A Mile In Whose Shoes?

This afternoon, I walked a mile around the kitchen island. I was on the phone with a student, having a one-on-one discussion after a tough “public” discussion at the end of class. I wanted to really listen to the student, to hear the thoughts behind their words, because I had the sense that I was missing their deeper truth.

During those last minutes of class, I heard this young person complaining about “too much emphasis” on “Black issues” and “victims” in our English class. I heard their desire to stop talking about Black Lives Matter and to get politics out of the classroom. I heard this, but I had trouble hearing these things. Their concerns were hard for me.

As we talked – me with my camera on, the student with their camera off; me in my house, the student in theirs; each of us deeply and personally involved – other students came back into the main room and started listening. People stayed long after class had officially ended. This conversation mattered.

What does a teacher do when a student is questioning her? More importantly for this blog, what do I do? I was trying to listen, but I was aware that I was feeling defensive. Online teaching is exhausting. Online teaching when I had planned to be face-to-face is worse. Online teaching that I wasn’t expecting that is offered a different number of hours and days than I had planned for is nearly killing me. I am doing the best that I can, and it’s pretty good, but even pretty good is taking every bit of me. I believe that my students should ask me hard questions about what and how I teach, but I realized that it’s hard for me to listen well when I am tamping down emotions.

My students this term are largely 17 or 18 years old. They are thoughtful and well-spoken. They are reflective and desire to do good things in the world. Most of them are reasonably well-versed in current events. Ten days ago, we spent the full class period discussing the attack on the US Capitol. It was easy for my students to condemn the attack, but I was left wondering how many truly understood that the problem wasn’t solely with the individual people who attacked but also with the rhetoric that brought them to that point. If we believe that rhetoric and systems were the problem in addition to individuals, then we have to acknowledge that we, too, might fall prey to ill-considered ideas.

At any rate, as our class was ending today, the student who was questioning our studies was struggling for words. I know them to be an excellent student, an deep reader, an eloquent writer. I know they hold strong religious beliefs and they feel somewhat isolated from peers for that reason. I tried to keep all of this in my heart as I listened, but I struggled. How do I listen deeply to this student and honour others who are listening, some of whom have experienced racism first-hand?

I thought about Matthew Kay’s book Not Light, But Fire and its lessons for leading meaningful race conversations in the classroom. I thought about holding space and about helping white people recognize their own racialized existence. I knew I needed to be clear about what is fact and what is my opinion; I knew I needed to be humble; I knew I needed to be involved.

But y’all, I was tired. 20 minutes after class had officially ended, after what had stretched into two hours and fifteen minutes (yikes), I called it – I ended the discussion and closed the room. Had I been even-handed? Had I prevented others from casting one student as the villain? Had I heard the student’s beliefs? Had I been forthright in my own beliefs? I wasn’t sure.

And then the student’s parent called.

Before I called back, I ate some lunch and talked to a wonderful colleague who helped me find some words and work through some reactions. When I called I was able to speak honestly. The parent was curious, I was clear; I am not sure that we came to agreement, but we certainly were not at odds. I suggested that I could speak to the child at the end of the school day.

The student and I spoke for a long time. I walked. And I listened. I listened to understand, not respond. I sat in my discomfort. I asked, curious, “Can you explain what you mean?” and “Can you tell me more?” My student, ever interested in learning, asked me similar questions, trying to understand what I meant. I am not sure yet that I know the students’ deeper concerns, but I am closer, just as they are closer to articulating their thinking. I suspect there may be more uncomfortable conversations. And that’s ok. Because learning is about asking and thinking, asking and thinking. As long as the dialogue continues, we are learning.

Later, another colleague checked in. She offered some sage advice: it’s ok to tell your class that you need time to think about how to respond to this. It’s ok to go back and tell them your “why” again. I suspect I will do both of these things tomorrow. I will remind them that reading text – any text – critically may leave us with unanswered questions, and that’s ok, too.

Hmmm.

I can’t say I walked a mile in anyone else’s shoes today, but I can say I walked a mile in mine. I walked and I walked around the kitchen island, listening, speaking and reflecting. This, I think, is the work of anti-racism. This, I think, is the work of learning. This, I think, is the work.

Ask

It’s January, so lots of people – or at least lots of teachers – or at least lots of teachers I know – are considering their One Little Word for the year. The idea here is that we choose one word as a focus for the year – kind of like a New Year’s Resolution.

