What to write in a rough patch

I’ve been having a bit of a rough go of it these past few weeks. I’m a teacher and it’s mid-October, so this is not really a surprise. But it does mean that I’m having trouble deciding what to write. I skipped posting last week in the hopes that sometime this week a post would magically appear. And one did – then another and another. Each day offers me another opportunity to catch a moment and pin it down. Still, I’m having trouble choosing: each one feels like I’m lying a little. Do I tell you how hard things feel right now? Do I talk about my students and our struggles? Or do I capture the ephemeral grace of a moment of connection? Where do I focus? The positive or the negative? Each day, each class period, each activity, each minute is full of ups and downs. Teaching is astonishingly emotional work. 

I try to count my blessings – I really do. My classes are small, my colleagues are supportive, my family is amazing. My students are doing their very best (even when it doesn’t look like they are). I have so much.

But sometimes counting my blessings feels like ignoring the complicated reality of my life. For example, I am overwhelmed by the literacy needs in my classroom and the trauma so many of my students have experienced in their lives. What happened to result in these children reading and writing at these levels? How is it that they have come this far and cannot visualize what they read? How is it that reading and writing are chores they do only when forced, things that are completely unrelated to their lives? At what point did we decide that these children – their unique thoughts, their singular purpose – were expendable? Because I’m pretty sure that someone gave up on them a long time ago. And it wasn’t their parents. How can I possibly convince them that they are important to our world when all I have are 90 days?

Can I be grateful for my colleagues and appreciative of the good will of those who run our school board while still being disappointed when our precious professional development time is sliced and diced into pre-chosen bits that don’t nourish our actual professional lives? Can I be a critical friend to my employer? Who do I ask for the support that we desperately need in order to become the educators our students deserve?  

Even outside of school things are complex. My family lifts me up, but I need space to talk about the complicated bits of my home life – like the four of us (plus the cats) living in a two-bedroom apartment for months while our home is being renovated. 

I know I will look back and laugh. I can even tell you some of the things I will laugh about because there is humour in all of this. I could tell you about the amusing conversation I had with a student about a book (let’s just say that he does NOT know what he’s reading), about the staff’s subtly terrible behaviour during an unproductive PD moment (we really are worse than our students), about how a sex worker buzzed our apartment door repeatedly last night because her client was not picking up. Sometimes laughter is all I’ve got.

But I’m so tired. I’m tired. And I guess that’s my slice of life right now.

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[Post-script, added by husband:  What Amanda has neglected to mention and which I view as highly relevant to this post is that, up until last week, she was taking four courses simultaneously.  She’s down to one, but it involved a super-human push. Picture the most recent incarnation of Wonder Woman, but with less armour and combat and more research and writing.  This, on top of all of the above. And still she’s there 100% for her students. I would tell you she’s amazing but she would be too shy to include it in her post.]  

Hats off

Somewhere in the middle of the assembly, I realized that I had become someone I didn’t want to be. I was fuming, so angry I couldn’t appreciate the talented students that I was supposedly watching. I had spent more minutes than I care to count glaring at the back of my students’ heads, wishing that there was some way I could get them in trouble.

Oh, I had every right to be angry: their behaviour was terrible. This was the first big assembly of the year – at our Arts School we have four talent shows each year – and I was responsible for bringing my class. In the precious moments before we were called down to the auditorium, I had quickly tried to review assembly etiquette: we sit together as a class, no hats, no catcalls or whistling, no phones, leave your bags in the classroom. The rules seemed so simple to me that I hadn’t even bothered to plan how to introduce them. I just sort of reeled them off. That’s when the trouble began.

Or, wait. The trouble had begun the day before. Thursday. That was the day that one of the students in this class had been at his worst – disruptive and angry, almost trying to get himself sent out. But I had expected this from him because… well, maybe the trouble had begun the day before. Wednesday. 

On Wednesday during reading time, I began using an informal version of Collaborative Problem Solving to talk with him about why he hadn’t been reading for the past week. I ignored the other students (all reading quietly!) and focused on him. Nine minutes and thirty seconds into our conversation, he said, “Why do you keep asking me questions? I feel like you know the answers already.” I assured him that I was asking the questions because I really had no idea what his answers might be. He asked if we could talk in the hall. There, much to my surprise, he opened up – briefly – about reading and school and how much he hates it all. At one point I thought I saw his eyes well up. He looked away and said he needed to get some water. He was quiet(er) for the rest of class.

