Posts Tagged ‘Teachers’

Today’s contributor to “Teachers in Their Own Words” is Teresa, a fourth year math teacher at a New Mexico reservation high school. Teresa has a place of honor in this series since it was an email she sent me about teaching young Native Americans that gave me the idea to ask teachers to write about their experiences as educators. In this thoughtful piece, “A Reservation Teacher Considers Change, Traditions and Meeting Students’ Needs,” Teresa raises issues about the constantly changing landscape of schools these days—new programs, new standards, new tests. She doesn’t reject change out of hand because, as she writes, change “is an everyday occurrence” for teachers. But she does question changes that are made with no consideration of student needs or the traditions of the community of which the school is a part. This is particularly important on Native American reservations where tradition is an essential yet endangered part of life. In exploring these ideas Teresa does something that doesn’t occur often enough in schools. She has a conversation with students, asking them for their views and ideas about education and how schools should be structured. It’s refreshing to see that kind of respectful dialog taking place, and it can only enhance her students’ learning.

A Reservation Teacher Considers Change, Traditions and Meeting Students’ Needs

Change.  To some, this word is scary.  To others, it is invigorating.  For teachers, it is an everyday occurrence.

The other day, I had an interesting conversation with one of my students.  To start, the student asked me “How come we don’t go home at 12:30, like in California?”  Now, I know not every high school in CA has a half-day schedule, but apparently this student attended one in the past.  This question led us into an in-depth discussion of why schools are organized the way they are.  Another student joined in on the conversation, and we discussed other options for high schools: why not offer night classes?  Why not let high school students sleep in, go to work in the morning, then come to school for a few hours in the afternoon (perhaps between lunch and dinner)?  And why on earth do high school students go to school for eight hours a day, only to go home and do two to four more hours of homework?

Let me give you some background information.  I was homeschooled all the way through 12th grade.  By the time I was high school-aged, my mom would get me started on my assignments in the morning, then I’d work independently while she kept my 5 younger siblings busy.  If I had questions about math, I would call my dad.  If I had any other questions, I would grab my mom between Fractions activities and Phonics lessons.  Rarely would my work occupy me past 12:30, at which time I would practice my piano, complete my chores for the day, and help keep my youngest sibling entertained.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I entered college and discovered that high school teachers are truly expected to fill 8 hours every day with lessons only, then give their students work to do at home.  Where has family time gone?  When will my students find time to choose personally enriching activities?  When will they have time to make some extra money?  This last question is especially pertinent with my students, high school teens living on a New Mexico reservation, who often help the family “make ends meet.”

Unfortunately, educators have endured so many changes in the past decade that they respond to new ideas with either “What’s the point?” or “Why change it now?”  Every year, teachers face new expectations, new administrators, and lately, even new standards.  But every time these changes occur, teachers sit back and say, “It’ll change again next year.”  They don’t buy-in anymore because nothing sticks around.  As a result, when truly good changes are suggested they get lost in the shuffle, or are placed on the back burner while mandatory (a.k.a. monetarily-endorsed) changes are implemented.  When are schools going to stop and think that maybe all these changes, “improvements,” aren’t as good as they are presented?  When are schools going to figure out how to weed out the unnecessary, unhelpful changes, in order to make room for reasonable, current ideas?  And when are we going to stop requiring students to spend 16 hours a day on school?

In the community where I work, there is a stronger-than-average resistance to change.  I believe this stems from Native Americans’ deeply rooted ties to history.  In this community, students and adults grasp at their traditions, while trying to sweep themselves into the future.  The Native Americans I work with search daily for the balance between the old and the new.  Even in schools, drastic changes can feel like an abandonment of the past, which is like forgetting “where we come from.”  For most Americans, our histories are so jumbled that we do not consider it in our daily decisions (personally, my family stems from about 5 different countries, and I cling to the traditions of none).  Natives’ history, on the other hand, has been so suppressed that they cling to every thread.

