A Journey in Teaching
I've been told I need a filter…

Feb
09

Over the past 10 years I have become decidedly more liberal in my political beliefs and general worldview. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and how this has happened but nonetheless it has. Today I typically find liberal solutions to issues more feasible, just, and factual accurate than many conservative ones. I try to read sources from both sides regularly but everyone has their biases and I think I’m fairly well aware of where mine lean.

However, one thing I have been uncomfortable with as I have driven ever deeper into a liberal worldview is the often clear animus toward religion. Sometimes this is subtle, sometimes it is blatant. Many liberal writers (or bloggers, or facebook posters) are quite clear that religion is a pox on humanity and if we just got rid of it the world would be a much better, kinder, tolerant place. I can understand where that view might come from but I also see it as hopelessly out of touch with where many people still are and where society might continue to go.

Given the divisive nature of American society at the moment and the dangerously cruel and incompetent nature of our current president I want to explain a little bit about what many churches do on a regular basis to help society. If religious and irreligious people can understand each other a little bit better I think we can not only achieve more in the future but also avoid political leaders like the one we recently elected.

Churches do far more than just preach a message on Sundays. Many give away significant portions of their money (which is usually exclusively donated by church members) to missionaries doing health care, relief, and leadership training in countries many Americans have never heard of. Many operate food banks. Many can, with one special offering, give thousands of dollars to charitable groups both domestic and international. Many churches have small groups and ministries that not only preach a religious message but offer folks support for all sorts of issues, addictions and emotional baggage. Churches are often small (or enormous) networks that provide things like childcare, education, or just a place to talk to each other. During the holidays many churches do more than just typical charitable giving but go beyond to provide a place where people who do not have family can spend time together. At their best churches want to make the world a better place not only by preaching an “exclusive” message but by helping the poor, downtrodden, widow, and orphan.

To be clear churches also all too often have many significant problems. There is homophobia in some churches. There is Islamophobia in some churches. There is sexism in some churches. Uplifting the institution over the people can create environments where abuse has been tragically too common. Churches are made up of flawed people just like the rest of society. Just as government and society are far from perfect so churches often (regrettably) miss the mark. But I also think if every church closed tomorrow our world would be much poorer from it.

I understand that any entity that preaches an exclusive, religious message may be a bridge too far for many people to accept.  But in a divided society I think it is essential that we at the very least seek to understand one another. Many God-fearing religious folks do not want to bestow theocracy on the US but simply want to help others. Maybe in my attempt to bridge these divides I am being too kind or naive. But in these times I think it is essential that we see and call out the good that we can in others.

Dec
31

One habit I have forced myself to get into since I became a teacher is to read news articles about education. I used to glance over these headlines without much thought because education is one of those issues where everyone has an opinion and until the past few years I could not begin to offer up a coherent view of where I lay on the spectrum. However, as I completed graduate school opinions finally started to coalesce in my brain and if you ever want me to wax poetic on the state of education in America please just ask. With this entry however I want to expand my focus a bit.

Education policy, especially with public schools, invariably comes back to money. Taxes, dollars and cents, overrides, teacher salaries etc. Educating every child equitably is a profoundly expensive task. What gets lost I think in this endless conflict of how much is needed to educate our children is what schools do beyond simply reading, writing, and arithmetic (and social studies! *cough*). Schools do much more than educate.

This past holiday season my school had a food drive for about six weeks. In that time teachers and students collected over a hundred boxes of food for our town’s food bank. We had a “pajama day” where students could pay $5 and wear pajamas to school. That raised over $1700 that went to a fund to help families struggling in the community over the holidays. Our guidance counselors, who work year round serving particularly tricky student situations, sent an email to teachers asking about students we suspect might need some extra support materially over the holidays. Our school nurse provides free healthcare  daily to students. Our cafeteria staff provides meals to students everyday. Our school psychologist and other therapists provide invaluable services to students so they can succeed in the classroom. My middle school is but one school in a small town. But this support happens across the country.

