Things I Know 349 of 365: ‘What Teachers Make’ is more than it first appears

The first time I heard Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make” performed live, it wasn’t by Mali. One of the other students in my undergrad program was a champion on our speech team, and he delivered a stunning performance.

Later, once Youtube arrived, I was able to watch Mali perform the piece as he intended. It was every bit as impassioned and dripping with personal experience as I imagined. I remember showing it to colleagues and shaking our heads knowingly.

Finally, someone was speaking out for us.

I looked the poem up online recently. Watching the performance, it occurred to me how complicated the piece is from a pedagogical perspective. I tear up when he says, “I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:/I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,/I just wanted to talk to you about something Billy said today./Billy said, “Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?”/And it was the noblest act of courage I have ever seen.”

And I cringe when I hear the recorded audience cheer after, “I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall/in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups./No, you may not ask a question./Why won’t I let you get a drink of water?/Because you’re not thirsty, you’re bored, that’s why.”

For many teachers, on their first encounter with the poem, discussion turns to its encapsulation of how misunderstood the profession has become.

For me, the poem itself has become a rallying cry for the conversation we need to have about the relics of the professional past to which we cling to proudly and the changes we might be too afraid to make.

Mali has a new book due out March 29 with the same title as the poem. I’m looking forward to reading it – especially considering its subtitle – “In praise of the greatest job in the world.”

Things I Know 290 of 365: Write a teacher a thank you, and you’ll make their day

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be making some suggestions of possible sources of gifts for the teachers in your life. Some will be products for purchase. Some will be ideas of things to make. All of them will be meant to help remember teachers as worthy of thanks.

At each schools year’s finish, I gave the same assignment. Rather than asking my students to write about what they’d learned in the school year as part of some essay that would be far from cherished and not have the time for attention as our other writing projects had, I had them write a letter.

I showed them an manilla folder that travelled with me from my first classroom. “This is the good stuff,” I’d say. “These are the cards, letters, sticky notes and snapshots from kids across the years I’ve taught. On days when I get to the end and I’m pretty sure I’ve screwed all of you up, I read one or two of these. It helps.”

The folder now lives on the bottom shelf of my bookcase. I think of its position as the foundation.

Then, I told my students about Mr. Curry, and how he taught me math in high school and also how to be a caring teacher. I told them about the e-mail I sent Mr. Curry once I was a teacher and realized how much of him was in my teaching. I told them about how he replied and told me it wasn’t nice to make old men cry.

And then I told my kids to think of a teacher in their lives who was their Mr. Curry or who had inspired them or whom they’d like to make proud. “Write a letter to tell them how you’re doing and what you’ve learned.”

And they wrote. They looked up addresses to old schools, addressed envelopes, and sealed their letters inside.

If the teachers were from my school, I got to deliver them and watch as they were read. They were narrative report cards holding only the good stuff – moments of reminders that what they did mattered, and they hadn’t screwed the kids up too badly.

Do that this holiday season.

If you’re a parent, write a letter to one of your kid’s teachers letting them know just how much you appreciate and honor the work they do each day to help your kid (a complete stranger) understand a little bit more about the world and their place in it.

If you’re a teacher, write a letter to one of your colleagues letting them know you see how much they do for your students, your school and your faculty.

If you’re a student, write a letter to a teacher telling them how they helped you learn.

Maybe you’ll be the first entry in their Good Stuff folder.

Things I Know 268 of 365: I loved teacher gifts

A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer.

– Lucius Annaeus Seneca

One of the things I unexpectedly missed when I moved from teaching middle school to teaching high school were the little gifts from kids (read parents) around the holidays.

Something about a carefully chosen gift from the families I served meant I was doing okay.

Even when I was teaching older kids, it was special to get a card on the day before break with a few sentences letting me know I was cared for.

One family consistently included a gift card to the Trader Joe’s up the block from SLA. More than once, those cards came in handy when I was out of cash or another student needed some money for a meal after school.

For me, any gift or card from a student or parent was a sign I wasn’t in it alone, that the work I was doing meant a little bit more. It meant, when they sat down to think about who they felt compelled to appreciate, who I was in that student’s life meant enough to be remembered.

