My Favorite…?

One thing that seems to pop up every year in my classroom is the question, “Am I your favorite student?” This is closely followed by its popular cousin, “Is ________ your least favorite student?” Students generally are curious what us teachers are thinking so I typically give an answer but rarely the one they want.

“All my students are my favorite! I like them equally!”

“I don’t have any least favorites! Why haven’t you taken your homework out yet?”

This year I’m teaching a new subject with 6th graders. I’ve never taught students this young but so far I am enjoying it. I am extremely hesitant to generalize about this in October but it seems to be an exceptional group of kids. I would like to describe one of them to you.

She is a happy, bubbly, talkative, kind sixth grade girl. She always says “Hi!” expressively in the hall when she walks by. She raises her hand everyday, participates actively and always has something interesting to say.  When she learned I liked soccer on the first day of school she excitedly told her dad that she had “found his favorite teacher!” because he was a big soccer fan too. Her mom showed up on back to school night, just as bubbly as her daughter, to tell me that.

The Monday she found out my birthday was the day before she announced excitedly that she was going to bring me chocolate and the next day she did. I won’t go so far to say that she was my favorite student ever but I looked forward to seeing her every single day just because of how positive and nice she was.

She also happens to be a Muslim who wore a headscarf every single day to school.

Her fashion sense is ridiculous. She has a different scarf every day that always seems to match perfectly with her shirt. The day after the Patriots first game of the season she wore a red shirt with the team’s name down the sleeve and a blue headscarf. Not that it would change my opinion of her at all but she speaks perfect English and I have no idea what her immigration status is.

I mention all this to make the following point. There are voices in our society who use fear to gain power, usually political. Some of these people like to decry those who are different and “other.” They scapegoat all immigrants, particularly Muslims, as those bringing violence and crime into our country. They decry the value of multiculturalism and diversity in our society and schools.

These voices are at best ignorant and misinformed, and at worst filled with malice, racism, and hatred. They should be ignored and marginalized for the inaccurate dreck that they are. Anyone who spends a day in even a mildly diverse classroom could see that the fears these people are exploiting have no basis in fact. The US is a country of immigrants, based on freedom of religion and expression. Diversity is and should be our strength and pride.

A few weeks ago my “favorite” student announced she was leaving by the end of the week to go to a nearby charter school she had finally been accepted to. I played it off in the moment but I was devastated. Teachers only get a school year with their students and then they float on to another hallway and grade. This student was only in my class about a month. I hope she comes back to visit at some point.

We are living in divided and acrimonious times. It is far too easy to “what about” ourselves to death when the latest outrage or rhetoric is splayed out by our leaders. What hope do we have?

I hope my student continues to grow into the intelligent and kind person she is and I hope we continue to acknowledge that what unites us is far more significant than the things that divide us.

 

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What I’ve Done So Far on my Summer Vacation.

It is a well-known fact that most teachers get a summer break. For me, a public school teacher, that equates from about mid-June to Late August. Obviously having a huge summer break is different from most industries. I thought it would be nice to list (in extremely rough chronological order) what I have done in my first month of summer vacation.

  • Had friends over to catch up and meet our daughter.
  • Watched my 2 month old daughter while my wife went to work.
  • Fed my 2 month old daughter.
  • Played with my 2 month old daughter.
  • Changed my two month old daughter.
  • Gone to a wedding of good friends.
  • Gone running a lot.
  • Completed a class to earn graduate credit to increase my salary in the fall (one more class to go!) Note: the only way for public school teachers to increase their salary is to show up for another year or take further education classes. If this sounds like a terrible system to you I applaud your motivation to attempt to make it better!
  • Taken my daughter to a friend’s July 4th party and watched fireworks (we have cute ear protecters.)
  • Watched my 3 month old daughter while my wife went to work.
  • Fed my 3 month old daughter.
  • Played with my 3 month old daughter.
  • Changed my 3 month old daughter.
  • Taken my family to two professional soccer games.
  • Napped
  • Read half a book.
  • Drove up to Maine last Wednesday and said goodbye to my 91-year old grandfather as he passed away in the hospital. My dad and I made it with two and a half hours to spare. The nurse noted that he was waiting for people to show up to be with him.

Many Americans for various socioeconomic reasons can’t take much time off from work. Many who can do not take what they are fully allowed. How much vacation one takes is a personal one between them and their family. I will say I am really grateful I was able to  hop in a car (my wife graciously watched our daughter the whole day so I could go immediately) midweek and get up to Maine to be with my grandfather. If it had been during the school year I would have likely already been at school and getting up there in time would have been impossible.

