9/11 and My Seventh Graders

Today I teach children born in late 2000 or 2001. They have never known a world without the United States at war in the Middle East. Bin Ladin was as real (and frightening) as Voldemort from their childhood storybooks. And they are profoundly affected by their passive connection to this day’s events simply by being born in the year of 9/11. It shows in their conversation and in their writing. From this generation on, 9/11 is a dusty bit of history, as remote as Pearl Harbor.

We did not dwell on 9/11 today. I left their families to approach the historic day, or not. They carry a burden, no matter how young they were on that day. It breaks my heart to read their first writing assignments: a self introduction. Many of them begin, “I was born the year the twin towers fell.” They don’t understand that day, but they have absorbed its haunting, lingering fear. The media images play like cinema footage, equally real and unreal.

I hope for the day when they can say, without fear, “I was born the year the twin towers fell, and I am here to change the world for the better.”

My Kids -Your Kids

I started teaching in 2002, armed with a Bachelor of Science, methods courses, and a mentor. I was fresh out of college, single, and childless. I looked so young that I once had a colleague stop my class from going down the hallway because she thought they were unescorted by a teacher and thought, at first glance, that I was one of my eighth-graders. At the end of the year 7th vs 8th softball game, I wore my hair in braided pigtails for team spirit and a parent asked my partner teacher if I was a “new kid” in the seventh grade class.

It’s now over a decade later and no one is going to mistake me for a twelve year-old anymore, and while I am now married, I am still childless. According to an article by Sara Mosle on Slate.com entitled “Parents make better teachers,” because I am childless, I lack a critical perspective on child and adolescent development.

Mosle writes about her early career as a TFA grad, working for a charter school with the limited perspective that is part and parcel of being in your twenties. If you’re out in the world as an adult for the first time, you’ve got learning and living of your own to do. She writes, “To the extent I understood family dynamics, it was solely from the perspective of the teenager I’d been just a few years before.”

I can remember early entanglements with parents when I attempted to assert my authority in the classroom. A parent refused to have her daughter serve a detention because I could not prove that she was talking when I had asked her to stop. Her mother said, “Just because her lips were moving doesn’t mean my daughter was talking.” I talked with my mentor; I learned flexibility; I learned how to reflect on my actions; I became a more savvy classroom manager–but these skills took time and mentoring to develop. Now, my students rarely receive detention because I’ve learned how to engage them, guide them, and help them stop a problem before it gets to the level of a detention. It took experience and observation to get good at this part of the job.

I remember having a sophomore student who missed class frequently, didn’t bathe regularly, never completed his assignments, and often went to sleep in my class. In my early years, I would have seen this student as someone who needed discipline and strong consequences. Instead, I asked the guidance counselor what was going on. He lived with one parent who worked the graveyard shift. If his parent didn’t come home in time to take him to school, he would miss. This fifteen year-old only had access to the groceries and laundry detergent that was in the house. When supplies ran out, he had to wait until the next grocery trip. He spent most of his waking hours at school or alone at home. When his parent was home, the parent slept. They were on opposite schedules for school and work. He felt adrift and unmotivated. How’s that for “family dynamics”?

I’m not sure how having my own child would help me better empathize with students like him.

I agree with Mosle that charter schools who employ only young, single, childless teachers are being short sighted–but I reject her thesis that hiring teachers with children is the answer.

Enough. Enough with the oversimplification.

It takes a school community. It takes teachers like my mentor when I was twenty-three and starting out to help me learn from her experience and reflect on my management choices. It takes guidance counselors and principals. It takes parents and guardians who are willing to work with teachers and schools as partners. Charter schools who demand their teachers work 100 hours a week for the sake of their students at the expense of their own lives or own families are not sustainable. Teachers are human beings with a very real and important need for boundaries that allow them to be whole people with lives and families of their own. Teaching and caring for someone else’s children should not be all we are allowed to do.

I would love to have children of my own, but so far I can’t. I suffered a miscarriage while at school and had no choice over the following weeks and months to mask my grief and pain in order to protect my students. Don’t tell me I can’t be a good teacher if I’m not also a parent.

I buy school supplies for my students. I buy them lunches. I have held them when they’ve cried and talked them down from their feelings of betrayal and despair when a parent goes to jail or when there is divorce. I have held a student’s confidence when she told me she’d just worked up the courage to tell her parents and the police she’d been raped. I have walked students to the guidance office when they were facing the possibility of pregnancy. I have had a student steeped in his own depression lean on me to guide him to the help he desperately wanted but didn’t know how to ask. I have consoled parents who don’t know how to handle their child’s heartache, or addiction, or anxiety. I have been to hospitals. I have been to funerals.

