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. . .”

“Whaaat?”

“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?

Really?

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.

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.