Breaking Bad and Making Good

Breaking Bad: Box Cutter (#4.1)” (2011)

Jesse Pinkman: At least we all understand each other now.
Walter White: What do you mean?
Jesse Pinkman: I mean, him and us, we get it.
[Makes cutting motion on his neck]
Jesse Pinkman: We’re all on the same page.
Walter White: And what page is that?
Jesse Pinkman: The one that says if I can’t kill you, you’ll sure as shit wish you were dead.

We all know about teacher burnout—all the ways in which this profession can slowly squeeze the life out of you. I never thought that’d be me, but I had gone from being someone filled with excitement, tenacity and purpose to wishing the teacher in me were dead.

From September to December, I found myself constantly coming up against the same problem I always faced, only much more intensely—to let go of my ESL training and principles, and teach in ways I believed to be unfair—but the familiar rush of indignation and resistance was not there this time. Those months found me just trying to keep up. I was exhausted and intellectually stagnant.

So, I started to feel like maybe, actually, the problem was me; I must be inadequate as a classroom teacher, unable to teach in this way, unable to get all of my students to pass the state tests. Like most teachers I know, I had been living a double life, doing what I thought was right “when the door is closed” and yet allowing the same frustrating expectations to stand for me, my students, and all other teachers (think: “I am not going to teach to the test,” but still worrying how your kids will do and eventually giving into the pressure. Or think: “my students moved 18 levels in reading” but still have to give a fail grade on report cards because the system only has one definition of success which locks out ELLs).

To live that double life, you often have to break some big “rules” you feel are damaging to your students.

My students were ELLs in a curriculum that wasn’t just designed for native speakers, it was designed in ways that undermined their needs and strengths. There was no way I would meet their cognitive and intellectual or academic needs by remaining within the confines of the Teachers College Readers and Writers curriculum. You might think that’d be obvious, but I had friends at other schools who were denied tenure because they were being held accountable for teaching in ways that could not benefit their students. So, it meant breaking rules. It meant doing my best to meet expectations and still meet my students’ needs. But that only took me so far until those outside pressures became just too great. I just couldn’t keep up with the dichotomy anymore.

Then, around December, I started to realize I was not alone in how I was feeling and, in fact, teachers I greatly admire in different schools around the city (and country) were feeling this exact same overwhelming self-doubt and undermining of their efforts and talents. Some call it lack of appreciation, or lack of experience from their administrators, while others call it systemic injustice.

So I started to refocus the question I saw in front of me: if it isn’t just me, is it the whole profession? If my dream of teaching differently was just a dream, then what?

I felt I had three choices: to leave the profession entirely; to accept it and continue wishing I was “dead”; or find a way to change the situation. I started with the latter—which I knew meant major upheavals and transformation of everything I was doing, but how? So, first, I contacted a friend who had inspired me to be a teacher to see if maybe, just maybe, public school education as a whole was not lost.

My friend told me about this and genre practice, and I devoured the book, Unison Reading by Cynthia McCallister. This book helped me to see the true source of my outrage; NOT me and NOT my administration, but the philosophies and approach embedded within curriculums like the Teachers College Readers and Writers Project itself. I could have continued running myself into the ground trying to adapt this to meet the needs of my students or find a curriculum that actually had a better chance of benefitting them.

Then I had the opportunity to meet and see other teachers and principals who were educating students in this new way, and I knew I had found a way to save the teacher in me. My outrage quickly returned (and clearly resonated with others).

Unfortunately, I had to change schools to be able to teach in this new way, but I’m excited. Now, the questions that guide my teaching have shifted from, “how am I going to adapt every part of this curriculum so I can support the needs and strengths of my students?” to, “how will my students’ interests, needs, strengths, and intentions shape the curriculum and build their independence?”. Now I’m thinking, “How can an ELL, beginner or advanced, develop intentions in grappling with big concepts without my constant scaffolding? What needs to be in place so my students can do academic work and learn to confront and identify their own confusions and needs without waiting for someone to tell them how, or always waiting for me to teach them? How will their purpose drive their writing, or their understandings drive their math work, rather than what genre or math concept I have pre-selected?”

The former is driven by a pre-fab curriculum designed by people who don’t know my students, the latter by my students and state standards.

