Thursday, March 1, 2012

Waiting for Superman: Part 1

Hey, remember that documentary about education that came out almost two years ago? Thanks to the wonders of Netflix Instant, I finally got around to watching it. I considered "live" blogging it, but that post would have looked something like this:

10:52 p.m.: Oh, cute kid!

10:54 p.m.: I'm sad

11:00 p.m.: Oh god, I can't do this. Too sad.

11:15 p.m.: This is so messed up!

11:29 p.m.: ARRRRGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!

etc. etc. etc.

So I decided not to do that. If you haven't already seen it, I highly recommend it. It's heartbreaking in so many ways. The film follows families living in areas with notoriously bad schools; many of the high schools are "drop out factories," meaning 40% or more of students do not graduate. It's distressing to see so many parents who want so much for their kids, who would do anything they could for them, but who are helpless when it comes to providing the education they want their children to have. All of the families in the film applied to charter schools in the area as "the only way" for their kids to stand a chance, but out of the 5 families only 2 of the children won the lottery for the schools of their choice. (We won't even delve into how messed up it is that a child literally has to win the lottery to get the education they want.) 

For me the saddest example was a little girl named Daisy. Her dad was out of work and her mom was working at a (implied) low-wage job. Daisy loves school. She is the student that all teachers want in their classes: bright, passionate, a voracious learner, positive attitude, motivated, I could go on and on. She's in elementary school, but she already found a college she wants to go to and wrote them a letter asking how to get accepted. She wants to be a doctor or a veterinarian when she grows up. Adorable, right? They interviewed Daisy's dad and he is so supportive of his daughter and says that she can do anything she puts her mind to. Then he mentions that he dropped out of school when he was young because his dad was laid off and the family needed money. Suddenly I saw Daisy's story dissolve into that pattern. What if economic issues force her to make the same decision for her family? It's a sad reality that sometimes parents just don't make enough money to make ends meet, and kids step in to fill some of that void. It's one of those things that I wish I could "fix," but it also feels very judgmental to say that it's "wrong." I think it's one instance of my cultural background making me short-sighted when I really have no idea what those circumstances are like or what I would do if roles were reversed. The point is, I truly hope that Daisy continues with school because she obviously loves it and has great plans for herself. Unfortunately she was one of the students who was not accepted into the charter school, so we'll see (or not?) what happens to her in the public middle school.

The other side of the documentary was superintendents and other administrators talking about their efforts and obstacles in trying to fix the system. However, that is a post for another day. (Note that "Part 1" is in the title, thus forcing me to eventually write a "Part 2.") Tomorrow is a conference for counseling grad students, and I am very excited to pretend to be a young professional for eight hours.   

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Very Merry Un-Anniversary

This post is two days late since I spent the weekend enjoying an internetless reunion with some college friends. However, I wanted to mark this occasion even if it isn't exactly timely.

Friday was my one year anniversary of substitute teaching. That's right, February 24, 2011 I walked into a school for the first time, pored over the sub plans for some kindergarteners... and then failed miserably. Note to aspiring substitute teachers: I really recommend not starting with kindergarten. I had zero classroom management, minimal understanding of what five-year-olds are really capable of (don't be fooled by those tiny grins!), and no concept of what a kindergarten routine actually looks like these days. I think it was the first time in my life I ever identified with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Whenever I think back to that day, one conversation sticks out. We were doing the morning meeting, which consists of the calendar, weather, days of school, etc.:

Entire class: Noooooo. Now we're supposed to do (insert some routine here)!

Me: Guys, I'm not your teacher. Some things will be a bit different today. It's okay, it might be fun. We can go crazy a little!

Little boy: Really?!?!?!

Me: No, not what I meant!

Yup. I was that clueless. Not surprisingly, I did not wind up on that school's preferred list. 

I like to think back to that class, particularly on rough days. In one year, I really had a crash course in education. I still have weekly internal debates about decisions I make in the classroom, I still wonder if I should have explained a concept differently, I still daydream about how a kid would have reacted if I had responded to him/her another way... Knowing my neurotic tendencies, that will never change. But every once in a while I take time to appreciate my teaching "growth spurt." I can't really say when it happened or how, but somewhere along the way I became significantly less of an idiot. So thanks to the teachers who I observed, the kids who unwittingly acted as guinea pigs, and the actors whose cheesy movies gave me hope. I appreciate all of you. (But mostly this guy.)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Historical Fiction

By now I truly hope that everyone on the planet has seen Drunk History, a delightful series in which an intoxicated individual narrates a historical event while actual famous actors reenact the intoxicated's version of events. Yes, it is as amazing as it sounds. 

