooling.  Honestly, if you never experience the real work until you are almost finished with your degree and suddenly discover this is not the fantasy you had, what then?  You are still likely to go into the career, hoping that once the kids are really yours, maybe you will like the career better.  The stats say no.

Teachers are leaving in droves long before retirement.

Many universities have wisely started putting college students into real life settings as soon as possible, trying to give future teachers a taste before it is too late to set them on a more palatable career path.

One young woman comes to mind.  A freshmen from a local college, she hoped to be a Middle School teacher and was assigned to spectate one of my high level and one of my low level senior classes.  She came twice a week without a warm word for the kids, behaving as if it were just me and her against the world. She’d choose a desk with her back to my class and roll her eyes.  When my students were gone, she would openly express how much she hated certain kids, and dreaded coming to my first period.

You guessed it: she couldn’t tolerate my low level Seniors who struggled not only with grammar but with sitting still and being polite.  I loved the hell out of them.  They made me laugh and were always game for something different, and slowly I taught them to enjoy Shakespeare and to become friends with the various structures of the verb “to be.”  But my student teacher cringed over how loud that one laughed. “God. . .you could cut glass with that cackle.”  Or how that one talked back: “Didn’t his Gran-momma teach him nothing?”

I felt no qualms at saying to this 27-year-old university student, “First, as a new teacher, the likelihood that you will get the cushy classes with well-behaved teenagers is nil. Second, if this stuff is setting you off, you might think about choosing a different career.” As a college freshmen, she had all the time in the world to study business or law instead. I have no idea what became of her.  I was just glad that she was at the beginning of her college adventure and had time to change her mind, so that some poor, undeserving class would not end up with her anyway.

But that disillusionment between reality and what teacher-wannabes fantasize is only part of the problem. 

The NPR report interviewed former (and current) teachers who complained about pay and respect, long the issue.  Yes, trying to buy bread and pay the mortgage is a pretty good reason to leave a profession.

However, I never whined about the pay in the beginning; few government employees are going to make it rich off their salaries.  I counted my fabulous benefits as part of my pay.  As long as the state kept up with inflation in other regards, I was okay.

Lately, more often than not, pay increases do not keep up with the cost of living.  In 1995, starting pay in one county in my state was 31K, in another 26K.  Twenty years ago, starting pay in my county was 36K.  Today it is 41K.  How does $5000 cover the fact that the median house price in our area is now $250K, more than double, from $119K in 2001?

Lack of respect rather than lack of funds is even harder to accept.

Some people have dreams of showing up naked to work, or forgetting that they have some big meeting.  In my nightmares, my classroom gets out of control, like a big, mouthy, spontaneous party and I’m the voiceless person no one notices. . .And children are not stupid.  They have been led to believe that “Those who can, do. . .Those who can’t, teach. . .”  Why should they automatically respect me just because I am a human being?

The concept that teachers have to earn a child’s respect  is so strongly part of modern day society. Today’s television depicts children and teenagers as far superior in brain power and social credibility than any adult on the show. . .if there is an adult on the show; and most teachers on children’s television act crazy, cruel, or half dead.   No wonder students can be so insolent.

But is this really a new problem?  Books and movies from earlier decades  prove there have always been some classrooms that are out of control.  Ever read To Kill a Mocking bird or The Chalkboard Jungle, written long before my time, where students are threatening the lives of their teachers?  This idea  that back in the day children behaved. . . but they are misbehaving now is quaint.  Teachers have always needed a bag of tricks for good classroom management.

However, though history proves disruptive kids have always acted up,  when it comes to today’s discipline rules, there is a difference between generations.

When my parents were students, they could be expelled for chewing gum:  my generation, I was paddled for skipping lunch period to go to McDonald’s and cell phones equaled a panel (expulsion trial), but today  children carry guns and cellphones to class.

So maybe it isn’t the kids, but the administration’s rules that have changed that new teachers can’t deal with?

Differing rules and administrative attitudes along with differing teaching environments can drive teachers away.

Schools can vary dramatically, where at one, the biggest problem is cheating and at another the heaviest load is violence on a daily basis.  Decades ago in a rough south ATL school, droves of kids would amble into our classes 10-20 minutes late, and there was nothing done about it from bottom to top.  There, a school-wide,  full-blown riot  sent a teacher to the hospital after police in riot gear stormed the place; covered up, the event made the nightly news only as a simple fight between two boys. Today my son’s high school will give him a detention for that sort of tardiness and the halls are empty when the first bell rings; plus, in contrast, the news reported a massive cheating scandal across a grade level because the principal was cracking down seriously and wanted the public to know.

Where and when and who make a difference in teachers’ careers.  The “tougher” the school district, the harder it is to keep teachers.    Why stay when faculty know the teacher up the road is making the same money for far less stress.

Some of the hardest “misbehavior” for a teacher to deal with now is a total lack of concern for due dates or grades.  And parents are not on our side, believe me.  Nor is administration.  The latest trend, particularly in urban areas, is to allow multiple retakes of tests or to assign loose due dates. What teacher has the time to rewrite every quiz, test, exam, and then re-administer these to kids repeatedly, or ethically grade a semester’s work from their students in the last  few weeks of school?  And are teachers being paid for this repeated effort?  Of course, not!