I’ve always felt that my schooling experience has been both an advantage and a disadvantage.  I am advantaged because I did not spend the first 18 years of my life going through “the system”; thus, I am completely open to new ideas.  However, as a teacher I am disadvantaged because I do not realize how many of these ideas have been sifted through the system already.  I may not be jaded, but I still swing a little to the other extreme: naiveté.  We teachers need to work together to find the happy medium.

At the end of my conversation with my students, we agreed that the “solution” is to phase out teachers who are stuck in the old ways, and fill schools with teachers open to change.  Unfortunately, this boils down to only hiring teachers who have been teaching 5 years or less.  Never would I suggest this actually take place because then schools would lose the wisdom and experience of our veteran teachers.  But the two generations of educators need to work together to keep schools current.  We don’t need fancy equipment and artistically-designed school buildings.  We just need to be open to reasonable, practical changes.  We need to adjust to meet our students’ needs…  Isn’t that the whole point?

 

“Teachers in Their Own Words” is a forum for teachers, not “education reformers,” to talk about schools, students and what really happens in a classroom. Despite the title of her piece, “Confessions of a Non-Teacher,” I’m happy to add Anna Feldman’s voice to the series. As you’ll see, Anna, who is a facilitator for a creative writing workshop, is very much a teacher despite the difference in nomenclature. She has all the best qualities of a real teacher: she fosters openness and trust among her learners; gives each of them the freedom to create and explore; is interested in what her students learn, not as a testable commodity but as way to explore the world and themselves. And she does this all in a very challenging environment—a Department of Youth Services detention center for girls. Just as working in a facility like that is complicated, “Confessions of a Non-Teacher” is a complicated piece. Anna’s essay raises a variety of issues—the role of teacher, the stumbling blocks to learning, the impact of outside influences on a young person’s ability to learn. Yet she does it with a good bit of humor (most teachers will chuckle at her description of giving assignment directions to her learners), honesty and humility.

Anna has worked with Voices from Inside since 2010 and is editor of Women Writing in Jail: An Anthology (Voices from Inside & Levellers Press, 2011). A Wells College graduate in creative writing and psychology, Anna is passionate about at-risk youth advocacy, the arts, and animals. Her dream job would probably combine all three. She would like to thank Pauline Bassett, her co-facilitator, for all of her help and support.

Confessions of a Non-Teacher

I am not a teacher.

The writing workshop I co-facilitate each week is not a class.

Voices from Inside, a Florence-based volunteer organization that provides writing workshops to incarcerated women using the Amherst Writers and Artists Method of workshop facilitation (AWA),  has recently expanded to a Department of Youth Services facility for teenage girls. One of the first tenets of the method is that the workshop is never a class; there are no grades, no critique, no negativity. Internal editors present in every other aspect of life are not invited.

A writer, as we say in AWA, is someone who writes.

On the surface, it sounds like it would be so much easier than a class. So much more comfortable, so much more…free. That’s part of what I’ve always loved about this method when I’ve worked with incarcerated women in the past. Without the pretenses of grades, competition, or judgment, participants have often surprised me – and, more important, themselves – with their expression and their vulnerability. Women who are barely literate write hauntingly beautiful prose; women who think they’re going to hate the workshop end up being the most active.

So, when I was asked if I wanted to co-facilitate a workshop at the DYS site, I barely thought before saying yes. At-risk youth is one of my favorite populations to work with, partly because it’s humbling to watch them find their strengths and come into their own, and partly because, at 26, I feel like I get them in so many ways. While I haven’t had the same struggles many of them have had, there’s an unspoken understanding between us wherein they can see that I’m more similar to them than many of their teachers and clinicians. I look like them. I speak their language. I come to each workshop in jeans, a fun shirt, and funky jewelry; when they converse about their celebrity crushes and movies they like, I know what they’re talking about. And, in that understanding, I take that implicit trust they place in me and guard it as safely as I possibly can.

When I hand out prompts, this is usually the conversation that ensues:

Me: They call these “story starters,” but they’re just ideas. You can do anything with them. Use one of them, use all of them, use none of them. Remember, prompts are always optional.

Girl: Do we have to use these?

Me (cheerfully): No, you can use them if you want, but if you don’t like them, you can write something else.

Second girl: Can it be a poem?

