‘Oh, my, God Becky, look at her butt…’: on judging & mansplaining & other such nonsense

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Student: Are you married? You look like a married person. You got kids? I can see you with like two kids, and you’re the mom making the healthy snacks.
Me: That is depressing. Next thing I know you are going to tell me I look like I have a minivan.
Student: Yes! You do- you’re a soccer mom for sure!
Me:
Student: But that’s not depressing though. You know what’d be depressing is like if you go home and you got cats, and you walk in and they’re like meow meow.

Let’s just get to it: I look a certain kind of way. Although, rest assured “Soccer Mom” is not, and has never been, the intended effect, I can see how I might present that way, especially to my young, female students of color – a demographic for whom I have both an immeasurable appreciation for, and an equally substantial gratitude for having been able to work along side of in a variety of capacities for more than two decades.

Here’s the basics. I am white. I am middle-aged. I am not a flashy human (save for my shoes, which if you have been following my current life trajectory, you might realize have been reprioritized for a minute #hipreplacement). I am not and have never been particularly trendy, whatever that means. I chalk that tendency up to several things: 1) not having unlimited funding to constantly ‘keep up’ with whatever or whomever; 2) being a big, tall, strong kid through the anorexic-heroin chic-body dysmorphic late 70s, 80s, and 90s; 3) a chosen profession where if you have crazy/flashy, or even just a distinctive accessory, you become “that one teacher who always wears that…” (I have never wanted to be trapped by a passing fancy.)

But really, I am just sort of subtle in my aesthetic choices. A former colleague once told me that he saw it as an cool juxtaposition of being a strong woman who took no shit and occupied many traditionally male spaces (social studies teacher and coach) and understood that how I dressed ran counter to expectations in a way that gave both aspects of who I am more gravitas. My grandma (my grandma for chrissakes) once lamented that I was “so conservative” as I was considering buying some new item of some sort on a trip we took to Europe. One of my long-time BFFs and confidantes has described my style (and me) thusly:

Anne Taylor Hippie? Your countenance, demeanor, appearance is classy Californian casual with some sassy blonde thrown in. No one knows you’re a secret hippie Deadhead from Petaluma. It’s as if you’ve come out from your past unscathed… no one would know about your travails, your missteps over the years. You look perfectly pristine and princess-y. You are the least obvious looking Patti Smith I know. You have the intellect, knowledge, and stories of a rock star, but you are chill as fuck to the unknowing masses.

(I like that last part the best, obviously.)

An interesting (euphemism alert) consequence of the reality that we are all more than the sum of the clothes on our backs + the work that we do + the places from which we hail is that I have been categorically chastised and condescended to in professional settings based on an assumption that I am less equipped to do the work I do because of how I look on two very specific occasions. That this happened most recently on Wednesday of last week at my new job, was disappointing, but also clarifying in some important ways for me (in addition to the comments that were posted on my FB page in response to the opening anecdote of this post) that underscore the power of how we look, the words we use, and the ways we understand the interactions that arise from it all.

The first incident occurred in my first year at Berkeley High School on the occasion of me receiving what is likely to this day the worst professional evaluation I have ever received. The evaluator, a VP at the time with definite eyes on a principalship he would never get at BHS, was a sharp dressed, well-educated Latino, who felt that he was vastly more equipped to work with young people of color than anyone, and certainly more than I could ever be – a generic white woman, most recently teaching at a nearby district with a distinctively different demographic, and before that Asia… he actually would later say to me, “How could a person used to dealing with those kinds of students understand the students I was working with at BHS?” [There is SO much to unpack in that statement.]

The thing about this particular evaluation is that when I read it, it seemed completely dissociated from what had been happening in the classroom. I was not even sure how to engage in a conversation around it because I had no understanding of what was being discussed in the evaluation. The immediate result of this was that on subsequent evaluations there would be an additional person in the room. We settled on our school counselor. This would prove to be an even bigger problem because his inability to see actual areas of strength and need for improvement would be further obstructed by the presence of an additional white woman.

The second evaluation was (in my mind) an even stronger class. For whatever reason, that day, those sophomores decided to be active, interested, curious, engaged, cooperative… I mean, frankly, it was bizarre. At the conclusion of the class, the three adults in the room left seemingly on the same page. At the debrief I was shocked. I sat and listened to his assessment and literally had no words. The second set of eyes that had been in the room was also there for the debrief (we had decided via union reps that I would not meet with this VP alone after the previous experience) and where I was stunned to silence she became enraged in spite of her best efforts to remain completely calm. I ended up leaving while the two of them stayed because I had to teach, but I remember distinctly hearing her say, “I cannot believe we were in the same classroom based on what you have written here.”

Long story slightly less long, the struggle for this VP to see that I could possibly bring anything not just of value, but that would not be toxic to my students continued. He said, “You do not understand children of color. You do not connect with them, particularly the young women.” No one I worked with could understand where this was coming from, and the student population that I worked most closely with would certainly contradict this assessment. Eventually, I would end up contacting a lawyer and be assigned a different evaluator.

I never really understood what the issue had been, but it really did seem like the way I presented myself – from how I looked, to how I talked, to how I worked with students – prevented this man from seeing what I was actually doing at the school. While my pseudo-bougieness has become somewhat of a calling card (emphasis on pseudo) I assure you I am in on the joke.

So much about how we look can be deceiving… No?