In recent years I have seen the term “government schools” used to deride public schools for their failings and missteps. No public school, including my own, is perfect and I strongly support parents right to choose which school is right for their child. But opposing public schools on the basis that they are simply lackeys of government severely misses the vital work so many schools do. Public schools are not merely “government schools” but community schools. They reflect the community they are in and often the communities and state that surrounds them. The best way for a public school to get better is to have their community get involved and support it.

There are many ways to improve education in this country. Schools and teachers should never stop innovating. But to deride their existence as so inept that they are not be worthy of support risks doing a great disservice to millions of children across the country. This past holiday season I was reminded of all the ways schools do so much more than educate. I hope that as a society we can be mindful of this as we seek to iron out policy and improve our schools and communities.

Oct
12

One of the most interesting things I learned about church culture after I got married to a youth pastor was that there was such a thing as “Pastor’s Wives Conferences.” Apparently it’s just a bunch of pastor’s wives going to a conference to learn about such topics as… well… I have no idea. Two and a half years in and I have not been invited to one yet.

I mention that because 1) I think I’ve learned a lot about church in the last two+ years and 2) I think I have a perspective as the somewhat rare “pastor’s husband” that might be of interest. I have to warn you though that at the start I do not come off very positively. At all. But don’t worry! It gets better I promise.

When I first started dating my future wife and learning more about her weekly ebb and flow I confess to feeling just a little confused. She often seemed very busy and at times stressed and judging by what she told me of her colleagues they often seemed busy and stressed too. Apparently burnout is a huge thing for church staff from pastors to support staff. That seemed reasonable to me but I also figured that in the 40 hours that full time jobs typically require a youth pastor can pull together two meetings for kids a week and whatever other meetings and planning required.

Yes, I told my wife what I figured. Yes, I am a poor, little, unintelligent man.

Don’t worry I moved past my woefully inadequate understanding of what the typical youth pastor does. Today I continue to have a deep and abiding respect in the work my wife and her colleagues (many of whom I count as dear friends) do, week in and week out. I hope to explain just a little of this work during the rest of this entry. She is called and blessed to do what she does, and while it’s a lot of work and hard at times, a simple acknowledgement or thank you from time to time I know is enough.

First off, hours. At my wife’s church, employees are typically asked to work 40-50 hours. Although much of the work is planning, figuring out logistics, coordinating volunteers, etc. at the center of the work is people. This isn’t a clock in/clock out job; where there are people there are needs and struggles and the work can seem endless, there is always more to do.

Second, retreats. A youth pastor does far more than two events a week. They plan two retreats a year. These are massive weekend events where all the kids go to a camp where they have tons of fun and learn a lot about their faith. They are amazing and vital but also a planning nightmare, totally exhausting, and cost a ton. Camps are typically booked out a year beforehand and as soon as the Fall retreat is done, you need to start thinking about the Winter one. These are always on the horizon.

Third, mission trips. These go by different names depending on the church but most people know about them. Youth trips, usually in the summer, where a group travels somewhere else (often overseas) to assist another ministry. This might be ministry, construction or something else. To do these well takes endless planning, meetings before and after, as well as leaders willing to give up a week of their summer to be on call for the kids 24 hours a day. Typically for five days to two weeks. These again are vital and deeply rewarding but also exhausting beyond all measure.

Lastly, intangibles. My wife was asked to preach at our church on a Sunday morning for the first time ever this past August. She had been waiting and hoping for this opportunity for a long time and was beyond excited. She preached twice in a row to four different campuses, probably over 2,000 people altogether. She did amazing. But the work beforehand was intense. She wrote, edited, practiced, reedited, and practiced again. All the work paid off but this type of intangible and deeply intense spiritual labor is far more scary to me than perhaps any work I have done in my past.

This only scrapes the surface of the work my wife does but I did want to give a snapshot of what is asked of church staff today. It is good work and deeply rewarding but it is also difficult and all too often, unappreciated. One more thing too, and I wish I didn’t have to write it but is something that frankly needs to be acknowledged. There is a large segment of Christians who think women like my wife should not be leading in the roles she has. Our church has and continues to grow in support of women pastors, leaders and now elders. I’m deeply grateful for this for so many reasons. But to ignore the fact that some Christians don’t think my wife even deserves a seat at the table, just because she’s a woman, is something I cannot begin to imagine dealing with. She overcomes it every week she walks into the church offices.