Co-facilitator (cheerfully): Sure. Anything you want to write.

Third girl: What do we do with these?

Staff member (exasperatedly): You write a poem or a story about any of these lines. If you don’t want to use them, write about something else.

After about four weeks of this, it was hard not to wonder what we were doing wrong. While there was no question that most, if not all, of these girls struggled academically, they were also smart and literate—the writing they had produced thus far spoke to that. It didn’t seem likely that they would flat-out forget from week to week, either.

What was it, then? Were the prompts too complicated? Did I talk too fast? Were the girls not paying attention to us? Did they simply not care?

It wasn’t until I had a conversation with my co-facilitator about something unrelated (or so I thought at the time) that it began to dawn on me.

Another tenet of the AWA method is that when we comment on each other’s work, we focus only on the positive aspects of the writing—what struck us, what we remembered most vividly, what we particularly enjoyed and why. The women in the jail workshops tended to do well with this, but halfway through the session, the girls still had trouble. Sometimes they’d respond with an “I like it!” but wouldn’t be able to follow up if we tried to press for more details, and most didn’t say anything.

“What is that?” I asked my co-facilitator on our drive home one evening. “Why do they have so much trouble giving comments? Are they just really eager to get to their turn?”

“Probably,” she acknowledged. “They’re probably also not used to being asked what they think.”

That was about when the proverbial light bulb turned on above my head.

The girls’ facility is very different from the jails I’d been to in the past. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve interacted with a corrections officer at the jail; here, staff are everywhere. They sit in with us during our workshop (not writing, mind you) and bark at anyone who speaks out of turn. Where we would politely ask a girl to participate, a supervisor turns it into an order. More often than not, they respond to girls’ questions with exasperation. They keep a keen eye on the clock and herd us out the moment it’s to leave.

There’s a rule for everything. (Whether or not it’s going to be enforced on any given day is a different question, but that could be a topic for whole other entry.)

The workshop had all the potential in the world to be freeing, but the girls had no idea what to do with the freedom we were bringing them.

I don’t have any kind of plan or formula for how to address this; for the most part, I don’t have any more information than I did a few weeks ago, nor do I have the authority to make—or suggest—changes to how things are done at the facility.

What I can do, though, is be conscientious, and really, that may be the most important thing. How easily we forget that some of the most mundane things in our lives are uncharted territory (and, therefore, probably scary) for others. Just as someone would feel self-conscious and daunted walking into a party full of people they don’t know, so too would someone who has never been unconditionally complimented or told her opinions truly mattered, when all of a sudden she’s being showered with praise and asked repeatedly what she thinks by people who really want to know. Just recognizing that allows me to be present in each workshop with a perspective I hadn’t had before.

I can provide them with a space where vulnerability is safe; where being wrong is okay. (In AWA workshops, there really is no “wrong,” but if, for instance, a girl slipped and mentioned something she didn’t like about someone’s writing, we wouldn’t respond with anger or hostility. We would simply remind her why it’s important to focus on the positive and encourage her to try again.)

With the trust the girls have given me, I can encourage them out of their comfort zones, and I can come out of mine around them, too. My co-facilitator recently mentioned that I sing, which of course prompted the girls to ask me to sing for them. I was nervous, but I sang a verse of “Blackbird.” They didn’t care that I wasn’t warmed up or that my voice shook a little at the beginning. I had done something that scared me and come out of it perfectly fine on the other side. I gave them my trust and they handled it with care and grace – just as I handle theirs.

I can be myself and encourage them to do the same. I can remember what it’s like to be sixteen and know that sometimes who said what at dinner is the most important topic in the room. We’ve all been there.

And though I’m neither a teacher nor conducting a class, I can acknowledge them when they use literary devices in their writing. (“That’s personification!” I excitedly explained to a girl one week in response to how she’d described a wall.) The acquisition of knowledge doesn’t have to be dry and tedious.

I am not a teacher.

The writing workshop I co-facilitate each week is not a class.

I think we’ve all managed to learn something anyway. And I think we’re all feeling a little freer for the process.