Last Tuesday, several days into PD for the upcoming school year, a Black Latino teacher I am working with (who ironically also worked for the aforementioned VP at the school he would eventually move to in order to secure a principalship) had an eruption in a team planing meeting. At the time, I felt like I understood the reaction – we were all tired and working to do something collaboratively that the majority of us were unclear about in terms of structure, cadence, and objective. That evening he emailed me saying he thought we should check in the next morning before PD. I said sure, I could make that happen and arrived that morning expecting him to say something along the lines of, “Hey, sorry for the outburst, just wanted to let you know where I was coming from…”

That was not what was awaiting me.

I showed up and we sat down and there began his soliloquy.

Unlike Omarosa, I was not prepared to tape it (though I see that as a mistake now as I try to make sense of it all) and so these are just some of the highlights absent the extremely verbose and rambling context built around his ‘I statements’ (sidebar: this man had just proclaimed the day before that he prided himself on timely and blunt feedback – there was not a single element of bluntness here.) The nutshell version of him talking at me for more than 30 minutes was that he does not like how I am. He circularly addressed how who he is does not allow for people like me, from the ways I conduct myself with others, to how I utilize time, among many other things. Suffice it to say, it was not the apology I thought I would be getting.

“I am at a point in my life where I have to address the things that trigger me. You took a phone call yesterday – I mean I took a call too, but you did not step outside!” (Nor did he, btw.)

“I feel I need to explain to you…” (I did not walk out at this point, but I must be honest, I am sort of done with men explaining things to me – shout out to Solnit and my entire life experience.)

“I am here to work and I want it to be a positive experience for me…” (What in the heck does he think other people are hoping for?)

“I have not always had good experiences working with others and being acknowledged for who I am at previous schools…” (I cannot even.)

“I want to respect your experiences as an educator, but…” (I have more than three times the number of years in the classroom as this man despite his being 5 years older than me, something that had come up earlier, which I think bothers him.)

I leave this as the last one (though it certainly was not the end of his presentation) because it was what really stayed with me. The idea that somehow my experience was less than. This man does not know a thing about me – who I am, what I have done, the work I have participated in, the students I have worked with, the way my classroom operates, but he felt he could speak to all of it.

This was troubling to me as I sat there conscious of my whiteness, which by definition is a privilege, and his being a man of color – no easy task in the world these days. How could I respond without simply negating his perspective (a known consequence of white privilege) but also speak to the clearly misogynistic diatribe I felt was being put on me? I considered all the ways he seemed to be trying to mitigate his speech and thought of a dear colleague from last year who had told me he never gets mad because he cannot – because being a black man removes that option for him in white spaces. I wondered what my new colleague’s actual point was (I am afraid I never got it, in spite of my efforts to do so) before it was lost in an overabundance of explanation and qualification about how who I am is less than simply because of who I am. Would it have been easier to understand if he had just said whatever it was that he meant even if it mean his getting angry?

Ultimately, I could not figure out why he felt so entitled that he could come at me and tell me how it all was. And then it hit me: all of these assumptions he was making were coming from his perception of me, which at this point could really only be based on how I present on the outside. I was stunned. His look is so hugely intentional and cultivated, I wonder if he really thinks that his look is him, in totality. I cannot imagine that is true, or that he believes it is.

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When I eventually had the chance to speak, I told him what I had heard him say, offering him a chance to clarify or correct my understanding – he did neither. I apologized for taking the phone call the previous day and said that while I would never intend to trigger him, I understood that had been the impact of my behavior. Here he began to explain how his experience led him to conclude something (I’m not sure what, I couldn’t keep up with the circles at this point) and I politely interjected and said:

I am not comfortable with your insistence on explaining things to me. I hear you say you want to respect my experience as a teacher- “but”. However, because you feel compelled to explain to me how things are it is clear the “but” is more significant than the respect. Perhaps I can share with you that men explaining things to me is one of my triggers. We are both new teachers here, ostensibly hired for a lot of the same reasons, so let’s agree that we are both bringing a lot to the table, including positive intent.

He said nothing.

I said “I hope you have a super productive and good day!” and walked away. If only walking away from preconceived notions was as easy.

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I teach, therefore I am employed in education. Again.

You almost had a job in tech…

Just over a year ago, I took a pretty big chance and walked away from the stability and reliability that a permanent teaching position offers. The pay was/is crap, but the benefits and calendar are reliable, although the day-to-day is always unpredictable (most of us who go into teaching and stay there are a bit addicted to that if you ask me.) Like a growing number of people in San Francisco and the surrounding area, I was getting tired of being poor (relatively) and with two decades of professional experience I realistically thought I was armed with a skill set that would make me valuable in a host of different jobs/careers/opportunities (what are people calling them now?) I looked (accurately, I thought) at the emerging professional pathways (that sounds like something people around here would call them) and considered how my skills matched up:

  • Excellent oral and written communication skills
  • Cultural literacy
  • Leadership experience
  • Creative thinker
  • Organized
  • Detail oriented and goal oriented
  • Excellent time management skills
  • Commitment to excellence
  • Well read
  • Trivia master
  • Some other skills that are hard to explain if you are not down with Bloom’s Taxonomy, but let’s just say I reside at steps 5 and 6 
  • I can recall a movie reference for nearly every life experience that arises
  • Ridiculous memory for sports data (and for most things in general)
  • What-the-fuck-I-have-worked-with-kids-and-their-families-and-public-sector-bureacracy-for-decades-don’t-try-to-tell-me-what-it-means-to-have-a-growth-mindset-and-an-ability-to-pivot-and-assume-positive-intent-the-fact-that-I-am-still-standing-and-working-underscores-those-abilities-to-a-degree-you-cannot-possibly-understand

Seriously, when I read job descriptions I was interested in, I feel like I would be a quality candidate for the majority of them. Apparently this does not always translate. And, it turns out, people don’t really like other people to change – they really like to keep everyone in the compartment that makes sense to them.

