Brief Thoughts About School Trips

We took students to the Chinese buffet for lunch. Just a few of them because that's all who brought signed permission slips and were willing to go. We invited every kid in the program (a pretty small number, ours being an alternative school for at-risk kids) and were prepared to take all of them.

Shouldn't such a trip be a reward?, you ask.

First, they had to come up with the money. It was too much hassle to have the school pay (though my supervisor tried her best, bless her). If kids have to pay, that's no reward.

More important, rewards are a stupid educational ideas. Here's how to tell: they are done all the time and accepted as a matter of course. Anything at school that is just the way you do it is probably wrong. Also, consider the kid barred from going. It's a punishment and if you're into that, fine, but I'm into teaching and learning. The "bad" kid is taught that she/he sucks and thus learns to be worse in order to reciprocate.

Exasperated, you say, so it's a participation trophy!

If the trip was a reward and we then let every kid go, it's a participation trophy and bad lesson. If instead this is something to which every student is invited because there is a lot to learn from it, then it's just like a class, only tastier. We invited kids, set up a structure for participating, and let them learn from the experience.

Yeah, what did they learn from eating at a Chinese buffet?

  • Swearing in public is a mark of bad manners, disrespect, and idiocy.
  • Take small portions and go back for more.
  • Saying please and thank you makes everything better.
  • Try new things and talk about them.
  • Not everyone likes the same things.
  • We like each other.
  • There's more to learning than four core subjects.
  • Learning is better when it's not graded.
  • Teachers do their best work when they seem like they're doing none at all.
  • Eating too much is uncomfortable but unavoidable at a buffet.
  • There's always room for sugary coffee drinks.

One kid learned that "bring a signed permission slip or you won't go" means just that. He wanted us to call Mom for permission. I said no and when he asked why I told him tennis is best played with a net.

To recap: school trips are good, rewards suck, and remember your signed permission slip if you want to eat at the buffet. Class dismissed.

Development

Ask most teachers "how do you like professional development?" The answers will include boring, useless, and a waste of time.

During staff development I nod and look interested while writing in my notebook. I imagine tunneling out or going over the wall dodging management's spotlights and Tommy Guns. At one particularly awful presentation I calculated the factorials from 1 to 20. (20 factorial is equal to the product of 20 and all the positive integers less than 20. Google tells me it comes out to be 2,432,902,008,176,640,000. I wonder if I got it right.) All this because management frowns on my drinking bourbon while on the job.

It was a nice surprise yesterday wasn't a total waste. A full-day training in restorative circles was actually pretty useful. Though it was mostly a re-run of training we did just months ago, I learned a couple things. I'm surprised but happy.

I may be sanguine about this professional development because it is my last with this school. It helps to know I'm almost gone. Some fads and ideas brought in by management for our professional development are good, most are bad, but all of them fade and disappear after three to five years. Like riding a merry-go-round, we come back to where we started over and over. This time I'm getting off.

It's nice to go out on, if not a high note then at least not a low one. I'm grateful to the trainers, the participants, and the clock which moved steadily and without fail toward our dismissal. I'm grateful to my friend with whom I texted ridiculousness throughout. I'm grateful that I'm done with professional development in this organization. One more step toward something new.

A colleague sitting next to me at the training asked what that something new will be. I said I don't know yet. Ah, he said. What a good place to be. It really is a good place, an interesting place strange as that may seem. I've learned that much even if it wasn't part of the plan. Learning is unpredictable like that. We never know what we'll learn next.

Vampires & People Who Just Need Blood

From the teaching desk

It’s difficult and tiring being around depressed people so often. That's part of my job, teaching at-risk students, and I feel more for them than myself, but it wears on me. I am tired and out of balance. Depression feels contagious. Today I’ve worked with five kids in four hours who have been so out of the light they’ve brought darkness to my world.

"To a passage so poorly lit
There's moths flying away from it"

—Neko Case, "Prison Girls"

This part of the job is tough to explain. The common thinking is I need to buck up and get over it, but depression isn't something we swat away with happy thoughts and a smile. Depression feels to me like mercury, a poison that enters the system, never leaves, and accumulates.

Last period a student slated to take a state exam soon gave up preparing for it. "They aren't even going to let me take it," she said. "My family is moving and my old school isn't going to let me take it there but the new school won't let me take it there either." She swore and I felt her sinking into the darkness. I said, "Schools don't move fast. You’ll be allowed to take it. That's good because you have the opportunity and it's bad because now you have the responsibility to take it." She swore again. I said, "you've shown you know how to do this. I’ve seen that. Take one deep breath, close your eyes, imagine something calm, and when you open your eyes, hold onto enough of that calm to get started." I tried to show her how, gently, understanding she was sinking. She swore again, not at me maybe at fate. I patted her shoulder. "You are capable of more than you believe."

All that was fine even if though it didn’t work. Maybe there will be some cumulative effect, like mercury, but not poisonous. In that moment though, it was as if she were sinking into the floor, distorting its shape, making a dark hole into which I too was sliding. She was the fifth student pulling on me out of the light. Three quarters of an hour later, I'm hanging on, trying to pull myself up, but I'm pretty tired.

This isn't the toughest part of the job but it worms into my system. It's tough to be around people who are so depressed and try to be of use to them without losing my balance and giving up.

In teaching, there’s not much I can do about this other than take care of myself and get help when I need it. I see my therapist every other week or so. I leave school stuff at school. I find solace in writing and reading. Today, reading Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work, I found something he calls “The Vampire Test.” He tells of how Picasso “was notorious for sucking all the energy out of the people he met” sending them home “nervous and exhausted” while he used all the energy he had just sucked out of them to fuel his painting.

Sculptor Constantin Brancusi, “hailed from the Carpathian Mountains, and he knew a vampire when he saw one” so he refused to have anything to do with Picasso.

I like the story and the message that we should banish vampires from our lives. I would add only that there is a difference between a vampire and someone who needs blood. Deciding between vampires and those in need is an important part of my job. And even when it turns out that someone is simply in need of transfusion, I first have to make sure that I’m healthy enough to help them. For the time being, I’m going to work on climbing up out of this hole and into the light. Once I’m back on the surface, back in balance, back in the light, then I might be able to help again.

Until then, I’m going to keep writing.