Thursday, January 15, 2015
I was wrong
Today was one of the most discouraging days I've spent as a classroom teacher. After 21 years of experience, I thought that very little could surprise me, but I was wrong. My state has started a teacher evaluation system that includes several new components, one of which is called 'Student Voice.' Essentially, each teacher chooses a class to answer some questions about his/her approach to teaching and the students' individual experiences with that teacher in that class. As teachers, we do not have the privilege of knowing what questions are being asked or how individual students respond because the computerized session is administered by another adult in the building and student responses are anonymous. After one of my senior classes participated in the survey back in November, I honestly didn't give it anymore thought. I felt confident that they valued my work and would recognize my efforts and skills. I was wrong. I don't know yet what I'll do in response to these results; for now, I'm simply trying to work through my thoughts/feelings. The scariest part of this for me is that I don't know what else I can give. I'm working incredibly hard and giving so much of myself already that I'm not sure how many changes I can make.
I am wounded by the results. I'm certainly nowhere near perfect, but I've always prided myself on my connections with students. This survey suggests that my relationships need work and my students need more from me; it calls into question my effectiveness in the classroom since I did not perform as well as I expected. Because of this survey, I've begun to question whether I'm delusional about my experiences with my students; I thought that was my strength. There's never been a time in my life when I questioned if teaching were right for me; I inherently knew that this was something I should do with my life. Have I been kidding myself? Am I really not the teacher I thought I was? Should I explore another career path for my life? I know this sounds radical, but I feel as if everything I thought I knew about myself as a professional were a lie. While the student voice survey will likely have little bearing on my job duties or on my overall evaluation (although I can't absolutely be sure since the state is still developing the formula by which I will be measured), that survey has forced me to examine myself professionally.
Every day, you, my students, gather 'round my desk in my personal space to visit, to share, to vent, and to explore. You sit near me because it comforts you; it makes you feel as if you belong to a special group; it allows you to focus on your work instead of your peers; it feels 'fun' to see what's happening up at my desk. You pull up chairs and stools and crowd in close or you pile yourselves and your belongings around the edges of my furniture and camp out, or you hover, shifting from one foot to the next, as you wait your turn to share your thoughts and stories with me. You visit me before school, after school, during lunch, between classes, during clubs, during your other classes when you can get away - all because you feel welcome in my room. My room feels like home to you, even when you don't want to do the work that is required of you. You seek my feedback and my attention, and I almost always give you those things. When you need a hug or a snack or a friendly ear, I'm the one who manages the time and resources to make those things happen. If you're out of lunch money, you come for my help. If you get in trouble in another class, you come to me to tell me what happened. Even if you aren't in my class anymore, many of you stop by every single day to visit and check in and feel like you were a part of my day. Once you've graduated (or not), you come back to visit during the holidays and fill me in on your life. You message me and email me and tweet me to ask questions, and express your opinions, and share your lives with me. We take selfies together, and I cheer for you at ballgames. You ask me for letters of recommendations and job references and life advice, and I gladly provide them all for you. You invite me to celebrate your successes and come to me for comfort when you fail. My room is a refuge for you because you are the reason I am there in the first place.
When you're fighting with your parents or your boyfriend dumps you or your best friend is mad at you, I listen to you with a patient ear - not judging, not lecturing, just listening and offering my insights such as they are. You rarely shock me, but I do worry about you and your choices. I feel the need to remind you constantly to be safe and to think about the consequences of your actions. I interact with you on social media so that I will 'get' your jokes, recognize your influences, and connect with you outside the school day. I share my life with you so that you'll know I care enough to be real. Sarcastic, self-deprecation is something I do best, partly because you appreciate a teacher who laughs at herself. If I don't take myself too seriously, you learn to laugh at your own mistakes and the ironies of life. In my class, it's okay for you to be different, to be independent, to be yourself. In my class, you can disagree with me if you can be polite and use reason. I'm willing to be wrong, willing to change my mind, willing to consider different perspectives - because I want all of this for you. Certainly, my class is no democracy, but you will be heard there. I'm aware that the big personalities can drown out the quieter among you, so I try to include everyone even when you'd rather disappear in the back of the room. I see you for who you could be. I am not an entertainer, but I do try to draw you in with personal stories and current events that make the literature relevant to your life. I laugh with you and tease you and encourage you and shame you and motivate you, most of the time all in a single day. I listen to your ideas, your dreams, your opinions and prompt you to set lofty goals for yourself. I give you second chances, and third chances, and twelfth chances. I allow you to be wrong in a safe place, to explore the big ideas of life, to consider what kind of future you want to create for yourself.