This new approach may not have an answer for everything, but it isn’t a “don’t think, just do” approach, either. To teach this way, you really have to grapple with the underlying philosophies, reading and discussing what this could look like in the classroom, while emphasizing that mistakes will happen, it will be messy and that’s ok because we will learn as we do this. This means that while there may be teachers who don’t totally agree with the approach, or who are apprehensive, also aren’t just “on the same page”, out of fear.

It is overwhelming to plan like this and I am constantly confronting knotty problems that aren’t easy to solve. And, yet, I am happy to say I no longer feel like [makes cutting motion on my neck].

What about the “bad” teachers?

Recently, a reader made a comment here raising a very common concern that is out there in the public:

That all said, everyone who has been to school or worked in a school knows very well that there are teachers who do little more than draw a check or worse. When my wife taught there was a teacher who yelled at her students so loud that my wife had to close her room’s windows and the neighbors complained of the noise. Then the was the teacher who got his kicks by tripping 2nd graders. I’m sure that you can add your examples.

What of the students they teach? What of the teachers, like you, who put their all into their job and whose efforts and profession are demeaned by these teachers? Can we say that it is too hard to figure it out who is doing a good job and who isn’t so we shouldn’t try thus leaving them in the classroom?

He goes on to point out the benefits of having teacher evaluations being much more cohered now than before and the need this is addressing while acknowledging that current methods leave much to be desired.

It was such a substantive comment and raises the issue in a way that really invites engagement, that I wanted to give it a more thoughtful reply. To me, this gets at a much bigger, more essential question — how will we develop the teaching profession into one that is much more widely reflective and where teachers are given constant, genuine opportunities to evolve, grow, learn, share, and improve? How should weak teachers be defined and their needs addressed, even if that includes being told the profession may not be for them (sometimes even after a MA degree has been earned)?

A lot of what will define your approach to this depends on your philosophy of education and learning. If you see being a “learned” person as knowing a static set of specific skills, then you might prefer a “give them a test a year and if they don’t pass, get rid of them” approach. However, if you see education— and elementary schools in particular— as the place that shapes how a person learns to learn, and develops as an individual with their own moral identity, are exposed to different ideas and taught to analyze them critically before passing judgment (ironically), and you see it teaching a specific skill set that can’t ever be static—unless we still want children learning to write with a quill and not learning how to type—then you probably see how a standardized test, developed by a for-profit vendor who doesn’t know the child or what their educational needs or goals were for the year (which is always in addition to whatever is defined as needed for the grade), is an absurd way to assess a student or their teacher.

So, how do we do it then? How do we define, determine, and even weed out bad teachers? While there are those who spend their days researching, writing, and speaking on this question, I do feel that teachers who specialize in subgroups like ELLs and Special Education have a particularly important role to play in this conversation, which is why I’d like to address it, and welcome more teachers to do the same. Empirical evidence is relevant here.

Assessment That Doesn’t Just Determine but Encourages Growth

Well, I think the process and needs are much more complicated than, for example, relying even a little bit on statewide standardized tests. You can’t analyze and assess a teacher in a vacuum. No teacher is an island. A teacher’s skills and success are not simply defined by her own actions. It’s rare that I hear an elementary teacher say she/he creates her own curriculum. At least in NYC, I almost never hear it. In fact, the only time I have ever heard it was this week from a teacher at a small, progressive private school. Teachers are typically not deciding what math program they use, if the approach is textbook or project-based, or what pacing to use (ie., how quickly to transition between the units of study), etc. These are things decided on at much higher levels than even principals, usually. I don’t necessarily find this problematic, per se, but it is an element that shouldn’t be ignored when determining a teacher’s strengths: would she teach differently if she were planning the curriculum?

There are many other factors that feed into creating a teacher; what college program did she have? What pre-service experience was he given? Was he assigned to a great veteran teacher or a mediocre one? Is he teaching the grade that best suits his personality? The list is really immense, but I want to address one that is most directly related to using one annual test to assess a teacher: his students.

What Do You Teach?

