A Blog Outside The Schools

The new thing at school is to discover this blog. One kid found it and actually subscribed to my newsletter. Today, another kid came to me with a sly smile. I knew what was going on.

I've kept my blog semi-secret from students because what I do on my own time is my business. That cuts at least two ways. One, what I do out of school isn't determined by my job in the school. Two, my personal life isn't fodder for class. Teaching shouldn't be all about the teacher.

Still, I've known that if a lot of kids find the blog, upper management will find it too and will give me grief. Keeping it semi-secret helps keep things at least a little more quiet and calm.

The grinning kid said, "I had found something really interesting online." He showed me a post I had written about Chris Offutt's book My Father, The Pornographer. It was a teasing moment from the kid (who is likable), one meant to see if I would flinch.

I didn't.

"That book is incredible," I said because it really is. "I read it during our free-reading time in class." I told him how Offutt finds out the extent of his dead father's writing. I described Offutt trying to find his place in relation to his lost and unknown father. It's a book of difficult mystery and masterly prose. "Offutt," I told the class, "is a genius."

While telling this, I pulled up a file and printed copies of this excerpt from Offutt's earlier book No Heroes:

I walked my mother back to her job at a new building that had formerly housed a laundromat. She smiled at the door, resuming her role as a sixty-five-year-old employee in an olive skirt, the ubiquitous green of a redhead. Her hair was a different color now, but her taste in clothes was the same. She thanked me for lunch, straightened her skirt, lifted her chin, and gave me the smile of a receptionist seeing a person out. She nodded once and turned away. I watched the door close after her.

I realized that I knew very little about my mother's life, and that lunch had offered no insight. I didn't even know if she was happy. I hoped that my coming home would allow her to open herself to me. She never talked of her childhood and had told me nothing of her mother. I don't even know my grandmother's name. She died young.

When I was a child, some wild boys drove a hot rod along the dirt road on our hill. It was jacked up in the back with short pipes that produced a rhythmic roar. A large black swastika was painted on each door. I had never seen that symbol before. I thought the car was cool, the driver was cool, the loud music roaring was cool. I especially thought the swastika was cool. For some reason I decided to carve it into the lid of a wooden box on my mother's dresser. I was about ten years old. I used the sharp end of a diaper pen. When my father asked if I had done it, I said yes and told him about the car. He said the box had belonged to my grandmother. It was the only item my mother had from her. I never saw the box again. (112-113)

I read that to the class and we talked about how well it is written, a three-paragraph story that winds and builds like the dirt road along the hill on which he lived as a boy and returned to in My Father, The Pornographer. It was a good teaching and learning moment, perhaps even a moment of grace that began with a kid needling me, my outside-school blog, and discussing a book with the word pornographer in the title. It was a deft bit of teaching on my part, but I'm really glad that I'm quitting.

I love moments such as these. I love to teach. I love to help students learn. And I really love working with kids who push hard against the boundaries. I have learned so much and am glad to have worked with these kids, but I'm still relieved to quit because otherwise I'd worry what upper management might do when they found out I have a blog, that students read it, and that we talk about things in class with supposedly naughty words in them. I would worry about being taken out to the administrative woodshed. I'm glad I'm quitting because I don't have to be consumed by that dread.

The kids' new thing at school is to find my blog. My new thing is quitting school and setting out for new adventure. I'll write about it here on my blog which is open for all to see.

Letter From The Schools (Never Sent)

Dear Administrator,

It just doesn't work.

Eighteen troubled students are enrolled in my Tuesday-Thursday 10 AM class. They range from seventh to twelfth grade and need individual attention I can't deliver because they aren't just any kids. They've been asked to leave their home schools due to problem behavior and other difficulties. They have been sent to a program advertised as six-to-one on its website. Such a program might help these kids but doesn't exist at our school. The program that does exist just doesn't work.

Two years ago, a new program was created and placed at our small school. It occupies two of the four sections available for the program I've described above. Kids once spread across four classes are now stuffed into two. What would have been two classes of nine students each — which is still too many given the kids with whom we work — is now one class of eighteen kids and a free-for-all. We don't stand a fighting chance, the staff or the kids, unless the program overhauled. I'm not holding my breath.

Truth to tell, none of this matters much to me. I've got fewer than ten days of classes, then I'm done, so I finally feel almost safe offering this critique without fear of reprisal. I haven't felt safe despite tenure and that culture of fear does the organization no favors. It hides the truth and stymies positive growth. Last school year I offered some criticism and was told that I wasn't being a team player, that my opinions weren't welcome, and that disciplinary action would result if I persisted. I shut up but the problems metastasized and have continued to get worse. I am sure that next year will be more difficult for teachers and less effective for students. That's a lot of why I'm leaving just four years shy of retirement.

I could be wrong. Class size may be reduced. Teachers may receive more support. Additional staff may be put in place. Supervisors may no longer be shared across too many programs. Upper management may welcome opinions, ideas, and criticism. Staff may no longer be forced out after one or two years. The dark cloud of dread, anxiety, and cynicism may lift.

