Thursday, February 27, 2014

An Olympic-Sized Dream

As a teacher, this is how I envision myself.

I'd like to think that, like an Olympic torch bearer, I am beckoning all hopefuls to follow the flame as I dutifully lead them to the place of dream-realization.

Unfortunately, this is a more realistic picture.

When I went into this profession, I honestly believed that I would be the teacher to make a difference. I would inspire adolescents to love learning, and they would look back on their education and hallowedly speak my name as The One who made all the difference.

Nobody told me that the reality would be slightly different, with me admonishing the same 14 year old three days in a row for failing to bring a pencil, or that I would slump in my chair at the final bell wondering just why I thought I was cut out for this. Nobody explained that the kid in all black would cry out for attention in ways I had never seen. Nobody said that my heart would break when my student's mother died while he was in my class.

Teaching, in case you don't know, is not always leading a charge with a flame. It is pulling your charges towards a pinprick of light. It is not always inspiring; it is often excruciating.

So often, when the classroom clears and all that's left are long-forgotten, tooth-marked pencils, I feel defeated. More often than not, I leave the space where I thought I would make miracles and feel like I've just made a mess.

Today was one of those days. I know I explained the same concept 452 times in 452 ways, then had 452 questions from 452 students. It was (she says hyperbolically) exhausting. I looked back at the beautiful but now ragged lesson plan book, questioning where I made the mistake. Should there have been more differentiation? Would a group activity have been more effective? Surely there was a video that could have been a help.

The fault, I always assume, is my own.

This job gets hard when we forget that we're dealing with people. People who have free will, varying interests, and unpredictable behavior. People who can't always see that the now of a classroom affects the future of a life.

I so badly want to be Hilary Swank in "Freedom Writers" or Michelle Pfeiffer in "Dangerous Minds." I want to be Matthew Perry in "The Ron Clark Story." I want to change the course of lives and know that what I'm doing matters.

But the reality most days for teachers is that we're the tortoise in ye old parable. We plod on, ever so slowly, gaining what appears to be very little ground. We march forward despite feeling that we're losing this race. But maybe, just maybe, one day we'll look up and realize that we did win after all. Maybe we won't have turned a 15 year old aspiring dropout into the next Maya Angelou, but maybe we will have reminded a cynical youth that not all adults are out to get him. And we need to see that as a win.

I fail as a teacher when perfection is my aim. There really is no perfect lesson, just as there are no perfect students. There will be no perfect days. Heck - I can't even make a perfect bulletin board. Perfect is preposterous. Progress is attainable. Progress should be our goal. 

When I look back at the hard days, the ones that left my lip quivering and my confidence dashed, they will be rendered meaningless unless I look for the small progress. And even on those hardest of hard days, there was some. There was the student who never speaks in class, but who sent a tender-hearted email asking if my daughter was feeling better. There was a colleague who thanked me for being firm but fair. There was the quiet English language learner who scored higher on the quiz than many native speakers. There was the tough school-hater who raised his hand instead of blurting out.

Even on the days when I feel like a failure, there is progress. There is someone closer to the light today than he was yesterday. There is someone who was welcomed and nurtured, even if my classroom was the only place it happened.

With so much talk of high stakes testing and standards being raised, I'm afraid that we might be forgetting the most important standards. The human ones. The ones that teach kids they matter. The ones that listen instead of lecture. The ones that believe that even the kid on your last nerve can become something great.

The best moments in room D-122 come when the lesson plan is pushed aside and my students become people. When I hear of their fears and frustrations with the system. When they are given a voice and allowed to use it in a place of safety. When they ask legitimate questions and I have to consider my own wrongness. The best moments come when we share life, not just a classroom.

The question plaguing me in all of my life right now is this: "What If?" And I must consider it for my students as well as myself. What if school were not about grades and papers but about preparation for hard times? What if every child knew he had an advocate who would walk through the fire for him? What if we relaxed rigid standards and raised serious expectations? What if we allowed interest to inform instruction?

I wish I had the answer to cure our education system's woes. I don't - because it's not simple. The best cure I have is for us to continue to care. When the bureaucrats ask us to see it all as black and white, right and wrong, I will fight for those kids in gray areas. When the policy makers who have never taught a class decide that standardization is the answer, I will close my door and do what's best for my kids. When the statisticians look at scores as the only indication of what's learned, I will look at the character of the students in my charge. When the government wants to pay me based on students' performance, I will fight like - well, you know.

For as long as I teach, I will continue to lead them to a light. No matter how small it may appear. No matter how imperfect I feel.

For as long as I teach, I will trust my gut and teach how I believe is best. I will do what I can to touch the heart as well as to teach the brain. 

For as long as I teach, I will remember why I started. And it had nothing to do with test scores.

I will lead them to a light. Even if it's not Olympic-sized.

Photo Credits:

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Recipe for Disaster

Just in case you ever want to ruin the morning of a perfectly good snow day, all you have to do is this:

1. Wake your seven year old daughter (who went to bed later than she should have the previous night) and inform her that she has a dentist appointment.

2. Attempt to dress said seven year old daughter as she thrashes about and wails, "But I just wanna go back to sleeeeeppp!"

3. Then wake your eight year old son and tell him he has to tag along to the dentist - repeating what you said one more time, louder, so he can hear you over the dramatic protests from the room across the hall.

4. Drive to the dentist, through the snow, wishing you were back home in your warm bed.

5. Pretend to be happy at the dentist's office when the receptionist asks you to update paperwork. Think, "It's not personal. Insurance requirements. Grin and bear it."