Yesterday as I was teaching some 1st graders about Abraham Lincoln (going into waaaay more detail than necessary, thanks to the infectious knowledge shared by my nonsexual life partner), I realized that someone really needs to do a series called "Grade School History." One child made the mistake of asking how Lincoln died, which led to a long discussion about bullets to the head, John Wilkes Booth, and pennies on graves. A little girl raised her hand to share the following historical anecdote:

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Nail me to the wall

My last class was by far my least favorite so far. Granted, I have completely adored all of my other classes, so a "meh" on one is not exactly tragic. However, my professor gave this great non-assignment to write a list of ten essential beliefs that you would fight to the death for. (Or, on another instance, ten things that "they" can "nail you to the wall for." Because people say that?) I love that idea. So here, in no particular order, are ten things that represent who I am as a counselor and an educator:

1. Every child needs and deserves love.
2. Every child deserves to feel safe in school.
3. Every child can succeed at something, and I am there to help them succeed.
4. Everyone is entitled to feel however (s)he feels.
5. Childhood is a special time in one's life, and it should be enjoyed and preserved as much as possible.
6. Not everyone has to love school. But we should make every reasonable effort to make a child feel connected to his/her education.
7. All children should have a trustworthy adult in their lives who they trust implicitly. 
8. Kids need breaks. Mental, emotional, physical... whatever. They're young, they can only handle so much. 
9. That being said, kids are strong and resilient. Age-appropriate honesty is the best policy.
10. If you give your best, you're more likely to get the best from a child. What you put in is what you get out.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Opposite Day

I spent the past two days in a row at a particular school, both times in special ed. Special ed can be fun because you're hopping around all day and each hour you find something new to do. Anyway, today I present to you: The Life of An Educator. You know, because I don't really do that enough in this blog. 


Scene 1:

The faculty lounge, conveniently located next to the door that the students use to exit for recess. A substitute with an oddly timed lunch break eats alone. Fifth graders wait in the hallway to go outside.

Fifth Grade Boy: (peering through the window into the lounge) It's that mean sub! (assorted groans from the rest of the class)

 (The substitute contorts her body awkwardly so the children do not see her laugh hysterically.)

Scene 2:

Teacher: (to substitute) And you'll have to be on guard with Mark* since he can get really out of control. I already filled out a referral for you to use in case you need it. I would show him that you have this so he knows.

(several hours later)

Teacher: (to Mark) Why are you working so quietly? You never do that when I'm in here! What, is she prettier than me? 

Mark: No, but she's a lot nicer. You're mean.

(once again the substitute turns to mask her laughter)


You know the philosophical approach that everything is simultaneously true and not true? Totally applies here. I was mean to that fifth grade class because they were acting out and not showing respect. And I was nice to Mark because I sensed that a softer approach would be more effective than being stern. In fact, one of the fifth graders from the day before was also in Mark's group, so I'm sure he was terribly confused seeing me be completely mellow. I'm sure it was a drastic change from the sub who wrote his name on the board two weeks in a row because he wouldn't sit still or shut up. Was I right to be "mean" to the fifth graders? Yes, but perhaps my method of meanness was ineffective.

I always feel a strange pull when I'm in the classroom: the teacher-for-a-day part of me is focused on classroom management and making it through the lessons and everyone leaving in one piece; the counselor part of me is a big softy and wants nothing more than to sit down with these kids and talk to them one-on-one until we make some breakthroughs. It kills me when I notice a kid who, say, clearly has anger management issues but is really a big teddy bear, or a kid who has great leadership skills but no idea how to harness them for good. I want to work with these kids and make things better for them. But I'm in a room with 25 kids who all need attention and all need to learn to divide fractions within the next 35 minutes. I think this is where my lack of education background becomes an issue: I'm still negotiating a balance between those two parts of me. This temporary career has consisted entirely of sink-or-swim, crash-and-burn on-the-job training. Some days I feel confident and in my groove, and then there are some days when I feel completely clueless. (And by "some days" I of course mean "twelve times every day.") I keep meaning to ask others in my program if they feel a similar tug, but I can't think of the best way to phrase it. You always hear horror stories of teachers who become guidance counselors to get the hell out of the classroom, but I imagine there is a population of counselors-in-training who, like me, are frustrated that they cannot form the relationships they want and accomplish the goals they have in mind when they are working with 25+ students at a time. Then again, maybe this is an attempt to normalize my own feelings. 

