Always a Teacher

One of the many double-edged swords with the teacher personality is that for many of us, what we do is who we are. We are always “switched on” and collecting ideas, images, songs, quotes, strategies, tools–anything that may be of use to us and our students. I know each time I talk with a student about his or her future, concerns, or joys, my words and opinion have weight. There is never a moment when what I say or do doesn’t matter to those entrusted to my care. That means that on the bad days, I have to keep a lot back, put professionalism first, and focus on the role.

In the middle of this month, I started noticing a change in the way my body was feeling. My pulse pounded, I grew faint and short of breath from standing in one place. My usual Tigger-like bounce and sparkle teaching delivery took so much out of me that I had to lay down in the nurse’s office during my prep, and even that would not be enough to see me through a day. My health started to deteriorate and no amount of muscle was going to be enough to keep me on my feet. It is with a heavy heart that I am taking a leave of absence to focus on my health and to treat the illness that has suddenly invaded my life.

I miss my students and I feel such an obligation to them. Even as I struggle with questions that have no answers for me now, I keep thinking of them and what they need to learn.

One of my colleagues reminded me that whether I am in my classroom or not, I am still teaching my students. Right now, that lesson happens to be how to live with illness with courage and self-care. I can teach them compassion and patience as I stay focused on recovery. I can teach them honesty and determination each time I respond to a gentle email question, “When are you coming back?” I will teach them professionalism and responsibility as someone stands in my place to teach my lessons as I guide them from a distance, always looking over their shoulders, never forgetting the learning that is happening whether I am there physically or not. Most of all, I can teach them independence–that they are the only ones who can take control of their learning, that my most proper role is as a coach and guide.

I am always a teacher, learning now to teach all kinds of ways.

Advertisements

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.

I Wore My Coat in Class Today

It has happened at least once in every school–public or private–where I have taught. At some point the furnace goes, and it’s always on the coldest day of the year. How strange to keep working with gloves, scarves, and winter jackets wrapped tight. I resisted the peacoat until I made a trip into the hallway and realized the hall was warmer than my room.

My classroom is often uncomfortably cold in the winter and stiflingly hot in August and late spring/early summer. It’s one of the harder parts of maintaining such a sprawling complex. It’s more barn than building, more mall than office park. We bleed energy from every gap in the double doors and around every warped-seal on a window. All I can do is dress in layers when it’s cold and bring a fan from home to stir the air when it’s hot. To the person who solves the energy efficiency/heating and cooling problem for schools–you will be one very wealthy person.

Please get on that. Soon.

Another down side to the cold weather is that it has driven a few mice into my desk drawers. My principal likes to give teachers a chocolate bar and card for birthdays and I hadn’t taken a nibble of mine before a mouse squirmed its way into my desk and gnawed nearly a third of it while my students and I were away from the room. How impertinent! That happened before the holiday break and I managed to clean out the “remains” my visitor had left. Today I found that another “friend” had attacked a sealed bottle of vitamin C in the opposite drawer. Is there anything worse than wondering when you reach into a desk drawer for a pen or note pad that you might come in contact with a mouse–or its leavings?

I’d like to laugh. To shrug it off and say, well–these things do happen and can happen to anyone–but I wonder. I wonder.

Lockdown, 2001-2012

The first time I participated in a school lock-down, it wasn’t a drill.

It was 2001–just before 9/11–and I was student teaching in a sophomore English class. My classroom faced the main road and there were five or six large windows spanning the length of the room. My cooperating teacher and I got word that the local bank branch just down the block from the school had been robbed by a rifle-wielding gunman and police were in pursuit. As a precaution, we were to pull down the window shades and lock our doors in case the fugitive attempted to take refuge (or hostages) at the school.

My students started getting up from their seats as I casually lowered the shades.

“They’ve got guns!” One girl said, noting the armed and ready officers already standing guard outside, black rifles pointed across their bodies, tense and watchful.

I just kept pulling down window shades and tried to distract them with a half-fictional personal story. Anything to get them away from the windows and any potential stray bullets that might be fired. It was terrifying to think that a gunman was on the run in our neighborhood and that we might be vulnerable to a gun attack. Instead of feeding their fear or giving in to mine, I kept moving with the day’s lesson.

Eventually the man was captured and life went on. I still think about that day and how quickly the world seemed to crumble in the weeks and months that followed. Lock-down became policy, then procedure, then annual practice alongside fire drills, severe weather drills, and earthquake drills.

As a teacher, I think about lock-down and school safety every school year:

  • What’s the best way to cover the three large windows that allow me to see into the hallway, but might let a shooter look in to find us?
  • How should I deal with the broken window shade that maintenance taped at the top to keep the heavy roll from falling onto our heads? There’s a four-foot wide and eighteen-inch tall section of window that cannot be covered by a shade. Should I paper over it?
  • If we needed to escape through the windows, will they shatter if I smash them with a chair? Do I have a screw driver that will allow me to remove a window from its casing so that students can fit through the smaller openings?
  • What’s the safest corner of the room to avoid gunfire or sight lines? How many twelve year-old children can I expect to fit into that corner before we run out of room and are so many sitting ducks?
  • What do I do if an attacker shoots out the glass in my door or beside it and reaches in to unlock the door from the inside? Where do we run without compromising the interconnected classrooms on either side, which (by the way) have no locks or securing mechanisms, so that if one classroom is compromised, the entire wing is compromised?
  • How quickly could I move my file cabinet to barricade the door? Would I realistically have enough seconds to do it by myself?