6. Enthusiastically usher your increasingly-nervous daughter to the back where the poor hygienist is waiting and has no idea what she is about to face.

7. Hold your precious second-born as tears well up in her eyes at the announcement that all six-year molars are in and "it's time for sealants."

8. Half-lead, half-drag her to the even backer-back, because sealants apparently require a different hygienist and room.

9. Drape your body across that daughter and physically hold her down as the poor, unsuspecting hygienist begins to wish she had called in sick..

10. Ask the Lord why he gave an octopus eight arms and a mother just two because dear Jesus this physical restraint would be a whole lot easier with another hand or four.

11. Look up at the hygienist with a look of pity and pleading as the strongest seven year old you've ever met renders you powerless in matters of restraint.

12. Send that dear, precious, stubborn, and dramatic daughter to the bathroom to get herself together and dry those tears because Mommy has had enough and you are NOT making another appointment to do this another day!

13. Compose yourself as the hygienist goes to get reinforcements. Conclude that you will never go to the dentist again. Decide that teeth are highly overrated.

14. Smile as a snuffling girl tentatively makes her way back to the torturous chair. Speak soothing words of encouragement like, "It's not going to hurt at all. Mommy had this done when she was a little girl! All she's going to do is paint your teeth with princess paint."

15. Realize that your words are not making one iota of difference.

16. Attempt restraint one more time.

17. Give up. Listen as the dentist and hygienist say, "We'll just try this another day. It's not worth her having such a bad experience at the dentist."

18. Think, but don't say, "Her?! What about me?!'

19. Walk, defeated, to the check-out counter.

20. Accept the appointment card for another appointment that you swore you would not make. Load both children back in the car and curse anyone who says that snow days are fun.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Our Own Worst Enemies

This is not a feminist post. Yes, I believe that women should be paid the same as men for performing the same jobs. I believe women should become more interested in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields (and I just spent nearly an entire class period talking with my 9th graders about this issue). I would love to see a female become President, and I would readily admit that many women I know are much more intellectual than many men I know. But a feminist? I wouldn't lump myself in that category.

I believe that if a woman wants to forego a career and remain home with her children, then not only can she, but she should. I would without hesitation say that the greatest part of my own life takes place after the hours I am paid, when I am home with my children. I am forever grateful for the women in previous generations who have made it possible for me to participate as a first-rate citizen in society doing things like, oh - I don't know, voting and getting a job. A feminist, though? Probably not.

That being said, I'd like to take a minute to share my thoughts on a disturbing trend via celebrities in our culture. What is it, you ask? Simply this. The depiction of women as nothing more than sexual objects to be flaunted, dissected, and plastered on every screen available. It's so disheartening. The worst part, though, is that many are doing it to themselves. For attention. And ratings. And record sales.

Case in point - Beyonce at the Grammys. (Allow me to say right here that I did not watch this awards show. I was probably reading a book or grading papers or doing some other nerdy thing that I, in typical Jennie fashion, would do on a Sunday night. However. I have seen numerous replays and articles and dissertations on the subject since then, hence my incredible amount of knowledge on the event. Ahem.)

Beyonce is an incredibly talented and incredibly beautiful woman. She is the type of woman who makes awkward females like me resolve to take singing lessons and do more lunges. She's just pretty awesome. But instead of using her talent to leverage more respect and prestige for the females of the world, she chose to flaunt around in black lingerie, nothing left to the imagination, while her husband sang a song making light of an incident of domestic abuse. Why? For the ratings? For the shock value? I feel like her actions (and those of many other celebs who just want attention) are undoing the hard work it took for the women of previous generations to garner equality and respect for women. We are, it seems, sliding back down the slope towards sexual objects, and it scares me for the world my seven year old daughter will live in.

I saw an interview with Beyonce where she explained where the idea came from for the performance. A strip club. She said that she was with her husband at this strip club and wished that she could do that for her man. Well, then. My thoughts are that she could have - at home. In private. Not in a music video, and certainly not on a stage. She says that she doesn't "at all have any shame about being sexual." To that, I say good. You shouldn't. God make us as sexual beings - but that sexuality is to be shared with a spouse, not with the world on an awards show.

(For the sake of argument, let me say that I am not, as a Christian, condemning Beyonce for acting like an unbeliever. That is to be expected. If she does not follow Christ, then I will not hold her to Christ's standards. My concern is with her actions as a female in 2014 and the implications for our society as a whole.)

I don't want to slam Beyonce but to question why she - and other females - feel that being intelligent and articulate and talented is not enough. I'm sure in their field it's partially because of the pressure. Looks and weight and hairstyles are constantly critiqued. Joan Rivers will torment you mercilessly on her show if your red carpet look is not flawless. I get that. It must be incredibly difficult.

I guess my point here is that we females are our own worst enemies. We want equality and respect and opportunity - but then some of us sabotage it all to get a guy's attention or a greater rating or higher sales. And it's not just celebrities. I know of a female who is quite intelligent and successful, but turns into a silly coquette whenever she is around men. It drives me nuts. I just want women to be ok with being intelligent. Why do we feel the need to overcompensate for our intellect with tight clothing and high-pitched giggles and batting eyelashes? As my Mama has been known to say, I will knock my daughter into next week if I ever catch her acting like that. If we want to be respected, we must act worthy of respect.

Celebrity or commoner, we women need to metaphorically link arms and remind this world that we are more than just pretty faces. Our worth is not just found in the swing of our hips and the clothing we fill out. We are talented. We are smart. And we will not stand for the trend of degradation that is so prevalent today.