Monday, September 22, 2014

This I Believe

For the past several months, I've been lucky to be part of the Central Virginia Writers' Project. At our two-week seminar this summer, we were asked to write our own versions of a "This I Believe" essay. Not only did this assignment give me a chance to distill some of my own beliefs about why what I do in the classroom matters, my eleventh grade team had already decided to use this prompt as our beginning essay assignment. So, I had a ready-made piece to share with my students as I asked them to share their own beliefs, and here it is for you all:

I believe we have messed up just about everything we can when it comes to public education in the United States. We expect students to learn without showing them what great magic learning can work in their own lives and the lives of others. We expect students to learn for the sake of the economy and not for the sake of themselves, and then we berate them for being so selfish as to skip class or not do their homework.

There is still some magic in elementary school. A dear friend of mine recently inspired her students to design and build their own butterfly garden when they can research, write, and sit in awe of creatures they’ve helped to save.

But the magic is seeping out of the walls of our secondary schools. Students are expected to sit still for forty-five minutes, take notes in the preferred method du jour, dutifully pass tests, and move on to the next subject when the bell rings. If they are lucky, they might get two bathroom passes a semester and a few teachers who have decided not to ride the wave of standardized test hysteria.

I believe that if we trust teachers to design project-based assessments, we will have a picture of where our students are succeeding and where they need more help. I believe if we paid teachers a wage commensurate to the many hours we work above our contracts, we wouldn’t have a shortage of bright, dedicated professionals who are respected by students, their parents, and their communities. I believe if teachers had smaller caseloads, students would receive more meaningful instruction. I believe if we created a ladder for teachers to grow professionally without leaving the classroom, we would see fewer than half of all teachers leave in their first five years of teaching.

I believe if we increased the minimum wage, we would increase student learning. I believe if showed students learning to read and read well means they could visit the moon or the ocean or the next Odyssey of the Mind field trip, we would have millions more finish college. I believe if we put students in small groups according to their interests and not any perceived ability level and turned them loose on a project, they’d learn more than they ever would in any Advanced Placement or college prep class.
I believe in the promise of public education to incorporate us all to a cause higher than ourselves. I believe our schools can be places where students delve deep into a topic and come out better learners, citizens, and people, for the experience.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Beating Burnout - Part Three

Have you ever heard of the April Sours? I hadn’t until this year when I got them big time. A blog post I shared then helped me shake them off and realize there are a lot of manageable things I can do to make my classroom and place of joy where meaningful learning takes place. These are some of my plans:

1. Move to a room with windows. - For some reason, schools built in the 70’s tend to be big on the interior classrooms without windows. For the first time in my teaching career, I’m going to be able to see natural light all day every day! I know this sort of dramatic shift isn’t possible for everyone, but shaking up your space might help you get new perspective.

2. Read, Read, Read - This summer I revisited a lot of my teaching bibles to remind myself of the skills I want to my students to acquire. Planning oral history projects with a social justice component have gotten me excited for the work we’ll be doing. I’ve also revisited some texts such as Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities to remind myself of why teaching matters.

3. Accept That School Can Be Fun - In our work-obsessed culture, we are often content to ask why something should be fun. Learning is work, after all. But it doesn’t have to take place in a drab environment designed to suck the creativity out of every human in the room. I’m doing a serious makeover of my new digs: comfy couches for reading, tables for collaborative learning, and a class pet. I’m watching a friend’s bunny while she returns to graduate school and my students are going to help. 

Teacher friends, what are you doing to make this year your best yet? Non-teacher friends, what do you value about your work? How do you make your workspace a space where you’re happy?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Burnout and Back Again - Part Two

Since I started graduate school, I’d never considered a career outside of education. I’ve been interested in jobs outside of the classroom. Moving into administration provides the only meaningful promotion in schools. Policy work has a sexiness about it while also providing an avenue to have more of a voice in the educational policies that I think make a difference in students’ lives but can’t implement within my classroom. But I never considered that I’d leave education.

Last year, however, I found myself thinking about leaving.  I wondered a lot about other kinds of jobs I could have to attack poverty in our country. I wondered a lot about the kinds of jobs I could have where I went home at the end of the day and that was it -- maybe a few e-mails here and there but not a stack of grading.   

I never applied anywhere, but I did talk. A lot. I had coffee with my professors from grad school; I talked to other teachers to find out what they’d done to overcome similar slumps. A meeting with my awesome principal helped things click.

I confessed to her that I was burnt out. You are? She replied in a tone of voice she might use if she were mildly surprised to learn I was getting over a cold or reading an okay book. I felt like I’d made this big confession: I’m not happy teaching and that’s a problem because I have always been happy teaching. Her response really helped me chill out. And once I did, she reminded me of just how many health issues I experienced in the last year.  

I doubt that my principal was the first person to remind me that this school year was full of bike accidents, shingles, and a bunch of other things I’d rather not list on my blog. But at that moment, my thick skull finally got it: my life outside of the classroom matters more than I have ever realized. I’ve spent these last three years riding the teaching high of the first magical moments in the classroom and figuring out how to recapture them. I’ve picked up every yoga class I could, tried to organize my time efficiently, read all the articles on life-work balance. But I’ve had it all backwards. I’ve been treating my work life and my home life and my friend life as separate entities. In reality, they’re all facets of my life life.

My readers are pretty smart, so you all probably figured this out before I did. Thanks for sticking with me to this point. I know I’ve rambled a lot, but it seemed important to me to tell this story: how I went from loving teaching from the very first day to pushing myself through the day. I started blogging about teaching to show what really happens in our classrooms. To show my work. And this year, my work was to get through the day and figure out how to have better ones for my students.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Burnout Series - Part One

Last year was been tough for me. I got engaged and then married. I had an amazing group of talented and creative students. I began work with an innovative and invested administrative team. But I sure did struggle.

During the worst times, I felt like I was checked out of school. I was doing the bare minimum to take care of my students and finding very little joy in my work. I’d spend my lunch period browsing blogs on line rather than doing the things that used to make me feel invigorated such as reading up on education research or taking a walk outside to clear my head and get ready for the next class.

From almost the very beginning of the year, my grading load felt next to impossible. Figuring out ways to mitigate that really helped me, and I started feeling better. But the joy I’d had in my first two years of teaching dissipated, and I didn’t know how to get it back. I used to come home every evening from school exhausted and impassioned and with a “teacher high” from the sense of wonder I felt at being a part of students growing and learning every day.

In addition to my joy, I also lost a lot of my anger at watching really bad reform policies. I couldn’t muster the same sort of logic and statistical analysis when I saw another cheap, easy, and poorly-designed standardized test coming down the pike. As you all probably noticed, I stopped blogging about ways to craft meaningful and rigorous assessment.

No one event or student or situation drove me to this malaise. My students were just as wonderful. Our administration was really supporting innovative ideas. I was just going through something that happens too many teachers: burnout.

This isn’t meant to be a sob story. I’ll give away the ending here: I got better and some specific things helped. In the next few days, I want to share what worked for me and find out what’s worked (or not) for those of you who teach or have ever been able to work through burnout at a stressful and demanding job. I think teachers don’t talk enough about what’s happening in our classrooms -- the good and the bad. And the whole point of this blog is to change the conversation around teaching.