Talking Down to Teachers

I haven’t read The Smartest Kids in the World, mostly because the title is such a turnoff, but I loved Amanda Ripley’s Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes. So when I saw her “Talking Down to Teachers” article in the February 2016 Washingtonian Magazine, I was fascinated.

Thank you Ms. Ripley for praising teachers’ professionalism and intellect, and making an effort to change the dialogue about teachers-as-missionaries. But I want to know: Who are the “highest performing teachers” being honored at the Standing Ovation event you described? What is the criteria for selecting these teachers? We should be questioning the value of elevating teachers based on artificial measures, like test scores of children, when most education professionals recognize that external factors (like wealth & poverty) are far more influential on student success than any one teacher.

When people hear I’m a teacher, they say “that’s courageous” and imply that I am making a sacrifice to do what I love. Like the DC teachers she quotes in the article, I am not a volunteer; I am a well-paid professional. Yes, it’s hard work. Yes, I work very long hours. But what I (we) really need is respect. Respect from the parents who entrust me with educating their children, trust from my administration that I am doing my job, trust from the School Boards and the taxpaying public that I am a well-trained professional making good decisions and making a difference every day.

And by the way, not once in my 15 years of teaching in MCPS has any parent group passed the hat to buy me a gift. All my students are immigrants and they don’t know this American practice. I think it says more about the parents in Ms. Ripley’s school district than anything else. I’d be happy for thank you from the students at the end of the year!


Worried about security abroad?

I heard about last Friday’s attack at the hotel in Burkina Faso from my sister. She texted to ask about my husband, who travels all the time — often to countries where the color of his skin could easily make him a terrorist’s target. “Is he safe?” she asked. It’s a question I ask myself every time he travels.

On his most recent trip to Northern Nigeria — the heart of Boko Haram territory — I worried that he might be victimized. Instead of being taken hostage, he came back with amazing photos of himself surrounded by community elders wearing long robes and local leaders in colorful scarves, who welcomed him warmly and praised the work his organization was doing. He interacted with them in the local language, Hausa, which he learned years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Every time there is an overseas attack in the news I don’t have to wonder why international nonprofit organizations keep sending staff and volunteers to work in developing nations. My husband’s and my own experience make me understand how important it is to share medical advances, expertise, and knowledge. The extremists who commit these violent acts do not represent the people, religion or places they come from.

I was also a Peace Corps volunteer and have lived, worked and traveled in developing countries. My Peace Corps service was a long time ago in a different international climate. Back in the 1980’s I never felt that I was in danger. In the 1990’s I lived through a coup d’état and an outbreak of Ebola, but I never felt the fear that more recent attacks want to promote. Last summer I traveled to Southeast Asia with a group of educators, and felt a warm welcome from people whose language I did not speak. I met with fellow teachers and visited schools. They made us friendship bracelets and we donated books to their library. In 2014, I traveled to Central America with a church group to work on a school. Instead of being harassed, we shared in a powerful community-building project that was part spiritual and part practical. I gained a deeper understanding of their families and culture, and they of mine. It is through the act of meeting people, sharing stories, and performing public service together that we break down the walls between us.

Now that American aid workers, missionaries and volunteers have actually been targeted, I can no longer naively believe that there’s a sort of immunity for doing good deeds. But the risks of sending Ameritans overseas can often seem exaggerated in the wake of unexpected violence. Don’t we have an obligation to continue our support of people in faraway places who live with this threat of violence every day?

My husband is traveling to Kenya next week. I know that there is always a risk of danger, but I have to trust that he will be safe.

Absorbing student stress

This is my 15th year teaching English Language Learners in Maryland public schools. Why does it feel so much harder than last year? I have small classes and no new curriculum to pilot. I have access to excellent bilingual counselors and parent community coordinators. I have hard-working colleagues and a supportive administration. The workload is tough, but manageable. I should feel lucky, but I think the problems that students express to me are greater this year, and I seem to be absorbing more of their stress.

Challenges of immigrant families are making headlines this week, as deportations increase. But the news reports don’t tell you about other issues that bleed into the classroom. One student is in the hospital because he was in a serious car accident (was he driving?), another is out because a family member passed away, a third student was crying in class (different from the one I mentioned last week) and could not concentrate, a fourth student wrote an essay about witnessing a murder. Any one of these incidents would be a major life event for a typical teen. For immigrant children, their problems seem to be magnified by low income, family instability and lack of background knowledge. So often I act in loco parentis that I believe that I am the only advocate that they have. Two students welcomed new baby siblings this week and I made sure other teachers knew that’s why A’s behavior was a little off and K was absent so much. I bought a condolence card on the way home so that all the students can sign it before Y comes back to school.