I suppose whenever I hear myself described as "nice" or "mean," I think about it as those two separate sides of me trying to work themselves out. I highly doubt that it's a good idea to internalize that feedback in this way, but I do. Don't get me wrong: I know that universal popularity is an illusion, especially when you're taking on an authoritative role that comes with the power to take away recess. But I think that sometimes the kids can tell when I wear my teacher hat and when I wear my counselor hat. I just hope that they always can tell that I genuinely care for them, regardless of which part I had to play.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Broken Windows, Shattered Expectations

So... today was kind of weird. Not bad. But definitely weird.

I was at a school I had never been to before, although I have driven past it on my way to other schools. (There is nothing worse than sitting in traffic and seeing three or four schools that you could be at if the fates had aligned differently.) I rarely even see this school listed on Smartfind, which usually means they have a small list of regular subs and only post assignments to the pool when desperate. I don't actually know much about the residential parts of the area, but I assumed that this school was fairly well-to-do since it's by a large professional establishment (I'm omitting further details to protect privacy, sorry for vagueness). This is why I should never play "First Impressions" for money. 

I enter the school. It is huge. And sad. It has those shiny white walls that make the standard institutional carpet seem even more drab and dingy. Okay, so they haven't renovated in a while. It happens, right? Then you walk into the classroom and notice that none of the furniture matches. In any given room there are three different types of desks and several different types of chairs (including the wooden ones that must be a throwback to the seventies). The desks aren't even the same height, so the kids are all sitting at drastically levels. This school clearly received whatever odds and ends the rest of the county was ditching. 

You know how in the movies young, idealistic teachers go to inner city schools and do a room makeover and suddenly the students feel at home and everything is better? It seems a little farfetched, doesn't it? But here's the thing: it's based on the same theory that Giuliani applied to crime during his time as governor of New York. The idea is that evidence of small crimes (broken windows, graffiti, etc.) gives the impression that no one really cares, so small crimes escalate into larger crimes. I think about this theory a lot in school. Budget limitations suck, but what are kids supposed to think when their supplies are collected from everyone else's unwanted odds and ends? I was depressed being there, and I'm a lot older and a lot more tolerant of crappy environs than your average six year old. I truly believe that school should be a warm, friendly environment where all students feel welcome and wanted. Most of that comes down to the faculty (more on this particular staff later), but I think physical surroundings play a large role as well. 

My suspicions were confirmed when I met the woman for whom I was subbing: she told me that she never has outside subs come in. The school has four permanent subs working for them (they're just like me... only they make more money and receive benefits), and for the most part those four individuals cover everything. When the morning announcements came on, a faculty member listed all of the teachers who were out and who was covering them (I'm guessing this practice is more for the staff than the students), and I was mentioned--by full name--as a "special guest" in the building. Wait, what? Apparently I was that much of a specimen. It was nice of them to make me feel welcome, and you could tell that this school was very close-knit and enthusiastic. But isn't that sort of like blurting out on a first date, "I don't date at all and it's most likely because I scare everyone off!" Just saying, schools: you're more likely to score someone's digits if you play it cool. 

Honestly, I could go on and on about today and the headaches and heartaches, but I think I will leave it for now. Maybe tomorrow I'll post a part 2... maybe not. For tonight, I am going to think very carefully about how the broken windows theory applies to my home. Anyone want to come over for a painting party?

Thursday, January 5, 2012


My fame has spread through the blogosphere! One of my readers My only reader, Keri, has a fantastic blog called Abescapades: Adventures in Lincolndom. The premise: Keri, a Lincoln enthusiast, visits Lincoln-related places and reads Lincoln-related books and then shares her insights and enthusiasm with the masses. I had the honor joy roommate obligation pleasure of joining her on an Abescapade lately, and she invited me to write a guest post on her blog. (It truly was an honor... five seconds on her blog will tell you that her posts are often thoughtful analyses of history, whereas my posts are... not.) Anyway, you can read about our adventures at Lincoln's summer cottage here. Enjoy!