Sunday, December 30, 2012

Ambition Should Be Made of Sterner Stuff

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions; I never have. I am not a fan of committing to unrealistic expectations doomed to failure the first time I get a sugar craving or blow off my morning run. Besides, as a teacher, September is my January, when I do my best reflection, renewal, and resolutions.

However, I’m going to make an exception this January. I figure it’s the least I can do, what with the American educational system in crisis and all. According to the most recent reports on the status of U.S. Education, we rank smack dab in the middle of international rankings for educational gains, and those gains are nowhere near rapid enough for us to catch up with the leaders of the industrialized world.

I’m not usually a fan of crib notes, but Joel Klein’s opening salvo in the report of the Council on Foreign Relations education task force offers up a pretty good summary of the situation: “The United States' failure to educate its students leaves them unprepared to compete and threatens the country's ability to thrive in a global economy and maintain its leadership role.” I’m just one teacher, in one small school in New Hampshire, but I’m not about to allow my students to be drowned in a “rising tide of mediocrity.”

In the face of such dire predictions, I figure my best defense against apathy and hopelessness is an optimistic and clear-eyed offense.

So this January, I resolve go back to the beginning and question everything.

That’s it. One resolution. See, in my first couple of years as a teacher, I switched classrooms and subjects so often, I never had the opportunity to relax into a routine. I struggled to stay 24 hours ahead of my students, and I remember praying for the magical, mythical day I could walk into class prepared with a tried-and-true lesson plan. I longed for the giant binder one of my law school professors hauled in to to class each day, the script he’d used for decades, well-worn, authoritative, and practically memorized.

I’m a decade in to my teaching career, and I have created a few of those binders. And I have to admit, they do make my life easier. But with comfort and routine comes complacency, and the last thing I - or any teacher - can afford is sit back and rest on those dusty cardboard laurels created for a now-stale Julius Caesar unit.

Homework, assessments, teaching habits and routines, grading - it's all under suspicion this year. Teaching is hard work, and effective teaching is even harder. requires the humility to admit to our mistakes and the resolve to make things right. 

It’s time to admit defeat, acknowledge the havoc we’ve created in our educational system and let slip the dogs of war on behalf of our students. Because “middling” isn’t good enough anymore. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Place in the World

I wanted to kick off the new year by sending out some love to a group of educators, students, and storytellers I truly admire. The year ended with stories of teachers who gave the their lives for their students. I love my students, and I can only hope I would be brave enough to protect them when faced with the same circumstances. In the wake of Newtown, my brain has ventured to all the spaces and crevices in my middle school building, places I could stash my students should the threat of physical harm enter my classroom. However, the psychic threat that the students and teachers of Newtown face is much more insidious, and no special hiding place can offer adequate refuge.

I don't know how I would be able to recover from that threat; the post-traumatic fear of violence. As the news reports begin to fade into other events of the day, I find myself drawn back to a documentary about of the students and teachers of the International Community School.

A year or so ago, I heard about a film called A Place in the World, directed by Adam Maurer and William Reddington. The students and teachers profiled by these filmmakers beg the question of what it means to be a great teacher in the face of great challenges, and the value that these great teachers impart to students, their community, and the country. I teach relatively unharmed, in tact children, but these teachers take on the most challenging students. Students such as those of Newtown, children who have been scarred by trauma and fear. Children born to war and conflict who have seen things they never should have witnessed during their young lives. 

The documentary chronicles two years at 
The International Community School (ICS), a K-6 charter school in DeKalb County, Georgia. DeKalb County is the largest refugee resettlement area in the country and the most diverse county in the state of Georgia. Half the students at ICS are recent immigrants and refugees from war zones, and half are local children from DeKalb County. The film focuses on two educators: Drew Whitelegg (Mr. Drew to his students), a first-year teacher, and Dr. Laurent Ditman, Principal of ICS. Mr. Drew, formerly a post-doctoral Fellow at Emory University, speaks honestly about how tiring his job as a fourth-grade teacher is, how difficult it is to avoid being consumed by the challenges inherent in teaching a population of barely English-literate, emotionally and physically terrorized children how to function as educated members of American society. “Teaching at a university was a dawdle compared to teaching here. I mean it really was. And there’s a sense that you are in this for the long haul. But the rewards – the rewards here are absolutely endless. And they don’t come from all the great moments, they come from the small moments.”