For the past two years, my word has been listen. I’ve been having a hard time letting it go because I’m not convinced I’m very good at it yet. Every time I think I’ve got listening down, I realize that my brain is talking over other people again and I have to try again. Also, listening seems wildly important to teaching (and, of course, to life). Pretty much every step I’ve taken in teaching has come from listening. I like listen. It’s a good little word. I considered making the whole thing moot by “not choosing” a word and secretly holding on to listen. We won’t discuss the fact that pretty much no one besides me knows or cares about my word and I can’t exactly hide my perfidy from myself. Sigh.

Then, over at The Librarian’s Journey, Beth Lyons suggested we could try one word x 12 – a word a month for a year. Clearly I was addled by the thought of converting my entire class plans to online teaching because I thought this was the perfect solution. Had I paused (hmmm… there’s a word) I would have realized that this means having to choose a focus word TWELVE times. I did not pause. I told Beth & a few others I was in. Impulsive. There’s another word. Still, I like the idea of setting an intention each month. Over the course of a year, I sometimes get distracted – which may be why I still need to work on listening.

Beth took things down a notch by admitting that last year she often found herself choosing her little word somewhere in the middle of the month. This practice is both calming and intriguing: it allows me to choose a word that is aspirational – I’d like to focus on this for a while – and definitional – this is what this month is shaping up to be. It also recognizes that I am both a procrastinator (I’m writing this waaaay too late at night) and an observer. I decided to give myself a few days to consider what word might fit for January.

Last night I was up late trying to prepare myself for a week of teaching from home while both of my children have online classes and my partner works from home. I was feeling frantic and a little hopeless. I know that one way to quell this emotion is gratitude so, on the spur of the moment, I decided to write to several of the authors of the books my students are reading. Many of them might be surprised to find out that their novel is being studied in a high school book club and, for the most part, my students are loving their choices. I wanted to tell the authors that their work was making this moment a little more bearable. I wanted them to know that their work matters.

So I wrote. I put in a little effort, aiming for a tone that was light but sincere and adding some specific details for each author. I wrote about moving to online instruction – how hard it is, how my students are a little down and, almost as an afterthought, really as part of my attempt to find some upsides to where we are, I invited each author to come to our class for a few minutes if they wanted. I may have said “pop in.” I even decided to throw caution to the wind and write to some of the bigger names – doesn’t everyone benefit from a compliment? My students really do like their books. And then, one by one, I hit send. I felt a little silly afterwards, but whatever; it was done.

Y’all – one of the most well-known award-winning authors wrote back 20 minutes later and said, basically, “Thanks for the great email. I don’t usually do this, but I’d be happy to stop in.” There are some caveats – this is just for my class & will be entirely student-led – and I’m not going to share who it is because I think this kind of a private little thing, but the author is going to join our Google Meet next week – for an hour! I’m nearly giddy with excitement, as are the students who have read the novel. The rest of them are preparing by reading articles and essays. I honestly think we’re going to have a great time.

This morning, I realized that I’d found January’s word: ask. I like it. When I was growing up, my mother often said “it can’t hurt to ask” and “if you don’t ask, you don’t get” but I can’t say that I always followed her advice. So this will remind me to ask for what I want rather than assuming that I already know the answer. In the virtual classroom, I know that intentionally asking the students how things are going, what they need, what they are learning is part of what makes online learning work, so ask is a good word there. And, I have to admit, ask is pretty closely related to listen – after all, asking ideally implies that you will listen to the response – so I get to ease myself into my new little word.

I can’t wait to see how ask will show up this month.

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Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for hosting the Slice of Life blog challenge every Tuesday.

Writing in front of them

When I teach memoir, I like to model my process for my students. For me – and often for them – one of the trickiest part of writing a personal narrative is coming up with the right story, so we often begin with a list of prompts from the New York Times Learning Network . The students and I all respond to these as quickly as we can, skipping anything that doesn’t call up a memory. My students do this in their notebooks; I do it on the board (or screen):

A time I took a risk:
A time I learned something about myself:
A memory from childhood I think about often:
Something that happened to me that still makes me laugh:
Something very few people know about me:
Something I regret:
A time when I felt rejected:
Something I am really proud of:
Something that changed the way I think or look at the world:
How I am different from most people I know:
Some of my fears:
A time I felt truly satisfied:
A time I failed at something:
An object I own that tells a lot about me:

Because I want to model the process from the beginning, I like to come in without preconceived ideas for my list. I’ve been teaching for long enough that I can typically self-censor my stories on a dime – and I tell my students that I’m doing this because I assume they may also have things they wish to keep private. Still, sometimes I surprise myself. Like Wednesday, when, without warning, I wrote “not kissing Torin” next to “something I regret.”