All this to say, I’m deeply proud of my wife. I’m proud of her care for the kids she’s responsible for. I’m proud of how hard she has worked over the last seven years at our church. And I’m proud of her steady and unrelenting leadership in a place that too often says, implicitly and explicitly, you do not belong. I confess to not understanding all of this a few years ago but as I continue to grow I’m very grateful to be alongside with her.

Sep
06

A little over 6 years ago I returned home after spending 2 of my first 3 years after college abroad. I had a bed in my parents house, a part-time job coaching cross country and a goal to start graduate school to become a teacher.

This past Wednesday, after three years in six school districts, I started my first day of school in my own classroom.

I had not expected it to take this long but it made it no less exciting. I still remember my first semester of education classes, reading theory for the first time and realizing I had no idea (yet) of my own opinion on how best to educate young people. I remember my first attempts at interviewing for student teaching positions, failing miserably, and ultimately succeeding in a different placement. I remember not getting a job in my first summer after graduation until a week before school started… as a paraprofessianal. I remember 4 months later getting a position teaching over an hour away. I remember getting a teacher assistant job the following fall after my first school had to cut positions. I remember getting another mid-year position in one of the most prestigious schools districts in Massachusetts. And I certainly remember the day that spring when my principal said that enrollment was down, another teacher wanted my position and I would not be asked back for the following school year.

I remember improving my interview skills with practice and 10+ interviews in August 2015 alone. I remember throwing up a hail mary email with only my resume to a  school district and forgetting about it. I remember being called into an interview the day before school started and when I had left the building an hour or so later I had a long term substitute position offer. I remember doing my paper work on the first day of school. And I remember teaching my first day of classes on the second day of school a year ago.

Given my experience it might seem that this week was less then monumental. After all this is the start of my fourth year in a classroom. But it’s hard to express how my previous experiences, while full classroom roles, have really been teaching with a hand behind my back. I have been creating lessons a few days ahead of time with students who, while amazing, never really forgot I was a “substitute.”

Wednesday was different. I had my own room that I had time to set up the way I wanted. I was able to put up posters, set up stations, and envision my class structure in a way that was previously not possible. In a few short days I have created a classroom environment that (I hope) addresses almost all the classroom management issues I have had in my career.

Most importantly I am in a place where, from the start, I feel like I belong. That feeling where I have an office mailbox, my name is on the teacher voicemail list, and students do not know me as anyone other than their teacher. After six years of working toward what I experienced this week, that feeling is priceless.

My first first day was exhilarating. Here’s to many more.

 

Jul
08

Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope…– Lamentations 3:21

I cannot remember the last time I included a Bible verse in a blog post. When I lived overseas I would pepper my blog entries with theological thoughts and ideas. I was a Christian living overseas doing Christian work and the inspiration to write about things and to steep them in my religious identity came out freely and often. Being at home the past six years that impulse has waned. Significantly. And yet this week has struck me in such a way that I feel a need to reach out and grasp at something, anything familiar.

The videos from this past week and the attacks in Dallas surely have others grasping for something they can hold onto, however tentatively, that gives them comfort in this time of tragedy and mourning. It is said writing is therapeutic and so here are my thoughts on this past week. The violence of the past days and years is reprehensible. Racism is reprehensible. The murder of innocent people, citizen or law enforcement, is reprehensible. Surely we all agree on this?

I do confess to feeling incredibly lost when I woke up this morning. I had no way to process these acts of violence. For years I have heard people say America is as divided as ever and I consequently blew them off. It was just rhetoric or political posturing or a cry to reject change. Overall America was still America. We were still all in this together.

Today America feels divided. It feels like people squeezed into opposite corners of a huge room, as far apart as they can get from one another. And yet still they are climbing, crawling, clawing their way to get yet even farther from one another. And as they are doing this they are taking just enough time to turn from their efforts to yell expletives at the people in the other corner. I confess to feeling hopeless.

