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

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.

Dec
09

The New England Revolution lost their 5th championship match on Sunday in as many tries. I haven’t written about the Revs in just about forever. I think this is because it still seemed like such a niche thing to me. Most people just weren’t aware they existed so who would want to read about it? Twitter has helped enormously in the past 5 years in helping me realize that there are many passionate soccer fans locally and around the world. Ultimately though this entry is mostly therapy for myself. If you enjoy it, great. If you don’t know what the Revolution is, no worries.

I was born in Boston but moved to Delaware when I was three. Even so I grew up knowing I had to be a passionate Red Sox fan and to a lesser degree, a Bruins fan. This was during their long, long championship droughts so paying attention to their yearly suffering was a badge of honor. I grew up playing soccer though and that was my true sporting love as a kid. When MLS was due to start in 1996 I knew the Revolution had to be my team. I watched the first game where San Jose and Eric Wynalda scored the first goal in league history. In 1997 when I started 7th grade we moved back up to Massachusetts.

My dad took me to a few games growing up and I went to MLS Cup in 1999 at Gillette. Those early years though MLS barely seemed on the radar and of course, the Revolution rarely did well. Which made their first run to the final in 2002 so surprising. A few wins and we were in the playoffs! A few more results and we were firmly in uncharted territory.  Heartbreakingly, we lost in overtime. It was ok though back then or so it seemed. We weren’t even supposed to make it. It was close. It was our first time. We would make it back again. And we did.

The Revolution losing the championship 5 times in 19 seasons is shocking but when you dig into the details its utterly depressing. Three overtime losses (to the same team!) Another loss on penalties. Another loss we scored first but coughed up the lead to lose 2-1. The most unbelievable fact to me about these losses is how rule changes absolutely killed us. FIFA flirted with rule changes in the early 2000s and had “golden goal” sudden-death overtime in 2005. LA scores and the game is over. A year later they went back to the traditional 30 minute extra time regardless of how many goals are scored. We score after 110 long minutes and before we can sit down Houston has tied it. We lose on penalties.

I think I was surprised at how relaxed I was this past week leading up to the game. It was a surprise to make it back this season for sure after 7 seasons away. But I was worried that as I got older I was caring less even though I have been attending more games than ever. I did have one bad premonition 2 days before the final when I dreamed that we were losing 3-0 by halftime. Other than that though I mostly just waited for Sunday.

If this game taught me anything it is that I surely do care. I probably care a bit too much. I was upset before kickoff that the ESPN brain-trust didn’t give the Revolution a chance. And I was horrified when we almost conceded in the first 2 minutes, clearing off the line. Nearing half-time I realized my stomach hurt. A lot. I was watching so intensely my muscles, my organs were tightening up. We did have one chance to celebrate. After looking dead in the water for most of the second half we amazingly and suddenly tied it 1-1. A chance for redemption and victory. With 5 minutes left a beautiful chip over the LA keeper hit the crossbar. Overtime. Again.

And so we let up a goal and lost. 5 attempts with no Cup to show for it. My body felt utterly tired and worn out afterwards. MLS Playoff set ups have often been at best silly and at worst nonsensical. But Cups matter. Championships matter. I cannot wait to celebrate a Revolution MLS Cup championship. I think we have a strong enough and young enough core of a team that we will be back here again and soon. I don’t know when we will finally win one but when we do I can promise one thing: I’ll be watching.

Oct
21

In July I wrote three entries dealing with the media firestorm that Gordon College in Massachusetts had been facing. While the school is no longer making daily headlines they are still grappling with the fallout of those events. The current situation is they are taking 12 to 18 months to review their policies as relates to same-sex behavior. Despite this Gordon has said that their accreditation is not under threat and they have no plans to change their “Life and Conduct Policy.”

Depending on your view of things this may engender great hope or great despair. For me, I see it as a great opportunity for Gordon College to show to the world how a conservative Christian institute of higher education can interact with and include LGBT people in their community.

Gordon is allotting at least a year to think on these issues. To spend so much time on something and not come up with at least one good idea worth pursuing seems to me to be a waste. Some will probably say that Gordon has been unfairly depicted in this whole incident and should not be pushed into change too quickly. I agree, the media’s coverage this past summer left much to be desired in the nuance department. I think Gordon came off as a much worse school than it, in fact, is. I find that highly unfortunate. But what has happened, happened and now Gordon is taking the time to give these issues the hearing they deserve.

Many Christians are overwhelming frustrated with how many people in American society see them today. They are tired of being called bigots and hateful and homophobes. I am not trying to paint them as victims but just to highlight what people on the ground are feeling. Gordon College has an opportunity to change this, to be a beacon for engagement and inclusion towards LGBT people. If they get the next 12-18 months right they will not have to defend themselves against a society and millennial generation that has largely decided that Christianity has little good or moral to offer it. Gordon will be able to highlight that they do not hate, discriminate or stigmatize their LGBT students because they have done this and this and this. They will have set the model for every conservative Christian school to catch up to. They will become a magnet for Christian students who want strong doctrine but also reject the exclusiveness of other schools. Gordon’s long-term legacy and success will be assured. Of course some will never accept that a entity based on religion is worthwhile and no changes by Gordon will dissuade them of those feelings. Those people though are not why Gordon should be changing in the first place.