It’s an old cliche that teachers refer to students as our kids. No one who says so does it lightly. I know when a new group of children are entrusted to me at the beginning of the school year that I have an obligation to provide each child with an intellectually and emotionally safe, motivating environment. They become my kids and I advocate for them; encourage them; and challenge them to see their potential even when they cannot.

I may not be a parent, but I have learned over the course of my career that I don’t have to be a parent in order to be a good teacher. What makes a good teacher? All those things I have been so blessed to find as I have grown and developed as a teacher: consistency, support, positive relationships with parents (their child’s first teachers), trust, and experience. Having a fertile womb hasn’t really entered the picture.

Armadillos

He had the frightened look of a trapped animal–a bullied runt who was used to abuse at the hands of cruel classmates. As we talked he ducked his head lower, turned away from me, and seemed to fold in on himself along the midline–as though he could pull his left and right shoulders together to shield his body from my questions or curl himself into a protective ball.

Armadillo

Image courtesy of Rich Anderson on Flickr

I was not his usual tutor and had not been able to build any kind of trust with him since he had joined our after school program. From the first time we met, this young man showed me only defiance and passive-aggressive behavior. I started our work time together as every session usually starts. We checked his online grade book to look for missing work or plan for upcoming assignments. As we flipped through the pages, some classes only had a few grades posted for the midterm progress report. I praised him for having no missing work in most of his classes, but then I saw his English class. There were only four grades for the first part of the quarter. Two were homework grades. One was a quiz. The other was a test. Each assignment was worth 100 points. Unfortunately for this student, both homework assignments earned 0 points. Shaking my head in disbelief that four grades were enough to determine how this student was learning, I asked him what he knew about the zero grades. Did he forget to turn in an assignment or was there something incomplete or incorrect? Did he want me to come with him to ask his teacher if he needed to reattempt something with me–his tutor?

No.

And then the walls went flying up in every direction. No, he didn’t want to speak to his teacher. No, he didn’t want to explain the assignments to me. No, he really wasn’t interested in finding out what he needed to do to fulfill the requirements of the assignment. No. No. No.

A frightened Brazillian Armadillo

Frightened Brazilian Armadillo, image courtesy of mtsofan on Flickr

In the classroom, this kind of defiance used to set off my blood pressure, but here in the tutoring lab things felt different. I saw him take this defensive stance out of self-preservation. What was at the root of it? Shame? Embarrassment? Fear? I had no way to know, so I sat beside him. I waited. I spoke softly and soothingly. And then I listened.

He told me about his third grade teacher. In his words: a jerk who didn’t help him understand, so he quit trying to understand Language Arts from then on. He would rely on summer school for the credit he needed to reach seventh grade. And eighth grade. And so on.

He told me about being bullied on the bus and at home, about learning the only way to solve a problem with someone else is to use force, and about hating school because it was boring.

This boy is one of many armadillos I’ve seen in my classroom over the years who show their tough exterior as a way to shield themselves from pain, hurt, or betrayal. I wish I could say we had a breakthrough, that he opened up just a tiny bit and trusted me to help him confront his fear or shame or whatever it was that was making him so upset, but that’s not what happened. Instead, I wondered what happens to some children as they pass through school from year to year that leaves them so damaged and afraid of adults.

Children Will Listen: On Voldemort and Bin Ladin

When I heard the news on Facebook–“Osama Bin Ladin is dead”–I turned to Twitter while traditional media lagged behind the story. For over an hour, I waited for the President’s statement, reading tweet reactions and listening to a live stream from CBS. The tweets were raw–ranging from Hemmingway-esque bursts of “AP Confirmed: Bin Ladin is dead” to tweets dealing with the complex emotional reactions we were all having. Was it wrong to cheer the death of a man so focused on destroying innocent lives–who had taken so many American lives on 9/11 and was largely responsible for so many deaths of our soldiers? What was that feeling? Relief? Catharsis? Justice?

The experts and pundits chattered on in the background, dissecting the President’s yet-unmade speech, and speculating on what the news might mean. I knew what it meant to me.

I was a student teacher in 2001, hundreds of miles away from New York City in the Midwestern city of Evansville. September was test-time for my sophomore students and while they were sequestered in classrooms in a wing of the building that would not be disturbed by other students changing classes, my supervising teacher and I were shuffled off to the teacher work-room. I was grading my way through a pile of quizzes when another teacher came into the room and told us to turn on the television. A plane had hit one of the buildings in New York City.