Perhaps that is why this verse from Lamentations came to mind today. I’ve known it since my time living in South Africa. It’s a profound verse in a profoundly sad book of the Bible. I encourage you, whatever your background, to read Chapter 3 today. I offer this verse as my own personal lament for my country today. For lives lost and families grieving. For communities torn apart by injustice and inequity. I offer it as a small token of hope that as we mourn together we can remember our histories, overcome divisions, and move forward together.

May you call something to mind today that gives you hope.

Jun
27

Roughly six years ago I walked into a bar in Boston to have a drink with my assistant coach at the time. Her sister was also there as well as another friend. When I first walked in I did not get a good look at him because he was on the other side of my colleague’s sister. However I quickly was introduced and we realized we knew each other. This was Andrew; he had gone to the same church as my family did when I was growing up in Delaware in the 90s. Our parents had been friends. My family had moved to the Boston area when I was in middle school and we had not seen each other since. It had been roughly 13 years.

I bring that story up for two reasons. 1) I had the singular joy and honor of attending Andrew’s  wedding this past weekend and 2) he was the man probably most responsible for me meeting my own wife, Jocelyn. Don’t worry the story gets even better. Buckle in this one runs a bit long.

Having reconnected and caught up on life (he had gone to college in MA and was now a youth pastor at my church; I had attended another college in MA and been overseas the better part of the past three years) I promptly did nothing to cultivate our relationship. To be honest I don’t remember talking to him for the next six months. However, I was now on Andrew’s radar and he did not let that slip by.

Youth pastors are always looking for good volunteers and he thought I would make a good one. In the spring of 2011 he brought me in to see a Wednesday night middle school event. I came, I observed and I promptly left a few weeks later to work the entire summer at a summer camp. Still he did not let my unintentional blowing off of his invitation deter him.

When I returned he still needed a volunteer leader for one of his small groups. He brought me in for another visit on our Church’s kickoff Sunday for the school and  ministry year. I met my future small group that Sunday. I also heard Jocelyn speak up front for the first time.

At the time Jocelyn was Andrew’s ministry assistant with the middle school. It took a while (another story for another time) but by the end of my first year volunteering she was my girlfriend. By the end of my second year of volunteering we had finished grad school a week apart and the idea of proposing to her had entered my mind and heart. By the end of my third year of volunteering we were married. By the end of my fourth year volunteering I moved up to the high school group where my friend’s future wife, Leah, was now leading. And by the end of my fifth year volunteering, this past year, we traveled up to New Hampshire to celebrate their wedding. A wedding between two amazing people my wife and I are lucky to have as friends.

My friend’s path to his incredible celebration with his new wife was no less complex or miraculous. I’d love to tell you all the zigs and zags of their relationship but that too is a story of another blog entry. The real reason I was inspired to write today was because of the remarks by the pastor during the ceremony. Anytime you go to a wedding is an excellent time to reflect on marriage and what a successful one might look like and this pastor’s words resonated with me.

Too many people today see marriage as a personal path to happiness or contentment. Many wedding venues and planners sell this idea as well. A perfect ceremony to start your “happily ever after!” Of course my wedding and now marriage has brought me incalculable joy and love between my wife and I. It’s beautiful. But this is not because we “complete each other” a la Jerry Maguire (this reference was from the pastor, not me.) It is because we have chosen to love and submit to one another over the course of our lives come what may. We sacrifice to ourselves because we have decided our life together, no matter how messy or complex or hard it might get sometimes, is worth it.

I am deeply grateful to Andrew for providing me an opportunity to serve that resulted in me meeting Jocelyn. I am ecstatic that this weekend we got to celebrate Andrew and Leah start their life together. The ceremony was beautiful, the food was delicious, the dancing was on point. But now the marriage begins. I am thankful we will get to walk this road together with two incredible women who are truly deserving of everything marriage requires.

Jun
21

PLT Massublic schools, by law, have to be open 180 days per school year. I started this past school year on the second day of school with the advice of “fake it until you make it.” 179 school days later I have finished my first full school year in the US. I finish this year not only successfully but having secured a full-time position at my school for next year too. I have to change grades which is exciting and challenging in equal measure but the prospect of no August interviews is what haves me absolutely ecstatic.