If an architect has to revamp a drawing four or five times until the client is happy, he gets paid for every single version, every single hour.  If a doctor has to retest for more possibilities or repeat a surgical procedure, he earns a ton of new money . .teachers don’t.  I had kids who would not study at all, hoping they could pass without effort first. And THEN, if they performed poorly, they would ask to retake the test once they studied.  Makes perfect sense to me.  I would have done the same as a kid.  But as a teacher, my afternoons could be filled with retesting rather than planning or advising.

To me, a bigger, but related problem to discipline and lesson planning is that  teachers seem to be required to be entertainers now.  No longer can a teacher say, “Read this,” and then explain how to or what to.  We have to come up with activities that compare to a NASA or Disney World experience, smile and pander and drop one-liners every few seconds. Though I usually would try to oblige, I once had a teen rate my lesson on a day I was stressed and exhausted and just wanted them all to sit quietly and read. (Teachers have those days, too, now and then.) Typically my biggest fan, he said as he left the room,  “Ahh, you really missed this one, Ms.  I give you a D for today.”

I wish I could blame television for that  annoying expectation.  But district Bigwigs are the ones behind this idea that we need to be Jerry Seinfeld, Abraham Lincoln, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Nye the Science Guy all in one.  Teachers can be down rated on their principal visits (AKA reviews) if a girl in the back row quickly checks her makeup in her phone screen; we are supposed to be that on-our-toes about holding kids’ attention.

And bosses are often the worst in education; often they are men who went into education to be a coach and really never wanted to teach social studies, or worse,  left the classroom because they hated teaching.  I had more than one boss who had never been in the classroom, which means we have people telling us what to do who do not know how to do it themselves.

One woman in particular had jumped from counselor to assistant principal, and we suffered all her grand ideas. . .you know. . .old stuff that was new again, yet she had no interest in listening to experience.   She believed naysayers were automatically negative, rather than being smart or weathered.  She would curry the young, new teachers,  and punish those that did not cheer her every move.  (Ever taught a freshmen Lit class with forty kids while the other freshmen lit teacher has six students, but the administrator refuses to balance the numbers?  Talk about punishment.)

At first, I thought this boss’s attitude was a sign of ageism, until I realized she just wanted sycophants, and figured the newbies were easier to shape in that regard, and the experience teachers impotent against her.

Unfortunately for students, the new boss’s  and her proteges’ inexperience made them all ignorant of how their “newly discovered” bullets were not magic.  Whole Language, Basal Reading, Phonics?  In, out, and in again based on the whims of administrators who never taught.  I had one boss who threatened to fire or at least transfer us if she ever caught us teaching grammar or mechanics in isolation, so trendy was her latest idea.  At no point could we map and practice exercises on the board showing kids how to use apostrophes or conjugate verbs. . .

As pay-for-performance becomes more of reality, teachers are becoming more cut throat, more willing to toss each other under the bus in order to secure the whatevers from the powers that be.  Performance is often marked by how well one teacher’s kids do compared to other teachers’ students.  My ex-husband, an elementary school teacher was given a PDP-a Professional Development Plan is the equivalent of a shape up or ship out warning-because 20% more of his students did poorly on a statewide test compared to his peers’ students.  Four of each of the other teachers’ kids failed, five of his did.  So ONE child more and he deserves to be fired?

The fact that he actually had more students overall than the other three teachers did not matter. . . Notice the way the numbers were skewed? The principal wanted to prove to the public and her bosses that she took standardized testing and performance-linked jobs seriously, so whomever had the most students fail at any grade level, got a demerit and a threat, no matter the fallacy in logic.

With those sorts of principals, teachers are less likely to share good lessons even when forced to collaborate if they can earn the favor of a boss by having better scores or better favor.  (Just one kid more?)

We already muscle for rank over classroom location, subjects like AP, class sizes.  Now throw in pay for performance, and add in a faulty way of measuring performance, and what sort of peer environment is percolating?

Plus, we know that the concept of better is very loose.  I’m sure that in every profession there are those people that do a half-assed job, yet still gain accolades.

Why wouldn’t new teachers or even seasoned teachers quit if they have other options?  And is this the environment parents want their children in?

Finally, the dirty truth that no one outside of teaching gives a shit about. . .the biggest reason teachers jump ship:  The hours seriously suck if a teacher really is going to do a good job. 

Sure, anyone can never read student essays, arbitrarily jotting a grade on the top. (I worked with a woman who would say, Freshmen don’t need to fail. . .” and would give out high grades to undeserving students.  How easy is that!!)  But if you do want children to learn, and you do have an ethical system about who earns excellence, then you have to put in hours that no other profession requires.  This is why people gripe about pay.

Yes, new lawyers and new doctors have ridiculous weeks.    But when I was first bringing home 31K  with 7 years of college and two degrees, multiple certifications, my buddy the Ob-Gyn was freshly hired at 180K.  His 70 hour weeks were well-rewarded.  And. . .what’s more he was paid while he was still in training, whereas student teachers basically work a fulltime job (their field experience) for no money.  True, the doctor’s education cost big bucks, but his school loans can be paid back with that salary within a year or two.

Grading student work is a whole extra job.   My work day, I had to be in the door by 6:45 and not out before 3:00.  Those are the required hours, but all teachers are there much longer.  And if not, they are still working when they get home and through the weekends.