“But you’re a teacher…”
“You don’t really have the specific experience we are looking for…”
“Don’t you teach?”
“I’m curious why someone at your point in their career is looking to pivot…”
“This is not really the same as teaching, I mean I know it has the same name, instructional designer, designing instruction, but it is not really designing instruction per say…”
“Is there a reason you do not want to teach anymore?”

The fact is, as my neighbor succinctly expressed, I was looking for a job in tech – but I was not being honest about why. So, why was I? Well, philosophically I am pretty convinced that the problems we are seeing across the “tech industry” have a lot to do with the diminishing role of humanities education, or at least the innate interest and ability to think abstractly. This is not surprising to  people who enjoy thinking, and the general consensus is that “while software developers are skilled engineering solutions, their focus is not asking what problems need to be solved, or asking what the consequences are of solving a problem in a particular way,” and this is having logical consequences that suck [too many examples to note, but Uber, Facebook, Cambridge Analytics, and the general disgustingness of the scene make the point effectively.]

I also firmly believe that we are in a position to do amazing things by merging our technological capabilities with our humanity. In education, agriculture, economic growth and sustainability, the potential is really amazing. Not withstanding, people are beginning to realize that to effectively tackle today’s biggest social and technological challenges, we need to think critically about their human context—something humanities graduates happen to be well-trained to do. Call it the revenge of the film, history, and philosophy nerds. I felt hopeful about all of this. And empowered (as somewhat of a film, history, and philosophy nerd.)

Also, I liked the idea of what outsiders hear about working in tech: lots of money, unlimited vacation if you get your work done, lots of money, free gym membership, free gourmet meals, beer bashes, perks, lots of money… Just think for a moment how those kinds of benefits look to a teacher who works 70-hour weeks during the school year, pays for everything they need in their personal and professional lives, and is generally too tired to bother making a single meal all day long. I got emotional considering it. It all seemed so lively, dynamic, and inspiring to be working with people who were super into the work they were doing and brought their best everyday.

Uh, yeah. It is awful…

At a dinner party recently when the Warriors decided to turn it around and actually win the Houston series, I was telling two of my friends (who work in tech) as we stood in their stunningly remodeled home, “God, you know, it was really bad – the whole start-up vibe, it was just… bad. I had no idea.” They both looked at me, only surprised by my surprise. I was unsure who would respond – one definitely does not work at a start up but the other has been bouncing around more than he would like amidst the culture. He spoke, “Uh, yeah. It is awful.” My confusion prompted a more elaborate explanation. “Yeah, they don’t care. About anything. They don’t have to. He didn’t even get paid by his last company – it was ridiculous.” I still don’t understand how this fly-by-night charlatan-esque behavior is okay, but I hold on to my naïveté where I can.

This truth was something I guess I had to arrive at in my own damn time, but it is the truth, no matter how you look at it. The ethos (and ethics) of the start-up culture are a concentrated milieu of the extremes of our American entrepreneurial spirit: ingenuous, aspirational, fantastic – for sure. But cutthroat, greed centered, myopic, and socially Darwinist to Lord of the Flies levels.

It was certainly a departure from public education.

At what cost greatness?

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For me, the cost of my decision was relatively lightweight: the unpredicted outcome that can come with taking a risk, a temporary float in the River of Failure (which is better than some of the other destinations imagined above… but the ego says: ouch.) I left a sure thing that I was unsure I could sustain for the promise of shiny new things. But I did not pay attention to how close the Gate of Ideals is to the Tower of Weak Morals and the sewage pipe of Fakery. One only hopes I climbed out of the River of Failure headed to True Knowledge and not the Hotel Know It All, the Right System Railway station, or other parts unknown in Oblivion or The System.

This past year I saw first hand what it looks like when good intentions are superseded by gross profits and – more importantly – I realized that what I do for a living is not something anyone can just do (contrary to popular belief!) Professional licensure (in any field I would suggest) is important and does make a difference… I would no sooner want a child to work with an unlicensed teacher as I would want to visit an unlicensed doctor or lawyer. I also saw what it looks like when promises made are not kept and the subsequent impact on morale among those to whom the promises were made. I saw how the resilience of these innovators had less to do with resilience and much more to do with insulation from consequence. I saw that fancy semantics (oh-the-grammar-is-so-bad-when-y’all-are-trying-to-be-clever-by-renaming-the-wheel) and slick slide decks do not lead to quality professional products – those outcomes are achieved by professional quality people.

I work in education.

Someone once said that the way we answer the question, “What do you do?” says more about us than most inquiries. An obviously open-ended question, I think most of us would assume (in the US version of Western Culture anyhow) that it is trying to get at how you make money.

“What do you do?”
“I enjoy – ”
“No, but what do you do?”
“Oh, for work…”
“Yes, obviously, what do you do?”

What do you do means, simultaneously, how do you make money, how much money do you make, and how respectable are you. That is one loaded question.

The answers, when you are done being cheeky, generally have a limited range.

“I…”
“I am a…”
“I work in…”

Try those out with a variety of jobs. See how the semantics change and the meaning is altered.

“I teach.” Okay, that works. But “I tech?” “I doctor?” “I engineer?”

“I am a teacher.” More latitude here (although the implications of identity through profession underscore much of the weirdness I am trying to get at here), “I am a doctor,” “I am an engineer,” I am tech?” Scary.

I like, “I work in education,” because I do a whole lot more than just teach (which is a whole lot more than most people do in a lifetime but that is a polemic for another place) and it eliminates the very annoying and widely accepted idea in my field that what I do to earn income is me in my entirety. It is worth noting that most of the jobs in which people who perform them are typically described as being them are the jobs that elicit the most extreme positive and negative reactions – police, firefighters, teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians).

