Sometimes when in times of trouble

My husband walked out of my life the week school started, and my mother passed away 10 days ago. My siblings are bickering, my son is depressed, and I am overwhelmed by sadness and grief for all that I’ve lost this year. I still wake up at 3:00 am in a panic about finances. Oh — and I’m teaching full time in a public school in the midst of a pandemic.

But one thing I’ve experienced has been a huge source of comfort: female friends. Neighbors, colleagues, relatives, and acquaintances have reached out to me just to talk, go for a walk, bring a meal, flowers, offer to feed the cat, hug me, say how much they’ve been thinking about me, offer condolences, or lend an ear.

“You will always find people who are helping,” children’s TV host Fred Rogers famously said. I’ve always been the one doing the helping, so it feels a little awkward to be on the receiving end of so much caring support. But I am enormously thankful. I think I’ve even made a couple of new friends.

It’s taken me decades to learn a lesson that many women know from their earliest years of life: Women will support you if you show vulnerability and express a need. Why did I wait until my 60’s to open up? Talking about hurt and pain is a way to ease it. I so appreciate everyone who has reached out to me these last couple of months.

Tribute to my mother, Ruth Christ Sullivan.

There’s no tired like teacher tired

There’s no tired like teacher tired in late November when Thanksgiving Break looks like it’s never going to come. On a Friday afternoon, it hits like a ton of bricks. “Sorry I can’t make it to your opening reception at the gallery,” I tell my friend whose artful photography has finally gotten some recognition. I wanted to support her but the truth is, I was out every single night last week at different union meetings. My profession is under attack, and I need to learn how others are fighting against the dismantling of my district’s flagship ESOL program. I’d been feeling demoralized and disrespected by the higher-ups making decisions about what’s best for me and my students. I was simply exhausted.

I love my job. I love teaching high school English Language Learners – all of my students are recent arrivals in the USA, and they are eager to learn English, learn American culture, and get that Maryland diploma. Their enthusiasm and willingness to do whatever I say (even though they don’t always understand it) makes me feel the grave responsibility of educating a new generation. I take my work seriously, but I also like to have fun. Lately that’s getting harder and harder to accomplish. My teammates at school are caring, supportive, creative, lively, and way more emotionally intelligent than I am. Usually they can nod and smile when being given a top-down directive, but this time they’re as outraged as I am.

From the outside, it doesn’t seem like we’re being asked to change so radically. Rolling out a new quarterly assessment two weeks before I have to administer it, however, is against my contract. A test that hasn’t been piloted may be full of errors, it probably doesn’t match what I’ve been teaching, and it’s not fair to students. Can you imagine if they tried to do this to the Math Department?!

The fact that ESOL teachers are being told to comply with a worst-teaching practice disregards our need to plan out each marking period by “backward mapping.” It’s not teaching to the test; it’s testing what is taught and not changing the objectives in the middle of the course. Then what? Someone in a district office will look at my test scores and decide that a) my students are underperforming and b) it must be my fault. This type of flawed reasoning may explain the necessity of “restructuring” ESOL.

Next year, there will be no high school ESOL in my district. It looks like all ELLs will be placed into grade-level English classes. The outstanding programs that we have implemented over the past 20 years will be gone – both the proficiency-based courses and the electives. It won’t be so bad for the students with advanced English, but it could be disastrous for the lower-proficiency students. I believe our Superintendent thinks that a lack of rigor in the ESOL classroom is to blame for poor test performance by ESOL students. Wait until he sees how newcomers who don’t speak any English handle Romeo and Juliet!

It may not seem like such a big stretch for high school ESOL teachers to suddenly start teaching the mainstream English curriculum. I’m dual certified in English and ESOL, have taught both, and love teaching Shakespeare. I’ve often questioned the disconnect between our two programs. For some of my colleagues, however, it’s daunting. There’s a huge difference between being a language teacher and being an English teacher. During this “transition” there’s been no curriculum roll-out, no training, and no support from administrators and school leaders. The questions we raise at school are going unanswered. Teacher frustration has been building since last year.

“Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions” isn’t just a slogan. Mostly, my job is really good. It is no coincidence that I work in a district with a strong union. I dragged myself to a Bargaining Session on Thursday night instead of grading papers. I got to eat pizza standing up while visiting with colleagues from other schools. When I finally looked at the handouts, I almost screamed with delight. Written in to our new contract, are six pages of ESOL-specific language, outlining requirements for treating us like professionals. ESOL concerns were Number One on the evening’s agenda. I am so lucky to work in a district where somebody gets it.

Attending those union meetings was just the morale boost I needed to get through the next few days until Thanksgiving Break. Now that I’ve had a chance to rest, maybe I’ll go check out my friend’s artwork at the gallery.