Teachers are in the classrooms or monitoring the hallways for 7 hours straight and are not supposed to be caught grading at those times.  Our attention should always be on the children. That 8th hour assigned as a required planning period is eaten up with meetings and responsibilities, or just plain rest.   The lunch break is 20 minutes tops; since teachers are last out of the room and first back, this short time gives us just enough minutes to run to the restroom and stuff a sandwich in our mouths.  And in some states, teachers have to dine with (and monitor) their students, so it isn’t even a break.  Some bosses don’t mind if we try to catch up in those minutes between classes, or in the mornings;  others require us on duty in the hallways the second the bell rings.

Yes, I get summers off which is one reason I don’t sweat the salary, but if you do the math of how many hours I worked in 10 months,   NOT COUNTING the required extracurricular activities that young teachers are contracted to do,  I worked enough hours for a year-round job and then some and made peanuts.  Now toss is how most new teachers cannot get a job unless they contract to also coach some sport or activity an extra 20 hours a week at cents per hour, and you can see that we build up resentments over being exploited like crazy.

When I taught at a local university as a part-time adjunct, people would ask what I do. You know, meeting someone at a dinner or some event, they’d hear my answer and sometimes become a little self-conscious;  they’d make some humorous, self-deprecating remark about their grammar-as if I were policing them silently in my head-or wonder aloud about how smart I must be.  But now, upon hearing I teach high school, there is a completely different response as if the air had just shifted and a nasty smell had arrived.  You can see their respect level drop as their eyes dart away or worse, they confront me about their negative opinions about public education.  I am the same person, with the same credentials, but the respect I earned was very different.

I find that hard simply because what public school teachers do is so essential and honestly so much more important than being a university adjunct, and I love my work and my students.  I assume this is a remnant of a time when children’s teachers were often servants and are now civil “servants”.  But it is a sad trend that simply makes a hard job easier to leave for many people.

Those of who stay,  are we masochists? 

No, some stay because there are no other options.  Some stay because we can schedule around our children.  Most stay because we love what we do and know how important we are.  A month ago, I was vacationing in a mountain town three hours away.  A young man pushing a stroller stopped me on the streets of the charming village, and asked me if I remembered teaching him.  I certainly did, though so grown now, in his thirties, I barely recognized him.   He said, “I had to tell you what you meant to me,” and introduced me to his family, asked if I was on social media.  Two weeks ago, dining with old friends, one of them asked me if I recalled teaching a certain student named Jane.

My friend, said, “Well, I ran into her with her family and she was asking about you.  You taught her freshmen and senior year,”  Yes, I replied.  “Well, she says even with college, you are still the best teacher she ever had and still looks at one of the projects you had her complete.”  I had just had one of those nightmares about losing class control that morning and sure did need to hear that!

Then last week,  I was dining with my boys at a local steak house and heard a familiar cackle split the air.  The girl whom that  college student hated was now a graduated, young woman working her way through college as a hostess.  She caught sight of me and ran across the foyer, yelling, “OMG,  I can’t believe it’s you!” and hugged me so hard I thought I’d fall over.

Those experiences, knowing I made a positive impact is what makes the profession worth staying for many teachers!  But unless something changes to bring in more strong educators, what will become of the profession?





Teaching Old Teachers New Tricks . . .(or my opinion about a stale issue)

Image result for digital classroomEach morning,  I often do a little reading before I get on with my day.  Doing so today made me think about how, more than a decade ago, students from some class I did not teach had to survey various people for their opinions on impending tech in the digital world.  When teachers often only had dry erase boards or even chalkboards to illustrate their lessons, I was asked: Do you read anything online?  Do you read novels on tech devices?  Do you prefer paper books to digital books?  Do you think digital reading will replace paper books?  Could you teach with only digital information or will we always require paper?

Apparently, for years,  I was their lone interviewee who could accept or even predict the demise of paper textbooks, paper and pen assignments, paper novels, so powerful the hold of ink and wood pulp on our population in the past.  I’d roll my eyes loudly whenever the topic rose in meetings or faculty rooms when others would whine their discontent.  I had a wild imagination then about all the things I could do with technology if I could design it my way.  Picture a classroom with walls of screen like in Minority Report. . .the fresh images, charts, and “motivational quotes” that I could match to each day’s lesson alone would be astounding.  (The ADD kid would be overwhelmed by the noise my digital, visual landscape created.)

Within a few years of first answering these kids’ surveys, I was requiring my own students to complete massive, argumentative research papers-you know those quintessential “topic” papers English teachers love-without the cumbersome index cards of meticulous notes from education yore, or even the “more modern” expensive, photocopied pages of books and magazines that some teachers required as “proof of authorship.”  Students could, if they chose, never touch a piece of paper at all.

“Woe is me,” cried a few of my peers, even some of the young ones.  “What about teaching kids to use a variety of print sources, you know. . .go pull a book off a shelf?  Pick up a print magazine?   What are you doing, Keren, letting these children only use the internet for their research. . .What kind of teacher do you call yourself!!!”

As if books and magazines, even encyclopedias are not on the internet.  (Even back then they were easily accessible online to students with the right passcodes.)

This morning, I opened up my laptop and perused The NYT for updates on Trump’s latest shenanigans, read a teary article about daughterhood from The Texan, poked my nose in a few nonfiction books I want to start. Immersed in the words on the screen,  I suddenly thought about that survey and then about grading those essays, my students having provided digital copies of all their research, highlighted in various colors to match their organized plots.  Orange for this area of fact, pink for this area of opinions, or whatever categories they chose, etc.