In each class, I have at least one older student who is in this country with no family. D. crossed the desert on foot when he was 15. A “coyote” was leading his group from El Salvador. They walked at night when it was cool and dark. He slept in the sand during the day with tree branches covering his body so that the police wouldn’t find him. One day he woke up and all of his group was gone. He was hungry and thirsty. When the Border Patrol found him, they took him to jail and connected him with his aunt and uncle in Maryland, where he would await a court decision. He’s still waiting. In the meantime, he’s living with some friends (a girl who dropped out last year). One day he said to me, “I wish you were my mother.” I don’t know if deportation is on his mind, because he doesn’t linger after class any more to chat; he’s working full time.

In 2014, we welcomed a huge new group of newcomers to my school — students whose stories are beginning to come out as their language skills evolve and the trauma of leaving home starts to fade. When I ask these students to write about the family, they write “my beautiful mother,” and put “meeting my mother” on their autobiography project timelines. At least five students in each class moved to Maryland to live with a parent whom they haven’t seen in many years. One girl was ecstatic because her mother and sister were about to arrive. She hasn’t seen them in nine years. My typical student is living with a parent who is remarried and has little American children with a step-mother or step-father, all of whom speak better English than my newcomer student.  Sometimes the missing parent is put on a pedestal for so many years that the real version of Mom or Dad can only be a disappointment after so much fantasizing and anticipation.

As the semester is wrapping up and we enter testing season, I notice the disconnect between where students are and where we’re supposed to be. I’ll have to admit that I don’t like the new Pearson book that is a substitute for our curriculum. I used to teach Romeo and Juliet, The Giver and Of Mice and Men. We used language structures to discuss the bigger issues that these classics addressed. Some of it was relevant to students’ lives. Now we read excerpts from texts and we compare them to nonfiction pieces with the same theme. I teach language structures without the benefit of context because I know that grammar and vocabulary will appear heavily on the multiple choice exam. How am I going to ask students to make personal connections to Mendel’s Laws of Heredity? I put them in cooperative groups to answer a question and create a visual using academic language. How do visuals support the main idea? Discuss with your peers.  It’s partly what they need in the real world, but I really miss reading about their personal experiences.

By January, I usually know my students pretty well. This year, my grade book indicates that school is not a priority. I don’t think it’s pure laziness — although that’s certainly a factor. Students don’t see the big picture. I have to explain how semester grades are calculated and why it’s important. I assume that no family member can help them. I ask warmly for overdue assignments, create multiple opportunities for reassessment, and allow students to hand work in past the deadline.

Today I had a guest speaker, a vibrant young Latina student who is the first in her family to attend college. She talked to them about the importance of making a plan, discovering some internal motivation and using their time wisely.  They were polite and attentive. But as soon as she left, I had to reprimand A. for pushing another student.

Sigh. It’s all worthwhile, though, because one day soon I’ll watch them walk across the stage at D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington, DC and the principal and superintendent will shake their hand and it will be the proudest moment in their lives. An American diploma. And I’ll help them get there no matter what it takes.

A charter model I can support

This article about an unusual boarding school in Washington DC just might change my mind about charter schools. I applaud how the Monument Academy is trying to address the social-emotional needs of students who experience ongoing trauma. I am not an expert, but I see some of these same behaviors in my own classroom. If students are placed in a stable, supportive, home-like environment, can the care and attention possibly make up for years spent with violent, abusive role models or moving between foster homes? I’m sure that I won’t be the only one following this story eagerly in 2016.

Get off the teaching treadmill: take a break

I spent the Christmas holiday in my hometown visiting with family and friends, and taking a much-needed break from the treadmill of teaching. Somehow it just speeds up about halfway through November. Good thing I’m in pretty good shape, both physically and mentally. But we all need to stop running and catch our breath about this time of year.

At a holiday party, I spoke with a friend’s daughter, who was sharing her thoughts about being a first-year teacher for Gifted and Talented 4th and 5th graders in a STEM program. I asked if she spent more than an hour a day contacting parents. She laughed. “Fellow teachers understand what I’m going through,” she said. “But I’ve been crying a lot since Winter Break started.” She said that half her student-teacher classmates didn’t make it past their practica.

“Teaching is hard,” she said. “My students feel so entitled and the parents are second-guessing every decision I make. I’ve started a Kindness Wall to help students develop empathy. Now if I can just get the parents on board, I’ll know I’m making a difference.”

I talked to her about my students, some of whom won’t be celebrating much during the holidays. Many are from what we used to call “broken homes.” Some are working full time. Most receive Free and Reduced Meals (a government program for low-income families). Maybe we could start some kind of correspondence between the two schools: my students could practice their English and her students could develop an understanding of the challenges some teens face and how hard they work to get an American education.

