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.

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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.

On Teacher Evaluations: Or how to potentially commit professional suicide in less than 1,500 words

You can’t oppress someone who’s not afraid anymore. 

I wrote this post just under a year ago. I did not share it because… well, I thought it mattered not to. I still felt afraid I guess. But the struggle to do what I do, and to do it well, continues to grow everyday, and becomes more and more challenging at every level. Yet, my salary, benefits, and incentives do not grow, in fact are reduced and eliminated regularly (hello 35% increase in the cost of my benefits next month!) 

Now I no longer feel afraid. I feel frustrated, and ready to do something different rather than continue to try to improve a system that doesn’t want improving, or simply has a different end game in mind. I don’t know what that will be. In fact, I have absolutely NO idea what I might ever do outside of teaching because I never really gave it any real thought because I loved teaching, and I was good at it, and so why would I have?

I still love teaching. It is just so rare to be able to actually focus on doing that with everything else that has become a priority in American (or at least Californian) education. Recently, one of my team teachers said to me, “You should teach college,” which is an insult when levied at you by another high school teacher… it is code for “You do not really seem to have it in you to deal with the kids so why don’t you go sit somewhere in an ivory tower and contemplate your belly button along with your outsized intellect.” The funniest part of my colleage saying this to me, is he was party to the criticism levied at me by the “evaluator” described below who said I try to teach too much material and would be better suited for tertiary education, and told me that it was an insult (like I needed to know this.)

I don’t know what I might do next. But my times, they are a changing’….

——————————————————————————————————

I had another “professional evaluation” on Tuesday. My administrator (actually one of two administrators who have been assigned to me because apparently I need double administrating) decided he would assess my teaching during my first period sophomore World History class, on the first day of the new semester, after a three day weekend. Because, what a great time for a quality demonstration of academic pursuits and endeavors.

Seriously.

And the more I thought about this, the unscheduled evaluations and the purported purpose behind them,  the more I realized, I am just not playing this game anymore.  Through, truth be told, there are some who have said I was never all that good at this game in the first place. [I am reminded of  the reaction of my illustrious graduate advisor Paul Starrs, on my contemplations around pursuing a PhD… ‘Well, I am just not sure you would fully appreciate the structure of the social science world at that level….’] But through this entire rigamarole at my current school, where they simultaneously offered me a permanent contract AND said I required further evaluation [really? REALLY? If I am that suspect, why are you keeping me around??] it has become more and more clear that the purpose of the Professional Teacher Evaluation has absolutely nothing to do with assessing or improving pedagogy. In even suggesting this, my disinterest in improving my methods is assumed. Which only further substantiates the fact that you are simply not paying attention.

And so as I sat and looked at the evaluation I would have to sign, always with the option to write a written response/rebuttal that no one reads and means less than nothing, I decided I would do my very best Lisbeth Salander and say nothing and just sign the damn thing. Which would be better than opening my mouth, because if I did you could be sure nothing good would come of that.

What would come of that would be something like this:

You are not interested in seeing how good of a teacher I am, or helping me become a better teacher. You are interested in “catching” me. Catching me not using the precise language, strategy or technique du jour that you have prescribed across the board for a faculty of 200.

If you were interested in understanding my teaching you would interact with the material, talk to the kids, ask me questions about what I am teaching, look at the products….

In a nearly 20 year career I know that I have actually taught some kids valuable things. Academic things to be sure, but also about social currency & fluency, and how to use the academic knowledge they glean in school out there in the real world. And this has been important, especially in schools heavily populated with students most people call “at risk”… and I call interesting.

I have acknowledged my students’ life experiences, (what we used to call schema but I’m sure you have some other word for it now) and I have allowed my students the opportunity to be authentic in their learning and related experiences, not forcing them into a sentence framed cookie cutter way of experiencing and expressing everything. Through permissible authenticity the kids I have taught have been able to see how what they bring to world can be modified and customized to fit and work for success, but fundamentally remain the unique and interesting people they intrinsically are.

Sure there have been kids I did not reach and did not like me – an AP Lit student who plagiarized his entire senior project (and then convinced an administrator that it was because he was unclear on the objectives of the assignment and believed he had done what I wanted – and she bought it! ) comes to mind, but those numbers are far fewer than those who I made laugh, work hard, think, write, read, complain, and DO WORK all along the way, in an often archaic and sometimes ineffective (childish and stupid) American high school system.