How much easier it was for them to cut and paste a passage or phrase from the digital work into their properly quoted and cited writing,  no longer hand-copying it onto a 4×6 card and then retyping it back into their paper.  In those old days with archaic methods, seeing if they had misquoted or mis-paraphrased was more difficult for me.  Their digital sources often helpfully provided a bibliography entry of their own title, simplifying what was necessary to copy into their paper’s works cited page.  And though I still taught them where to find this in printed books or magazines, how simple for students who struggled to grasp where to put an author or title in the required order when it was there already on the source.  When to use a comma, a colon, a period in the entry was already completed for them most of the time.  Some apps highlight what piece of info to use in APA or MLA citations, too.

Grading,  I could use the “review” feature on the writing app/software we used, and leave common remarks.  Infact, they could have a number of drafts that showed all the changes up to the final. All of it, the research, the providence of source material, the writing, the substantiating, even my reviews and remarks and grades were all submitted to me digitally.  Instead of a mile-high stack of plastic covered three ring binders from 150 students, I carried a small box of thumb drives.  Eventually,  I did not even need those, for as technology caught up, I could access our server and thus, their work, from home.

I think, however, about my college roommate, a budding writer who would lay out her notecards all over the mangey royal blue carpet of our apartment, moving them to rethink her vision.  Typing out, and then cutting up her essays into pieces and moving bits here and there, like a jigsaw puzzle, helped her think. . .She still does this before any publication is ready.

There are apps that help do that now, too;  writers can create a visual post-it board or organize a multiscreen view, move their beloved tidbits back and forth and see all in one tree or circle or staircase. . .whatever image they seek for guidance.  And interestingly, one might worry that by having so much of the organizing and finer points of editing completed for students by an app might make the students lose something in translation, some element of analysis and vision missing, perhaps.  No. Instead I found that their thinking was actually deeper and more clear.  Something about not trying to keep track of all the moving parts of the research paper methods of my youth allows today’s learners to think about the topic, the argument they are making, with less worry about the form.

Back in the day, my peers  when surveyed would say, “Never!  I need to hold the moldy pages of my favorite novel in my hands, smell the ink, enjoy the blurb filled covers. . . Never,  No!”  And to them novels by tablet would never replace their enjoyment of paper books.

And even as I admit that I do prefer a damp, inky magazine to my iPad when lounging on the beach. . .my son is completing his 12th grade summer reading on his phone. And only a few weeks ago, wanting to get a head start on the school year, he finished his online economics class-opening to end-without touching a piece of paper.

Sure, technology has created some major headaches for teachers, too; I was ignorant about the sheer difficulties of upkeep, the replacement of missing keys or cords that kids stole, the holes that might appear on the white boards or laptop screens.  And worse, the simplicity of cheating that technology offers is depressing;  but  I’ve taught my students that if I can Google one of their sentences and find anything similar to it, they’ve plagiarized.  (It’s a good lesson in learning to paraphrase or summarize properly.)

Of course, one can easily purchase an essay now online and call it one’s own.  But you know, twenty-five years ago, I was doing my required volunteering at the GSU writing center.  All adjunct professors had to provide some of their time there, and in came a phone call on our 1-800 grammar hotline.  I have no idea how a woman from another state found us, but she was looking to buy a research paper for her son.  Could we sell and mail her one?  I said, “Ma’am, we don’t do that sort of thing here.”  She said, “Well, I’m sure somebody somewhere does,” and hung up.

What once was on paper is now digital.  Faster, simpler, but the same. . .Are any teachers still fighting this?  Any readers?


The Lost Art of Learning through ‘Free Range Parenting’

water nature person people girl explore mud puddle soil child family children out interaction tadpoles water based paints

I was a lucky girl.  My parents not only allowed me to play outdoors freely, they often demanded I go outside and find something to do:  Don’t return until the streetlights flick on.    Reading an article recently in The Atlantic ( that discusses the dissonance between classes and races when it comes to this “new” concept called “Free Range parenting,” I had to laugh.  While the author makes a valid and stimulating point, I was thinking about her lost opportunity to discuss the benefits of this “Free range parenting.”  I mean, for millennia, parents of all races and social strata have practiced it until the aberration of the 1990s when fearful parents began to cling to their children and control their every move.

Luckily, for the sake of a child’s creativity and intelligence, as well as the sake of teachers everywhere, we are swinging back to allowing our children to play like I did as a child.

Typically, when people criticize today’s lack of childhood “free” play, they target organized sports because they believe there are lessons in relationships and authority lost in the modern multitude of organized teams, today’s prime, often forced, activity for children and their parents.   However, the benefits I gained through “free-range” playing were not only an understanding of interpersonal dynamics, but also the foundations of a budding scientist and artist, maybe even an academic.

In my adventures outdoors, I set shoe box traps for rabbits, laid out dandelion pulp for mice and brought home accidentally dug up baby moles. We rescued baby birds and placed them gently in nests, then would hide, waiting to make sure their mothers returned; they always did.  My friends and I captured all sorts of insects: lady bugs, red and black ants, daddy long legs, pill bugs, deadly black widows, trapdoor spiders, bumble bees, honey bees, hornets, wasps. . .We played with most and killed the scariest, smooshing them when we were too young to respect their rights.