I almost erased it, but some of the students were watching and I didn’t want to draw attention to it. I looked at it again, added the world “don’t” in front of “regret” and brainstormed a few more ideas. No teacher in the universe will be surprised to learn that, when I asked which prompt I should flesh into an essay, the students chose the one about kissing.

So there I was, writing in front of my students about not kissing someone in a bar in Prague almost 30 years ago – which, I suppose, is slightly better than writing about kissing someone in a bar in Prague almost 30 years ago.

I started off a little embarrassed, and I rapidly became very embarrassed. Should I tell them that my friends and I went to an apartment with a man who was standing on the quai as we pulled into the station? Our guidebook said that was a great way to get a deal. Do I tell them about the Russian champagne? Maybe leave that out. I felt obligated to say that my friends were also at the pub that night, dancing and… maybe I shouldn’t mention that Torin was Swedish & very handsome? Dear Heaven *how* did I end up writing about this in front of my students? Why didn’t they choose the nice necklace story from Ireland? or even the time I wrongly accused a student of cheating?

Flustered, I stopped. I was red enough that I probably didn’t need to acknowledge my awkward situation, but I did. “This is not what I expected to be writing about. I’m feeling a little uncomfortable.” I hesitated, “I guess the real question is: why, nearly 30 years later, does this memory stick? What is the point of writing this in an essay?”

That’s when the real work began. “It was my junior year abroad,” I told them. They nodded – as if they know! – and I fumbled forward, “I had a boyfriend in France.” Some eyebrows raised; I was not making this any less awkward and awful. “Maybe I remember this moment because I consciously decided to be loyal?” I wrote that on the board. The 17-year-olds looked unconvinced. They weren’t wrong. “I mean, no one would have known,” I added lamely. No response from my audience. Remind me again why I’m doing this in public?

I stumbled along, writing and thinking aloud, searching for the reason that this particular night stands out for me. My students watched, interested. Finally I hit upon something that felt true, “It was like summer camp inside of summer camp – Spring Break during my junior year abroad – and if I had done this, if I had kissed him, no one would have known or cared – except me. I would have known, and I would have cared. I think maybe that was a moment where I realized how much we are responsible for our own lives, our own values.” I started to scribble – arrows here & there, numbers. This is how I might organize this essay; this is how the details might fall into place.

Moments later my students were hard at work. Despite the fact that school right now is less than ideal, I saw them thinking, writing, sharing with each other. Relieved, my face slowly settling back to its normal colour, I sat down at my computer and considered whether or not this essay was worth actually figuring out. Maybe later, I decided, my embarrassment still too fresh to allow for real focus.

And maybe I’m imagining things, but the essays that particular cohort handed in at the end of the week seemed especially honest. Several of them pulled at my heart. None of them were about kissing or not kissing strangers in bars. Thank heaven.

Many thanks to https://twowritingteachers.org for hosting the weekly Slice of Life.

Is this graded?

“So, um, Miss? I’m just having a little trouble understanding what we’re supposed to do. Is this graded?”

My jaw muscles tense, and I immediately loosen my posture in an attempt to disguise my frustration. I’m about to launch into my “it’s all graded” monologue, when I take a breath. Pause, I tell myself, Listen. We’re only on Day 3 of 22. We barely know each other. 

I’m standing in front of some students; others are watching me online. What are they really asking? They are confused. They want to do well. They want to manage their time and their workload. This question – this common, annoying, awful question – is not a sign that things aren’t going well. It’s just a question. It’s communication.

I launch into my monologue anyway. After all these years, the response track in my mind appears to be stuck in a rut. I try not to go on.

Afterwards, when the kids at home have signed off and the ones at school have gone home, I close my laptop and allow myself to slump in my chair. “Is this graded?”

I can’t even remember all of their names. I probably won’t recognize them on the street next year if – when – we are done with masks. Semesters have become quadmesters, and every day of class feels fleeting and precious. Though we are supposed to deliver only the basics of the curriculum, there is still so much I want for these students. 