I’m only halfway through Winter Break. It’s amazing what can transpire when you get off the treadmill and connect with other people.


Teachable moment for the teacher

Have you ever had one of those days when the loudmouth in the back row delivers a teachable moment? I had one of those days this week. I’m the one who learned a lesson, though, not the students. Loudmouth was shouting for attention for the umpteenth time. Can I say the grammar was just abominable? I would have ignored it if this student hadn’t been so rude. So instead of answering the question, I corrected the English. I guess I showed my annoyance and corrected a little too vigorously. Loudmouth completely shut down, arms crossed, slumped in the chair, suddenly refusing to answer questions or participate. Another student told me that Loudmouth was very offended and hurt. I sighed and made a comment about too much drama. I said I would write a pass to see the counselor if the offense was so great. Otherwise just be quiet and do the work like everyone else. So loudmouth gets up and asks to see the counselor. Good, I thought secretly, now the classroom will be quiet.

So when I followed up with the counselor to see if Loudmouth actually made it into the counseling office, I learned that the student was thinking about quitting school because of low self esteem and feelings of incompetence in the classroom. I suddenly felt horrible. I’m not that kind of teacher. I don’t belittle kids. I’m usually the most patient, supportive teacher imaginable. I can understand how difficult it is to read, write and think in a non-native language all day every day. When I lived overseas, it was exhausting to speak French, even when the stakes weren’t that high. These students have to deal with so much more.

What I have learned from this incident is that no matter how rough my day is, the students deserve 100% of my attention, compassion, and support. Inappropriate behavior can mask insecurity and a need to overcompensate. I guess my response was also a symptom of my need to stay in control and keep moving through the curriculum at the right pace.

So next time a student shouts a comment from the back row, I’ll take a deep breath and ask, “Would you care to elaborate?”

Living through terror in a Federal Islamic Republic

Twenty years ago, I was living in the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros Islands with my husband and two young sons when we experienced a violent attack. But it didn’t come from Islamic extremists; it came from a white Frenchman named Bob Denard, legendary soldier of fortune who inspired Frederick Forsyth’s novel Dogs of War.

My personal experience is nothing like the horrors faced by Syrian refugees. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if Kenya refused to let us into their country when we fled Moroni. We were not part of a mass exodus, but we were the last “official” Americans to leave the islands.

In the years since we left the Comoros, I can reflect on what it was like to live through a moment of terror and to have our lives completely disrupted. But we were welcomed everywhere we went. I think about the personal relationships we developed that transcend international politics. I think about my children’s earliest memories being from a place where the culture and climate was so completely different. I still have a bottle of ylang-ylang perfume. And I still have good memories of living among kind, peaceful people.

Republican rhetoric about keeping dangerous Muslims out of our country is counter to my experience. I’d like to write about that one day.


What are we measuring?

I’m sure there are other professions with such extreme highs and lows, but I can only write about the one I know. Today was one of the lows. Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. I love teaching. I love my students. But this afternoon I spent three hours in front of a computer screen for “training” on the new test that I will have to administer in January. The WiDA ACCESS test is moving online this year and I fear for my students. We’ve only been to a computer lab twice this year — and I learned that some of my Level 1 and Level 2 students didn’t know that if they hit the RETURN key, their cursor would go down to the next line in a document. How could they know this if I didn’t teach it? Just because they’ve got smart phones constantly plugged into their ears doesn’t mean they know anything about creating an essay in Microsoft Word. They’ve become experts at texting under their desks while pretending to look in backpacks, but how will I teach them to navigate a page of instructions written in a language they are just acquiring? I’m frustrated because I know this move to online testing will cause some students to give up. We don’t have access to computers on a regular basis, so my students are not developing the computer literacy skills that will measure their academic success. My school and my district will be judged by how well they do. I’m all for moving into the digital age, but what are we really testing? When lack of access to basic computer instruction creates a huge gap, what can the test possibly accomplish?

Maybe I’m approaching this all wrong. Maybe so many students will fail to meet exit criteria that my district will be forced to hire dozens of new ESOL teachers. And they’ll make sure we have enough access to computers so that scores will improve. That would be awesome. I already feel better.

The desperate endeavor

Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong. It is no wonder if we sometimes take ourselves perhaps a bit too seriously.

  • Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

This is my desperate endeavor to be heard above the cacophony of post-Thanksgiving excess. People were out on the trail this afternoon with dogs and children running in t-shirts. I met up with an old friend walking with her family as I walked in the opposite direction with mine. It was wonderful to happen on a chance encounter. I find that these events occur on a regular basis: when I am thinking intensively about someone from my past, he or she just appears out of nowhere and we make plans to see each other soon. I will write more about this in the future.

I am still finding my voice.