One of the goals of “Teachers in Their Own Words” has been to give teachers a voice in the “education reform” debate. It has been a place where teachers can talk about what’s important to them as professionals. For some that has meant the larger issues of curriculum, evaluation and training; for others, the day to day challenges and delights of the classroom. Whatever the topic, each contributor has spoken as a practitioner, as someone “on the front-lines.” They are the ones who spend their days with students and so know what real, hands-on education looks like, feels like; what works and doesn’t.  Along with that variety of viewpoints and concerns the educational settings have been diverse and wide-ranging—reservation high school, release program for young offenders, community college, kindergarten, juvenile detention, independent learning, ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), middle school.

Now Hillary Greene, who has written for the series in the past, has opened the 2014 conversation even further in her guest piece, “Life in the Classroom: An International Teacher’s Room”. The piece serves as a great introduction to a shared blog, “Instruments of Change: The World’s Teachers,” that she and two other teachers from other countries have begun as a way to explore the big question, “What does it mean to be a teacher?” As in everything Hillary writes, “Life in the Classroom: An International Teacher’s Room” isn’t afraid to challenge not just the ideas of reformers but her colleagues as well. But she does it with a gentle and practiced hand, just what you’d expect from a middle school teacher (she has taught middle school for three years in independent, public, and public charter settings in Massachusetts and New Hampshire) who recently wrote in an email to me that “it’s never the kids that are the tough part of this job…” I’m looking forward to reading “Instruments of Change: The World’s Teachers” as it evolves and invite you to stop into their International Teacher’s Room to hear the latest in this global conversation.

Life in the Classroom: An International Teacher’s Room

Last summer, I was sitting in an art-filled café in Exeter, New Hampshire reading Linda Darling-Hammond’s The Flat World and Education. Page after page, I dutifully read and made my margin notes about the successful performance of students in places like Finland and Singapore when a simple question dawned on me, “I wonder what it’s like to teach in other places?” I wanted to find out.

Since becoming a teacher three school years ago, I have reflected daily on the challenges of this profession. I know that my job is much different than the one I envisioned my teachers doing back when I was a K-12 student; like anything, it’s hard to imagine until actually living through it.

Then last year, I started to write about teaching. It was a way to think aloud about my experience in a way I couldn’t do at school. I wrote about the need to nurture teachers and create environments for collaboration rather than isolation (The Coffee Crisis), and another piece about how teachers’ ignorance of big-picture policy changes in education causes our autonomy in the classroom to suffer (Not Enough to “Just” Teach).

Despite the challenges of being a teacher, one aspect consistently sustains me: my relationships with students. I teach middle school, a fragile age where, above all, kids want to feel like someone “gets” them. They’re looking for unconditional acceptance as they try out versions of themselves, some combination of which will one day stick. They possess a refreshing ability to be vulnerable and open in ways that adults have often left behind.

Even in my relatively short amount of time as a teacher, I see that although this openness and availability flourishes in middle school relationships, it remains in short supply among the adults in a school. I’m not without blame; sometimes it’s easier to shut my door, work through lunch, and breathe a bit rather than seek out colleagues, collaborate, or, basically, be available. But there’s certainly something about this profession that makes us close ourselves off, both regretful of the isolation but reluctant to open up.

So this brings me back to that café in New Hampshire. I wondered if teachers in such paragons of educational achievement as Finland and Singapore have the same challenges I have experienced. I wondered if their professional relationships are different from mine. I wondered what their lives are like outside of school compared to teachers’ lives here. I wondered how others in their culture perceive their choice to join the teaching profession.

With the help of my brother who has lived abroad, I reached out to public school teachers that he knew around the world, and I found two willing (and available!) volunteers: Thom in France and Emily in Australia who like me teach 5th through 7th graders. We launched our comparative teaching blog in August, and we write every few weeks about our lives as teachers. We have written several diary entries of a “typical” day in our schools, and we’ve written on other topics including our teacher preparation programs, our choices to become teachers, assessment in schools, and more. We will write until May and continue to discover what it means to teach, whether in the US, France, or Australia.