I want them to find joy in reading and writing, to remember what it feels like to create, to know that they can affect the world around them, that they *must* affect the world around them. I want them to take risks and to speak loudly. I want them to ask questions and reject the answers. I want them to be curious and to love learning. I want them to know that they are important. I have 18 days left.

Is this graded? Yes. No. I don’t know how to answer. It’s not graded, but it still counts. It’s all graded, but the grades don’t matter. They really don’t. 

I whisper into the classroom, “What matters is you” and I hope that the echoes of that answer will linger until the students return tomorrow.

Back to class

The night before, I chose my clothes, portioned out my lunch and packed my bags. As I left the house, I double checked everything. I headed out early, earlier than almost any other day this school year. My children, knowing how I felt, wished me good luck as I left.

At school, I pulled books out of the book room and speakers out of drawers; everything went into the classroom. I gathered blackout poems and other decorations from last semester’s classroom and brought them into this quadmester’s room. I washed the blackboard and found my coloured chalk. I waited. Nervous? Excited? Yes.

The bell. And then the students. Slowly, masked and distanced, they arrived. Well, half of them. The other half were at home – but no matter! After months of teaching from home, after a quadmester of teaching Spec Ed (which has its own pleasures, but which is very different from classroom teaching), I was in a room with students, and we were about to start an English class.

We wrote. We read a poem. We talked about it and about ourselves. And, like every single year, like every single class, they blew me away with what they saw, what they said, who they are. Sure, I made mistakes – I talked too much (such a weakness), some students couldn’t find the meet link, my written instructions were too long – and for sure the hybrid portion of the day felt odd. “Can you hear me?” I asked the screen of avatars. The screen said yes.

I know it’s a pandemic & I know this will be exhausting & I know things will probably go sideways (and backwards & upside down) But for now, I’m back in the classroom – the chaotically hybrid pandemic classroom, but the classroom nevertheless – and I am happy.

Studying

My older child is walking around and around the kitchen island, muttering under his breath in French. I am sitting at the island, trying to write. Without missing a stride, he switches to English, “I think I remember better when I walk while I say it out loud.” Then he’s right back to “carnivore: qui se nourrit de chair…”

He has a test tomorrow. If you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s been studying for DAYS. If you ask me, he’s put in a few good sets of maybe ten minutes here and there. If you ask him, there is SO MUCH to remember that it is nearly IMPOSSIBLE. If you ask me, he would find it a lot easier to learn about ecosystems if he made some attempt to see them as, well, systems rather than a series of definitions to memorize.

I have pointed out that I know quite a bit about study strategies. I’ve offered some direction based on research in cognitive psychology. (FYI: The Learning Scientists have excellent resources for this.) I’ve talked about how we remember things better in context. I’ve suggested that drawing the cycles might make them more memorable. I’ve even remarked in passing that I am quite literally a Special Education teacher who helps students learn better.

I am, nevertheless, still his mom, and moms of 7th graders don’t know much. He is determined to memorize every last word on every sheet of paper.

At last he agrees that I can quiz him. I’ve explained how our brains need practice retrieving the information, not just putting it in there, and that, at least, he understands. “It’s like smoothing down a path for the ideas to get back out,” I said. I think he liked the metaphor. And when he runs into trouble remembering “Les 5 Besoins Fondamentaux” (the 5 Fundamental Needs), I tell him a little story about the racoon who lives in the tree in our backyard. At the end he says, “yeah, that makes sense. That makes it easier to remember,” then he gives me a sly look before he says, “you’re actually a pretty good teacher.”

I ruffle his hair and smile, “I’m glad it helped.” I don’t tell him that the name of that strategy is “concrete examples.” And I bite my tongue as he goes back to muttering under his breath. “décomposeur: défait des plantes et les animaux morts.”

Maybe next year.

Tritina: Fall

The more I become a teacher who writes, the more I realize how important writing is to my teaching. When I started this blog, writing expanded my ability to reflect on my teaching practice. When I wrote, I saw details more clearly. What had once been fuzzy, partly-formed thoughts or observations became more firmly fixed. I still held my ideas gently because I wanted room to grow and change, but they became more clear – kind of like dew on a spider web.

Next, writing (and especially publishing) forced me to confront the complexity of what I was asking my students to do. For the first while after I started sharing my writing, I continued to assign mostly analytical essays, but the more I wrote, the more I realized the importance of practice, of revision, and of voice. Obviously I *knew* all of those things, but I hadn’t lived them for a while. The more I wrote, the more I realized how much more space I needed to offer my students in their own writing lives. These days we write all kinds of things and I strive to offer assignments rooted in purpose and audience.

