Category Archives: New School Year

The 1,995 Day Wait: Thoughts on Classroom Validation

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There is a quote on my classroom wall from one of my former students. Days before he graduated, fully pleased, he popped his head in my room and asked, “Hey, Mrs. G, remember in ninth grade when you told us who wasn’t going to make it, and they didn’t?” Chuckling, he sauntered off.

That reads harsh, doesn’t it? Teachers aren’t supposed to tell kids, “You are going to end up a dropout. You are going to end up in prison. You are going to end up at the alternative school.” Teachers are supposed to inspire, shove children up the mountain, past their drug-abusing mothers, absent fathers, and abject poverty. Teachers are expected to make silk purses out of sows’ ears–every day.

In my classroom, generally, I don’t do that. I point out the obvious: you, dear child, are currently a sow’s ear. And then I say: wouldn’t you rather be a silk purse? I see so much silk in you.

These children, these hulking man-boys and affection-starved girls, want someone to see the silk. They want it so badly.


Teaching, in the first days of the year, is like a protracted meet-the-in-laws Sunday brunch. You don’t really know them, but you hope you’ll like each other because life is going to be hard if you don’t. You have no knowledge of their backgrounds because veteran teachers don’t warn each other–after all, perhaps you are the one teacher who can reach Little Johnny, and, if you’re not, well, you don’t want to know how bad things might become.

I am in that stage where, after fifteen days with them, I am starting to know my kids.

I am seeing the silk.

There is so much silk this year.

We are drawing lines with one another, having touchstone conversations, revisiting what we are doing well and what is unacceptable. Learning each other.

Today, I explained that they needed to remember that their behavior impacts one another. And more importantly, their behavior impacts others’ education.

I looked at my solid, quiet child, the child whose future is so bright. Nineteen years ago, he would not have caught my eye. I would not have known, really, that he was even there–the “designated hitters” in the classroom, the loud, knowledgeable kids, would have masked him. But now, I know he is one of the most important kids in the room, unknowingly carrying the spark of a different future.

I told my kids, “Look, H—– has an education to get. He is very smart, and he’s got important things to do. I can’t let you affect that.

Then, I looked at H—–. I said, “Has anybody ever told you that before?”

He said no.

He has sat in classrooms for eleven years. 1,995 days. And he has never been told he is smart.

(I suppose a “God help us” would be dramatic, but I really feel this merits one: God, help us.)


In 1990, when I first began teaching, I was the only tenth grade ELA teacher in a small school in an impoverished town. I taught every sophomore, whether we gelled or not. There was no teacher down the hall to swap with. And in one class, on my first day, a helpful child raised his hand and announced, “It’s like they put all the rejects and bad kids in one room.” It was misery.

(At least five of the boys from that classroom have been–or are now–in jail; one outlier became a preacher.)

One sunny afternoon, my dynamo of a college professor, Dr. Patsy Griffin, came to the high school. As the students milled around outdoors, she looked at one boy, who was certainly neither a scholar nor an acolyte, and said, “Come here.”

I was uneasy. She was touching his elbow. She said to him, “Let me see your eyes.”

She commanded me to look into his eyes. I did.

“Look,” she crowed, “He has such smart eyes.”

Oh, how he beamed.

She murmured to him about his eyes. Asked about his grades. Said she was surprised they were so low when he was obviously so smart, what with those intelligent eyes.

She left quickly, but that sixteen-year-old boy was never the same. Three minutes changed him. He’d heard he was smart. Perhaps he, too, had waited 1,900+ days for a “professional” to notice.


In my classroom, I do not spread adjectives and affirmations like feel-good fairy dust. My classroom is not a place where the students are called Mr. and Miss and referred to as scholars. It’s not a warm and fuzzy place at all.

But I tell my kids things like, “You are going to be a Coca-Cola Scholar, and I’m going to hand you that check on stage.” “You are going to go to Agnes Scott. I can see you at an all girls school. You would thrive there.””I think you would be a good hospital administrator. You are good at bossing people around.”

When I say things like that, hands shoot up around the room–“What do you see ME as?” “What do you think I’ll do?” They are desperate to hear of respectable futures, of  jobs, marriages and kids. Houses and pets.

There are other children, too. Kids whom I quietly call up to my desk, where I open my second drawer and shove aside some boxes before pulling out a letter. It’s a three page letter from an imprisoned former student who was like a son to me.

I tell them, “I think you might need to read this. I don’t show this to everyone. But this boy, well–like you–he was like a son to me. He even went on vacations with us. Shared a hotel room. Carried my baby’s diaper bag through Busch Gardens. He was like my son.”

They quietly read the long letter. In it, T— laments not moving with us to North Georgia. He wonders what his life would have been like if he had listened. Made better decisions. He talks about his son he won’t see.

He writes and writes and writes. After all, he has twenty years.

They read every word. I show them his photo. I tuck the letter away, telling them I can write to them in prison or in college. That I will write to them either way.