Various reptiles and amphibians amazed us, causing us to sit still and watch them hunt.  My brother and I would scoop up frog eggs or new tadpoles and bring them home to watch them gain their legs and lose their tails, returning them to ponds when they were hopping frogs.  We’d attempt to rescue lizards who gave up their own tails when our cats grabbed them excitedly, but more often the speedy reptiles would keep on trucking sure to grow more. . .All of this taught us naturally the foundations often illuminated in early biology lessons: exoskeleton, endoskeleton, regeneration, eggs versus live birth, mammal versus reptile, etc.

While left to our own entertainment, we kids would find chunks of quartz that we thought were diamonds.  When my father told us where we might find more, we’d try to break open rocks searching for what treasure might be inside. How many  pirate, explorer fantasies did we act out that developed our literary sense. Pieces of mica that looked like mirrors and glass made us think, hmm, is this how a mirror is made? Did this lead to the invention of glass?  Shale that we could crunch with the tires of our bikes made us feel as powerful as superheroes. The coal that kicked up when we were walking on forbidden train tracks was so pure and black, making us wonder, really? Future diamonds?

We’d pick up chalk-like rocks to draw on the tarmac, marking our four square and hopscotch games, even the bases for kickball.   And of course, sand and mud were everyone’s favorite media.   A girlfriend and I used to shape figurines of ladybugs and snowmen out of the clay in our yards, paint them with our cheap tempura paints, and try to sell our artwork by the side of the road in front of our house.   Imagine how much more interesting geology lessons are with this personal knowledge of the variety of rocks that make up Earth.

And then comes the blending of geology and physics that I learned on my own.    My friends and I played in creeks, looking for crawdaddies, racing leaf boats, building dams.  We built castles and motes and canals in the sand. The movement of water, creeks, and rivers, brooks and ponds, even oceans and tides all showed us the power and etherealness of water.  The weight of it, the random choice that it takes as it tracks through our fingers, the holes and patterns that it makes in the rocky, sandy, mucky edges and piles of pepples  held our imagination.  The power water has to move and float us and suck us under was wonderfully frightening.  With these experiences I could easily understand what the teacher told me about erosion and flooding and water tables beneath the ground.

In the warming Spring, we’d race one another, rolling down grassy hills or skating too fast around curves.  We’d climb trees, sometimes falling from too high only to have the the wind knocked out of us.  We’d build teeter totters out of logs and rocks and ledges where we could balance and play king of the hill. Or we’d grab onto thick vines to swing across what we imagined were deep ravines, pretending we were Spiderman. My brother and I would ride our bikes into ever shrinking circles or figure eights, losing control when the wheels were moving way too slowly.

All this movement, whether we knew it or not, gave us a personal understanding of gravity, weights and balances.

In fact, when my pal Bitt Nelson rode his bike over a ramp we had set on a pile of sand at a construction site, and flew too far, only to bash his face on a sand loader, forcing his front teeth into his sinuses, we certainly adjusted ourselves.  We didn’t stop riding, but we learned faster than he ran home crying what we had to change not to repeat his catastrophe.

Image result for images of child riding bike over ramp

And when summer came, sitting on hot car hoods, standing in shade to find relief from the scorching sun, noticing how much hotter the black tar is versus the white painted line down the middle of the road, the cool of grass, the heat of concrete, the burn of asphalt, we learned quickly about heat transfer and what could relieve it.  We learned the simple exhaustion that comes from spending the whole day physically rushing and rough housing and playing, planting, digging, climbing.  How hungry we’d get playing and then begging our mothers for something to snack on, assuring her it would not ruin our dinner, quickly understanding why breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  All these moments created a vague knowledge of energy.

Years ago, when we played our disorganized sports-the impromptu baseball and football games run by only children- true. . .we learned negotiation and authority as people do say, but also the geometry of boundaries, the physics of messing around with a ball. Sometimes games were not impromptu but scheduled, by us, for us.  See you Saturday, right?  Behind the Olsen’s house? 

We figured things out ourselves, like what qualities draw others to a person, like those in Brian Culpepper who was often our favorite captain of street football games or meadow baseball.  Why was adorable Theresa Olsen always picked last in games of football? (Not because she was too slow or too uncoordinated or even too unpopular. . .she was finicky and prissy and whined too much.) Yet we let her play, for we also learned to be nice from each other, allowing the little kids who could never score join the teams because they were ours, a part of our neighborhood.  We shared which neighbor’s yard was welcoming and which neighbor was off limits.  We’d say, Don’t hit it so hard that it goes into Herr Golembush’s yard, don’t run so fast that you can’t stop before you slam into the Nelson’s rose bushes.  The Base is the yellow yield sign, the ball is a foul if it passes the camellias. . .

How often when they play an organized team sport are today’s children welcome to just goof around and test the ball?  Seeing how fast the ball could roll up, down, or over a hill, how fast hitting it squarely mattered, the arc of the hit, the lob, the toss, the strength of the bounce, the angle of the bounce. . .They are told how to hit in today’s games.  And do they learn which player is the best at the game themselves without being told?  Or whose yard is the best for that game that day?  Or who is on whose team?  Almost never.  Adults decide the who, what, where, when and why of each sport, directing children on how slow,  how fast to play, and even what to see and what not to see.

I suggest not only should children play disorganized sports with no adult supervision, but just play.  Just simple, imagination-full play.  Yes, The Atlantic makes a valid point about the unfair judgment over which children play “free range” the most, but her point should be that more people, if not all people should be encouraging it.