We’ve been together for over a month now, so I knew what to expect next: Thursday’s angry outbursts were no surprise. Every breakthrough is followed by a day or two of bad behaviour. Which I guess means that this all started well before last week because he and I have been in this cycle since the second week of school. And from what I have gathered, he’s been in this cycle since, well, forever. He says he has never read a chapter book. His school records are full of drama and bad grades. It’s not a pretty picture.

In so many ways, then, Friday is on me. I thought he would have settled down, but he is nothing if not mercurial. Why on earth did I think I could just list off a bunch of rules and have him comply? Why didn’t it occur to me that I was asking him (and others) to do something hard? These assemblies are effectively theatre. Students sit for an hour and we ask them to adhere to social norms that may not be familiar. I didn’t introduce these ideas ahead of time. I didn’t  explain why we take off our hats or why we can’t use phones or whistle. I just said this is how it is and expected compliance.

In case you are wondering, he did not comply. He wore his hat. He tried – twice! – to sit with others in another part of the auditorium. He talked during every act. He used his phone. Worse, his behaviour and charisma were such that other students followed suit. My class, right in the middle front section of the auditorium, was terrible. (Moment of recognition: not all of them. Not even most of them. But enough to be noticeable. Plus, did I mention that I was angry?)

I know I know – my expectations were reasonable in many ways. If nothing else, we expect students to do what teachers ask. But, here’s the thing: I know better. I know these expectations are cultural. I know that some students need to understand the reasons behind rules. I know that our students are children who need to practice – and that an assembly is a great place to practice. And I tell the students that I value their engagement over their compliance, that I want them to ask questions, that we’re all here to learn. I also tell them that they are responsible for their own emotions. If I had really thought about this particular student’s needs, I would have realized that I needed to let this go. That the young women behind him who told him to be quiet were far more effective than I could ever be.

Instead, I was angry for most of the assembly. About a hat and some talking. That’s not what it felt like – I felt *very* justified – but that’s what it was. My emotions are on me. He just wanted to know the parameters and to have some control. He wasn’t angry. He had a great time. I think he actually enjoyed the show. 

On Monday he was his normal ebullient self – too loud, too active, too much. But he had forgiven me. And he will forgive me over and over if I can keep *seeing* him. By the end of the year, he probably won’t wear his hat to assemblies, especially if I remember that I am the kind of teacher who cares more about the student than the hat. Sometimes that is incredibly hard, but I can get better.

PS – Over the weekend I re-acquainted myself with strategies for dealing with ODD in the classroom. No diagnosis here, but I’m betting the strategies won’t hurt. Number one strategy? Don’t get into power struggles; ignore unwanted behaviour whenever you can. I’m on it.

 

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Exam

On Saturday, I took a three-hour exam to finish up one of my on-line courses. Since I only took this undergraduate composition course for credentialing purposes, I was quite literally 100% certain I would pass. I mean, I teach students mere months before they are supposed to be prepared to take this course. If can’t pass this course, my problems are bigger than a test.

Before I even began the exam, and despite all my preparation, there was a problem with my computer. Someone named JM showed up in a chat box and politely asked if he could take over my computer from a distance. I said yes, then sat and watched as my cursor moved around and things clicked on and off for over half an hour. JM worked it all out in the end, but I started my exam knowing I really am old because I found it all very disconcerting. And, even though I got the full time allotment, I started 45 minutes later than I had planned. This was problematic because a friend was watching my children for three hours – and now I needed four. But now I’d started my exam so I couldn’t use my phone… Oops. 

FOCUS!

Sometime during hour one, I began to wonder when I had last taken an actual exam. Grad school? Probably, but I don’t remember any exams then – mostly essays. Could it have been undergrad? Let’s not consider how many years ago that was. (It was a lot of years.) At any rate, I now remembered how little I like timed endeavours. I really don’t like them. I found myself checking the timer more often than was necessary. At one point my internal voice scolded me for editing when I should have been writing. I wondered how strict the word limits were. There was no one to ask.

FOCUS!

And let’s talk about the exam itself. I give exams every semester. I try to be completely transparent about what will be on the exam and to have the exam mimic classwork as nearly as I can. Nevertheless, my students are always stressed out. I tell them that I understand, but now I definitely get it because on Saturday, I was stressed. In three (short!) hours, I had to… 

  • Write an essay on a topic that I did not know ahead of time (structured but personal, thank heavens), 
  • Read an essay
    summarize it
    *and* write a rhetorical analysis
  • Identify a quote and explain how it fit into an essay I’d read during the class
  • Answer 20 grammar questions.