When I was in school, I remember creating holiday gifts for my teachers with my mom. One year we bought each of them a coffee mug and made homemade hot chocolate mix. I think there was a tea towel thrown into the mix as well. As I got older, I didn’t see why the gifts were important. They seemed childish or uncool. Still, my mom insisted, and I would hall a shopping bag full of small gifts in to dispense just before break.

When I was a teacher and my mom and sister Rachel prepared gifts for Rachel’s teachers, I could empathize with what it meant to be remembered as someone worth receiving a gift. I got that it wasn’t childish, but part of what we do when we want to say to others that they are worth our gratitude, worth our remembering.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be making some suggestions of possible sources of gifts for the teachers in your life. Some will be products for purchase. Some will be ideas of things to make. All of them will be meant to help remember teachers as worthy of thanks.

Things I Know 226 of 365: The way we talk about teachers matters

The long time to come when I shall not exist has more effect on me than this short present time, which nevertheless seems endless.

– Marcus Tullius Cicero

Michael Gersen had a Thursday Washington Post piece dealing with the current Rick Perry/Michele Bachmann imbroglio around Bachmann’s erroneous assertions about the HPV vaccine.

Given the amount of reading from classes that’s filling my brain these days, I’m surprised the column made its way to my browser.

It wasn’t even about education.

Except it was a bit.

In his lede, Gersen mocks Bachmann’s medical and personal health expertise, writing he’d rather hear from “a blunt, part-time football coach — or whomever they draft into teaching health classes nowadays.”

I wish he hadn’t done that.

As a comedian, I wish Gersen hadn’t gone for the easy joke.

As a teacher, I wish Gersen thought about the negative unintended consequences for his direct or indirect audiences when arguing  Bachmann’s rhetoric could have negative unintended consequences for her direct or indirect audiences.

Sure, the current national tenor in talking about teachers hasn’t exactly raised the bar of respect for those in the classroom.

The effects of words like Gersen’s can ripple in several directions. but two possible ripples (I’ll call them the ripples of greatest velocity) concern me the most.

In the first place, one liners or quips of the sort common from anyone looking to rough teachers up for their lunch money work to lower public expectations of teachers. In this instance, it was those people who choose to coach children or teach them the habits and mindsets of healthy citizens whose worth by perception was chipped away.

In a quick move, Gersen added his voice to those allotting permission and acceptance to the idea that any idiot can teach and those who do are the ones we trot out when we want to exemplify people we expect to know the least.

I have a rather low tolerance for ignorance, and some of the most thoughtful, intelligent people with whom I surround myself are teachers.

I doubt I’m alone in that.

Still, any time we orchestrate jokes featuring teachers as their butts, we work at cross purposes with making certain each teacher in the classroom is the best person we can get. Few people will be drawn to the job from which the public expects little. Few of the right people anyway.

If we are to stand behind the research showing an effective teacher as the most impactful factor in a student’s education, perhaps we should start treating teachers with the respect proportional to that impact.

The second ripple of Gersen’s remark, and those of the same ilk, that gives cause for concern is the erosion of good faith of the teachers doing the work Gersen implies is both simple and easy.

I’ve stood before an assembled class of high school students and facilitated discussions of sexual content in the texts we were examining. That alone was a mine field of possible pedagogical missteps requiring constant awareness and dedication.

I can only imagine the awkwardness, resistance, frustration and discomfort inherent in engaging a room of adolescents in a frank discussion of their sexual health.

Put to health teachers next to one another and I want the one who’s been repeatedly made aware we expect the highest standards of care and knowledge as she works to prepare the students in her charge for the increasingly complex interpersonal world they’ll come to know. Give me that any day over the teacher who reads continual negations of the importance of her knowledge and professionalism. The teacher who has come to realize America’s not expecting much from her as a practitioner and caregiver.

The thing that happens to the latter teacher – the we should all worry about as the ripple effects of remarks like Gersen’s – isn’t that the teacher will leave the profession.

No, we should worry that she’ll listen and realize we’re not expecting much.

Then, it’s no long walk to not expecting much from herself.

Things I Know 211 of 365: Unions hold two sets of truths for me

The only sound approach to collective bargaining is to work out an agreement that clarifies the rights and responsibilities of the parties, establishes principles and operates to the advantage of all concerned.

– Charles E. Wilson

Earlier today, I was reading this Daily Kos column from Marie Corfield announcing and explaining her campaign for the New Jersey State Assembly.

