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.

Recovering Teacher

Looking for a new job has intimidated the hell out of me and I've been wondering why. I'm pretty smart, I write fairly well and am well read, I'm not too ugly, I can walk and chew gum at the same time (but can't rub my stomach while patting my head or vice versa), and have worked in challenging schools with really interesting kids for over two decades. I've done adjunct teaching at a couple local colleges and come out with glowing reviews. Why then do I have such difficulty imagining I could get a new job? Why do I feel so unworthy?

It's because of teaching.

There's the claim that teaching is a soft, cushy job. You get your summers off! Teaching kids is considered women's work — for years only women could be convinced to do it &mdash. This hasn't been meant as a compliment. Teaching is classified as something other than real work, whatever that's supposed to be, and there has been a very public assault on teaching and teachers that began before I graduated college, intensified under Clinton, continued through W, became even worse under Obama (who broke my heart), and was really embraced by miserable fractions of manhood such as Scott Walker. The message was simple: teachers suck and deserve no respect or pay. They are everything wrong with society.

Thanks, fellas!

Some of that message has stuck despite my knowing that teachers do good, tough work under intense conditions. I know better than to give the attacks any credence, but they've dragged down my spirit nonetheless.

Closer to home, I got mugged by the performance reviews. One year I was to be evaluated on New York State Regents scores. I teach at-risk kids who don't test well, and needed two-thirds of them to pass.

I had one kid taking it.

She didn't pass. Not even two-thirds of her.

I was rated "developing," the second lowest mark, and put on a teacher improvement plan. I was rated developing for three years straight. The ratings were all bogus, but being told annually that I suck took a toll.

This year, burned out on teaching, I decided to quit. Everyone asked, what are you going to do instead? I shrugged. I didn't know. I couldn't imagine anything for which I might be qualified. I'm a teacher and teachers all suck. Those who get poor ratings on a bad system suck even more. I really felt worthless and depressed. Instead of applying for jobs, I fell further into depression.

Yeah, I blame teaching.

I'm coming out of that depression. I've applied for jobs and had interviews. None of the jobs are in public school teaching. It will be years before I can go back to that. I'm applying for jobs that feel beyond me but which friends assure me I'm qualified. I'm learning to trust them rather than the cruel voice teaching has cultivated in me like some awful parrot repeating, you suck, you suck, you suck.

I've been a teacher a long time. It will take a while to shake off the side effects. Meanwhile, tell the nearest teacher that they don't suck, that they matter beyond their ratings, and that you appreciate them doing tough work you wouldn't ever want to do. I'm not the only one feeling the side effects. I'm not the only one quitting. And I sure hope I'm not the only one recovering from the side effects and coming to believe. We all deserve that.

Teacher Sadness

How do you know you're done with a job?

I've been a teacher my whole adult life. Even my summer jobs have been about teaching. But I'm done. Here's how I can tell: I wrote this note to a kid (I didn't give it to him). It captures where I'm at with this job, the sadness it engenders.


I worry that the sum total of your life will be framed within the narrow confines of an iPhone. To live virtually, through a phone, is no life at all.

How is a phone different from the book I'm trying to get you to read? Why is a book so good and a phone so bad? I'm glad I asked.

Phones are all about now and me. They are self-centered, ego-driven, isolating things. People argue that phones connect people, but I don't buy it.

Books are about forever and everyone including me. Books help us to make connections inside ourselves and with others near and far. Those connections last and build things. Plus you never have to charge a book or upgrade its operating system. It's a hell of a deal.

I wish texting had another name. Text is a sacred word. Books are texts. The Torah, The Quran, and The Bible are texts. Letters written to someone you love are texts. Writing is text and it is the top of the pyramid.

Texting, on the other hand, is brief snippets of conversation that are less substantial than the wind and more polluted. I wonder if there have been one hundred texts in the course of history worth saving. If there have been a dozen, that's a miracle.

I encourage you to set the phone aside and get into something more substantial like your book or even just the real world.

But here’s the thing: You and I both know you won’t. That makes me sad.

I signed off feeling there's little I can do for students so lost to headphones, screens, and a virtual world that leaves them anxious, angry, and isolated.

In the last half dozen years I've become less effective at reaching kids. This year it has made me so sad I can't go on. This job is pretty much killing my spirit.

There may be other teaching in my future, different kinds of teaching, but I don't know. I hope that whoever follows me in this job will be able to do it the way I used to, to make a difference, and keep themselves on an even keel, sailing off into the sunset. Me, I'm tacking in another direction.