So what exactly should Gordon do? I’m not sure, I do not run a college or university. I will say this though. Gordon can institute changes that result in what I describe above without giving up their Christian identity, doctrine, and religious belief. Of this I am sure. Many commentators have argued in recent months that their is no “third way” on the issue of LGBT people. Gordon is taking the next 12-18 months to prove those commentators wrong. It is my hope and prayer that they do not waste this opportunity.

Oct
14

A little over 6 months ago I got married. And now I know everything there is to know about having a great marriage.

Just kidding.

But marriage is one of those weird things that is talked about and referenced constantly in society (especially if you are in your 20s or 30s on facebook) and yet you do not truly know what exactly you are getting into until it actually happens.

The past 6 months have been undeniably great and imperfect at the same time. Life is life, stress is stress, and sharing that with someone else is unsurprisingly complex. I hardly know anything yet about what being married really means but I do want to share a quick story that happened 2 days after our wedding that really crystallizes why, apart from everything else, this crazy marriage thing might be worth it.

I was teaching when we got married and so we delayed our “real” honeymoon 2 weeks until my Spring break. Instead right after our wedding we spent 2 nights at a bed and breakfast and than that following Tuesday I returned to classes. My commute than was 66 miles for a 7:30AM class start. That meant I did everything possible the night before to get ready. Shower, lay out my work clothes, and make lunch. Since I started working in a school the spring before I was accustomed to my routine. I did everything myself because, well I was a 29 year old adult. It was not always fun doing this but I prided myself on being responsible and I hated making a sandwich with crusts in my eyes at the 6AM hour.

And so, after our fantastic “just married” weekend we returned to our apartment, husband and wife, and I resigned myself to the fact that school was tomorrow and part of the glorious mystery of the marriage pact was having a lunch ready for the morning. I opened up the pantry door and the following interaction with my wife occurred:

Her: What are you doing?

Me: Making my lunch.

Her: I already did.

Me: Really???

Her: Yes. Love you.

Me: Love you too.

I swear to you I started tearing up right in the pantry doorway. Such a small insignificant gesture, a spouse doing something for their mate, and yet it showed me so well what marriage was supposed to be. The past 6 months have been arguably more complicated than any in my life. But that small gesture from my wife sticks with me and reminds me of what marriage can and should be. Marriage is about love and commitment and life together for sure. But sometimes its just about making lunch.

Aug
15

As I started teaching in January I came across a bigger theme repeatedly. My goal was always to give my students the big idea or theme, the one word or phrase that they could turn over in their head and then I would hit on that word again. and again. and again. As I started my unit on the Revolutionary War the word “perspective” was that theme. We all know as Americans what the war meant but how did the British feel? What were the Native Americans thoughts? Where did slaves motivations lie? It was all a matter of perspective. I realized i had stumbled upon something interesting and important, an anchor for my teaching. I touched on that word repeatedly over the next six months.

I read an article yesterday that got me thinking about perspective again. I almost did not read it but at the last moment of my 15-second, twitter-influenced attention span, I clicked it. You can read it here. The story highlights the struggles of Janette Navarro to make a better life for herself and her son while working at Starbucks. My wife was a Starbucks barista in college and loves the place so I kept reading.

Ms. Navarro is 22 years old. She has a 4-year old son whose father disappeared sans child-support. A boyfriend who is a refuge and strength for her and her son does not last the article. Her mother passed away from an overdose. Her father was not around growing up. She has an aunt and a $9/hour job at Starbucks. She is trying to take classes but her erratic schedule and 3-hour(!!!) commute makes this increasingly impossible. Ms. Navarro’s life is so different from mine it borders on absurdity. And yet as I read I felt ever more involved and connected to her story.

Over the past 8 months I have worked a temporary job without benefits while seeking a full-time job for this fall. I woke up at 5:15am on weekdays and drove over 65 miles to get to my incredibly challenging students. Since that ended in late June I have had 7 interviews. None led to a second round until yesterday (for a part-time position). During this time I have been tempted to get frustrated and feel sorry about how challenging my life has been. And than I read about Ms. Navarro and I realize I am a idiot.

Perspective is everything in history as in life. Every advantage that I have enjoyed in my life: school, family, income, stable relationships, has seemingly been denied to Ms. Navarro. And yet I feel sorry for myself? I am not trying to romanticize Ms. Navarro’s struggles or throw her a pity party. She is evidently an incredibly resilient young women who is holding on to the hope of giving her son a better life by working incredibly hard. I was incredibly pleased to see Starbucks respond almost immediately to the article here.

Perspective gives us humility. Regardless of where I end up job-wise in the next week or so I will be fine. I have faced challenges and will continue to do so. But for today I am thankful for Ms. Navarro’s story and the perspective it has given me as I move ahead. 

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