I wanted a chance to attach myself to a professional descriptor that suggested power, savvy, ingenuity, wealth, and social currency. I thought working in the start-up culture would bring that, and in some ways it may have. But it also brought with it a sense of being disposable, disingenuous, and necessarily superficial – don’t get attached to ideas they say, always be ready to let go and move on to the next thing. I lost the good parts that come with being a teacher: being respected by people (even if it is only out of habit and not actual), and having a job that did not take two paragraphs to explain. For the record, an EdTech company and an Education + Technology are the same thing no matter how much you want the extra letters to carry extra weight and in both – as in society – the teachers (even if you insist on calling them educators), remain second class personnel: under paid, under appreciated, and under valued. In spite of the fact that in many ways teachers are the most prepared for the dynamic, think on your feet, constantly pivot, nature of the start-up world, their skills are still mistaken as useless, archaic – even quaint – by the private sector.

I was promised too much when I took the chance to jump into what I thought was the tech world. I see that now, and I should have been aware of this. Had I talked to my peers immersed in the start-up industry they would have alerted me to this. I also, as I am prone to do when I have my sights set on something, did not acknowledge the myriad red flags: the immediate reversal of promises; the professional practices I knew were questionable after two decades of experience; a place that normalized inappropriate behavior; the allowances given for having a “fail forward” attitude that really just allows bad practice to perpetuate and grow. I still fully believe in the benefits of technology, and beyond that, the potential for merging it with education. Beyond believing in it, I am committed to it in a variety of ways. But one thing I can say with confidence now is that the successful merger of the two will need to be led by true visionary educators who have willing technologists in tow. It will not be the other way around.

I work in education.

And you need me along with my professional peers, to affect positive change in our field… and probably yours.

The Change Chronicles: Part 5

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It is important to acknowledge that change is the constant state of things. But, beyond that there is no real dictate that you have to love it or be comfortable with it. I mean, I suppose doing so is better than the alternatives but, sometimes it is just a lot of work. However – newsflash- if you are seemingly existing in a real state of flux it just becomes the norm and somehow the lift is not as noticeable. It’ like that fish – “How’s the water?” “What’s water?”

Oh the feeling
When you’re reeling
You step lightly thinking you’re number one
Down to zero with a word
Leaving
For another one

Yeah, okay, so I know it is going to work out, I have no idea what that is going to look like, but I am getting that my being okay with the not knowing is really freaking some people out. Like, for real there are some folks out there that seem to think my state of mind about this is like some sort of psychotic break.

I recently went back to Hong Kong for a visit. This is not huge news – I go back almost every year (missed last year) and I have a family/community/circle there that is paramount in life. This was a great trip for a lot of reasons (I got to stay in my old flat – how cool is that?) and just hang out with people I love. What was a little unique about this trip was that I was waiting on news about whether or not I was going to get a job (stateside) that I had just gone through and arduous but awesome interview process for. It led to a lot of conversations about what was on the horizon for me and gave me a chance to get super real with how I was feeling about it all.

The most interesting thing about all of these conversations was the difference in tenor among my expat and Hong Kong Chinese friends. The general take on the job transition over there was the abundance of options and all the interesting directions I could go… the inquiries were all, “Oh! What about this? This would be amazing? You could do this! Or this!” There was no overlay of, what about your retirement, what about if it doesn’t work, what are you going to do😱, do you have a back up plan, what if everything goes straight to shite?!

It was shockingly different.

While admittedly the tone laid heavily on – you really should come back to Hong Kong, the reality was I found that an attitude that had made me really uncomfortable back in 2010 when I was considering (and then actually) repatriating, suddenly resonated as something so much more authentic to me. I remember thinking so clearly at various points in my time in Asia – wow! how are these people so comfortable with never knowing what lies ahead? I used to call it suspended animation. I thought it was just some sort of avoidant childishness.

And for some, I imagine it was. But for the majority of the people I know there, it is this unbelievably refreshing can-do attitude. And people I know are doing awesome things. They are not relying on just doing what they have always done because it is what they do (or- ugh – who they are.) They are doers. Don’t mistake my observations as some superficial rosy glow – I am very aware of the challenges of this approach and have witnessed (am witnessing) first hand the complications that arise from making less fruitful choices with this mindset. But the idea that doing what one has always done is not what actually has to be done was a great mental shift for me to make.

I think that the general approach to work in the US – among a lot of people I know – falls squarely into the green ikigai circle. I am not convinced this is ideal. I know I have mistakenly judged folks who are squarely in the yellow circle as layabouts or avoiders… but if I had to choose between the two now I am not sure where I would want to land. I think my friends who have freed themselves from the homegrown expectations of their home environments feel much more comfortable dancing between circles – and have found some super creative ways to do this.

I did not get the job I was waiting on hearing about while I was over there. And this was interesting for a host of reasons including the time and place in which I got the news. But most of all, I was absolutely shocked I did not get it – for real. And I am not actually some super arrogant person about things like this. In fact, I generally fall much more into the imposter syndrome category. But I was so sure I was getting this job I was actually really thinking about what I would do if I got it: did I really want it? how would I manage the commute? it was going to be a really big commitment – did I want that? was I ready to jump back in the river?

Now you walk with your feet back on the ground
Down to the ground
Down to the ground
Down to the ground
Down to the ground

All those questions were rendered mute when I didn’t get the position. I sat with the news and was like, wow. But I wasn’t crushed, it was just like, huh… okay then.