Ironically, we’ve never met each other. Yet, through this shared experience of written reflection, I am able to visit them in their classrooms and host them in mine. Just like our students, we want someone to “get” us, and now we have each other.

Nowadays we hear a lot about teachers—from “education reformers,” politicians, business executives, clergy, union leaders, academics—but we rarely hear from teachers themselves. Most teachers I know and come in contact with are eager to talk about teaching and the jobs they do. It is decidedly a very different conversation from the ones pundits, policymakers and critics have. Of course, some teachers will lament the present state of testing, outside interference, and the unreasonable demands of curricula shaped by test results. But most are happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: their students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do). That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of guest blogs, Teachers in Their Own Words, inviting a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom. If you’re a teacher and have a story that you’d like to share please feel free to get in touch with me at davidchura2@gmail.com.

As the academic year moves along, there is a lot of discussion about the demands and impact of Common Core (the Obama Administration’s effort to establish a nationwide curriculum for all grade levels) on schools, students and teachers. To many teachers and parents, Common Core misses the mark as to what real education is all about. As one Chicago teacher lamented in the journal, American Teacher, “I find it demoralizing. This is damaging to teaching and to learning.” Louisa, a kindergarten teacher in a magnet school in New England and a former contributor to this series, shares that same lament and concern about a national standardized curriculum and its over-testing of young children. In her piece, Common Core, Common Sense: What Should Kindergarten be About?, Louisa writes about the conflicting demands of the Common Core curriculum  with the more common sense needs of the very young children she teaches. As you read her essay, her moral dilemma as well as her understated anger and frustration at what this country is doing to its students becomes clear. She articulates the struggle that most teachers experience every day as they try to balance student needs with the demands of an unresponsive state-mandated educational system.

It’s assessment time in Kindergarten. What that means is that I sit down with one child at a time and check on their progress in (mostly) literacy skills. Of course this means that I have less time for actual teaching, and I have to admit that a tension builds up for me, like the feeling that I have something cooking on the stove but can’t quite get to the kitchen.

There is a sense of pressure too about keeping up with the pacing guides for Math, Literacy, Social Studies and Science. Are my children (“students”) meeting the Common Core standards? Will they meet the benchmarks: Will they read by the end of Kindergarten? Will they be able to add 7 to 10? Will they be able to read ‘“Where is my hat? It is not here,” Ben said. Ben looked in the closet. He looked behind the chair.’” by May?

Another question: Will I be able to demonstrate to my principal that my lessons are based on  Common Core standards and best practices? Will I be able to stay out of hot water?

What makes it all the more complicated (and more stressful) is that while my children are coming along alright in Reading, several still don’t have bladder control. This makes classroom life challenging as when a child has an accident during a Math lesson and needs help finding clothes and changing. Of course we have many such interruptions.  A child has a meltdown because her muffin has crumbled in her book bag and loudly and angrily mourns for half an hour, so that we are all under siege from her disappointment. Quarrels, secrets and longings fill the room all day, and each one needs to be addressed.

These complications are actually a blessing. They bring me back to my senses.  I remember that my children have only been on this earth for five years. They are just learning how to handle their bodies. Friendships are exciting and sometimes hazardous. Being part of a group is also a fairly new experience. I remember that learning is joyful when it doesn’t require too much sitting and listening. Anything involving music and the senses is mesmerizing. Play is paramount. To me this is the real curriculum. I encourage a small group to build a city in the blocks, complete with signs in invented spelling. We sing and dance together, and I feel a deep gladness at the smiles and laughter, along with the natural cooperation and self-control that emerges.

Of course, this doesn’t really resolve the tension. I am still asking children to write when many of them haven’t yet gained the fine motor control to hold the pencil well. I am still pushing them to read and meet standards that are clearly inappropriate in other academic areas as well. I obey the dictates of those so much more prosperous and powerful than I, making education policy in the far reaches of the educational bureaucracy and the government. What I see is that pressure is put on the very youngest children to accomplish tasks they are not ready for.  It is hard to accept and admit that I am complicit in an institution that seems so detrimental to many children.

Maybe it’s just time for more of us to speak up.