I’m not sure what rock I was under when Corfield started making waves last September when she confronted Gov. Chris Christie.

Perhaps I was in my classroom teaching.

To get up to speed, I watched the video of Corfield and Gov. Christie’s exchange.

While I am still no fan of Gov. Christie’s rhetorical style, I did find part of his rhetoric interesting.

In response to Corfield, Gov. Christie says, “I have not lambasted the public school system in the state of New Jersey.” He takes a break there to chastise Corfield for her body language and later picks up, “My lambasting and my rhetoric is directed very clearly at one set of people, and that is the leaders of the teachers’ union in the state of New Jersey.”

It’s an interesting distinction.

I can see how Gov. Christie sees it.

“I’m not against New Jersey schools or teachers,” he seems to be saying, “I’m only against the heads of the teachers union.”

It almost sounds as though his explanation is expected to assuage Corfield’s worries.

Strangely, had he been speaking of the leaders of some of the Philadelphia teachers’ union, it might have come close to assuaging mine.

My first union meeting in Philadelphia felt like a bit of a repetitive kick in the groin of my idealism.

The union negotiates fair wages and equitable labor practices, secures health benefits and paves the road for the retirement or pension fund teachers work toward in exchange for salaries that continue to remain out of step with the services they provide.

In a profession where the easiest thing to do is lose yourself in what you give to your students, the union remained an anchor ensuring teachers didn’t lose the pieces that kept them housed, fed and healthy.

This was the image in my head.

The picture that unfolded in the meeting of thousands of teachers was one unmindful of the best possibilities of what it meant to be part of the union. The tone was adversarial and the words were devoid of the passion for teaching.

My feelings at the end of it all existed somewhere between the cliché about never wanting to see how sausage is made and Grocho Marx’s never wanting to join a club that would have him as a member.

I didn’t turn away from the union after that, though it likely sounds as though I would have. I didn’t even want to.

The truth of what I witnessed in the meeting was no greater than the truth behind the union securing a wage and pay scale long before I arrived in Philadelphia that made it economically feasible to move to and stay in the city. It was a truth no greater than the fact that the union worked to negotiate a sick bank so that district employees could invest their unused sick leave so that they or their colleagues were more secure should they be stricken with a chronic illness. It was a truth that couldn’t overshadow our ability as a site union chapter to govern ourselves in a way that allowed for the structure and schedule necessary for SLA to work best for students and teachers.

Both truths existed and still do.

And this is the piece that makes the specificity of Gov. Christie’s response mute in the ears of many teachers. While I’m certain many, if not all, teachers would denounce one local union head’s urging of member to pray for the governor’s death, when Gov. Christie lambasts the heads of the New Jersey teachers’ union, that’s not what members hear.

They hear the governor attacking those whom the teachers have elected to protect their salaries, the medical coverage of their families and the guarantee of fair working practices.

What’s more, rhetorically speaking, when Gov. Christie allows those with whom he disagrees to dictate his tone, he chooses a road that makes it all but impossible to hear him as a statesman.

Things I Know 187 of 365: Be nice and we’ll work hard

Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping him up.

– Jesse Jackson

A friend recently planted himself firmly behind the idea that effective teachers are the most important factors in student success. In the same breath he said he wasn’t one of those guys to praise teachers and call them the salt of the earth. He works to support kids, he said, not teachers.

It doesn’t work like that.

The two aren’t separate.

If we want healthy schools, places of learning enlivened by vibrant and curious people dedicated to being the best versions of themselves, the systems must support and value all members of those systems.

My morning cup of coffee is better when my barista and the coffee bean farmers in the fields are treated with decency and respect.

I cannot be surprised by a reticence to praise and support teachers when the rhetoric of education paints them so largely as deficient, lazy, undereducated hacks.

Who would dare praise teachers?

Sure, you praise the teacher you know, the cousin or friend of the family who is going into the classroom. They are great. But teachers, in the general sense? No thank you.

Tell teachers the majority are performing poorly and you can’t be surprised when students are performing poorly. I wonder sometimes how many teachers are doing worse right now because they’ve read or heard the rhetoric of education leaders bemoaning the poor quality of teachers.