15943011_10210599751202703_648721813_oToday, in a show of authority–because we are still in that early jockeying–I made the kids be fairly silent. Some students were forced to do a dreaded study guide, while others did group projects, and a handful read independently.

I’d chosen a five part LA Times feature for my smart boy to read on his phone. He sat in my chair in the front of the room, reading every word aloud to himself in a low murmur. He read until the bell.

He turned to me as he left, said, “I will finish this tonight.” Strode out with purpose.

Day 1,995: The day he finally became what he’s been all along: smart.

God, help us.

 

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Teachers Deserve Biscuits–and Respect

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I am a teacher. I know because I was given a Burger King biscuit today. And I got to wear jeans. And a link from ClassDojo popped up promising an inspirational video. And Google’s doodle of the day is related to teaching. It’s Teacher Appreciation Day, after all. A $1.29 biscuit, a cartoon crayon, and a three minute video should fill my empty tank right up.

I’m grateful for all these things. (I even had two biscuits.)

I live in the small town I grew up in. I was in the top five in my high school class in the late 1980s. The other four, all men, are now a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, and a retired Air Force officer. Me, I teach high school three miles from the one we attended, and I see two of the four men fairly often since their children attend our school.

These men are, by our community’s standards, well-off. They live in nice brick houses in desirable subdivisions and drive fairly new cars. They are not snobby or ostentatious. They are kind-hearted and are always genuinely glad to see me. The doctor has cared for my husband, a two-time cancer survivor, for over twelve years now. He is patient and thorough and calm, and my husband’s continued health is due in part to the excellent care this former classmate has given him. These men are great. Their success is not a problem at all.

The problem is this: when you read the sentence, “The five top graduates are now a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a teacher, and an Air Force officer,” you don’t want to be the teacher.

You don’t think, “Man, that must be some teacher.”

Your heart doesn’t immediately cry, “My son could become a teacher.”

You don’t instantly imagine the teacher’s nice car or nice house or–if we’re really being honest–nice anything.

Money and esteem, typical measures of American success, don’t apply to the teacher.

Money? I can’t earn more if I’m the best teacher in the school (I’m not). My students once were fourth in the state on a high-stakes test. My reward?  A certificate signed by the state school superintendent. Cashiers at Kohl’s earn fifty cents when a customer signs up for a credit card, but a teacher can’t expect something as gauche as money for being the fourth best in the entire state. I was recognized as a STAR teacher: a brilliant student who made a perfect score on the math portion of the SAT picked his English teacher as the most impactful educator he’d ever had. I got a padfolio, a pen, and lunch. 

I am, honestly, properly grateful for these awards. They’re more than many of my hard-working coworkers will ever see, and, really, I can do the noble teacher. I drive my 2004 Sienna and my teacher husband drives his 2000 Tacoma, and we don’t even THINK of newer cars. We live in a modest cinder block house in a good neighborhood. We’re happy enough. In our community, where the entire school system receives free breakfast and lunch, we see enough daily poverty to know to be seriously grateful for what we have. We appreciate our jobs’ benefits and our summers “off.” (We get up at 5:50 AM all school year. Do consider that.)

Esteem? A doctor can make you feel better, sometimes instantly. A lawyer can draw up legal documents and give sound advice. An engineer? Not only can he design bridges, but he can do hard math. And the Air Force? In a word: Jets. Of course these skilled people deserve societal esteem.

I can’t compete with jets. But I went sixteen years without a fight in my classroom.

I can’t do hard math. But I can talk a nervous teenage boy into telling his mother that she’s going to be a grandma.

Although I can’t draw up a legal document, I can give advice. I can talk to a cutter calmly. I can make an LGBT teen feel welcome and safe. I’ve helped suicidal and mentally ill kids reach out for counseling. After all my years in a public school classroom, there is little that startles me, and if I’m calm, my hurting kids usually are, too.

Certainly, I cannot give anyone medical help. But if a student needs to talk about the fact that Grandma died, I’m here. If she is struggling with a sick mom and an angry dad, I’m here. If a student writes about the pain of never having known his father, I’m here, and I’ll tell him the secret: a lot of his classmates haven’t met theirs, either.

I make students feel less alone every single day. I make the outside world seem welcoming and accessible. I remind them of college and scholarships and stable families–things that await them if they will just stay in school and relentlessly pursue the dream while perhaps living in a nightmare.

Why is this not esteemed? Our society is more impressed by a doctor’s ability to complete a two hour gallbladder removal than a teacher’s ability to keep thirty teens engaged and learning for the same two hours. We should recognize that classroom management is a skill set that is worth rewarding. The ability to unify very different students, to create lifelong bonds in just ninety days, to teach things like synecdoche while simultaneously competing with Snapchat–these are true talents. The men and women who possess these skills–the people that our children come home talking about day after day after day–merit something more than a Google doodle and a breakfast sandwich.