Many of Mr. Drew’s students come to his classroom with no knowledge of English, and some students, such as Bashir, who was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, have no understanding of the concept of school. Bashir spent his first days at ICS wandering the halls, walking in and out of classrooms, calling out for his father. Principal Laurent Dittman recounts the story of a girl from the refugee camps in the Sudan who spent her first weeks at ICS huddled under a table, hiding from whatever dangers she had survived in the Sudanese refugee camp.

Dr. Dittman, himself an immigrant and the child of Holocaust survivors, believes in school as a refuge from his students’ unsettled home lives. He understands his students’ impulse to hide under tables in order to escape. “The first thing I learned from my parents was how to hide. When something bad happens, or is about to happen, you hide. I see that in many of the kids at the school.” Dr. Dittman views his school as a refuge for his students, a place to come out of hiding and learn. Dr. Dittman says of his own upbringing in an immigrant family in France, “I really liked school. It was a safe place. My parents were refugees and things at home were not always a lot of fun, and I saw school clearly as a refuge.”

Logically, I know that the threat of violence at school is low. I know that my students are much more likely to come to harm in the car on the way to school or swimming in the local pond. However, I have seen things in the news I wish I had not seen, and my students are afraid of a boogeyman that should not exist in their young minds. 
As teachers and administrators move forward and continue to do the job of teaching this country’s students, we need leaders such as Dr. Dittman and Mr. Drew. We need teachers unafraid to get down on their hands and knees, venture into their students' hiding places, and guide them back out into the light of a safe refuge. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Not Enough Tape in the World

In the moments before the news of the school shooting in Newtown, CT, wended its way through the halls of Crossroads Academy middle school, I was holed up in my office, grading writing assessments and listening to the fifth graders camped outside my office door, discussing, of all things, tape. They proclaimed their love for tape, their yearning for tape, and their parents’ attempts to hide said tape. They reminisced about the secret treasure hunts they had undertaken over the years in order to ferret out those contraband rolls of tape.

I poked my head out of my office, door, unable to resist.

“Why do you guys want all that tape?”

They looked up at me blankly, uncertain why anyone – particularly a teacher – would need an explanation as to why a kid would need tape.  

The youngest boy looked up at me, and stated the obvious: “To hold stuff together.”

I remember that urge; to tighten the loose bits and pieces of my world with a screwdriver, glue, and yes, tape. I carried a screwdriver around my house, searching for loose screws, less than secure hinges, and light switch covers in danger of falling off of the wall. Sure, I stripped threads and over-cranked the hubs on my father’s bicycle, but everything was tight. Secure. A world screwed down was a world in control, and in it, I felt safe.

As teachers and administrators, we fool ourselves into believing that we are in any way prepared for what occurred today at Sandy Hook Elementary. We hold drills and de-brief. We practice lock downs, lock outs, fire drills and toxic spill evacuations. The alarm sounds and I leap up, calm my students, and lead them to our rendezvous point, where we await instructions from our Headmaster. We are reunited once again, whole. Safe.

But even as the country dutifully awaited its instructions from our leader, even President Obama acknowledged that our world has been hopelessly ripped asunder. “Because while nothing can fill the space of a lost child or loved one, all of us can extend a hand to those in need – to remind them that we are there for them, that we are praying for them, that the love they felt for those they lost endures not just in their memories but also in ours.”