Taking the position would have for sure put me in the little olive colored area on the southern side ikigai diagram: ‘comfortable, but feeling of emptiness’.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and I saw a position that looked really interesting, but it is part time. Historically, I would have not even bothered with this because of the green-circle tendencies I have. But I thought about this differently this time. Maybe I should bounce over to the little brown area on the eastern (coincidence? I think not) side of the chart: ‘excitement and complacency [odd combo], but sense of uncertainty’. Maybe actually relying on the excitement of the hustle, with a little of the safety of a regular gig is just the right thing.

Or maybe it is not.

Either way,

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Brand new dandy
First class scene stealer
Walks through the crowd and takes your man
Sends you rushing to the mirror
Brush your eyebrows and say
There’s more beauty in you than anyone

The Change Chronicles: Part 4

Let me start by saying I have had some very good news from the Zone of Employment Transition recently. It is always a little weird to be re-envisioning one’s gainful future, but all things considered I am not really worried about any of it – which is really uncharacteristic for a Virgo/Dog getting deeper into middle age everyday who chose to be a teacher in a city that values youth only slightly less than it values obscene wealth.

But the thing is I know I can get a job. I am good at what I do and there is always a need for people who do what I do – they even need those of us who will never carry a gun. [This is probably not the time to remind every single human who can read that we do not expect any other service professionals to be armed as they carry out their duties – and also worth noting that their duties pale in comparison to those of teachers… you know the ones who are supposed to do, well, everything apparently.]

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Anyhow, in spite of the positive news coming my way and the solid odds that I will be gainfully employed before my current contract even terminates, I found myself being a little Goldilocks-y yesterday, like nothing quite fit. I was thinking about how I made this really intentional change last year to do something different and in so doing seemingly changed my career trajectory.

Or did I? [Unsure.]

Did I need to? [To be determined.]

I certainly had some clear ideas about the kind of changes I wanted to see in my career. I thought I was being really conscious about it all – but maybe I was just buying into the prevailing narrative that surrounds us about what makes a person successful –> mo’ money(?) I have no idea if making more money is going to make me happier – although I like the possibility of that outcome. Here’s what I know is true, you can only be as conscious of any situation as the circumstances allow. And it is no secret that the job I took was not the job I applied for. So, why the hemming and hawing about returning to a situation that is more similar than different to my former professional incarnation?

“You almost had a job in tech…” Said my very insightful neighbor who is the best roommate I never had.

“Yeah, I think that is it, you know? I thought maybe I would be going that way…”

“Why would you want to do that?” She asked, gently, but sincerely.

And she is so right. What I saw and experienced on the tech side of edtech (which I have a whole lot of opinions about as a concept after this year…) was not anything I thought it might be. In fact, when I think about it, even the things that I had looked forward to in the tech world turned out to be sort of sad, hollow efforts to seem cool. I was often reminded of those kids you know from school who are always trying so hard to be all that, and really they just end up being so painfully extra.

The tech culture felt empty. Soulless, even. And this is not for a lack of amenities or money or confidence. I just could not find the authenticity in it that I had become accustomed to from two decades of working in a profession where authenticity is one of the only things that can’t be scratched from ever-diminishing school budgets. Ironically, the tech sector, especially start ups, cannot afford authenticity – they don’t have the time to be invested in people, committed, loyal. They need to be flexible, they have to pivot, they have to have no reservations about walking out on people they promised to build something with; it is the nature of the beast.

This is not some effort to lambaste the tech industry (not that it would be undeserved) and it is certainly not a critique of my current company – it is just the simple acknowledgment that all the flash in the world cannot replace the realness that I have found in every classroom I’ve ever worked in.

So when I find myself considering a return to a more traditional teaching environment (at least in terms of priorities and workload) maybe I don’t need to worry about turning into Mr. Hand (right away anyhow).

I was worried that I was passing my expiration date, or losing my (required) ability roll with the crazy of working in a high school. But I think, if I am being really honest, I was tired. Really, really tired. And I was feeling like the remedy to my fatigue would be working less and getting paid more. I thought a more tech centered job would offer that. I was not thinking about what would be missing.

I am still regularly disheartened with the salaries I see people earning in tech (and no one is telling them they need to carry guns). Further, I am unconvinced they are making the impact on the world that people may credit them with. But, if you are lucky enough to build a career that you are really good at, even if you are horribly underpaid, maybe staying the course is not such a bad decision. As my sage little buddy next door said to me, “if you don’t want to be a grumpy old teacher, don’t be a grumpy old teacher.” Exactly. Whatever I end up doing next year will be so different than anything I’ve done before even if it looks similar from the outside because I am not the same person.

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Tomorrow I am going to see if my barista can spell Heraclitus.

Stay tuned.

 

Just another blog about another dysfunctional relationship.

I have never been in a physically abusive relationship, but I have been in some seriously fucked up interpersonal collaborations with other people. They all eventually came to an end, so I guess I did something right eventually – or if I didn’t do something right, I still got the necessary results (in spite of myself, as I like to say.) The kind of shit I generally get into falls into a sort of weird passive kind of destruction. I suspect there are a fair number of people who would say I bring it on myself, or I create the circumstances that lead to the drama, either by my consistently poor choices in men, or my tolerance of truly shitty treatment. I like to say I am an optimist. Most of my friends would say I am in denial. Either way, the point is I have a pretty solid repertoire of experiences in which I stuck around and took a lot of costly, painful, and ultimately unnecessary shit.

Lately, I have been feeling some familiar feelings along these lines. But this makes no sense because I am in a really good place right now… my life is feeling really balanced, I am doing all the things I want to be doing, I have amazing people in my life, and great adventures awaiting me. And I am totally and completely single, so, what is this niggling feeling about? Why do I constantly feel judged, criticized, pressured, put down, and taken advantage of?