I hope so, but again, I'm not holding my breath. No, I'm getting out.

Not Quite Sublime In The Schools

I don't want to always harp on the bad stuff in schools. It's just that there's a lot of that at the school from which I'll soon resign. Still, some of it's not so bad. There is the ridiculous and, well, not the sublime, but stuff not quite so ridiculous.

Nine class days remain in the school year. Two districts are sending new kids tomorrow. I'll have each kid four or five times (classes meet every other day). Imagine how much I'll help each one learn. The school just wants these kids gone somewhere, anywhere. I understand, but it's a lousy thing to dump kids that way.

A kid in my class was so passed out I couldn't rouse him for the next class. I asked another student to shake him vigorously. Last week I asked why he comes to school just to pass out. He said, "so I can pass." Oh, well in that case.

He let out a snore at one point and another kid caught my eye. He shook his head. I shrugged and smiled. We know the sleeper is stoned and hungover. We sympathize. Beyond that, I know the sleeper is sure he's a failure. He's trying to escape from that. He's not a bad kid, just in a coma most of the time.

A fellow teacher went on an adventure doing what he most enjoys and came back to school abuzz. His adventure had nothing to do with teaching. I asked, "did you tell everyone there that you hate your job?" He had. "Did you say you're looking for new work?" He shook his head. He hates his job but is afraid to leave. I felt the same for years. He'll figure it out when he figures it out. I hope it's soon.

A friend warned me about my new job: "You won't have summers off." That was my biggest stumbling block, but I stumbled no more than a few seconds. I'll endure the loss. I'm not longing for summer vacation anyway. Instead, I'm eager to dig in. I've needed summers off because I'm so burned out by teaching. Work I want to do may be better than having time off. Ain't that a kick in the pants?

A young teacher asked me about a kid's reading ability. This happens often. Most folks want to know my thoughts so they can tailor instruction for the kid, but she seemed eager to gawk at how dumb the kid is and commiserate over how tough that makes her job. The kid reads at second grade level but has high school exams soon. She wants to feel bad for herself and have me agree with her. I feel for her, but only because she shouldn't be a teacher. It's no use playing at teaching when you don't like kids or yourself. I'm getting out of teaching in part because it's harder to enjoy working with the kids due to the structure and management of the school. Any teacher who doesn't like kids ought to leave. She thinks she just doesn't like these kids, but it's deeper than that. I'm not sure when she'll figure that out.

A teacher down the hall mentioned that no one emptied her garbage Friday. It rotted and ripened over the weekend. She pulled the can out into the hall and mentioned it. Mentioned. She didn't complain or blame anyone. She sprayed room freshener while I hauled the garbage to the dumpster. No fuss, no muss, no problem. I love that in a colleague. I love that in anyone.

I wish I could point to something at school more sublime than that, but I don't believe much of that happens there anymore. It's not all bad, though. There were good kids in every class and we some interesting stuff. There are only nine days of classes left and I'm so excited about my new job, I don't need summer vacation. That right there just might be sublime. It's close enough for me.

Signs In The Schools

A teacher in our program gave me a sign to hang in my room. Not a good teacher. Not one with whom I have a lot of contact. Mostly I stay away. Sometimes I play like bad teaching is contagious and that helps me keep my distance. She came to my room with a sign saying something like, no kids in the hall ten minutes prior to dismissal. I read the sign and then handed it back to the teacher. "I can't hang this in my room," I said. She said we have to. I circled a mid-sentence word on the sign that was capitalized for no reason and added a carat where another word was missing. "Did you make this?" I asked. She said it was another person on staff.

That other staff member hates when I correct her writing, but if she wants the sign hung, that's the price she has to pay. I explained the typos without fanfare. I've been down this particular road too often with her. On the way back to my classroom I thought about signs and messages.

There are ways to go about running a school such as the one at which I'm currently, but not for much longer, employed. I have my ideas and some colleagues agree with me. Others don't. They make signs that, despite typographic errors, five the stern message that students better behave or else.

In my class we are watching The Green Mile. There's a bit of dialogue I could have written about teaching school:

...our job is talking, not yelling. You'd do better to think of this place like an intensive care ward.

We have had some trouble around dismissal time. A few kids get out of class and cause some bother in the halls. Bother. I can't call it trouble. I keep my door closed and stand with my back against it talking with the kids or just listening as we wait for dismissal. I try to smile.

Now consider what I'm doing. The door swings into the room to open. To go out, a kid would have to pull me out of the way. They're unlikely to do that. This is my kind of sign. It feels gentle. There's an understanding I pass on by standing there. Some kids know what I'm doing and nod at it. Those who don't know at least see that we all stay in the room until dismissal. That's good enough.

I suppose I'll have to hang the sign once it's rewritten. I won't like it and I won't use it. The tone of the thing is too angry. That sign yells at the kids. Me, I'd prefer to talk with them. It's how I would want to be treated.