Summer vacation can be a difficult time for many kids and families. Many kids have zero of the supports they enjoy during the school year. Many parents (and various family members) work long hours, often leaving kids to (literally) their own devices. But I think the general principle of a longer break in the summer (maybe 4-6 weeks) would not just be good for teachers but for other workers too. More time to relax and reboot. Time to do activities one enjoys. Time with family. Last Wednesday was challenging but I am beyond grateful that I was able to see my grandfather one last time.

Grasping at Straws in Times of Grief.

School is a very strange thing when you get down to it, especially as a teacher. You see these kids for 45-50+ minutes a day, for 180 days. They populate your mind extensively for these 180 days. You spend many hours thinking about where they should sit, how they might respond to a certain lesson, and grading their work. The bells rings, and they come in. The bell rings and as stressful as the class may have been, they disappear again. The days go by, the seasons change, and June (Finally!) arrives. And they disappear for one final time. They may or may not come by to say hello again but the massive investment that you had in their life for 10 months is done. In my case they move on (in 1-2 years) to high school, out of my building. As memorable as many students have been it always surprises me how quickly I forget many of their names.

I write all the above because last week a former student of mine unexpectedly passed away. He was 16. I got an email from my department head saying there had been a death at the high school and she could not make meetings today. Twenty minutes later in the middle of first period our principal emails the news with his name.

I read the email, paused in bewilderment, and had to go back to teaching my class.

I taught him two years ago and confess to not knowing him all that well. He was a quiet student. He did his work (usually) and kept to himself. He was a strong athlete and seemed well-liked and popular. He was not the type of student who would ever come back to the Middle School to say hello. I wouldn’t either when I was a kid.

Usually before I write a blog entry I have a plan, a spine, a piece of inspiration. I know what I want to say, I just need to get the words down in the right order. This is not an entry like that. I have no idea what to say or think. He simultaneously feels very close and very far away all at the same time.

I went to his wake on Sunday. I waited in a line for 2+ hours to pay my respects and hug his family members. I’m grateful for the former students I saw and that his mom remembered me.

I suppose this entry is just a fleeting attempt to try to honor him and his memory. He may be gone but he was my student and he mattered. I hope he is at peace now and I hope his family, in the awful months ahead, can find little glimpses of peace and even joy as they remember him. I also hope for all my students: past, present, and future that they can find the support they need to have a good life long after they disappear from my classroom.

 

 

A Teacher.

The news of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual assault has spread like wildfire in our society in recent days. It is heartrending and horrific to hear not just the myriad number of stories that so many women are bravely bringing up but also to see clip after clip of Hollywood elite dropping references to Weinstein’s lechery in years past. It’s also not all that surprising. To explain a bit of what I have been thinking and feeling I want to discuss a story closer to home that broke before Weinstein’s did.

Last month in a town near where I teach, a teacher was killed. Murdered actually. Her husband is alleged to have committed the deed. This woman was a beloved elementary school teacher. She was the proud new mother of a one year old. She had been married less time than I have been. They had recently bought a house. And now she’s gone.

Preliminary findings indicate that she suffered, “blunt force injury to the head, sharp force injuries to the neck, and asphyxiation.” This was a crime of domestic abuse. Her husband, rather than loving and caring for her, likely was her executioner. Masculinity run amok.

I cannot really speak as to why this crime has resonated with me so deeply. It might be because I’m a teacher only a few towns away. It might be because I am more aware of how women are treated daily having been married a few years. Whatever it is the horror of domestic abuse came home to me with this story.

After the obligatory 3-4 stories about her life and funerals the stories about her death seemed to have stopped. Then Harvey Weinstein broke and the full scale of all this came rushing at me again.

Far too many men think it is their god-given right to control, dominate, lead, and yes, even abuse women. If not explicitly so than implicitly, too many men demand women capitulate to their every desire. If a women is too independent or free-thinking at best she is worthy of being ignored. At worst, she winds up dead.

My wife teaches me something everyday about the reality of being a women in our society. The #MeToo campaign has taught me much as well. I feel in this moment I can’t do much beyond my marriage except to say women deserve our support. They deserve to be believed. And men who seek to dominate and destroy deserved to be stopped. We have lost too many mothers, sisters, daughters, and teachers to not make an effort.

STEP

A few weeks ago my wife and I were able to attend an early showing of the movie Step. What made it extra exciting is our friend was one of the executive producers in the making of the film. Step highlights the senior year of a high school step team at an all-girls charter school in inner-city Baltimore. It was an extremely well done and thought-provoking film and as it had to do with a group of young women’s experiences in school and life I had a few thoughts come to the surface that I thought I would process here.

My first thought (which I’ve written about before here) was to reinforce how absolutely crucial public schools are to the development of the average American young person. The charter school in the film facilitates countless activities to get all their students graduated and into an institution of higher education by the end of their senior year. They start the year with a convocation ceremony that reminds the student body of the importance of senior year (which will be this school’s first graduating class after starting 7 years ago). They have informational meetings for parents to keep them up to date on college application details. The school has an entire day dedicated to filling out all those college applications and financial aid forms. The school guidance counselor is striking in her relentless drive to push these young women to do what they need to do to get into college.