Having finished this year I thought some reflections were in order. Firstly, I have been struck by how tired I have felt this year. I think being in the classroom can sneak up on you with the constant interactions with students and the constant paper chase of creating and grading student work. When vacations came around I was passed out the first couple nights. I think in a few years I’ll have even more structures and lessons that allow students to work more while I facilitate in the background but this year I was really tired.

Secondly, while this year went mostly very smoothly and I mostly had great students I know where I need to improve. I’ve read many places that it takes about 5+ years for teachers to really master being in the classroom. With three years under my belt I am feeling that. I’ve had successes in every place I have taught but also recognize patterns where I need to improve. My biggest weakness at the moment is my overall classroom management. Really its how I present myself to my students. I have typically (and not always intentionally) been too lenient in what I let students do or say in my classroom. Part of this is always coming in as a “long-term substitute.” My students have always perceived as the replacement teacher instead of “the teacher.” Starting next year in my own classroom will go a long way to remedying this but I will need to begin with a strong place and structures in place to keep improving in this area.

Finally, the thing I am most pleased with about this year is the way I was able to be myself and impact students in positive ways. I want to share just one story about a student named Sarah.* Sarah is an English Language Learner (ELL), a student who doesn’t speak English at home or whose English is not up to grade level yet. Sarah was a sweet student who wanted to do well and put pressure on herself to do so but could not quite overcome obstacles in her way. What hurt her the most was she was usually absent at least once a week. Some students can overcome that but for Sarah that really prevented her from raising her grades.

Over the course of the year Sarah and I developed a rapport and I saw that she wanted to do well. Over the first three quarters though she was stuck in the C range. Recognizing that she seemed to enjoy my class I decided to try something I learned in graduate school: high expectations. I brought her over at the end of quarter three and said she should go for As in the 4th quarter. She thought about that for a moment and said “that’s a lot of work…” But without missing a beat she followed that up with “I’m going to do it!”

Her fourth quarter was a stunning reversal on her previous three. She started getting nearly all her work in on-time in all her classes. Multiple times during the final quarter she would mention to me how her grades were at the A- range. In so many ways she was a completely different student. She did struggle to get one big assignment in on time but her 4th quarter average was an A-. The picture at the top of the post was a gift from Sarah on the last day of school. She seemed surprised that I liked it but for a map loving teacher from Massachusetts it was
perfect. It will sit proudly on my desk for the rest of my career.

I love Sarah’s story because of how simple it is. She did all the work she just needed a little push forward. I wish I could have had a positive influence on a number of other, even more challenging students. But at the end of this first year I have much to be thankful for and much to look forward too.

*Not her real name.

 

Dec
24

In a futile attempt to find a relatives mailing address for sending out christmas cards this afternoon I found myself digging through old emails. You read one and then another and you just can’t stop. Memories, interactions, plans. You want to get just a taste of what you wrote back then or what a friend or relative wrote to you.

All this was good and fun until I found an email from my grandmother who passed away this spring. The email was 7 years old but I got emotional almost instantly. This will be our first christmas without her.

Memory and grief is a weird thing and not one I’m particularly well versed in writing about. I’ll go days and weeks without so much of a thought of my grandmother and then a thought, a memory, an interaction will have her come flooding back to me and I keep finding myself, however briefly, overwhelmed.

I think the one thing I’ll say about my grandmother is that she was family in all the messy and traditional ways one might think about that. She was kind and thoughtful and blunt and rude. She was unwaveringly supportive and at times equally sure to note she disagreed with something. But the biggest thing was she was always there. For holidays, special occasions, long weekends in New Hampshire. And through it all you knew that she cared for her family and grandchildren (and great-grandchildren!) deeply.

This Christmas I miss my grandmother. But I’m also deeply grateful for all the times we had together and how in a very real and true and family way she was there with my family and I. Merry Christmas!

Nov
02

I just successfully completed the longest audition for a job that I didn’t know was an audition in my life.