Thank goodness I remembered my personal time-use strategies: I headed straight for the grammar questions and worked backwards from there. Because I was at home and being proctored remotely (also weird), I drank tea the whole time I wrote, and then I had to ask permission to go to the bathroom – in my own home! 

When I got back from my bathroom break, I found myself assessing the exam: the multiple choice questions were ok but some gave away the answer. The essay provided on the exam was too old (2002 – so the statistics were seriously out of date) and had clearly been edited for length, meaning that it was a bit jumpy in places. I wondered if it was really fair to have students write a rhetorical analysis on an incomplete essay. Wouldn’t have been my choice, but length matters. The quote analysis was straightforward enough, but I was unconvinced that it effectively tested much beyond memory. But, hey, at least I had no complaints about the essay portion – except that I kind of liked what I was writing and wondered if there was a way I could save it…

FOCUS!

I finished that dang exam with three minutes to spare. Three minutes. And now I have to wait ten days for the grade. I’m lucky because I know I did well, but I have renewed empathy for my exam-hating students. Apparently exam-writing is a stressful experience no matter how well I am prepared. I have been comforting myself by thinking that it may have been my last exam ever. At least I hope so.

 

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Ask for help

Since day 1 she’s been glaring at me. By day 5 I work up the confidence to ask if something is wrong. “No,” she says casually, “I just have resting bitch face.” She’s 16. I laugh with her, but seconds later wish I had pushed back. I wish I had said, “No, not bitchy. You look sad, scared, wary and maybe just a little doubtful. You look like you and you are not a bitch.” But I didn’t.

Every day I say, “I need you to put your phone away.”
I say, “I know this is hard, but the phone is keeping you from doing your best thinking.”
I say, “Maybe you could create a 20 minute reading playlist so that you can read without touching your phone.”
She puts her phone away politely, but it always comes back out.

She has already failed English once. She does not like to read. She does not write. Still, when she wrote her goals in her notebook on Friday, the first one was “Read every day for the assigned time with no phone distraction.” She doesn’t say a thing about it, just hands me her notebook at the end of class, like she does every day.

We’ve read memoirs almost every day since school started. We’ve read poems and essays and picture books. We’ve looked at craft moves and done our own mini-writes. She doesn’t do much. “Resting bitch face” I remind myself when I look at her. I want so badly for her face to tell a different story.

Today we start 100-word memoirs. She checks her phone several times. She goes to the bathroom. Then she starts to write and does not stop until time is up. She shares a line with the class. As class ends, I ask students to write down one or two things they want to work on in their memoir tomorrow. She calls me over.

“I think it’s good the way it is,” she says. I feel my protest rising, then squash my first reaction. “Ok,” I say. We pause.

“Will you read it?” her eyes go down, her face turns away from me.

Her memoir is beautiful and powerful. She will edit it – we will edit it together – but her words, her story… it blows me away. I tell her so.

She says, “I want to enter that contest, the one about ‘One Strong Woman.'”
“Yes,” I say, “I think you should.”

In her notebook, her other goal is “actually ask for help.”

“I’ll help,” I say.

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Ready, again

Monday evening, 8:30pm

School starts tomorrow. Again.

Heaven knows I am not a new teacher. I’ve done this before. In fact, I’ve done this more than 20 times. Before that, I think I count at least 18 starts as a student. And I can add in the years my own children have started school.

I’m still nervous.

Today, I took a long walk with my husband, took another walk with my oldest child, chatted with a friend, read with my youngest, tidied the house. I went online to look up one little thing and ended up reading more than one article about the structure of The Scarlet Letter. I cannot explain how this happened. I don’t even teach The Scarlet Letter anymore.

But since I was online, I took the tiniest of peeks at my class lists. Again.

That done, I tried to read my book. No dice: I was way too distracted. So, I sewed. Doesn’t everyone make pencil cases the day before school starts? And since I was at it, I made *lined* pencil cases. Which I think we can all agree is a little on the ridiculous side. At least my children are happy.

Now, I’m on the computer. Again. Should I change my lesson plans? Nope. Have I missed something? Maybe. I think I should look up one more possible mentor text. But I won’t. I’m going to take a bath and try – again – to read that book.

I’ve chosen my outfit; my husband has packed my lunch. My bookbag waits by the door. The breakfast table is already set, just in case. The children are similarly prepared. I’m ready for another first day. I’m ready to meet the students. I’m ready to be in the classroom. I’m ready to talk about books, to write, to struggle through the hard parts and celebrate the successes.