What I saw in Step was a public school serving its community in critical ways. It goes without saying that without their school community, a large percentage of these young women would have not made it to college, at least not immediately. A school like this is why whenever I hear the phrase “government schools” I cringe. This school was not out to indoctrinate children. It was there to serve them and to assist where their families were unable or unwilling. This is to not to fault their families, many who are portrayed in the film as hardworking and supportive people but to note that where society can often ignore the needs of communities, schools often fill those gaps. I believe parents have a right to choose the type of school that’s best for their child but denigrating public schools never helps.

The second thing this film made me process was my feelings toward charter schools in general. We had a heated, publicized, and grossly over-funded ballot question debate in Massachusetts this past fall about whether to expand charter schools. As a public school teacher and union member, I voted (without much enthusiasm) against the expansion, which ended up failing. I did not think the charter school proponents were clear enough about their ultimate aims and who was actually funding them and my bias for traditional public schools ultimately won the day. But this is hardly an issue I would write a polemic about and after watching Step, I have a newfound appreciation for the good many charter schools do. In many inner cities, charter schools are the best option for students. Where that is the case they should be supported and expanded all the while continuing to find ways to make the public districts improve as well.

My final thought is that in a time of utter polarization anything that can be seen as “bipartisan” is probably worth reaching for. Incredible, supportive, and innovative public schools of any type are surely one of those things. Go see Step. I suspect you’ll enjoy it. And afterwards maybe check out what the schools in your town and city are up to.

Where then shall they go?

This week transgender people were in the news again as the Trump Administration recscinded an Obama administration order that mandated schools allow such students to access the facilities they identify with. The complexity and controversy of this issue has me mildly terrified to write about it. However my experience as a Christian and a public school teacher makes me feel I can offer a perspective that hits at the heart of this issue.

Students enter my classroom from a myriad number of backgrounds. Some are rich, some poor. Some from the US, some are immigrants. Some love school, some hate it. Some have strong and loving families, others do not. Some are popular and athletic, others are less popular and studious. My job when they enter my classroom is to educate them and convince them it is worth it to do so. To do that I need to create a space where my students feel safe enough to trust me. If I lose that trust, I’ve lost them.

Transgender students force educators like me to look them in the eyes and answer the question “Is it safe for me to be around you?” How we answer that question can make my classroom a refuge from whatever else is going on in their lives or tragically, a place where they literally dread to return to, day after day.

I personally cannot in good conscience call a transgender student by their non preferred pronoun or first name. I cannot in good conscience force them to use a bathroom they feel unsafe or misidentified in. To do so would go against everything I am seeking to create in my classroom and build in my career. I refuse to stand aside while explicit discrimination and the accompanying trauma takes place.

I understand how complex this issue is when you consider locker rooms, field trips, and general public accommodations. But what has truly grieved me over the past few days is seeing various conservative Christian leaders completely ignore the reality I need to walk everyday as a teacher.

Many are quick to lead with all the right one-liners. All students deserve respect, support, and dignity. No one should suffer under bullies or bigots. We can find win-win accommodations for all students. All this is wonderful but try as I might I cannot find one who actually gives a tangible example of what these accommodations might look like in a real school.

I hesitate to assume what they are after but I’m left to ponder if the only accommodation they are looking for is “separate but equal” bathroom facilities that force transgender students to use restrooms apart from the rest of the student body. The outcomes of this “accomodation” are not in question. Students forced into this setup will feel disrespected, unsupported, and undignified. They will feel bullied. They will feel less than and unsafe at school. Some will attempt suicide.

I understand why conservative Christians are upset. They have a very clear theology that says transgendered people cannot possibly be ok. A healthy, happy, well adjusted transgender person confronts their religious beliefs and worldview explicitly. As schools become more accepting of transgender students their beliefs become less and less mainstream. This process is challenging. But a public school is not a church or religious establishment. It has to accept every student eligible to enroll AND provide a safe learning environment.

This very issue will be heard by the Supreme Court this spring. Regardless of how the court decides this I can only see this issue going one way long term. Transgender students will be allowed to access the bathrooms and facilities they identify with in every public school nationwide at some point in the future. This is what is best for them, the schools and society as a whole. This should ultimately be more about doing what’s right than being right.

I recognize that some (perhaps many) will not agree with me here but I remained locked in to doing what is best for all my students. To those who disagree with me on religious grounds I’ll simply asked they following question: What use is perfect theology and Biblical proof texts if the outcomes for so many students are still so tragic?

 

 

 

My First First Day

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.