Recently, I’ve been trying my hand at poetry. For me, this feels like the ultimate writing challenge. I mean, sure, I can write a good email and tell a good story, but POETRY? That’s for *real* writers. Like any good English teacher, I have poems I love, but secretly I’ll tell you that I find some completely confounding. And yet… I teach poetry, and I *want* to teach poetry. My blogging buddy Glenda Funke said once (in a comment? a message? I can’t find it, but I remember it) that writing poetry really helped her understand it and teach it. I believed her, but I wasn’t ready to do it. And then… well, I’ve been messing around with it during the pandemic, using poetry to let myself play, let myself write badly, let myself get frustrated and work it out. I start things and abandon them, then come creeping back. I hack away at it, and I have to admit that it’s kind of fun. So, in honour of my students, who regularly share with me work that they hate, that’s half-finished, that’s outside of their comfort zone, who turn in word after word, line after line, paragraph after paragraph , I’m going to write and share poems. (Not every week – don’t get excited.)

Today, inspired (as I often am) by Ethical ELA’s monthly Open Write, I have tried a Tritina.

Fall

Mid-October and still no killing frost.
The tomatoes still strive towards red,
heedless of the Fall.

Around the vine, leaves fall
As the trees, preparing for the inevitable frost
shed yellow, orange, gold, red.

Earlier and earlier every evening the red
sun descends toward the horizon, its fall
portending what is to come: frost.

Nightly, I beg the frost to allow one more shimmer of red before white death falls.

Thank you to https://twowritingteachers.org/ for hosting this weekly blog share

The man in the bushes

I had just turned the corner off of my street when I heard the cries. I was listening to an audiobook, so it took me a moment to get oriented: What, exactly, was I hearing? Where were the cries coming from? I looked around, confused, and only then thought to take out my earbuds. 

I could still hear the cries – they weren’t from my book – but as near as I could tell, I was alone on the street. The cries again, now with yelling. Words like “hospital” and “neck.” My heart raced; I pulled out my phone as I looked around. There! There – in the bushes, well-concealed in the branches and fallen leaves – a man. He lay on the ground, moaning, crying, screaming.

I walked towards him, “Are you ok?” He was obviously not ok. He was dirty and I could smell him even from a distance. He was thrashing and moaning and the words I could make out were words of fear and pain. “Are you ok?” I called again, but I was already dialing 911. “Don’t rob me!” he screamed.

“Police, fire or emergency?” The voice on the other end of the line was all efficiency. I hesitated, stumbled over my words, “Um… I’m not sure. There’s a man. He’s on the ground. He’s in the bushes. He’s not okay. He needs help. He’s screaming and talking about his neck and a hospital.”

The operator took my location, a description, my name. He informed me that “someone” was on their way. He told me I did not have to remain at the scene and that I should not go near the person. 

I assured him that I had no intention of going near the man on the ground. The man in the bushes. The dirty, smelly, hurting, crying person. I looked around – it would be easy to miss this man, hidden as he was; it would be easy to drive by, not see him and keep going – I told the operator that I would stay where I was until someone arrived. “He needs help,” I repeated, and we hung up.

When I was 16, my great-grandmother fell down the stairs and my father called 911. We  waited and waited for the ambulance to arrive at our suburban home. Years later, I called 911 when my sister cut herself badly and then fainted. Again, the interminable wait for the EMT. Now, I waited again, pacing the sidewalk near a stranger. 

The man in the bushes settled down. He moaned occasionally, but he was no longer screaming or crying out. By now I realized that he likely did not have a home and that he probably wasn’t sober. By now I knew that it was simple chance that I had heard him over my story. By now I knew that no one else was going to stop for him. 

When I was pregnant with my first child, I got a call at my work: my brother-in-law was in the hospital. Someone had found him on the sidewalk the night before, his head bloody, his mind confused. It was late winter and he, ever hot-blooded, wasn’t dressed warmly. The person who found him might well have walked by – just another drunk kid who’d partied too much – but they didn’t. It turned out that a new medication had caused him to black out; he couldn’t even remember why he’d left the house. When he fell, he cut his head, but the passerby had no way of knowing that. By morning D’Arcy was coherent, remembered where I worked, remembered that I was pregnant, warned the nurse to start by telling me that he was fine so that I wouldn’t be upset.

