Saturday, October 31, 2009


Last week, my student Javier was having a bad day. All morning, he wandered around the classroom, muttering under his breath, refusing to do what I asked. As a result, he ended up eating lunch alone in the classroom with me.

I sent his mom an email to let her know how his morning had been. I tried to ask him what was up, but he wouldn't tell me -- he just acted pissed. His mom wrote back and said, "If you have a chance, call me so I can talk to him."

Since we were alone at lunchtime, I called her and put him on. As I puttered around the classroom, he talked.

He put the phone to ear and said, "Hi, mom."

After listening for a second, he explained, "I didn't get enough sleep last night, so I'm really tired."

Another moment of listening, then: "Yes, but I was feeling frustrated."

As she answered, the mouthpiece of my cellphone dangled closer to his eyes than to his mouth.

"I don't feel like talking to you about that right now," he said in a low voice.

Another quiet moment.

"Yes, I understand what you're saying." His voice was calm and resigned.

I was amazed. I had never heard him talk this way before -- so measured, so clear, so self-aware.

"Javier," I said to him. "All morning you've been letting me know that you're having a hard day. You've been letting me know by not doing your work, by not following directions, and by stomping around the room. But I just heard you talk to your mom in a clearer, more mature way than most grown-ups know how to communicate. Now if you could just talk to me that way when you're having a bad day, we could figure out how to help make your day better."

So far, he hasn't been able to talk to me this way. But I know he has it in him.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lessons Learned

Over the past 8 years, I have learned many lessons about teaching. Specifically, I learned many lessons about how to make my job sustainable, so that I didn’t have regular mental breakdowns, or quit, so that I kept my cool in the classroom and didn’t cry on the way home. This year, I have had a much harder time holding on to these lessons. I have cried many days after school. Once, I had to turn the reins over to my assistant and leave the room to take deep breaths. I am working far, far too hard, as hard as I worked my first and second years of teaching. I can feel myself reaching the brink of sanity on a regular basis.

I have tried to get better at leaving work at a reasonable time. My goal is not to stay more than one hour after I am done teaching, and I have been more and more successful at that. I have tried to get regular exercise, with mixed results. But the other things I know, that I have to reclaim, have remained elusive. I am writing them down now in order to promise myself that I will re-dedicate myself to these things that I learned gradually, over many years of teaching, and that have kept me sane.

1. My students arrive in my classroom with a certain level of skills. I have no control over that level, over what they did or did not learn before getting to me. My job is to meet them at that starting place and move them forward, as far as I can. I can’t work magic; I can only do what I can do. They will make progress in my class. In fact, they will learn a lot. They may not get where they are supposed to be by the end of second grade, but that is because no one can make up for all that they have not learned yet, at least not in only one year of school. I can do what I can do, and that is all, and it has to be enough, even if we all wish it could be more.

2. If I don’t get all of my work done, or all of my lessons planned to perfection, it’s okay. If I’m not ready for something today, I’ll do it tomorrow.

3. I know how to be a regular education teacher, and I know how to be a special education teacher. Although they overlap greatly, they are two jobs. In one classroom, one adult can do one of those jobs. I can and do infuse my everyday teaching with what I know about special ed,, but I can’t do two jobs at the same time.

4. I can’t do other people’s work for them. Even if I think I can do it better than they can, I have to let them do it or I will resent them and overwork myself.

5. Sometimes, my response to stress is to try to do more, work harder, be more prepared, and control everything more. If I can do a little more strategic thinking and feel better, then great. But if I am working too long, until my brain is foggy, my eyes watering, and my nerves tightly wound, it’s counter-productive.

6. I have to let go of things being perfect in my classroom. This means I have to let other adults run activities and lessons their way, even if I think it would be better if I did it, so that I can have a break. I have to relinquish what happens in my room when I am not there, or with my class when I am not in charge. I don’t have time to worry about that which I cannot control.

7. Having fun is important. Even though my kids are so far behind, and I want to teach them so, so much, we need to play, and build with blocks, and sing, and dance, and be silly sometimes. (One point for me: I have instituted a painting / building / playing time at least twice a week in my classroom, as a time for us to enjoy each other and practice key social skills, and not go crazy from just doing academics all the time.)

8. Breathing is important. Exercising is important. Not working all the time is essential. Crying is good. It is also even better when you don’t need to cry so much. We’ll get there.

Monday, October 26, 2009


On top of the move and all the changes it has implied, from a more demanding schedule to a lonelier space to a lot of extra work, I am mourning my old class, and having a hard time adjusting to my new one. I had the joy of teaching the same 21 students for the past two years, from the time they were brand-new first graders until they were ready for 3rd grade. They were a group like few others. Sure, they made me want to tear my hair out on a regular basis, and yes, I am romanticizing them now. But oh, how I miss them. I miss how well we knew each other, how we could make each other laugh just with a glance, how we had so many shared stories. I miss how much autonomy I could give them, because they knew what I expected and were mature enough to do it. I miss the fact that, as I used to say, if you sliced some of them open right through the middle, you would find only goodness all the way to the very core.

This year’s class is a whole new ballgame. I have always hated the beginning of the school year, the part where you have to teach all the routines and your expectations and break them in. It makes me feel like a drill sergeant. Last year, it was with great joy that I realized that my students already knew all of that, and I already knew them, and their families felt like old friends. This year, it is back to the beginning, and more so. My students are a tough bunch. They are more like mid-first graders than second-graders, academically, socially, and emotionally. It is very lucky that I taught first grade for 7 years, because I am calling on all those skills this year.