Sandy Hook Elementary will never again be whole, or feel entirely safe. I imagine the gaping holes that now riddle their official class pictures, and I am forced to admit that I may not always be able to keep my students safe and complete. I can, however, re-stock my tape drawer, and teach them how to hold their world together as we move forward as a community.   

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Other Waters Are Ever Flowing on to You.

There's an unfortunate catch in what I otherwise consider to be my perfect job: I teach these people, come to care about them, and then they go out into the world, and sometimes bad things happen to them.

When I had children, I understood that I was opening myself up for a world of pain; that's part of the deal we make with the universe when we become parents. However, when I signed my first teacher contract, there was no clause for heartache; no asterisk denoting the fine-print possibilities.

Over the years, I have taught some truly great people. People who have gone on to do great things and make this world a better, kinder, more colorful place. Many of these people have become my friends, and it has been thrilling to make that transition from Mrs. Lahey, to Jess, to friend. A few have become confidantes and, as they grow into their respective callings, peers. Milestones in their lives have become milestones in mine: the first wedding, the first baby. The first death.

I was prepared for the wedding and the baby, but Andrew's knocked the air out of me and I am only beginning to remember how to breathe.

I visited with him last winter, on a weekend trip to New York. We caught up over coffee, laughing about how different our lives are and how far we have come as my children drew faces in the fogged cafe windows. It is always a wonderful privilege for me to get to know the people my students become, but part of me holds on to the memory of their teenage selves.  No matter what they do with their lives, the mistakes they make, the successes they earn, they always retain something of their doughy, unformed adolescent innocence.

Those doughy faces met me at the classroom door thirteen years ago. And two weeks later, when I showed up at that door with eyes swollen from crying over the sudden death of my best friend, they were my salvation. I don't remember much of that day, but I do remember that they noticed my pain. They were quiet, and kind, and respectfully concerned. And by the end of the day, they made me laugh. I specifically remember being surprised by that laugh, and I was grateful that I had decided to go to work that day. My students saved me that day.

Yesterday, I arrived at school in a fog of sadness and fatigue wearing my reading glasses, hoping it would conceal my puffy eyes a little. I slapped on a smile, took a deep breath, and dove in to first period Latin, hoping that my teaching muscle memory would take over. I had to admit to the students after my fourth or fifth stupid mistake that I was just a little tired and a just a little sad, and I allowed them to work on Latin translation in groups and pretended to grade papers.

As teachers do, I pushed on through third period Latin and fourth period Latin and fifth period English and sixth period English. I tried not to make mistakes and aimed for the end of each period, ever closer to the end of the day.

Two seventh grade girls stopped me as I walked into my last period, thrust some paper into my hand, hugged me, and ducked back into the mass of students changing classes. It happened so fast, I barely had time to register who they were and what was in my hand.

They were folded notes, covered in glitter pen, adorned with sparkly flowers and hearts, my name printed on the front in big, pink bubble letters. The words inside were loving, warm, and kind - just the salve I needed for the gaping wound I had been trying to cover up all day.

They were not fooled by my glasses. They knew. And once again, my students saved me.

This was not outlined in the fine print of my teaching contract, either, but I'll take it. I pinned their notes to the wall above my desk, and as I look around those notes, I can find other reassuring evidence that I have kept close to me over the years. I have found salvation many times over. There's a photo of a baby named Jack, the child of my student Bailey, with a piece of paper that she had slipped in to my hand after class when she was fifteen, over a decade ago. She'd had a revelation one night, written down a quote she'd found, and proudly presented it to me as a connection to something we had read.

The note she handed me ten years ago says:

I can't remember precisely what we were talking about in class, but I've saved it all these years because she'd made a connection. To something - anything - outside of class. I still teach this same quote today (although a different version of the words), in an altogether different context, but the essence still resonates: we can't ever repeat the same experience because the circumstances, the people, the moment, has moved on.

The students may change, but the waters remain the same. I'm hip-deep in this river, and I'm staying. No matter what the water brings my way, drawn downstream, to drift out of sight.