Last week as I got on the train to go to work I was thinking about this precise conundrum: Why did I feel like I was in a bad relationship?

[One week ago, on the Richmond Line]

I was grading papers – as I often do because, no time. A woman sitting next to me asked, “Are you a teacher?” I looked towards her and said, “Yes.”

“It must be a tremendous amount of work,” she continued.
“Yes.”
“It is so wonderful what you do. So important.”

At this point I looked at her. Smartly dressed. Some sort of security badge attached to a lanyard (only mildly complicating her attire), and, most notably to me, she seemed to not be schlepping a metric shit ton of work back to the “office” with her. I considered this as I looked at my huge bag, which I have made a conscious New Year’s resolution to carry on my right shoulder from now on because at least I should have symmetrical lateral deltoid, trapezius, and middle back pain.

“I have the utmost respect for teachers. Honestly, so much respect,” she said as she made a move to get up and exit the train.

“Thanks,” I said.

I looked back at the papers in front of me. They were shit, frankly. After weeks of covering the topic of world exploration and completing an insanely complex simulation, my sophomores had been unable to take the time necessary to form complete sentences that could express their ideas and knowledge about what they had learned. And it had been so much work. It was still to be so much work.

The man sitting across from me said, “So you’re a teacher? Me too.”

I looked up at him. He looked nice, like we all try to, but he was tired. And not just like, ‘I could have used a couple more hours of sleep,’ tired, but wholly fatigued. Although his freshly pressed shirt and kind face belied it, I could see it behind his eyes as he looked at my heap of shit, and then his own.

“What do you teach?” He asked.
“Social studies,” I answered.
“English.” He replied.
“Ah.” I nodded.

He told me where he taught and asked me about my school. We traded some comparative details, and then he said, “It is really hard, isn’t it?”

“What, the work?” I asked.
“No, all of it.” He said.
“Yeah, I guess. Yes.” I said.
“You know there is a war on teachers,” he said. “We are at war. And we’re out there, on the front lines. But, no support.”

I looked at him.

“Think about it,” he said. “We’ve got to protect and grow the most important resource, the kids. And everyone agrees, they are so important. But they don’t give us any support. They lay down their strategies from far away – imagine someone doing that in a real war, not listening to the field general. Anyway, and there we are, taking all the hits. No flak jackets for us.”

“She liked us.” I joked about the woman who had exited the train.
“They all like us,” he said. “That doesn’t pay my rent.”

I got up to get off the train and said, “Yeah. It is a war.”

Another man standing next to me, who had been listening, said, “Well, you can always quit.”

I looked at him and got off the train.

I walked towards school and thought about the morning commute. I couldn’t decide what would be a better theme song, this one, or this one because these are the things I like to fill my head with when life seems too real. Of course, neither of those songs work because what teacher on the planet works from nine to five?

Are we at war I wondered? Is it bigger than my own dysfunctional relationship with work? I work in the most highly respected and singularly devalued (literally) profession in the world. And more and more it starts to feel like the proverbial oldest profession in the world. (Except then we would be getting paid better.)

But I worry that this will sound shrewish, or that people might misunderstand and think I hate my job and say things like the guy on the train: ‘If it is so bad why don’t you just quit?’ (Obviously those folks are unaware of the complexity of abusive relationships, but whatever.)

The thing is, I do not hate my job. In fact, most of the time, most days, there are things I absolutely, without qualification LOVE about my job. I am not sure I could find a day where there is not something, even if it is infinitesimally small, that made me think, ‘Yeah, okay, this is good.’

I also am pretty good at my job. Now here one runs the risk of sounding like a jackass, but I am a good teacher – not that you would know it from the evaluations I have received at my most recent school – but I choose to look at more holistic and empirical data from nearly 20 years and 2,000 students and their people. And I am a good enough teacher to know when I have done an excellent job, and when I have sucked. And both have happened, and both eventually make me better at what I do.

Am I in an abusive relationship with my job? The more I thought about that question the less sure I felt. I thought about the other teacher on the train. It is not *my* job… it’s education. I am in an abusive relationship with my profession.

That just might make it a war.

According to someone on the web who thinks they are an expert here are some signs you might be in an abusive relationship:

  • A sense that you have to fit into someone else’s perception of what is right or wrong in order to be loved. √ Well, this certainly speaks to the enforcement of current education policy and of course the teacher evaluation process….
  • You feel confined. √ Let’s face it, people who go into teaching are probably relatively okay with structure, but the limits placed on teachers recently regarding movement, salaries, or even day-to-day things like extra duty certainly feel confining.
  • There is always something to fix in the relationship. √ Never good enough. And everyone let’s you know this. Daily. Just read the newspaper or turn on the news.
  • Your needs are not met in one way or another. √ I know it sounds redundant, but how are we supposed to get by on these salaries? Or even if we get by, how can you feel good about the hours and hours you put in such a “respected” profession when you make pennies on the dollar to all the private sector professionals around you?
  • You’re never going to be good enough. √ Never. “Those who can’t do, teach.” “Teachers are lazy.” “Teachers are brainwashing our kids with their liberal agenda.” (I am always curious how it can be both.) We give too much work. We don’t give enough work. We do not grade fast enough, or give enough feedback, or are too critical. *Sigh*
  • You feel trapped. √ This is an issue, but not because of fear, because if you change districts or states, you lose all your retirement and years – yes, in my profession you actually can lose years of experience. That is the weirdest thing I have ever contemplated, in a professional context anyhow.
  • You find other ways to satisfy yourself to keep your mind off how unhappy you are in the situation. √ Most teachers I know struggle to find the time to do anything for themselves. Until they hit the wall then it becomes necessary to ensure this reality. I am not sure this is bad… unless it is just to avoid reality. It certainly has been.
  • When it’s good, it’s really good, but when it’s bad it’s horrible. √ Truer words have not been written about my profession.