I think about what I would do if an attacker came into my room–what I would do, what I would say. I think about the futility of buzzers and plastic ID name tags whose only use (as far as I can tell) is to help police identify the bodies once it’s all over.

Then I think about how absurd it is that I have to think about these things at all as a regular part of my job as a teacher in a democracy such as this one. This is not a border land of some long-standing war. This is not Gaza or Belfast or Tel Aviv or Bosnia. Why is it okay for American children to practice what to do in case of a shooting?

Why is it that the rhetoric about teachers in America says that I am a union thug, a moocher from the lower third of my class when it comes to academic performance. I am not to be trusted as a professional, but managed, micromanaged, tested, and measured to mastery. I can’t even get access to worthy YouTube videos because I can’t be trusted to use internet access responsibly, yet I hear governors, mayors, and other political leaders saying I should be trusted with a gun. I should be armed and dangerous so that if an assailant makes it past the buzzers and paper-covered windows, I can stand my ground and kill before I or my students are killed.

It’s too much to ask.

It’s time for lawmakers to find their spines and protect American citizens from the violent, irrational behavior. Don’t hand me a gun, wish me luck on my VAM score, and go back to your office and shut the door. Don’t make me personally responsible for one more thing about a child’s life and future.

Am I the only one who finds this maddening?

EQ, IQ, I Quit

People who care about me say that I am too hard on myself. Relentless perfectionism is something I rail against in students. I encourage them, make them smile, and then refocus on healthy mental choices. Why then is it so hard for me to take my advice?

We haven’t had a full week of classes in weeks. From scheduled half-days for professional development to field trips, the hurricane, and student-led conferences, my days have been packed with meetings, paperwork, preparations, bag lunches, late nights, shortened preps, report cards due, observations, and the technological resistentialism of broken copiers and spotty internet access. I’m frazzled–and the kids who miss the comfort of routine–are itching for more breaks. The school year honeymoon is over and reality is setting in: seventh grade isn’t going to just let you show up and get an A. This is going to take some effort.

Today, though, was a last straw. Not because of any one particular moment, but the weight of caring for so many at the expense of my own mental health overtook me. Teaching requires human connections and being real, being human with someone who is in a heightened state of emotion requires self-possession and an ability to compartmentalize that I lose when my batteries are low. One of those conversations? Ok. Two…and we’re stretching it. Three? Four? More. Relentless need. Relentless want. And I want to say, “Yes, I teach your child, but I spend less than five hours a week in your child’s presence. The average American spends more time in front of the television in a week than I spend with your child in a month. My attention and energy is divided among all the students I have in every class. Yes, your child is important to me, but so are all the rest.” But I don’t say that. How can I?

Just when I think I’m getting the hang of this teacher role, I have a day, a week, a month like this last one that leaves me gasping for breath and wanting to turn in my classroom key. I know it will be better, so all I can do is dust off the remains of the day and seek comfort in the oblivion of exhaustion-induced sleep.

Air Traffic Control or The Lighthouse

Image courtesy of moogs on Flickr

There’s a murky continuum between micromanagement and being “hands off.” In the classroom and as part of a school community, I have experienced both extremes and felt alternately stifled and abandoned. I wanted to ensure my staff wouldn’t feel that way about my leadership, but it took time and reflection to find the empowerment sweet spot.

One conversation with a seventeen year-old junior counselor gave me the insight I needed to define my leadership styles. The counselor had a child in his group whose behavior was causing nearly constant disruptions. It seemed natural for me to take action to address the problem head-on, but when I offered to talk to the camper, my staffer flinched. His reaction surprised and worried me. When I asked him what was wrong, he explained, “The kids know you’re in charge–and they’ll listen to you, but why should they listen to me if they don’t think I’m in charge, too.” He helped me see what I already knew about good leaders. I had to learn to pick my moments and support my staff without swooping in and “fixing” things for them. Just because I knew how to approach the problem didn’t mean it was best for me to take control away from someone who needed to learn.

I left that conversation with a perspective I’d been lacking. In the high-pressure, now moments of camp, I would focus on the problem before me. Like an emergency room doctor, I often handled conflicting needs in triage: scraped knees, lost shoes, borrowed towels, “fairness” arguments, bee stings, and homesickness. These were the frenetic moments where I felt hard pressed to be in three or more places at once, and it’s exhausting to be “the decider.”

I knew I had to empower my staff to make decisions and handle problems without always having to consult me first. It’s inefficient for them and for me if they rely too much on me to tell them what I think they should do next. I knew I wouldn’t be an effective leader if every choice had to go through me first. I knew I had to model the type of leader I needed my staff to be and to give them the right amount of support at the right times.