My younger daughter is a high school sophomore at the school where we teach. She is profoundly gifted; our older daughter, who is learning disabled, is a graduate of our school. Both girls shared three teachers, and now, discussing them at the kitchen table, their eyes shine as they chatter.”S—— is great!””E—— made learning fun–he was serious, but he joked around sometimes.” “H—– pretends to be mitochondria–it’s real great!” They laugh. These teachers were so much fun. They taught my very different daughters the same things: to be confident, hard-working learners. To be responsible. To dream and to pursue.

Teachers are the only professionals that children need in droves–for music and for math, for volleyball and Spanish. Every student usually has at least thirteen teachers, and perhaps as many as fifty-two. Children don’t need that many doctors or lawyers.

Students spend over 16,000 hours with teachers by their high school graduation. It’s astounding–years ago, my daughters knew nothing about medieval England, atomic mass, polynomials, or word processing. They have spent thousands of hours learning these and so many other things under the tutelage of professionals who wake up daily at dawn, who arrive at work early and stay late, who are inventive and compassionate and kind, who could make more money immediately in the private sector, but choose instead to help my daughters–and students like them–go forth.

I wish our society could see teachers’ skill, reward their merit, and esteem them for what they are: true professionals.

Societal respect–it’s the one thing that would always beat a biscuit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On The Teaching of Kids

Something you may already know about English teachers: we procrastinate. We let the stacks of journal entries and essay tests grow high. We clean our refrigerators, organize drawers, bathe our dogs—anything to avoid all that grading. Common Core Standards, with their heavy emphasis on writing, have made the grading load even heavier.  (I once heard a student, while writing his third extended response of the week, mutter, “I ain’t did a worksheet since seventh grade.”)

I must be feeling masochistic this year: my kids have already written one essay and several journal entries, with another essay test planned for Monday; the stack of papers is quite undeniably large. (Worry not: my Schoology account is now set up, and trees will soon be saved.) So, tonight, after securing my requisites–Cherry Sprite, green Uniball pen, calico cat—I am finally ready to grade. To start hearing their stories, these 77 students.

They have only been mine for 900 minutes. 15 hours. But, already, it is there, in their sloppy handwriting and their short sentences: a desire to be heard. They tell me stories of shooting doves: “I had equality with Papa, just for a minute”; of first bike rides: “I called my dad that morning, back when I still liked him”; of raising their own money for school pictures: “I started singing, and people from all over placed money in the cup beside me”; of their pride in being the first in the family to make it to high school: “. . . even though to everyone else, it may be a small accomplishment.” It is marvelous, this early unravelling, this fragile trust.

For over a decade, I have read everything from research papers on artificial insemination of cows to first person narratives about favorite relatives shot dead in the streets of Miami. My students write of kisses behind the skating rink, the keys to their first trucks, and the impending deaths of their beloved grandparents: I bear witness to it all.

Many people lament the bureaucratization of education. They yell about Common Core and testing and teacher evaluations that are based on pseudo-science. And, yes, it is all a bunch of malarkey.

But I would like to remind my fellow teachers to look behind the malarkey. Behind the pile of Pearson’s money, behind the computers, behind the bubble sheets—there they are: our students.

They are ours. We get to claim them. We get to say things in the teachers’ lounge like, “My students just started Antigone.” We can tell people in the grocery store, “My students are so sweet this year.” At the Friday night football game, we can brag, “That’s my student who just scored.”

We bear the power of possession. Pearson doesn’t.

We teach them the power of kindness. Textbooks don’t.

We write the kind words on their journals of heartbreak. Governors don’t.

Because of us, they will flourish. They will learn kindness and respect.

Yes, we will write commentary in the language of the standard, scrawling “Good use of precise language [CCSS ELA-LITERACY WH 9-102.D], ” like the state school superintendent wants us to. Far more importantly, we will write things like, “I can’t wait to take my picture with you on your graduation day. We will be cheesin’ on that football field.” Surrounding this, we will take a few seconds to draw sloppy smiley faces. From across the room, when students see our notes, they will smile at us, glimpsing our shared future.

That’s our payment. We are paid in smiles, in hugs, in high-fives, and in shouts across gymnasiums. Sometimes, we are thronged in grocery stores and malls like minor celebrities, causing our own children to grouse, “Why do they like you so much?”

The answer, of course is simple: we are people. Not computers, bubble sheets, or multimillion dollar companies. We are rarities: adults who still truly care.

As such, we still have some power. We can ooh and aah over a quiet student’s poem. On Mondays, we can remember and comment upon interceptions at Friday football games. We can take the time to hang up a student’s artwork or chat about colleges. We can sneak hungry students crackers and Sprite.

The executives at Pearson, the governors of every state, the computer programmers and slick salespeople all have one thing in common: they were all taught in classrooms like ours by people like us.

And since they have forgotten, let’s remember. Because somebody should.