According to Psychology Today these are the signs you are in a dysfunctional relationship:

  • Assignment of Blame √ The problems in education are systemic – even a cursory look would tell you this. Regardless of this, all the players in the game look to point the finger. Usually at the teachers.
  • Threats of exile or abandonment √ It is the pink slip way of life.
  • Dominance/Submission √ The system’s way or the highway.
  • Grudges √ Yep.
  • Ownership √ Yep.
  • Disloyalty √ Yep.
  • Winner or Loser Arguments √ When people believe it is a zero sum game, this is what happens.
  • Snapshots versus moving pictures √ Did I already mention the teacher evaluation process?

Well, that certainly looks dysfunctional. I recalled the train conversation again. We are at war. And it is not me against my school, or my administration or my kids or their parents. We are at war against a society that has intentionally devalued education (insert conspiracy theory of choice here). We are at war against a system that disparages anyone who wants anything for free, but expects teachers to provide their services thusly.

This is not a dysfunctional relationship because it is not a pas-de-deux. It is a war because the participants on both sides of the equation are legion. It is a war. We are at war by choice or circumstance.

We are at war. Without a defense budget, without support, and we are fighting an overwhelming and ironic adversary: ourselves.

This is ridiculous: A resume.

I have been a high school teacher for coming up on 20 years. In that time I have worked with students ranging in age from eighth to twelfth grades. And what have I done?

I have taught World History, World Geography, US History, European History, American Government, Comparative Government, Economics, World Literature, American Literature, Language and Composition, General English, Creative Writing, Identity and Society, even a little P.E. here and there. I have developed and supervised student internship programs and study skills classes. I have taught courses in the IB program(me), AP courses, A Levels, remediation courses, test prep courses, language acquisition courses, and done private instruction. I have even done some adult education. I have been an athletic coach (basketball and track & field), and academic coach (forensics, speech & debate, Academic Olympics, Mock Trial.) I have planned, organized and supervised field trips, out of state trips, over night trips, and activities for my students. I have developed and implemented curriculum in several subjects. I have been a department chairperson. I have served on site councils,  in boosters clubs, and on teacher mentoring committees. I have never had issues around classroom management, or discipline regardless of the location or demographics of where I have worked. I have supervised student teachers, I have trained teachers in curriculum and methodology. I have piloted programs integrating technology into secondary schools. I have presented papers at professional conferences. I am certified in TESOL/TOEFL and taught over seas for nearly six years. I have an MS in Cultural Geography. I have had my work published, I have been featured on television as an innovative educator. I have given radio interviews about integrating controversial current events in the classroom. I have written hundreds of letters of recommendation. I have traveled the world, largely on my own. I am culturally aware and literate. I can communicate with all kinds of people, really well. I can write. I am well-read. I am incredibly efficient. I have an insane work ethic and I absolutely get shit done.

As far as what else, I suppose you could ask my former students. there are like 2,000 of them out there. They might have some things to add.

So why are there no jobs out there in any field outside of the classroom that I am “qualified” (at least on paper) for? I love teaching, but I would like to do something new. Something a little unusual. Maybe something unpredictable. Something where I can actually earn a salary that is commensurate to my experience, abilities, and work ethic, or at the very least have the chance to negotiate a salary based on these ideas. It is ridiculous to think that teachers cannot do this.

Help me find the perfect job. I am ready.

Seriously. All suggestions welcome.

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“Are you interested in Education Policy?”

Most of you are well aware that I have been dealing with somewhat of a professional crisis of faith recently. I have been teaching since 1995… and that is a long time. Especially because I never really thought about being a career teacher. But then, here I am.

People ask me (often) why I got into teaching. It was not totally random, but not unlike a lot of other teachers I know, in some ways I arrived here by a process of elimination. And I am not sure that is a good thing. No one chooses teaching to get rich (which is good since you won’t.) No one chooses teaching to get famous (some do, which is a little odd, and far more likely in Asia.) No ones chooses teaching (anymore) for respect, because although it consistently rates among the most highly respected professions in public polls, teachers are actually not well respected in our current societal structure. No one chooses teaching because it is easy (and those that do, the famous “June-July-August” folks, are probably as dumb as you might think, and not only because summer break is not inclusive of the summer.)

So why do people choose to teach? I chose it because I like school. I like learning. I like seeing how other people see the world and reinterpreting how I see the world. I chose teaching because, truthfully, I like teenagers. I find them funny (in a sometimes tragic way), I find them honest (in their confusion and search for an identity and purpose), I find them to be the new frontier – for better of for worse. I also looked at teaching as a viable career because when I began teaching, the modest salaries included benefits and a pension. Today the salaries remain modest, the pensions are an afterthought, and the benefits are a substantial portion of the still modest salary. I thought teaching would give me a wonderful vantage point into a changing world. And that it would allow me to develop the interests I carried with me from forever: Travel, photography, writing, reading. I also had some teachers who showed me first hand how with a little push someone could open my eyes and my mind beyond anything I might have imagined.

It sounded, at the very least, like it might be a workable fit for an appropriately angsty 20-something who had commitment issues and dreams far bigger than a cubicle could provide.

But nothing stays the same.

Now I find everyday a bigger challenge as teaching takes a back seat to protocol, numbers, meetings, and more meetings. And more meetings. And more.