Now,I paced the sidewalk, occasionally glancing through the brush, checking that the man was calm-ish. After ten minutes, I stopped pacing and sat down on the curb. I texted my friends to tell them what was happening. “I just feel like no one should be left alone like this.” They offered to come wait with me.

Time dragged by. Ah! There was a police car! But surely I should be looking for an ambulance? The car turned down the street, driving away from me, from us. I guessed that maybe it was in the neighbourhood for something else. Moments later, another police car passed right by me, even as I stood up and waved. I started to get frustrated. A minute later both cars came back around the block and this time I waved them down. Sure enough, they were responding to my call. 

As the two officers got out of their cars, I tried to explain quickly. “He’s over here. He’s calmer now, but he was quite agitated.” I imagine that they looked like the veteran teacher who knows what to expect from a student almost instantaneously, even as she tries to give the child the benefit of the doubt. In my mind, they looked like people with a job to do, people who would be as thorough and compassionate as they could. I realize that they looked the way I expected them to.

My eyes moved between the man lying in the bushes and the two men in front of me. I wondered why the dispatcher had sent police instead of an ambulance. I wondered what I would have done if the man in the bushes were Black or Indigenous. I realized that I would stay. I wondered if I should stay, given that the man was White. I wondered what it would mean to the officers if I stayed to watch, if I pulled out my phone to film. I wondered what had happened that a man was lying in the bushes, moaning and crying, that the response was the police.

I looked directly at one of the men in front of me and said, ‘I’m sure you see this all the time, but he deserves help, too.” He met my eye and nodded. I would like to believe I held his gaze long enough that my plea became a moral imperative. Then I left, though I no longer knew which of my choices had been the right ones. 

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Finding my joy

“Listen,” I say softly, “there are a lot of things that you can’t control right now, but there are also a lot that you CAN control. I need you to focus on what *you* can control.”

I’d swear I can hear this child nod. We pause, silent for a moment, letting this idea settle.

“Let’s make a list,” I say. “I’ll start. You can control when you take breaks. Are you taking breaks?”
“Um. Yeah, I guess.”
“So let’s start with that.”

We talk for over half an hour. I cradle the receiver to my ear and help one child take back a sense of agency, a sense that they are capable of learning even in a system that seems designed to take advantage of every weakness inherent in their learning disability. I hang up, exhausted but content. I know that the problems aren’t actually fixed – both parents and teachers are spiralling as they try to figure out how to help – but I also know that I’ve helped give this kid a little shelter from the storm. Hopefully this will be enough to allow him to find his footing, remember his strengths, and forge ahead.

This is the Special Education work I want to do. This is the work I’ve been missing at the beginning of this pandemic-infused school year. Lately, I’ve found myself remembering the words of my Spec Ed mentor from years ago: The kids always come first. The system will tell you that the paperwork comes first, but it’s wrong. Miss every deadline you need to in order to support the kids.

The last few weeks have exhausted me. I thought I was embodying my mentor’s words, but I’ve realized that, in fact, given the restrictions on seeing students and the system’s insatiable need for accountability, I have actually been putting paperwork first. Most of my phone calls have been about IEPs, not about helping. Oh, I thought I was asking about the kids, but I was actually working through a list, making sure I had checked all the boxes. I’m embarrassed to realize it, but the kids were coming second, the myriad phone calls really in service of a form.

What’s important to me are relationships and people. What’s important is listening, believing and creating space for growth. If I am going to thrive in this moment, I am going to have to find my joy – because my joy is what allows me to reach out, is what allows me to support, to help, to encourage.

I lean away from the phone and find solace in my lonely office, away from the colleagues and students. What can I control?I ask myself. Am *I* taking breaks? I stand up, stretch, don my mask, and head across the hallway to make myself a tea.

I can control how I interact with students: I will use the phone to connect with students who might not otherwise ask for help. (In fact, I am astonished by the kids who are reaching out now compared to the kids who came to the Spec Ed room before.) I will make time for long conversations when they are necessary. I will proactively reach out to students who I hear may be struggling. I will put students first.

I can control how I interact with teachers: I will use our new, complicated school day to offer a different kind of support for teachers. I can share Google classrooms with them and offer ideas for UDL when teachers ask me about this. I will offer breaks so they can breathe during these long days. I will find ways to teach that are not dependent upon having a class.