Great teachers often use what children already know to create scaffolds between knowledge and understanding. But what if there is nothing to scaffold from? Through the play of my childhood, I built the foundations of all the sciences and some math: biology, physics, geometry, geology, chemistry, even meteorology as I watched in the sky the evolution of the clouds, hoping I would get to swim or fish or play ball.  Do today’s generation of children arrive in class with this foundation anymore?  Do they know what shale or tadpoles or a robin’s egg even looks like?


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.

Bitter Praise: A Piece of Letting Go

Do you know that nice person, not a bad sort, sometimes funny, sometimes good company whose persistent need of praise, validation, and attention just makes you eventually froth at the mouth? Wise people write our their venom in a letter and then throw the piece away. I am not doing that here.

I have several of those needy people under my social roof. One I finally cut loose last week because I finally decided the returns of her friendship were too diminished by my irritation over her incessant ego and bragging. If you do not recognize such person, you might not really be able to relate to my bitter rant, and might be better off moving on to a breezier, more self-actualized blog.

I am getting meaner as my physical disabilities become more definite. In many ways, that is completely untrue. I find myself treating people in public more kindly, more openly. My family. . .I am happier to them, around them, partly because I recognize on a very literal level how quickly and fully life can be changed. But times when I deeply physically hurt, I do have to work not to bite others like a dog.

In this new mean streak, I have begun gleaning and tossing not just the outright rude, but the drains, the irritants. I no longer have the energy to pretend that they matter more than the people who do matter. . .like me. Or my loved ones.

At this rate, I should be alone soon.

Exhibit A, let’s call her Ms. Brittle, my Colleague/outside work buddy who manages to take every discussion quickly to its knees, only letting up once the focal point has returned to her. No matter WHAT you need to discuss-a shocking weekend arrest, your emergency appendectomy, near fatal car crash? Within minutes, you will be instead discussing the time her brother almost got a citation, the time she thought she had appendicitis, or how she almost sideswiped a parked car. . .relevant, perhaps, but not quite the same, and all presented without sympathy or acknowledgment of the person who really needed to talk in the first place.

I spontaneously broke my back inexplicably. No event. One early morning last October, Disk T-8 slipped out, and lodged in my spine, partially paralyzingly me from my rib cage down to my toes. Surgery removed the disk, but also the backs of four vertebrae, part of one rib, and left me with 14 pins, three rods, fused bone from collar bones to my waist, and on going partial paralysis and crushing pain. After living in the hospital for a month last fall, I improve in eensy increments; I still use a cane, have limited abilities (after living a very active lifestyle) and though I am working hard to forge a new path with this altered body of mine, I occasionally succumb to depression.

Said Ms. Brittle called on such a day, listened very briefly. . .like maybe four sentences. . .and launched into a very long, detailed story of how, once, when she hair-line fractured one bone in her foot and was wearing a temporary boot, she had to stop jogging for months. . .so, she “understood me.”

Whaaaaat? What the heck is the right reply to people who steal topics and focus on themselves with unrelated anecdotes? She often finds herself at the end of her conversation, sort of stumbling along, lost thread, because there really is nothing left to say.

Ms. Brittle calls herself a people pleaser, and laments what a burden it is. I snicker (as do a lot of her colleagues); oh, no, my Dear. You are not in the business of pleasing people. You are a praise seeker. People pleasers can only think of what others want and need. You crave validation.

She details her great teaching within her classroom in unsolicited emails to us all (should anyone care to copy her or receive her advice). Any administrative praise at work becomes quick emails and a FB post. If a student says something complimentary, she repeats it. She is one of those who often posts her children’s every function several times a day on Facebook, posts each lap she runs, or square she stitches on the fundraising quilt she is creating.

Lots of folks post that sort of thing. . .somehow the way she does it doesn’t seem like news. There is a difference between saying, “Enjoyed the gorgeous sunset while jogging this evening,” and “Score! Got another minute closer to my marathon rate!” A difference between, “My students rocked their AP exam,” and “I got more fours out of my kids than any of the other AP LIT teachers here.” There is reporting, and then there is bragging.

There is nothing that isn’t brag worthy for her. . .meals made, jokes she cracked in class, number of blog viewers, quizzes graded.   I recall at the end of the last school year, she had tallied how many essays she had reviewed for the year. At the time, she taught five groups of AP Lit. She, the martyr, figured because of that, we should feel admiration and pity when she sent the  total amount in an All Staff. What did she think: non-AP kids weren’t writing, and we, their teachers, were not grading? She was obviously surprised when a number of hostile people replied with grueling numbers of their own.

I have even heard her manage to make apologizing for trying to decline her assigned prom duty into a boast: “I am not one to shirk my duty like some people without first calling. . .” Calling before not showing up at the last minute makes her better than the others who just plain didn’t come.

She even once group messengered us this note to our boss, after boss chaired a meeting: “I will have you know, today I did you a favor, so you owe me. When I swallowed a scalding mouthful of hot cocoa, I refrained from screaming out bloody murder and interrupting your meeting! You’re welcome.”

Again. . .whaaaat? Every ounce of me had to fight not to counter post: “Oh, barf!” I am sure she thought her bragging demand was cute. I see it as strangely, self-absorbedly, ignorant.