I am teaching them how to line up – oh, how often I am teaching them how to line up. (Every day when it is time to line up, I sigh a deep sigh and give myself a pep talk.) I am teaching small lessons, most days, on how to be nice to your partner, how to solve conflicts, how to help your classmates remember the rules without shouting across the room, “Malik, STOP it!” or running to the teacher to announce, with a whine, “Kalia just hit me!” when all she did was bump you by mistake.

Not only that, but I am teaching lessons on what the short vowels are, tens and ones, and how to sound out very basic words, skills I did not have to teach in second grade last year. This makes me anxious as I think about what these students are supposed to be able to do by the end of this year.

We are making progress. Once in a while, I like one or two of these kids. Once in a while, we have fun as a class, or they are mesmerized by a story, or excited by geology. Not like last year – it is much harder to engage them in a lesson than it was with last year’s class. They are less academic. But they are getting better at learning, they are practicing kind words, and they are looking more like a cohesive group. I am good at this job, and I know what to do with a group like this. It feels good to be a pro, and to see my skills paying off.

Now, if only my heart were in it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


I am in mourning.

Over the past two weeks, this awareness has slowly arrived, the way the clouds steal across the sun until you look up and realize you are standing in a fog. I began this process of moving and expanding our school with a determination to make it work, to accept the additional strains and stresses, to take on additional leadership responsibilities, and to stay optimistic and cheerful in the name of The Work. (The Work, in this case, being our call to educate urban students not just with core academic skills, but also so they could grow up to fight for justice for themselves and others who have been left behind.)

I am not giving up on this work, or on my school and our students, of course. But I am allowing myself to mourn. In the process of realizing what I – what we – have lost, I am trying to remind myself of the things I have learned about teaching over the years, the things that have made my job at least somewhat sustainable and livable, and that I seem to have forgotten this year in this transition.

Here are the losses, the things I am missing so much that I can feel it in my stomach, the way you feel when you have lost what you thought was the love of your life.

We have left the small, sunny, colorful building where I learned to teach and worked for 8 years, longer than I have stayed in any one institution in my life. I miss the wood floors, the apple tree outside my classroom window, the crowded main office that was often too noisy, but where we all congregated to chat, laugh, and commiserate. I miss the open door to the principal’s office, where the Queen Mother would sit and we would hold meetings, trying to fit too many people around the table, or where I would lounge in the doorway, leaning against the door frame, telling her my favorite stories of the week or my worries about my students. I miss the creaky stairs, the musty closets, the storage rooms we turned into tiny offices.

Without a doubt, missing a space is mostly emblematic of other losses. We traded in our too-tiny, too-crowded building for a place as big as a city. It has wide, endless hallways, open, renovated classrooms, and an enormous gymnasium and auditorium and cafeteria. It takes about 15 minutes to walk from one side of the school to the other, and longer to find your way around it on the outside. The sun does not shine into my classroom. It is not (yet?) a building with a heart, a personality, a sense of who we are and how we fit together in this place.

Of course, it is beautiful in there. I have a bright new rug, instead of the dirt- and urine-stained one my students used to sit on; I have new furniture painted in blue, green, and purple; I have magnetic white boards, rainbow-colored hooks, and brand-new display boards for student work. When we first arrived, we were delighted with all of this. But now, all someone has to do is mention the front hallway of our old building, and I get a raw ache in my chest. Our old school was a home, a family, a place where it seemed that we all knew each other. Here, it is more like we work in an office building, or a hospital, with hundreds of people passing in the hallways, acknowledging each other perhaps with a nod.

It is not just that we are divided by space, that we don’t know many of the new staff members and students, or that the 4th grade is twelve minutes away from my classroom. It is also that our schedule is different. Our school day is longer now – instead of teaching from 9:30 to 4, with students in the building until 4:30, head teachers work from 8:30 until 3:15, and the students are still there until 4:30. It is a longer day of work for administration, it is a longer day of learning for kids, and it is an earlier start for teachers. I used to have 2 hours every morning, from 7:15 until 9:15, to get ready for the day. I loved those quiet mornings in my classroom, alone with a cup of tea. If someone stopped by, or we met at the copier, we might stand and chat for 10 minutes. I had time to think about my day, to reflect on yesterday, to enjoy the silence.

Now, if I arrive at 7:15, I have at most one hour to be ready for the day. I need to move more quickly through my morning routines at home in order to be there by then – no more leisurely mornings at the breakfast table with the paper. At school, teachers walk by each other on our way to the copiers, but we don’t stop to chat. I can’t possibly do all my work in that hour, so I stay at 3:15 to get ready for the next day, but my kids are still there. It is not a quiet or reflective time.

On Fridays, we used to have an hour and a half between early dismissal and staff meetings, when we would eat lunch and possibly have a meeting, but a relaxed, chatty meeting. Now, we have half an hour between when the last students leave and our meetings start, so we run around heating up lunches and making copies, then sit down to rush through the order of business so we can leave at 3 for the weekend we are all desperately needing.

The sense of kinship is, plainly, what I have mostly lost. I grew up as a teacher, suffered hardships, learned important lessons, and experienced great successes, in a small community of professionals, families, and students. It was far from a perfect place. But I don’t think any of us knew what it would mean to go from 350 students to 575, to go from 35 staff members to nearly 100. We are lonely. We are isolated. We miss each other, a lot.

The feeling of our school is vastly different. We may grow into this new space and schedule and size, we may make our way back into a feeling of common purpose and community, but it will take us awhile, I think. And meanwhile, those of us who made the move are sad, missing so many things, and wondering if this is where we want to be.