I love being a teacher. Teaching is written into my very being. I know what brings me joy. Now, even in the midst of this most unusual time, I can decide to pursue the joy available in this moment and remember that the deadlines are about systems and I am about people.

Later in the day, I learned that my student’s parent had called the principal. The storm winds continued to blow, but the parent also reported that my conversation with their son had been really helpful: “I don’t know what she said, but it’s the first time I’ve seen him smile in days.”

Ah, there’s the joy.

I’m on the phone

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The cellphone lights up on my desk. I glance at it: my colleague from down the hall has a question. I type in “I’m on the phone” while I continue to “mmmhmmm” my way through a conversation with a parent.

I don’t have any students assigned to me this quadmester. My colleagues are muddling their way through a convoluted teaching schedule that involves teaching one class for 225 minutes per day (plus a 75 minute at-home work period) for one week during which half the students come one day while the other half are online; then the two cohorts switch. As if that weren’t enough, teachers must deliver both synchronous and asynchronous instruction for the students at home while remaining masked and socially distant from the students in the room. Then the next week they do the same thing with a different class. And then they start again. While all of that is happening, I have been assigned to Spec Ed, and I am on the phone.

We have about 225 students at our school who have IEPs. Usually, we send forms – thorough, if impersonal – home to parents to ask for input; I would guess we average about a 25% rate of return, maybe a little more. Usually, we meet face-to-face with every student. We sit with them for five or ten minutes and look at their IEP, showing them what accommodations they have, asking what works, what needs tweaking. Usually, the Spec Ed room is full of kids coming in to pick up a Chromebook, get some extra explanation, figure out how to study more effectively. Usually, I interact with my partner, EAs, other teachers and guidance counselors every day. I squeeze in the occasional phone call and respond to email as quickly as I can, but usually my focus is on the students in front of me. Usually Spec Ed is the kind of job that asks me to juggle a knife, a fire stick and a teddy bear while standing on a beach ball. But 2020, as we all know, is not a usual year. So I am on the phone.

My partner and I are calling every family and every student about their IEP. We call on the days when the students are in the cohort that is working from home. We cross our fingers that we aren’t interrupting their parents’ workday, that we aren’t waking the student up. We leave messages, send emails and, most of all, we talk on the phone.

This is a completely different way to support students. I am simultaneously lonely and overstimulated. I find myself exhausted from listening – really listening – to the way each family and each child is experiencing our education system during this crisis. They are thoughtful about their needs, their child’s needs. They are alert to what changes have happened this year, how their students have responded, what might come next. They are hopeful and fearful and mostly they just want things to be good enough. Mostly they are hoping to muddle through. Almost always they are surprised, delighted, impressed that we are calling – as if this is entirely unexpected amidst the chaos of the school year. Most of the parents are kind. Most of the kids are upbeat. Almost everyone understands that we are part of a team that works best when we work together.

Of course, it takes time to build those teams, and right now I’m spending that time on the phone. I jot down notes as I listen, little memory jogs to help me remember what information to email teachers, when to call my administrator, when to give Guidance a heads’ up. I give out my email, my phone number again and again. I say, “don’t hesitate to call as soon as you sense a problem; this year classes are moving very quickly.” I say, “If you’ve tried to get in touch and I haven’t gotten back to you, please send me a gentle reminder. Sometimes I just get overwhelmed.”

I’m overwhelmed. I long to be in the classroom, juggling through the chaos of the class schedule created for us. I long to be reading and writing and talking with students as I try to convince them that their voice matters. I miss the physical presence of people in a room, of my colleagues and my students. I imagine that sharing their overwhelm will feel better, more present, than these voices on the other end of the phone.

But I am on the phone. And I am convinced that their voice matters. “I know this year looks different; please call or email right away if you’re struggling. We can work together to fix just about anything.” I listen for the silent nod on the other end of the line. I say goodbye. I hang up.

Then I turn to the computer and pull up another IEP. I read through the assessments, the accommodations, the transitions. I find the student’s timetable. Deep breath. I look at the student’s picture, call up a memory of the child from years past, hold tight to that connection, and then I pick up the phone. “Hello, this is Amanda Potts, calling from Canterbury High School. I’m your child’s Learning Support Teacher this year. Is this a good time to talk about their IEP?”

The cellphone lights up on my desk. I type “I’m on number 8. You?” and continue to “mmmhmmm” my way through a conversation with a parent.