In an effort to meet the increasingly (or at least increased awareness around) diverse learning needs of an increasingly intellectually diverse student population, the majority of teaching time is now dedicated to standardizing delivery methods and structures. And yes, it is as counterintuitive in practice as it is when you read it here. So, we constantly talk about how we can improve educational results without ever talking about what we are teaching or why – only how. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk.

And in spite of all the talk, the results keep spiraling downward: test scores get worse, remediation in college increases at alarming rates, student interest diminishes, content covered evaporates.

Of course, blame is distributed with reckless abandon as well: it’s the kids! It’s the teachers! It’s the public school system! It’s the parents! It’s the lack of funds! It’s the lack of materials! It’s the lack of space! It’s the competition from overseas!

But, it is usually the teachers.

Universities blame the high school teachers (and in my experience often rightly because I can say categorically I have been pressured to pass students who have ZERO business getting a passing grade because there is a general sense that it will be more damaging for them to fail than to allow them to pass and move on. There is logic there that I simply cannot grok, but someone is buying it and selling it.) High school teachers blame the middle school teachers (again, I have to say that I have been very confused to meet high school sophomores who cannot read or complete basic math… do not even get me started about reading a map, or writing a complete sentence… so I can see why this blame shift occurs.) Middle school teachers blame the elementary teachers (how are kids matriculating from grade six without the ability to read or hold a writing utensil?) And then elementary teachers blame… well, I am not sure who they blame, they are an awfully nice bunch and sadly sit at the end of the teacher blame train. Is it the fault of the parents? Can you blame parents for not emphasizing education and supporting their kids’ educational progress when they are working three jobs and still cannot pay the rent? Or maybe might be deported at any moment? Or perhaps are taking care of a large extended family? Or are homeless? Or hungry? Or do not speak the common language? I am not sure, but that feels… wrong.

The other night my cousin innocently asked me if I would be interested in Educational Policy as a new career direction.

My drink came out of my nose.

Education needs more policies like I need an attitude adjustment. In other words, yeah, new policies might help, but not until the real issues around education (and my attitude) are addressed.

Trying to develop solutions to problems whose root causes you cannot identify is not only futile and a total waste of time, it is actually damaging. Not that I am a nihilist (I really am not) but this whole American education thing needs to be rethought.

We live in a society where intellectualism is not respected, but reviled (forget the reverence of days passed). We live in a society where intelligence breeds suspicion. We live in a society that no longer values traditional education. And while the first two conditions I mentioned make me sad, the third is where this whole conversation needs to start.

Americans see little value in traditional education. It is not getting them anything that they currently value (like high paying jobs and lots and lots of stuff.) If you have a conversation with high school students about college these days, they see little point in taking five years (because it is so hard to get the requisite courses) to incur crippling debt (that will go on and on and on) without any certainty of finding a job that can shoulder their financial burden, let alone that might be fulfilling in some other way.

And maybe traditional education is the problem. If we live in a society that thinks knowing Shakespeare is pointless, why in the hell are we still pretending it matters in school? If Americans think that knowing history is useless, then I ask you, how am I supposed to demonstrate that it matters to a generation of kids who are supported by society at large in the belief that I am wasting their time? Not that I agree with this, but I am old fashioned (if not just old). If the trend now is job training, and that is what people want, why on earth do we keep pretending that a traditional liberal arts education matters?

I do believe that knowing how to think, and reason, and having the mental endurance to solve problems and make new inquiries is important. And many people may say they agree with me in theory, but I am in the minority in reality I assure you. I regularly have students and parents (and even teachers) telling me that the kids should learn what they want to learn (I don’t even know what that means…) and school should basically be an apprenticeship program.

I get this. I do not agree, but I certainly understand. It is the age old classist dilemma that an education is a privilege of the rich – those who can afford to dilettante-ishly wile away the days contemplating philosophy and existential conundrums. And as such, it offers little to the general improvement and mobility of society. Again, I disagree, but I understand the position.

I remember in the 90s (and this is still a very real issue today) there being a ton of discussion about recruiting teachers of color and improving retention in secondary education. Someone asked me why I thought we were having so much trouble acquiring and retaining teachers of color. I looked at them like they were stupid, because I really thought they were. Why? Because if I am a first generation college student facing a pretty serious loan burden, why on earth would I ever go into education when I could go into computer science or business and actually contribute to my family’s and my own well-being? In fact, were I a parent in this situation I would never encourage my child to go into education. This is why professional educators are by and large so homogeneous – we are a group of people who can actually (barely, frankly) afford to be teachers.

Seriously.

And so the problem perpetuates (leading to the bullshit sayings like ‘those who can’t do, teach’) persons of privilege who had a chance to delve into their education because they could afford it go into education and try to share the coolness of said experience, and the rift grows as the student population becomes more and more disenfranchised with ivory-tower teachers.

Of course, I am speaking from my own experience and I am not in the mood to back my empirical evidence up with data right now. Maybe another day. For now I will just say this: writing more policy to improve results in a system in which the clientele is completely disinterested in seems pretty much like a total waste of time.

So, do I want to go into ed. policy? Hell no. But I would sure like to understand the shifts that have occurred in our educational priorities… better yet, I would like the ed. policy makers to take a look at these, because then maybe they would start developing some policies that actually addressed the issues at hand.

If traditional education is out, and job training is in, then so be it. Let’s stop trying to force the old system into new standardized tests. As I said, I am not a nihilist, but I predict acknowledging this shift would bring about the same results. Let’s have a specialized, apprenticeship program for our national education policy and just let that play out. At least for a minute we would be being honest about what is going on in education in this country.