Her ignorance bleeds into a sort of foot-in-mouthism. She once told the wife of a sober alcoholic, that she couldn’t bring herself to see Denzel Washington in Flight; “I can’t imagine him playing an alcoholic; he’s just too dignified to be believable as an alcoholic” Huh? She said to me and another Mom, both of whom are happily remarried to men who became fantastic step-fathers to our children, “If, God forbid, I were ever unlucky enough to get a divorce, I certainly would never remarry; I could never do such a horrible thing by bringing a step father into a child’s life.”

She is so self involved she obviously can’t hear herself think. I am sure whatever the topic is, her brain immediately shifts to herself, her imagination and experience. To her, the rest of us are just a rapt audience, rather than human beings with important stories, emotions, and knowledge of our own.

Enter Ms. Brittle’s end: This year, when I entered the hospital, my school shifted my teaching schedule around. I teach the sort of classes that, because of credentials, long term substitute teachers cannot teach: AP Lang and the Literary Magazine. Brittle ended up being assigned to take them over-she happily gave up her openly hated College Prep classes.

Somehow within a month SHE was the heroic victim. I don’t know what I was, but lying paralyzed in bed with a foot and a half of stitches, was far less deserving on the empathy scale than taking on two new course preps.

Instead of asking me to clarify or help, she stood in the hallway and cried tearfully to colleagues when I sent her an email asking her about various aspects of my classes. What is happening about fundraising for the magazine? What help do you need with Argumentation for AP Lang?   I cruelly overwhelmed her with my curiosity.

Good Lord! You mean I am the bad guy here? Poor, poor girl, Ms. Brittle is, burdened with gifted students and the expectations of their former teacher.  Her laments and complaints about her work load and my expectations went on for months, but always under the disclaimer, “I just want to do my best for the kids.”

That first semester, what made her often cry is that she wants praise, and being dumped into an uncharted course load made her uneasy. What if she didn’t do a praiseworthy job?

Interestingly, she didn’t even try.

Both those courses are what we call product-result bearing courses. Teachers can be judged by their kid’s AP test scores, and by their magazine’s success. When this Ms. Brittle believed I would heal and return to these courses the second semester, and thus, be the person upon whom the results would reflect, she applied very little efforts. She didn’t fund raise, advertise, or handle submission meets for the magazine. She let former student-editors run the show while she disengaged like a typical sub, rather than a teacher. What did she care? She fully expected that I’d return and be stuck with unmet goals.

She did the same thing in AP; AP Lang is a nonfiction course, not a novel or poetry course. It is densely entrenched in essays and argumentation. She-trained in AP Lit, not Lang- ignored my advice, lesson suggestions, etc. Instead, she took one of her old literature lessons from a novel, and together she and the class read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for eight weeks. (EIGHT??) She never even bothered to collect the class set of AP writing manuals from my classroom. If I had returned, I would have found kids who were two months behind. (And the irony of Faulkner’s title is not missed, here.)

But around her, she was gathering people’s praise for her burdens like white cat hair on black pants. They patted her head when she moaned about feeling anxious, they cooed over her every little endeavor. Let me be selfish here a minute: How did this painful, life-altering event that was really about my body and my students’ needs become her tragedy?

I am SOOO glad that I was able to give her the opportunity to feather her cap and revel in sympathy. Uggh! I, like many other of my colleagues, have had new course loads shoved on me when people have suddenly been fired, retired, or gone into premature labor. We did our job. We didn’t cry or brag. When I took over the magazine, needing new software, a new publisher, having no lesson database and no one with experience to help, I don’t recall any pats on the head. But then, I don’t ask for them. Constantly.

Cut to several weeks into second semester. Suddenly when she realized I was not coming back, and results would reflect her work, she stepped it up. First, she texted me numerous, “I feel like vomiting, I am so upset by this” messages, (which only verifies that she had not taken the courses seriously previously; also note, she was not saddened for me that I was still not able to work.) Then she finally, actually opened all my data folders and checked out the official AP Lang College Board website for the first time. She started fundraising for publishing costs. (And let the Facebook bragging begin. I never once posted pictures of all the cookies I baked and frosted, or hotdogs I donated for sales. . . I should have, I suppose). I had to suffer so many FB posts about the laborious hours she endured quilting for an auction or grading for AP.

She would call me only when she needed info like how much money she’d need to budget or a telephone number. Understand our school magazine was my baby; yearly, we won national contests, the top awards. I have always been proud of my former students, and I praised them openly in texts, email, FB. But I say, “Please congratulate these students. . ..”.

I felt like each time Ms. Brittle called, she needed advice, but strangely, she also battled against it. I’d say, “One thing to make sure you have done is. . .” and I’d hear in response, “Oh, I already figured that out on my own.” I’d start, “Keep Jesse from. . .” and I’d get, “Oh, don’t I know it. I already have Jesse wrapped up!”

Well, good. Why are you calling? It certainly isn’t to see how I am doing.

Such a weird dance. She’d whine about the steep learning curve, ignore/deflect my advice, then text me things like, “Finally created a layout on my own! Win! Let me send it to you.” She was seeking praise and validation for her choices. But also didn’t want to receive advice because that might hint at her inexperience or ineptitude. Sort of like when you are teaching a defensive teenager to drive, and it makes them angry when you instruct them: “I know that, already!”

And don’t think I am ignorant of my own bitterness. I am physically disabled from being with my students, and she doesn’t have the sensitivity to refrain from reporting her constant success? She can’t even lower her ego long enough to allow in a little advice from the veteran?