But you are not interested in knowing these things. You do not want to know if I am effective – or affective. If you did you would look at the results I achieve with my students in your programs like common assessment and literacy (the top in the school if you are prone to quantitative analysis. You would look at the work my students are doing in the larger world with technology, in spite of embarrassing tech limitations. You would look at how I handle and manage my most vulnerable kids after school and outside of the classroom through any number methods.

But you don’t.

You come to see seniors in the afternoon before vacation or finals. You come to see sophomores first period on the first day of a new semester. You hassle me over minutia – you don’t like art on the walls. My calendar is not up to date enough (time passes you know?) You ask me to use different colored dry erase markers. You want to know why my white boards aren’t cleaner. And you put this in my professional evaluation, which purports to evaluate how I TEACH.

You say my class is too hard when I challenge students and lacks academic depth when I “scaffold.” You are unaware that the fluctuation in rigor actually moves kids through a super rigorous and fast-paced curriculum by building confidence and then creating opportunities to take intellectual risks. The ebb and flow challenges them and creates a safe place that builds trust and lets them explore their metacognitive abilities.

You say I must check for understanding by having every one of the 30+ students in every 58 minute class period practice individual oral expression; and in the same breath you say ‘Give them time to think!’

But really, the problem is bigger than your lack of interest in my actual ability to teach teenagers, so that just makes the whole “professional evaluation” that I am not going to read but will passively sign, even less meaningful.

The thing is, our kids need to want to learn, and we’ve created a society in which – for many reasons (incompetent schools, myopia, ignorance, ill placed priorities, an emphasis on wealth over substance, a refusal to acknowledge that the achievement gap cannot be fixed until we give historically disadvantaged or low achieving kids and their families a minute to actually think about school without worrying about a million other things like survival) the education we are selling is not being bought.

So, when I teach kids who are uninterested in a traditional education I have to find different way to show them it matters. This is not done with your sentence frames. It is done by modeling successful, tenacious behavior. This behavior manifests itself in most of the things you cannot stand about me: how I dress, how I speak my mind, how I laugh at myself and with others, how I incorporate material or methods that borrow from pre-existing interests to hook kids, how I use language to express complex ideas/speak, and how I maintain my authenticity in the face of your unyielding demands to make me leave that all behind.

And by the way, if that means they hear me use a swear word once in while… I think they’ll survive.

Back to school.

This is the last weekend before the commencement of the new school year for me. I am using the word commencement because as a high school teacher this word is overly associated with the end of the school year as a general rule… but really it means beginning. However, this morning I am considering the notion that the practice of celebrating the end of traditional (read American public (and institutionalized private) secondary educational programs as a commencement (a beginning) might be doing those of us who choose to participate in education quite a disservice.

Of course I did not wake up thinking about this. No. I woke up pleasantly enough, detached from the impending reality (doom? You know you have something to think about when the conventional humor around the return to school held by both students and teachers is something along the lines of the death of fun, relaxation, and time to grow in ways that truly nourish us…) of going back to school(work). No, I woke up and reread some of Anna Deveare Smith’s book Letters to a Young Artist, which I am teaching this year as a way to show my vastly talented art students that the kind of rigor required to make it (read ‘make it’ as survive beyond cup noodles and automotive domiciles) is the same sort of rigor that us banal work-a-day types rely on. It is a great text. Then I made some coffee. I watched Max make biscuits in the air for a good five minutes wondering what he must be thinking about and didn’t get up when I wanted more coffee because Matilda was in my lap. So, you know, my standard non-working morning.

But then I read a post someone had put on the Facebook about “unschooling.” That, by the way is not a word, and please do not get me started on the totally unsubtle and unhidden meaning of such nomenclature because I will never get to my point. I posted a comment to the post that said this:

The downside of perpetuating this idyllically presented narrative of non-traditional education is that this parent is neglecting to articulate how completely unusual he and his partner are. Not that I personally do not know people like this, but the majority of Americans who will take up this call to be “unschooled” are the same who rail on about liberal brainwashing in schools, shop for all their food at Walmart, feel the need to fight for their gun rights, and watch reality tv, which they mistake for the news. The kind of consciousness this sort of thing requires is deep, complex, and labor intensive. How many parents, especially the working poor, or people who simply lack the ability to think abstractly, or themselves are not curious but just pissed off at anything resembling government influence in their lives, could manage this?

But that wasn’t really the whole of what I wanted to say. What I wanted to say also was this.