I have heard principals say that when they interview a job candidate, they hope the reply will be “students”, not simply, “science”. This means they want to know if you’re going to be attuned to the unique strengths and needs of your students and if your teaching is going to reflect that, or do you plan out how you will teach based solely on standards. This is where teaching becomes much more nuanced and challenging, because a teacher might think to herself, “Most of my students are still not grasping addition but the grade standards require they know multiplication by now, and they will need to divide double-digit dividends by single-digit divisors for next month, and if I go deeper into addition, taking time from those two areas, then they may not be ready for the state test in June.” She may want to teach to those children’s needs, but ultimately if she wants to be in line with the curriculum and state standards, etc., she will need to move on. So, like it or not, she is not just responsible for meeting the needs of the children in front of her. (Yes, she can teach some of this through small group instruction, but that would be redundant if all the children needed the extra instruction time.)

And then what about students who are English language learners, or require special education services, or who fit in both those subgroups? What about students who come to you in fourth or ninth grade and haven’t been to school since first grade in their country? These are just the largest, most common variables. There are many more that include home life, personality, success in previous grades, cultural values, illness and related absenteeism, etc. (and multiply this by 30+ per classroom).

We aren’t just teaching a static skill set to a waiting, sponge-like crowd.

Why must ESL and Special Ed teachers be at the heart of this discussion?

Since we teach subgroups which might be a minority in some places, we are often a second thought when it comes to curriculum planning for a grade or when those in power are determining how to assess teachers. But it is exactly because our experiences are often the exception to the rule that we should be part of defining it.

Take this scenario: You teach at a school where about 40% of the population are ELLs, about a third of whom are receiving special education services and 10% are SIFE (students with at least two years of interrupted formal education). Your school has to determine the grade-wide priorities, goals, curriculum and purchase materials that meet the needs of the majority. Your class is specialized in comparison because you teach a transitional bilingual 6th grade where about 5 of your students only went to school up to third grade before coming to you. You think two of your newcomers may have learning disabilities but they cannot be assessed because they are too new. If you are not included in the curriculum planning, have no co-teacher in your grade, and there is only a literacy or math coach at your school (if you are lucky), then it is solely on you to seek out supports that other teachers have readily available to them. So, I should also mention there is scant research addressing things such as teaching beginner ELLs how to read in their new language when they can’t read in their first, and there are no courses that I know of that you could take to learn how to address the needs of SIFE students.

So, should your experience be measured and valued in identical ways to the others? Are your needs being sufficiently met and should that be entirely on your shoulders? Your students who have been in the country for exactly one year (and not necessarily one whole school year, mind you) will be taking the ELA test. Should those scores be used to assess you at all? What would you need and what would you want others to use to assess your students’ progress and your own?

Find me an algorithm that can account for all that and I will shush. This is why these teachers should be a central part of the discussion. The percentage of ELLs in our classrooms are only increasing (and please don’t misinterpret that as a complaint, it isn’t).

So, what then?

In my opinion, given the complexity of teaching, assessing teaching ought to be informed and holistic. In NYC, the Danielson Framework being piloted is definitely a comprehensive resource because of the many elements it involves and its emphasis on improving teachers, but even Ms. Danielson herself has commented that how her Framework is applied is important as well (I am inferring here a little).

So, this is an area of concern for me: not just what we use to assess teachers, but the manner in which we do it, and what epistemology informs the approach. If we are after a true understanding of the problem, we need evidence and while there appears to be a lot of conflicting research on the best ways to address teacher evaluation, what’s missing, in my opinion, is teachers themselves engaging in research; not simply as subjects but researchers themselves. How can we expect to teach higher-order thinking and problem solving if we aren’t encouraged and allowed to do it ourselves for the improvement of our profession?

The underlying bias we need to upend is this misconception out there I mentioned earlier that elementary schools teach (or should) teach static skills, but this is no longer true. With an increased emphasis on academic rigor and higher-order thinking skills, elementary school is no longer your grandma’s grammar school. It’s not even mine. (This fact reinforces for me the importance of tenure, but that is for another post).

This kind of teaching requires increased intellectual capacity and rigor within the teaching staff itself. Much of this already exists untapped. In my experience, there are many teachers who would even volunteer to share their expert knowledge in different areas, and mentor new and veteran teachers to improve the practice and culture of teaching.