So I stopped taking her calls. She worked herself down to only bragging in text/FB posts. Originally, I had thought maybe she was just too anxious and self-conscious, so I tried to make her understand that these were her kids, now. I had only been with them for two months. Be free, let go. She let go in terms of my control, but not in terms of my compliments.

Last week, I finally got sensible enough to protect myself from her blabbing. Our school system is in the running for the Broad Prize, a very prestigious award that goes to one urban school system in the country. For one day, teams of reviewers will drift through the school, watching teachers and kids interact. Whose classes receive visits are highly orchestrated and timed. And obviously, any savvy principal will select students that are bright, well behaved, lively, so the 19 classrooms on the schedule are top heavy with gifted students since they are least likely to pull out a cigarette in class or say, out loud, “What fucking homework?”.

Guess whose class was one of the nineteen? One of my former AP Lang groups. Did Ms. Brittle say, “I am so proud of my students for being chosen?” Nope. Of course not. Instead she literally posts, “Look at me, I am so honored to be one of only nineteen people in the whole school. One of only nineteen. . .”

Sigh. I blocked that shit very quickly, and finally Defriended her a few weeks ago; that night I went to sleep with a sigh of relief, sort of like when you finally find and remove that annoying strand of lint from your eyeball.

But then this week: She begins texting me, asking if I can come to school this week. I cannot drive, so this takes planning. Judging from the time of year, I knew the magazines were back from the publisher. I knew that she wanted me to praise and validate. (A bit more background. This past January the magazine from Spring 2013 earned top honors from National Scholastic Press Association. I should have received certificates or plaques with my name on them; in the past, I tended to scan and give copies of these awards to the staff. No matter how often I asked Ms. Brittle, who got them out of my school mailbox, I never receivedthem; she has “lost” them. ) So I answer her question with a question: What’s up? She tells me the class wants me to come in so they can present the magazine to me. Of course they do.

Other than a few kids, this staff barely knew me before I was hospitalized. Though I received numerous calls, cards, texts, etc.. From former students who did know me, members of this literary mag class were pretty silent. They did not nurture any ongoing student-teacher connection. That had not bothered me. Why should it? After a seven month absence and loads of pain meds. I cannot really recall their names or faces at this point. I declined the invitation.

Through a few terse, self-righteous texts she finally reveals that the staff had not just dedicated the magazine to me, but NAMED it after me. Huh??

You soft-hearted people are thinking, oh, sounds so sweet, such a tribute. . .but really it is not about me or even for me; using my name is about this teacher, Ms. Brittle. Even when it looks like she is finally considering someone else, it really still is all about her. Truly . . .imagine me standing in that classroom on my cane, receiving this magazine that I had almost nothing to do with from kids I do not really know, who have certainly shown no interest in me. Why exactly am I there? For me to feel good, or for Ms. Brittle to feel good?

I am uncomfortable with show. I hate how awkward it will be when people buy a literary magazine with my name on the cover. My name. Like I am dead. Would it have been more considerate to wonder if I would even want my name used that way? Yes. Does Ms. Brittle think that way? Nope. Because in her mind, nothing could be better than anyone devoting an entire ANYthing to her.

I am the woman, who when a finalist for Teacher-of-the-Year, begged my principal not to make me sit on stage during the ceremony. When last year’s graduating class voted me “most inspirational teacher”, a page in the annual, I told only my husband. Anyone else only learned it if they bought or read a yearbook. When my admin said I was the only teacher in the school who didn’t receive any bad bubbles in the worst category on the yearly student perception surveys, I never told a soul. I know it seems conceited to report it now, but I usually do not repeat such things in broad ways. My behavior is foreign to this woman, who would have broken a finger trying to post these honors on FB at lightening speed.

The students of this course were still getting to know me; they had me for two months; this year’s magazine group was relatively fresh and unattached, so to put my name on the cover seems like a grand, showy, look-at-us gesture, orchestrated by someone who is an expert at grandstanding.

If you know teenagers, you know that when tragedy befalls a student or teacher, particularly death, huge numbers of them fall into histrionics. They sob, and beat their breasts, and plan giant candle light vigils; they skip class to sit in the gym with grief counselors. Because, somehow, they all knew somebody who sat near the dead kid in the ninth grade once, so they are devastated. Somehow this stranger’s death is really their own suffering, their own moment to be dramatic.

That’s what I feel here. Ms. Brittle should have recognized it for what it was and kept me off the stage. She should have taught kids a more personal, less intrusive way to deal with tragedy. She should have had the sense to think about what I would be comfortable with.  And frankly, the title was probably her idea in the first place, a way to draw attention to her “people pleasing” ways.

Last year’s NSPA award, also with my name on it, means so much more to me than this magazine since it reflects my team’s hardwork. In Ms. Brittle’s mind, I imagine she was very proud of herself for getting the 2014 magazine published, hoping I would fawn over it, and more hopeful that she would be caught and praised for so thoughtfully putting my name on the cover. A teacher’s name on a lit mag is really difficult to ignore; plus, it’s there forever. Once again, my injury has given her a chance to gain attention.

So when she happily asked me to come to the surprise party, so they could present “her” magazine to me, and I declined with a terse, “No, I would rather have received a few sincere, personal notes here and there, not a grand gesture,” she was stumped, then hurt, then righteously indignant. That’s okay. I’m fine with that. I got used to being the villain way back when I was still in the hospital. I wonder if she will ever understand how much it helps me to let her go.

See. I told you I was feeling mean.