If I had a even a penny for every time I heard someone, (usually my kids to be fair because I am working with the part of the parent population that has not totally turned on public education) say that school should be built around what kids are naturally interested in and that they should only have to do what they like to do… I could buy myself a car. Seriously. Not a new car, but I’m trying to make a point absent my usual hyperbole. From the pennies of those thoughts I could for sure by a nice used Honda. Seriously.

So I often think about this idea, this fantasy that by cultivating – exclusively – the desires of children and teenagers (do you really even want to go there??) somehow we would grow more creative, motivated, curious, productive adults… And without LOL’ing (and I am using that neologism intentionally too because teenagers think that is a real freaking word) this true story comes to mind:

When I was six years old, I was already quite sophisticated in the relative world of six year olds. I could read. Well. I loved practicing my handwriting. I flew on airplanes alone, and regularly, to visit my grandparents in LA. I was comfortable around most adults because I was around them all the time. I believed I was  great draw-er and thought being a ballet-er and an ambliance driver were perfectly compatible life goals. I loved animals, especially – wait for it – cats. I was pretty articulate as things go and had a lot of ideas about the world. I was definitely curious about things ranging from how grown ups might participate in things that cause their faces to become fully engulfed in flame (seriously) to divorce to the relative significance of inanimate objects. I observed that people are all weird and different and strange in their own way, and experienced the nuanced distinctions between my former kindergarten community school and my new school that had bells of an unknown significance. And most of this was because I was an only child to exponential degrees: the first grandchild, first niece, etc. who had a lot of direct, international, interested interactions with people around me (in spite of attending school, apparently.)

It was at this point in my young life that my aunt made a proposal to me. This aunt was an amazing globetrotting person who was doing things that at six I realized were basically spectacular. Her proposal was this: When you turn eight, I will take you on a trip anywhere you want to go in the world.

I died (as much as a six year old will) and promptly answered: LA!

Consider this. Just back from Bangladesh or India or who knows where, my aunt makes this proposal and my six-year-old mind knows LA. This was not a product of oppressive schools, a lack of curiosity, or waning creativity. This is the result of the simple fact – which i reiterate to my high school students all the time – that there is no way to really know what you might like/love/be inspired by if no one pushes you out of your known universe of likes by exposing you to new things. Some of which you might not like. The world of possibilities grows through experiences that you might not ever even know to take without the guidance and even pressure of those around you.

The trip we took  took me out of school for a month or so and ended up being a train ride across the US from La to New York, then off to London by plane, the to the Netherlands – then more usually Holland – by boat. Then I flew home from Heathrow to LAX on my own.

Now consider my adult life (well, at least those of you who know me can do this, and frankly I assume most of my readers do know me) and think about how it might have turned out differently if I were allowed to make all of my own choices based on my known likes, dislikes, and interests. We will just say it might have been more limited in order to avoid more judgmental terms. I would have gone back to the Valley.

I think about all the things that move me and inspire me now, and the experiences I am grateful for having, often in hindsight, that I would have never sought out or undertaken  if left to my own choices and devices because I was simply ignorant to all of the possibilities that were out there. I was six. Or thirteen. Or sixteen. Or 21. Just consider your priorities at those ages.

Often I hear people (myself included) say something along the lines of school not being about teaching students information, but rather how to think. In some ways I believe this, but in an effort to be more precise I would say that it is not about teaching how to think… It is about teaching why one would want  to think. Or about the myriad ways out there that people do  think. I also believe that school gives students a wonderful opportunity to hone in on things that they really don’t like or that don’t work for them, and that is also important. School also teaches us about the infinite number of frustrations that are out there at the commencement (and beyond) of the no-more-school life. It helps students understand that there are innumerable ways to deal with people and situations and they all beget unique results – and that with only a very few exceptions – you are going to have to deal with people and situations out there on your own, and the trial and error method is far safer in school than say, in a new job. I am not suggesting that Fin and Rye (really dude?) are not going to be able to deal with people and situations, but understanding human systems (bureaucracy if you’re feeling like casting aspersions) is necessary in the modern world and this requires practice with actual bureaucracy. Not because you have to participate in it, but because you are going to be a part of it regardless. Plus, You cannot effectively break and then change the rules of a system – any system – you do not like if you are unfamiliar with those rules or that system to begin with. Living totally off the grid is nice for some folks, but not a reality for most. And I would go so far as to say the ones who can make it work have real experience ON the grid.