I’m ready to fall head over heels for a group of young people I don’t even know yet. Again.

 

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Overwhelm, sliced into snippets

Day 1 of a three-day Kittle & Gallagher workshop

  • I head to the workshop as excited as a child on her way to her first day of school. My mother-in-law has loaned me a backpack, and I love its compartments and the way it hangs from my shoulders. I follow the map, nervously checking that I don’t make any wrong turns. I even take my own picture. When I arrive, I look for my friends. We hug. I laugh and think that I really am like a schoolgirl. They have saved me a seat.

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    Look at that backpack!
  • I don’t know everyone at my table equally well. I am nervous. I talk too much. I wish I had talked less, but there it is. You can’t take the words back.
  • I love the information that Kittle and Gallagher share. I love their philosophy. These are my teaching heroes. I sit half-twisted towards them on my conference-room chair, and I hover between listening and writing. I want to drink it in and to remember everything.
  • 180 teacher participants open their notebooks and write. If you listen, you can hear the pens move against the paper. I love being in a room of writers. I love the first quickwrite topic, too. We write again. I’m not as good at this one. I start to feel doubtful. “This is how your students feel,” I tell myself sternly. Inside my head schoolgirl me retorts, “Well, I don’t like it.” We revise. We write again. Better. We revise again. I’ve got this.
  • When we share ideas at our table, I can hear myself sounding confident. “I’ve tried this,” I say. “This works,” I say. “Have you considered this,” I say. Then suddenly, I am not confident; I’m worried. I need to be more questioning. I need to talk more about my weaknesses. I am talking too much. I’m not listening enough. I should be more critical of my teaching practice. Except that I *am* critical of my teaching. Wait, I’m too critical. My head spins. Lunch is announced. I heave a sigh of relief. Food will help.
  • The workshop slides include lists. So many lists. So many things to question. So many things I need to do better. So many things to consider. I feel like I’m just keeping up when, suddenly, Penny is sharing books her students love. I read all the time. I read so so much. I have not read most of these books. How will I ever read them? I write down all the titles but a part of me begins to despair. I need to read these books. I need to do better at writer’s notebooks. I need to keep a beautiful words log. I need to write every day. I don’t know if I can do this.
  • The day is over. The seven of us from our school board stay around our table, talking about the things we’ve just learned. Our voices overlap with ideas and questions. We are full of self-doubt and a sense of wonder and hope. The colleague I know least well offers me a ride home. I accept gratefully. No exhausted walk home from the first day of school for this school child. I need all of my brain power to process the day.
  • My mother-in-law has dinner for me. Afterwards, we take her beautiful golden impulsive Standard Poodle for a walk along the waterfront. University students still crowd the beach. Small children dart away from their parents. Mothers push strollers while toddlers trail behind. A tandem bike startles us. A family cleans up the ends of a picnic. The temperature is perfect and the low evening sunlight promises a beautiful evening.

 

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Enough

Today is the last day of classes. In 20 minutes the bell will ring, some wild song will play over the PA system, and students will flood the hallway. Right now I’m sitting in the Spec Ed room – nearly empty except for two students who are working right up to the end – and I’m feeling… conflicted.

I’m thinking about the weeks before I left for college – so long ago, now – when my mother and I fought and fought. In the middle of one particularly loud fight, she screamed, “There’s so much more I need to teach you!” and I screamed back, “You’ve had enough time! I’m ready to go already! I know enough!” With the truth suddenly naked in the middle of our argument, we stopped fighting and cried. We didn’t fight again before I left.

We were both right, of course: I had so much more to learn, and I was ready to go.

The end of the school year often feels like that to me. I want to hold on to my students; I have so much more to teach them. There’s more writing, more reading, more that they need. I’ve only just figured out how they fit together. I can imagine one more unit that they might love. And I worry, too: What if they’re not ready for their next teacher or for university? What if it’s not enough?

But it is enough. It has to be. They’re already ready to go. They know what they know and it’s time to move forward.

The bell rings, the music plays and out they stream into the hallway. A few pop into the room. One more hug. One more high five. One more head pokes through the doorway, “Goodbye, Miss! See you in September!”

Exams start tomorrow. Now it’s all on them. They are confident that they are ready for whatever comes their way.

I sit for a few heartbeats more – emptied out by another semester, reminding myself that this is enough.

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