I recently watched this TED video examining a weakness in math education: simple problems that require applying a memorized formula to answer them. His analysis is itself a metaphor for all teaching but also for this conversation on teaching.

So my suggestion? Involve teachers. Place the values of rigor and the responsibilities of evaluation onto teachers themselves (not alone but in conjunction with others). Stop pretending this is a simple problem.

This is academia, is it not?

A Shared Loss

Today I met with the parent of my troubled boy from China who has been giving the middle finger to students and in general not dealing well with some of his frustrations. The interpretation-over-the-phone that the DOE provides suffered from technical difficulties so I had to rely on two boys from a colleague’s class who speak English and Chinese. It was going ok and I could tell the boys were happy to help. Then, at one point, one of them whispered to the other, “I’m losing my language.”

First moment of heartbreak of the day. This is the difficulty of being an ESL teacher; you know your job is to give students the language tools they need to survive in their adopted city but it often means they lose their language.

Now for the second moment of heartbreak. As the rest of the class was working independently on ELA test prep materials (more on that later), I met with the troubled student. When students first come to me, their emotions are either quite powerful, overwhelming them in different ways throughout the day, or they are so numb they don’t know what they feel, even when prompted. This boy was once in the latter group and now his feet are passionately planted in the first. He is frustrated and angry and disappointed.

So, during what was supposed to be a running record, i decided to have a heart-to-heart, using the ever-mediocre Google Translate and the bits of English he has learned already.

I said, “So, you are angry?” He nodded his head.

“You miss China?”
Silent nod, again.

“Do you write letters to your friends?”
“No letters. Video talk. My friend and reading teacher. My brother.”

At this point we went in circles as I tried to find out why his brother was still in China while he and his sister are here, and he eventually explained, “He son of my aunt but we feeling of brother.”

These kids leave so much behind when they come here; family, friends, sometimes a school they loved. And eventually they also lose the one main tie they had to that whole sense of self they were just developing before they left: their language.

Where’s my math class?

Picture this:

You have a very bright student with whom have great difficulty communicating (because he doesn’t know very much English aside from “don’t know”, “don’t have”, ad “oh my god”, and you know zilch of Chinese outside of “teacher, hello, what, and thank you”). You know he has been frustrated since September because he is a math phenom and is well beyond your curriculum. But today he refuses to even try to do the area model enrichment lesson you planned all night for because it is “soooo easy.” Instead he uses the base ten blocks to build houses and then knock them down.

This was my class yesterday. My initial reaction?

I told him to put everything away and sit with his hands folded. I was fuming. This is a student I struggle every day to communicate with and reach, and he is just one of three students in a similar situation.

I am fuming because of what I perceive as his disrespect and because I’m so disappointed in myself because my hard work did not pan out the way I had hoped. Plus, I’m an ESL teacher, not a math teacher! Math enrichment is not my forte.

But working with newcomers supposedly is. So, as I worked with the other students, I thought more calmly about him. I know he is a whiz at math and clearly I had underestimated just how frustrated he’d be with a task that I’d thought would be at least fun for him to do, even if not challenging.

So, I used the one tool I have in class to communicate with my Chinese students — Google Translate. In simple sentences, I told him that even if he was frustrated, his behavior was disrespectful and that’s not acceptable in my class. I wanted him to explain why he had acted that way. His reply was, “I no want do simple math. I no know what to do when I no want simple math.” He wants to learn the fifth grade curriculum of China. I’m all about trying to meet student needs and incorporate their culture and such in class, but this is a bit of a tall order. It’s not like their curriculum is googlable. Plus, their whole approach to math is so different and my training has been purely on-the-job.

So, I’m off this weekend to figure out what I can start to teach him from 6th or 7th grade math. I know he is interested in algebra, so I may go that route. This is a boy who can solve problems with two and three-digit divisors and 9-digit dividends in less than 5 minutes. While other students are struggling with order of operations, he’s solving these problems and more mentally.

I have actually been on the hunt for free professional development math classes for teachers specifically because of this kid!

I dare you to measure the “value” I add

(When i wrote this, I had no idea just how deeply this would speak to people and how widely it would spread. It even ended up being republished by Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet. So, I think a better title is I Dare You to Measure the Value WE Add.)