My friend told me he’d visited a number of classrooms on a single day, to check up on good teaching. Of the 50+ classrooms he visited, not a one held good teaching. Not a one held a teacher at the time. His evaluation was based on whether standards were posted and other measures of the classroom walkthrough. Choosing not to challenge the evaluation, I asked a question I’ve asked here before.

“So, you can name at least 50 bad teachers. Can you name 20 good ones?”

He liked the question and thought I was making his point for him.

I was not.

My point was something else. Too many people are doing well for there to be fewer than 20 effective teachers for every 50 or 60 ineffective teachers.

“All students can learn,” is a popular bumper sticker of regressive education reformers. Pronounced as though a new idea that, once realized, solves so much.

I don’t disagree with it. I question the next ten words.

So long as we’re putting out truisms and bumper stickers to rally behind, let me try one. Let me try one that, coupled with the idea that all students can learn, would mean a sadly revolutionary way of thinking in education.

All teachers can teach.

And, yes, I’ve got my next ten words.

Things I Know 53 of 365: The hypotheticals aren’t looking so good

Sixty kids in a class strikes me as a lot.

On average, I teach about 30 kids at a time. In moments when the controlled chaos gets to be a little out of control, 30 feels like it could be 60.

If 60 ever got out of control (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) I suppose that would start to feel like 120.

Last night, I was asked, “What do you think the GOP is thinking by decimating school budgets? I mean, do they really think that 60 kids in a class in Detroit will be anything other than civil war?”

I took the hypothetical bait and started playing out how I would teach in an chronically economically depressed inner-city school where the average class size was 60 students.

It didn’t take long.

In my hypotheticals (and I’m guessing in GOP lawmakers hypotheticals) I’m not in that classroom.

Education is the largest chunk of combined state and local budgets, and teachers are the largest chunk of that chunk.

If you want to save money, eliminate the teachers.

And if you want to back up your argument, trot out selected passages from Christensen, Johnson and Horn’s Disrupting Class. Not the whole book. Present only the pieces of their argument that sound like they back up your plan.

Cite budget deficits and slowly lay off the most junior of your teaching force. This will leave your most senior teachers with little patience and overflowing classrooms.

Some will stick it out, but many will decide things have gone too far and take an early retirement.

You won’t have to worry about much standing in the way of finding reasons to fire the hangers on as you already broke collective bargaining when you destroyed the last vestiges of a collective.

You’d think you’ve saddled yourself with an ugly mess at this point, but this is where the truly beautiful part comes in.

Again, you’ll have the benefit of bastardizing Christensen, Johnson and Horn.

For a fraction of a cost, say $25K each, you hire aides – half hall monitors, half data entry specialist – to oversee the computer labs with which you’ve outfitted your school buildings. Sixty kids to a room starts to sound like a low-ball estimate, so you start to schedule kids in shifts, using the computer rooms around the clock – constantly overseen by what we’ll label education accountants.

It looks like there’s a hole in the plan. All the capital outlay for those computers is going to set you back.

Don’t worry.

Some multi-billionaire benefactor will step in and his foundation will donate the proprietary technology to stock your learning centers.

It will be a happy coincidence the students in your learning centers develop an unquestioning brand loyalty to the corporation founded by your multi-billionaire benefactor in his previous life.

It will be another happy coincidence that the proprietary brand loyalty will quietly suffocate the open source movement that threatened the corporate donors who filled your re-election coffers.

So, you’ll have your closed system. You’ll eliminate your greatest cost, you’ll increase learning production, you’ll increase consumer production (the production of consumers), and you’ll find a place for most of the young people from your electorate.

Most of the young people.

See, what you will be creating is the “public option.”

You won’t be eliminating all teaching positions or schools. The private options will still exist.

You’ll send your kids there.

Your donors will send their kids there.

The best teachers from the old model (many of them likely the most seasoned) will fight tooth and nail to cling to the profession they love. They might disagree heartily with the new way of doing things. You don’t have to worry about that. They’re not a collective anymore, so their voices will be mere whispers on the wind.

So, your children and your donors’ children will be educated. The public option will fit the needs of your electorate. You’ll eliminate the majority of your budget deficit. And, all will be right with the world.

In the early days, you’ll hear grumblings from the disenfranchised about the morlocks and the eloi, but such hesitancy is to be expected in times of great innovation.