I imagined a Cessna, a tiny bird, wildly off course–an unconscious pilot, a horrible accident, no doubt. When the image appeared on the screen, I felt my stomach harden. At that moment, live, we saw the second plane strike and knew our country was at war.

The rest of the day–spent on lockdown–is a blur. I remember students laughing at the idea of a plane flying into a building, stunned by their lack of understanding and compassion. I now understand they had no frame of reference, no way to comprehend the way the world had shifted under them. I saw and understood in a way they would come to know how the world would not be the same for them or for me anymore. On campus at the University of Evansville, our student newspaper lamented: “This wasn’t supposed to happen. We were supposed to see a world without our country at war.” We, on the cusp of our adult, professional lives knew it would be years and many more lives lost before our country would ever feel safe again. There was a profound sense among us that when those planes struck, our innocence died and was buried in the rubble.

Last night, too, was full of what some called “inappropriate” reactions to the announcement of Bin Ladin’s demise. The crowd gathered outside the White House chanting “USA” and celebrating as though we had won an Olympic victory. In scanning the faces of the crowd, I was struck with how young they were. If I, at 30, had lived one-third of my life with the War on Terror and I felt sober relief at the news, how must it feel to someone in their late teens or early twenties who had known war and the specter of Osama Bin Ladin for half of their lives or more. These young people have been steeped in the rhetoric of war and America’s righteous vengeance. They know the names of the enemies and who to fear. The whole story has been told and calcified into legend. Washington crossing the Delaware? Just as remote and iconic as the crumbling Twin Towers and President Bush with his bullhorn.

For the youngest Americans–the children who watched the adults around them react to 9/11 and the many years of being told who and what to fear–Osama Bin Ladin was a character in a story, not a real human being. He was the bogeyman, a symbol of evil, an unknown danger lurking somewhere in a country far away, the ultimate bad-guy from the cartoons. He had no humanity anymore–both because his actions were so heinous and because the man himself became a folk tale. On Twitter, I read: “Sure hope it wasn’t just one of [Bin Ladin’s] horcruxes.” For our students, and those young people celebrating and chanting, perhaps the Voldemort/Bin Ladin connection isn’t too far off. How else do we expect them to react to the news that the most evil villain of their childhood has been killed at last?

Young people celebrate outside the White House.

As we move forward and step into our classrooms to have more conversations about war, terror, good, evil, justice, and humanity, we must be careful how to speak and react with our students as the story takes shape. Stephen Sondheim knew the power of stories and warned through song in his musical Into the Woods: “Children Will Listen.” All we have are stories and the adult leaders we want will be shaped by what they see and hear as children.

“Children Will Listen” by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine:

Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see.
And learn.

Children may not obey,
But children will listen.
Children will look to you
For which way to turn,
To learn what to be.

Careful before you say,
“Listen to me.”
Children will listen.

Careful the wish you make,
Wishes are children.
Careful the path they take-
Wishes come true,
Not free.

Careful the spell you cast,
Not just on children.
Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you see
And turn against you…

Careful the tale you tell.
That is the spell.
Children will listen…

Guide them then step away
Children will glisten.
Temper with what is true
And children will turn
If just to be free.

Careful before you say,
“Listen to me.”
Children will listen.
Children will listen.
Children will listen.

The Easiest Job in the World

Ever have one of those days.

Every lesson, every class discussion, every student seems to fit together in one glorious alignment with the universe. Students buzz with curiosity, perseverance, creativity, problem-solving, collaboration. It is a wonder to behold. Those who love teaching know what I’m talking about. Every now and then our efforts not only to teach our content and meet standards, but also to spark our students’ interest, exceeds our expectations. It’s the reason why I chose teaching instead of business, English instead of engineering. It’s the student who asks if it’s okay if his research paper is twelve pages instead of ten because he found such good source material and he’s not quite finished with his ideas. It’s the small group who chose to create and narrate a documentary presentation instead of a plain old PowerPoint. It’s the terribly shy student overcoming her nerves, calling a local journalist to interview for her project, and beaming with pride when she hangs up the phone. It’s the seventh-grade academic team who didn’t place during competition, but began a deep and abiding appreciation for Shakespeare and Francis Bacon. I live for these moments and they’re my “merit pay.”

Of course, anyone who has taught for longer than fifteen minutes knows that these are the golden, mountain-top moments, not the norm, and it’s not because of ineffective teaching or laziness or the lack of careful planning. Sometimes life gets in the way.

This is what worries me about the narrow concepts of teacher evaluations.

There is an assumption that teaching is the easiest job in the world. In a way, that’s true. If all I had to do each day was conduct what amounts to a staff meeting to a group of silent, attentive, note-takers who would then complete the work I assign, then sure–teaching’s a cakewalk.