Image courtesy of archer10 (Dennis) on Flickr

In essence, I understood that sometimes I’m Air Traffic Control, fielding questions and making decisions because there’s no time to waste. It’s good for me to make certain choices or to establish expectations because no matter what: some problems won’t solve themselves. At other times as I walk through the camp grounds, I’m more like a lighthouse. My staff knows I’m there if they need me and it’s my responsibility to model strong leadership and show them I have confidence in them, too.

In reflecting on these two roles, I’ve thought about the leaders who have guided me and leaders who have frustrated me. The ones who have helped me grow were the ones who didn’t try to solve problems for me, but allowed me to develop my capacity. As I shifted my role from leading from the front to leading on the side, I watched as my young staff stepped in and stepped up to the challenge, going beyond even their own expectations.

The Other Side of the Office Door

The Student Becomes a Teacher

"The Other Side of the Desk" Photo by Jennifer Leung © 2010

The first time I set foot in a classroom as a pre-service teacher, my eyes were opened to what I now call “The Other Side of the Desk.” As a student, I had found it so easy to find fault with teachers who seemed scattered and unprepared for class. I wondered why it took so long for them to grade and return my assignments–and why tests didn’t always match what we had been learning in class. I wondered why  I could see the bullying, the slackers, and the cheaters, but they couldn’t. I wondered why some teachers could handle the “bad kids” while others seemed to egg them on and make things worse. Now I was the one with my Objective and Procedure-filled lesson plans and I watched as my idealized version of the classroom dissolved. Like every good teacher eventually discovers, I had to become flexible, to think on my feet, to listen to my students, and to design opportunities for learning and discovery rather than leaning on worksheets and questions at the end of the textbook selection. I learned that even a multiple choice test can take hours to grade when there are six classes worth of tests. I learned how to share responsibility for managing the classroom rather than ruling with threats and detention slips.

The Teacher Leader Becomes an Administrator

Now that camp has started, I’m also learning about life on the other side of the office door. I catch my reflection in the windows of the Administration Building as I move from place to place on campus, tending to campers’ needs and solving problems. I have that harried look I’ve seen on my administrators faces at times. I feel such an obligation to demonstrate every ounce of leadership and educational philosophy I possess, from modeling professionalism with my self-imposed dress code to the finer points of redirection, positive discipline, and inquiry learning.

I used to wonder why my administrators couldn’t stop by my classroom very often–until I spent half a day in the camp office making phone calls to parents who had forgotten to call in their absent camper. Those phone calls took place in between the times I was doling out band-aids (using Universal Precautions, of course), attending to “he-started-it” discipline issues, and answering the myriad questions from my staff that I hadn’t anticipated and, therefore, we hadn’t covered, in training. It used to frustrate me when an administrator would snap at me for what I perceived as a misunderstanding or an unjust characterization of my actions, until I was in the middle of a serious discipline issue and my curt response to a staffer left him feeling undervalued. (I found him later and apologized, adding yet another hard-knock lesson learned to my list.)

Expectations

Campers expect that I know their names and will be fair, just, and let them have fun. Parents expect that I know each child and will care for them as if they were my own children–personally ensuring Jeffrey (not an actual camper) brings his towel home, Maribel (not an actual camper) uses her inhaler before swimming, and knowing from memory which days Adam, Harold, Julie, Tina, and Beth (not actual campers) will ride the bus and which days a parent will pick them up. Junior Counselors expect that I will empower them to make decisions and enforce the code of conduct and not undermine their authority. Senior Staffers expect that I will provide the materials they need to do their work and that I will be available to help them solve problems or address concerns as they arise. The board of directors expect me to uphold the camp’s mission and to maintain the founders’ vision while guarding against liabilities and keeping an eye on the budget.

Is it any wonder my walkie-talkie handle is “Momma Bear”?

Life on the Other Side of the Office Door

"First Steps on the Path" Photo by Jennifer Leung © 2011

It has been sobering and at times overwhelming to be the last stop on the way to making a decision or addressing a problem. I feel the weight of that responsibility and my overwhelming desire to ensure the safety and well-being of every person at camp–from the youngest camper to the most veteran volunteer. It’s a different feeling than the one I had for my students and my classroom, and I’m not ashamed to admit that the responsibility for all those young lives can sometimes fill me with terror that something I do (or fail to do) will cause inadvertent harm. Constant vigilance is both physically and mentally exhausting.

As the days go by, I’m learning to balance my expectations for myself with the reality that this is a lot of on-the-job training and that I can learn from my mistakes as well as my successes. I’m learning that the other side of the office door, like the other side of the desk, is its own universe and that there’s nothing like “living the adventure” to understand what it’s like. Camp hasn’t been filled with stressful challenges either. There have been great moments where I know I’ve made a positive difference for a camper or staff member–and it feels so good to know my leadership can make that difference. After this summer, I’ll have to consider my options carefully and decide how an administrative role may play a part of my future.