Tell me how you determine the value I add to my class.

Tell me about the algorithms you applied when you took data from 16 students over a course of nearly five years of teaching and somehow used it to judge me as “below average” and “average”.

Tell me how you can examine my skills and talents and attribute worth to them without knowing me, my class, or my curriculum requirements.

Tell me how and I will tell you:

How all of my students come from different countries, different levels of prior education and literacy, and how there is no “research-based” elementary curriculum created to support schools or teachers to specifically meet their needs.

How the year for which you have data was the year my fifth graders first learned about gangs, the internet, and their sexual identities.

How the year for which you have data was the year that two of my students were so wracked by fear of deportation, depression and sleep deprivation from nightmares, that they could barely sit still and often fought with other students. How they became best of friends by year end. How one of them still visits me every September.

How that year most of my students worked harder than ever, (despite often being referred to as “the low class” or “lower level” within earshot of them), inspiring me and the teachers around us, despite the fact that many of these same students believed they could never go to college because of their immigration status.

How that year many of my students vaulted from a first to third and fourth grade reading levels but still only received a meaningless “1″ on their report cards because such growth is not valued by our current grading system.

How that was the year I quickly gained 6 new students from other countries and had my top 3 transferred out in January to general education classrooms because my school thankfully realized I shouldn’t have 32 students in a multilevel self-contained ESL class.

How the year for which you have data was the year that two of my students, twins who had come from China just the year before to live with parents they hadn’t seen since they were toddlers, finally started to speak in May. And smile. And make friends. How they kept in touch with me via edmodo for two years after leaving my school.

How that year I taught my class rudimentary American Sign Language for our research project; inspired and excited, they mostly taught themselves the Pledge of Allegiance, songs for our school play, John Lennon’s Imagine, and songs for graduation, all in ASL. Then we created an online video-translation dictionary using their first language, English, and ASL. They wrote scripts for skits we videotaped to teach many of these words in context.

**********

This year, my class represents seven countries, two continents, and three languages in one room. Together, they create a tapestry you can neither see, nor feel, nor imagine. I have students who grew up practicing Kung Fu and Tai Chi before school and now always get in trouble in gym for running. I have students in my fifth grade who never went to school before they crossed the US border last year or the year before. I have students who, although in fifth and fourth grade, are capable of doing 7th grade math while others are still learning to add and subtract well. I have a student who just came this year and is already reading on grade level.

I choose to revel in the richness this kind of diversity can bring to my classroom. The challenges, obstacles and pitfalls that teaching a group like this to work together, to learn, to create and grow both tire and thrill me. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel both excited and exhausted at the idea of tomorrow because of all that teaching a class like this entails.

But never will you be able to judge me or my students by one day or one test. Never will I give one iota of care about your tests, no matter how hard I work to help my students to do their best on it, knowing they aren’t meant to pass it because it is written far above their reading levels, and were written with native English speakers in mind. You can’t measure me as a teacher, because you haven’t imagined teachers like me or classes like mine. Their experiences are outside yours.

Tell me how important your data and tests are, and I will tell you how I don’t value your data because it tells me so little about my students yet so much about your educational system.

Your data says one thing: your system is what fails my students.

You can’t have too many word walls…

I have several word walls in my room. Aside from a math word wall and one for shared reading, I also have these: one is my area for words kids are always asking to spell, which includes mostly sight words, beneath that is my bunch of school-related visual word cards for newcomers. My primary word wall is the one with the trophy; on it are the “award-winning” tier 2 words that comes from read alouds, shared reading, conversations, etc. I also have listed “super synonyms”, which are to help kids discover more words for commonly-used words. For this, they suggest the word and we use a thesaurus to discover and list alternatives. Finally, on our window are the “boring” or most commonly-used words we are trying to use less.

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Mobile Math Word Wall — watch it grow!

In the spirit of sharing, I thought I would post pictures of how I adapted the math tip shared at our school that Mr. Ray shares here on his blog. The suggestion was to put unit vocabulary words on a sentence strip or yard stick that can be walked around with, shared, kept close and accessible, etc.

The one in the photo below is for the fourth and fifth grade unit on fractions. I also gave the kids a sheet to paste into their books for when they write about math.