It is clear that assessment based teaching is garbage and makes everyone miserable – and my theories as to why this has become such a point of emphasis in America belong in a different diatribe (and I am not even going to touch the implicit suggestion in most alternative education circles that anyone can be an effective teacher because… they have kids or draw breath, or whatever.) But the idea that school is a great oppressor and that kids should never have to endure that which they do not love is equally ludicrous. School has great potential – I think more than homeschooling or unschooling or whatever you want to call it – for the simple opportunity that it affords for varied experiences of world views. It is why I have to share so intentionally with my students what life outside the Berkeley Bubble is like. Life in Dhaka, or Alice Springs, or Appalachia, or Fresno for goodness sakes,  is nothing like what they are used to in the day to day of living in Berkeley, California. Nothing at all.

The more ideas, experiences and ways of thinking that people are exposed to – whether they agree with them or not – the more likely the possibility that we might actually create a more tolerant, contemplative – dare I say enlightened? – world. Fin and Rye are missing a lot of the realities of the modern world. And as I said, those might not be great realities, but there it is in the word itself: they are real.

 

So I hear you are not supposed to, like, talk about your job on social media…

“The… whole notion of reforming education has created an environment where creativity is unable to thrive and multiply.”

This is prudent advice, I know. In all professions: ‘Don’t talk about your co-workers on Facebook.’ ‘Don’t Tweet about your boss.’ ‘Don’t discuss your professional circumstances on social media.’ And in my “profession”, where there is supposed to be some semblance of compassion, dignity, and never, ever, ever any sort of conversation that could suggest less than a full throttle, over-drive obsession with caring and support of our clientele, the situation is even more punctuated. [I may get to why I think this is so in this post – but it may deserve its own discussion, mostly explaining that there is a huge, percentage of people in my profession (primarily at the “top”) who simply lack any real understanding of the world of social media and even the internet in general… Remember when that one principal called me into his office because he was stalking my personal – now private – Twitter account, and accused me of talking shit about a pregnant coworker because he did not know how Twitter worked and was unable to understand that he was reading one side of a conversation I was having with a friend who taught kindergarten in Hong Kong? Yeah, well this same principle sent out a letter to the entire school telling them they could now address him as “Doctor” rather than “Mister” on finishing his EdD.] Recently, there was even an article in the freaking Atlantic for goodness sakes, talking about how teachers shouldn’t talk about their students on Facebook… because they could get “hurt.” Forget about the Tumblr site, Shit My Students Write. Or hilarious collections of absurd and delightfully clever “test answers” – apparently the posting of which could crush a student’s self-esteem to the point of total academic humiliation and shut-down. Sadly, much of this kid-gloves approach towards students showing up on social media demonstrates the most fundamental misunderstanding of both the students and our modern culture in which any attention is good attention. Not that I am condoning this, but I understand its reality and therefore when I see friendly and humorous ways to point out student successes and slip-ups, I think it is a great way to get to educate them… But as usual, I digress. The point of considering the wisdom in writing about one’s profession – or perhaps specific job – on line is simply because I really want to talk about my job. In public. Out loud. And honestly. And frankly, it might get me in a lot of trouble.

I am just not sure I care anymore.

I work in a huge (really, HUGE) comprehensive high school in the East Bay. That should be about enough for anyone with a clue to work out exactly what school I am taking about. And if it is not, there is enough of an internet footprint linking me and my work together already – my students complete their weekly current events via KQED, using Twitter, and their major senior project is produced on-line, this year, even using WordPress. So, anonymity and secrecy are both out of the question. Therefore, in speaking about my professional opinions and such, it seems important to explicitly state that “these views are mine” and are most certainly not approved of or sanctioned by my employer – though I hold out hope that there could be some agreement in ideology…. And anyhow, I am thinking, right this minute, about much more global issues than site-specific issues (though there are many.) And so it begins. I want to talk about my “profession” – my job that somehow turned into a 20-year career, and I want to talk about what seems wrong with it and what might be salvageable. I want to talk about working in public education, providing a service that we all (to some degree) believe is a basic human right, and working in a system absent any sort of direct personal incentive, and fighting to prove to a society that long ago began to decry, diminish, devalue, and defame intellectual activity that education for the precise purpose of being educated is important… And to have a chance to suggest that we might not be totally screwed.

Though it sure feels like that a lot of the time.

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