I’ve been teaching for the last two years (see my last entry) but nothing had been sticking. So this past summer it was back to interviewing. After a fairly quiet spring and summer I had almost 10 interviews in August. Many went well. One I had a second round interview as a final three candidate. I even had a hilariously bad interview for a marketing job where I had to pretend I was interested in marketing even though my interest only extended to the fact that it was, you know, a job. But as September approached, still no position had materialized.

The last week of August a job popped up on my school jobs site that was unusual because I couldn’t apply through the site or through their site. There was just an email address. This was unusual but given that it was a position I emailed them my resume. I didn’t even bother to send a cover letter. After a month of close calls why expect something from the job that was just an email? I sent it off as my hail mary attempt at seeking employment. I did not expect anything.

The week school started I interviewed at a school that would later reject me. While I was waiting I got an interview request for the school I had emailed. The day before school started I went in. I talked to a very nice department head for maybe 20 minutes. She explained it was a 4 to 6 week position but it might go longer. It seemed to go well and she said I would go talk to the principal now. I was more than a little surprised because this was moving a lot faster than my month of disappointment had gone.

I talked to the principal for 5-10 minutes. He looked over my reference letters. He went to talk to the department head without me for 10 minutes. He came back and pending recommendation phone calls offered me the position. I was blown away. I told him I had to wait, I was waiting to hear from the other school. He said OK and to call him when I knew. I got rejected from the other job the next morning and called the school. They said come in and do my paperwork. It was the first day of school.

The second day of school at 8AM I had 20 bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 8th graders looking at me. I had been told very roughly what chapter one was. I taught the whole day, 5 classes, by myself. It went well. My 6 weeks came and went. The school is new, only starting its second year. The technology is close to great. The students, while as complex as any group of 8th graders, were largely respectful and kind. They kept not telling me to stay home, I kept coming in.

Today I found out I will be offered a contract for the year. My first full year teaching in the same classroom stateside. I’m not going to have to change jobs in 2 months. I’m really excited to have this opportunity.

I’m not out of the woods yet. Oddly enough this will still count as a vacancy at the end of the year. The job will be posted and the school will have to consider others. But right now I have 104 eighth graders to teach. I have a little bit of certainty in my life and I intend to take full advantage of it.

Sep
28

I’m on my fifth job in education in a little over two years.

I have been a paraprofessional, a teacher assistant, a long-term substitute and a full-fledged teacher in that time. I have switched jobs, towns and retirement plans every 4-8 months. Currently I am on my second long-term sub stint though this one is far more uncertain than the first one. I do not know why I have replaced the absent teacher and have not been given a precise end day. I have no idea where I might be come Christmas.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about my still-starting career is that none of these job changes have happened because I messed up. I haven’t been fired. I wasn’t lazy. I taught my students well. A school district didn’t have money to hire me. Another time I got bumped by a teacher transfer. I have worked incredibly hard the past two years and I got engaged (ring!) and married to boot.

I’m also not a person who likes too much dramatic change. I want to have a school and a classroom and students I can count on. I will be as reliable as I wish them to be. I do not relish learning a new school’s culture, staff and technology every few months. Admittedly it has been stressful in many ways both personally and financially.

There are undoubtedly positives. I have taught in my own classroom for over a year in the past 2+ years. I’ve had my own classrooms, and lessons, and students. I’ve had a lot of fun. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve improved my craft. I’ve gotten a great recommendation from every place I have worked. I have a great wife and family and I like living in Massachusetts. I am indeed, blessed.

But the uncertainty remains. I started this school year at a new school. I really like it . The building is shiny and new. The technology is close to flawless. Best of all I have gotten to set the tone with a group of students from day one who, so far, have proven to be the nicest group I have had yet. They aren’t prefect angels but they are polite, generally engaged and seem to appreciate that I am there. I swear if one nice student said, “Hi, Mr. Peirce!” to me everyday for the rest of my career I could teach for the next 60 years regardless of how everything else goes.

I’ll write a new entry when I know more but until then I’m enjoying teaching every day, uncertainty or otherwise.