I include visuals, numbers, and words, so students can relate and apply what they see when they read the math. I hang it in the meeting area at their eye level so it is easy for them to reference.

It is a growing word “wall”, so with each new lesson, I add a new word since my ELLs would get easily overwhelmed if I just threw all of these at them at once. Today I added “simplifying/simplest form” (not pictured), with the division symbol on it.

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Making Real Time for Diversity

“Chinese music,” he said to me, wrinkling his nose and pointing at my speakers where cumbia bounces out, as we celebrated Hispanic Heritage music.

“In January,” I suggested spontaneously.

There is nothing in the curriculum to celebrate China, but with 4 Chinese students who act as if they feel quite ostracized from the Spanish-speaking majority in my class, I decide on the spot that I must bring a balance. Recently, we were celebrating Hispanic Heritage and attended a student-created assembly. It was almost entirely in Spanish, and each class was expected to learn the Spanish theme song. I have to say I honestly felt conflicted by this.

While I think it’s good for all of my students to be exposed to Spanish, I think my Chinese students feel overexposed to it in their community. In some schools, the ELLs are the minority. In my teaching experience, the minorities have been the students who don’t speak Spanish. Plus, because of the higher percentage of Spanish ELLs, addressing the needs or supporting the language of Spanish ELLs has overall been a no-brainer, but for non-Spanish ELLs, it can be a true nightmare for the newcomer and their teacher to find ways to communicate.

I have even had the experience where schools couldn’t afford to hire chinese translators for Parent Teacher Conferences, and I fear this just reinforces for the parents that communicating with them is not as much of a priority. Either because it isn’t easy or because Chinese isn’t seen as important; they can’t tell the difference.

So, while I believe diversity concerns need to be addressed more deeply than just through things like holidays or food, etc., it is a start. But, whether your minority are ELLs or another specific grouping, or even if your number of boys largely outnumber your girls, finding ways for their lives and voices to come through are necessary for the classroom culture, but also for their own individual and emerging sense of self.

So, it’s unfortunate that the opportunities for this aren’t explicitly given support and time in teachers’ packed curriculums. It can often be difficult to do things like celebrate a minority culture without just giving it lip-service with a pre-made bulletin board or crash-course on a holiday.

If diversity is built into the curriculum at your school, or you have the freedom to do so in your class, what have been your successes?

Letter: Answers from a New Mama Who Teaches

This is the first in a series of letters I will be exchanging with one of my colleagues on a variety of issues.

Dear Mr. Ray,

Last night, during Parent Teacher Conferences, I was sitting across the table from a student of mine and her father. She looks so much like him! He told me how much he works while still always making time to practice math with his girls, and how he came here a year ago from Santo Domingo with his three daughters and, you know, I looked at their faces and I saw my husband with our daughter; I could see the same ambition, dedication and passion for better in their faces.

Reading your letter reminded me of an old song from U2, “Some Days Are Better Than Others.” But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

How do I balance being a new mom and teacher? Am I the same teacher as before? Better? Worse?

Motherhood is a new kind of mirror that has let me see myself as a teacher in new and deeper ways. But balance? Well, if you were to follow me around daily I think you’d see a lack of balance. With that word, I imagine someone serene and calm even in the midst of chaos. That was me in previous years; no matter the burden or inane task, I had a smile on my face.

I’m still smiling but now I am constantly multitasking in ways I honestly didn’t think possible; during preps I pump so my daughter continues to benefit from my milk, and when I’m home feeding her, (we often lay down in bed, thus hands free), I often check my work email or prep for the next day. I live with constant guilt that I am short-changing somebody, usually my daughter. At home, I get about an hour to eat, plan, and sit still until she needs to be put to bed. This means I go to bed too since she won’t sleep without me yet (fine by me since I then get to enjoy being totally present with her).

Notice I say “go to bed” since I don’t get to sleep more than 2-3 hours!

I feel sometimes like I went from being called a colleague’s touchstone to a whirlwind.

Gone are the nights and weekends full of creative chart-making, or innovation, or researching ESL lessons or strategies I might incorporate. Now my commute is where I try to research or blog.

But, despite all that, I do actually feel like I’m a better teacher. Now that I am forced to organize my time well, I don’t waste a single second, and while my heart aches for my daughter and wish I was home with her every moment, I am even more passionate about my profession than I was before.