There are days when I have to drag you kicking and screaming through a piece of literature or into a grammar or composition concept. You complain and beg and try to bargain with me so that you don't have to do the work of learning. I hear how your fave teacher doesn't make you do something; I hear how you've worked hard and deserve a break; I hear how none of this will matter in the future; I hear how much you don't care and are sick of school. And yet, every day, I plug along toward an imaginary finish line because it's the right thing to do. I take my professional responsibilities seriously, but, more importantly, I take my duty to you seriously. Some days you argue with me, on others you passively resist by sleeping or talking or playing on your phones. Sometimes you hurt my feelings and mock me blatantly. Sometimes you curse me and challenge me and hate me. There are days when I'm the only one in the room with a clear vision of our goal and the motivation to get there. Have you ever tried to be excited about something for 30 people in a room? It's tough, but I realize that's just part of my role. At times, I question whether you are right, and if I'm the delusional one. Still, I believe in my responsibility as your teacher and move forward for all of us.
I make mistakes. Last week, I accidentally asked you test questions about two poems we hadn't read yet. Today, I stumbled over my words, tongue-tied, as I explained the background of a novel. Sometimes, I get emotional and am overcome by the importance of what I'm trying to do with you. Yes, I even get frustrated and impatient. When I make an error, you are quick to point out my shortcomings. You expect me to be perfect, yet I must accept my many imperfections publicly with grace and humility. I'm supposed to be caring yet objective, focused yet flexible, challenging yet reasonable. I struggle to stay relevant and motivated and reasonable and look constantly for ways to keep my approach fresh. My expectations of myself are much tougher than my expectations of you. True, I expect you to behave and participate and learn; I have lofty goals for you even when you don't have any for yourself.
Everywhere I turn, I am reminded that, as your teacher, I am not enough. Statistics say I'm not teaching you as much as kids in country X. Politicians say that I'm the problem and should be held to higher standards. Businessmen say that I am not teaching you the skills necessary for the workplace. Academia says you aren't prepared for college because I have failed you. Pearson says you aren't performing highly enough on the ACT. My administration tells me my expectations and standards must be incredibly high, but your parents tell me I expect too much. You tell me that nothing I'm teaching you really matters and that you'd much rather play on your phone than learn. The media tells me that your success depends almost entirely on my effectiveness. Popular culture tells me that I'm a societal cliche, a virtual oxymoron. Everywhere I turn, I hear that really anyone could teach; after all, it's not that hard. And I hear that I should be grateful that I have plenty of time off. Almost no one says thank you for choosing a career that matters. Almost no one tells me that he appreciates me. Almost no one tells me that he gets how amazing and how difficult my job is. Almost no one tells me that he was influenced positively by a teacher in his life. Almost no one treats me as a professional. Almost no one recognizes that student success is a joint effort: if the student does not care, the teacher cannot force him to learn. Almost no one offers solutions to the problems that plague our schools. Almost no one praises public education and the efforts of those involved.
I might not get much recognition, but I believe in what I'm doing. As your teacher, I expect big things from you. I'm always cheering for your success, often behind the scenes. I believe that you can do amazing things, and I'd like nothing more than to help you do them. I can't make you like me or my subject matter, but I can teach you the skills and concepts you need to be successful in college or the business world. I can't tell you what to think, but I can teach you how to think. I can't force you to care, but I can care about you. I can't make you learn, but I can offer you lots of opportunities and experiences to foster your learning. I am confident in my knowledge of my subject matter, but I thought my real skill, my real talent, lay in my relationships with students. Today, I learned that I was wrong. Were you mad at me? Frustrated by a test score? Having a hard day? Were you being funny? Playing a joke on me? Being sarcastic? Getting me back for some misdeed? Do you hate me that much? Or did you not recognize how much I'd take this all to heart? Were you sincere and sending me the message that I'm really not the teacher I thought I was?
Today really isn't that much different than any other in the last 21 years. I know the rhythm of my day before it even begins; today, I'll teach three novels, the Industrial Revolution, grammar, and composition. I can predict many of the problems I'll encounter, and I'll troubleshoot them as the day progresses. Unlike yesterday, I'll go to school today with a wounded heart. The other naysayers don't really matter, but you, my students, do matter. You don't believe in me. You don't appreciate my efforts. My confidence is shot. I'm disappointed beyond measure. I thought I was making a positive difference in your lives. I thought I was an effective teacher. I thought our relationships were strong. I thought you respected me. I thought you understood how much I really do care. I was wrong.