I could show a PowerPoint, I could lecture, I could assign reading–and my workers, my students, would follow my every order. They would all be fed, rested, and compliant. But students aren’t paid to show up to school the way employees are paid to come to work. Compliance is not the same thing as self-control. School is compulsory and for some the day-to-day grind can make school unappealing at best, hostile at worst. Students come to school hungry, or sleepy, or stressed out over problems and obligations that are outside their control (more on this in another post).

The way I choose to react and use my EQ instead of just my IQ can make all the difference to a student in crisis.

If we limit the measure of teacher effectiveness to test scores, we must ignore the human side of teaching, the messy side that understands it’s impossible for a student to care about comma splices when her mother is dying of breast cancer. It’s hard to stay awake in class if you’re responsible for co-parenting younger siblings or work after school or in the evening to help pay the family bills.

Real students are not monolithic data sets with all variables under control. For merit pay or value added assessments to work, students would have to be little more than empty shells, waiting to be filled with an educational parfait–built layer by layer, year by year. This kind of thinking diminishes the humanity of our students and turns teachers into dispensers.

Resilience, compassion, creativity, coping with difficulties–these are not items on a standardized test, these are ways to handle the tests of living. What good is a content education without these skills?

Teaching, when done fully, is not the easiest job in the world, not by a long shot; however, there is no other way I want to spend my life than helping children–adolescents and young adults–develop the skills they need to cope with what life brings next.

Acknowledging Students’ Humanity

Students come to us in all forms, and no two students think alike or come equipped with the same set of coping skills, aptitude, talents, or motivation.

In any given classroom, you might find…

  1. The Driven–students whose parents expect nothing less that their child’s best and push their children to take and excel in advanced classes.

    Sometimes my role is to let them cry or vent on the days the pressure is too much and to breathe deeply when they (or their parents) lobby for me to change a grade. At all times, I want to meet their desire to learn more, know more, and be the best while tempering their drive with the reality that “knowing it” for a test isn’t the same as learning. These students tie their self-worth so tightly to their GPA that taking risks or making a mistake is tantamount to failure.

  2. The Disruptive–students whose behavior ranges from outright defiant or violent to gregarious and subversive.

    These students stand when we ask them to sit, yell when we ask for quiet, and question everything–“Why do I need to know this? Who says?” They seek the approval of their peers and test the bounds of authority. These are the students who garner enough disciplinary notes to wallpaper their bedroom–if the notes even make it home for a parent’s signature.

    These students test my patience and their constant need for attention can make it difficult to teach anything. These are students who have learned that life isn’t easy and will take any kind of attention to feel important–even if it means being yelled at. They cope with stress from home or a lack of support by turning on adults around them. Negativity and impatience are toxic responses.

  3. The Immature–these students are socially delayed for many reasons and as their more socially sophisticated peers leave them behind, the gap becomes a chasm. They may have short tempers and be easy to provoke. These students may “overshare” in class or reveal details about their likes, dislikes, or home life that make them targets for bullying. They may unsuccessfully attempt to insert themselves into conversations or friend groupings and alienate themselves from the very people they long to know. Their reputation can outstrip them and even as they pass through this developmental stage to maturity, they can still be trapped by the expectations and long memories of other students.

    Sometimes my role with an emotionally or behaviorally immature student is to consciously alter my reactions to support that student’s need for attention while helping them find alternative ways to express themselves. I also have to watch the balance of power in the room and encourage all students to treat others with patience.

  4. Students with particular needs: English language learners, new students, and transient students; students with autism, ADHD, dysgraphia, dyslexia, and other learning challenges; students living with addiction (their own, or a parent’s), pregnancy, divorce, homelessness, depression, eating disorders, or suffering trauma from abuse or rape; students with frequent absences due to illness or tardiness due to a lack of reliable transportation. They may be consumed with grief because a family pet died or because a friend died in a car accident or because a parent is going to jail. They may live in fear of violence, failure, not fitting in, not getting into a good college, not having a best friend or a date to prom. They may face racism, bigotry, homophobia, religious intolerance.


    Even students who face none of these challenges to their safety or sense of self and have the full support of their parents can be challenging on the days their binary view of the world’s fairness causes conflicts.

    And this list doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface when it comes to the challenges our students face or may face.


Just because we teach children doesn’t mean that their lives are not touched by troubles. Our students deserve more than to be summarized into a statistic or data set. The art of teaching acknowledges students’ humanity and works with students’ frailties, not in spite of them. Without this essential element, teaching loses its soul.