My memory may have shrunk but my perspective on what I do has expanded.

Having a child has led me to look at myself or my lessons and think, “How would I want someone to teach my daughter this? How would I want her teacher to react over this?”, etc. My passions are much more personal, so in that way they are stronger.

I more clearly see what makes me a unique or effective teacher and what are the things, whether they are personal weaknesses or paperwork, that get in the way of that. (Yet, still, I’m often the one, surprised, saying, “Ohh, huh, that’s true” when someone points out the redundancy or “unnecessary extra” in our ever-growing responsibilities. I guess this camel’s back is unaware of the individual straws).

Also, as I get to know myself as a mother, I’m finding new ways to reflect on myself as a teacher. Like, I guess I’m more holistic than micro-manager. I’m more “she’ll learn how to sleep alone and through the night when she is ready”, rather than “these kids need to know how to XYZ by this preconceived date.” I notice and appreciate the details of the emerging people before me because I’m now experiencing all the amazing things they once learned to do as babies. I am just as passionate about explicitly teaching the skills and knowledge they need to be full participants in society, but I also know how there is a symbiosis between what I teach and what they are ready for. There is research everywhere that can prove almost anything.

It’s funny, because I used to think about this question all the time; other teachers, assuming I had no patience or empathy for my students, always used to say, “Oh, once you have kids, you’ll be a different teacher. You’ll see; you’ll be easier on them.”

Truth is, I believe I have always been very empathetic to their situation as learners in a new country, new language, etc., and I have never tired of having to repeat my words or re-demonstrate something because I know children need repetition. I never expected them to act like mini-adults. Second chances were always available in my room. But to me, this was common sense. Now I see it as the nurturing they still need, and rather than seeing it as a “scaffold”, I see it as a way of life.

So, am I better? Worse? I guess we can say I’m reinventing my concept of “balance”!

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Because It’s Simply Not About Me.

The first thing I notice is her little mouth, open toward me, with her eyes still squeezed tight with the remnants of sleep. Even in the dark room, I can still see. Her little body rocks, having grown stronger with the ability to turn over, eagerly awaiting la leche. Every morning, somewhere between 2 and 4 am, this is our ritual. She begins to stir, just slightly, so I know she needs to be fed. And although I haven’t slept for more than two consecutive hours in 5 months, I cherish these moments. I look forward to these quiet times, just the two of us, as the world outside our window continues to slumber.

I’m tired all the time. I have the worst memory ever. But my life has never been richer, my emotions never deeper, and my hopes never stronger and more vulnerable since having my daughter.

In many ways, this is also how I feel as a teacher; hopeful and seeing life in new ways with each child I interact with, and eager to continue, despite the bottomless exhaustion. And I wouldn’t be the teacher I am if I weren’t connected, through blogging, to other educators; educators from as close as NJ and as far as Europe, whom I have come to admire. Blogging has changed my world because of the people I have come to know; people who have taught me ways to be better in my craft, but also ways to recognize when what I’m doing is worthy of repeating and writing about.

Although I have been blogging for years, I began my first teacher blog the moment I joined the profession. I was leaving a treasured profession behind, as well as a decade of work as a too passionate “serve the people” activist, and I thought there was nothing more valuable I could do if I wasn’t protesting or organizing people to act in the interest of humanity. I was entering teaching hoping it would fill that void for me. It was about me, and blogging was my way of making sense of it all, and it was the blogging community of educators who gave me a sense of belonging to something much bigger than myself, and made me see that teaching and being a good teacher was meaningful, and ultimately not about me.

I was able to see beyond myself, beyond my school’s walls and place this new “job” of educating children into a much bigger, more complex and vivd picture. Since I came to teaching via a nontraditional route, it made sense that my “education” was nontraditional too. I learned from you: readers and edubloggers the world over.

It is luck, really, that led me into teaching, with the low percentage of people who make it into the NYCTF, and it was luck that got me my job when other principals didn’t seem willing to take a chance on a career-changing journalist who wanted to teach ESL. But it was blogging, and not luck, that led me to value what it means to teach children, what it means to be part of a union of professionals, and to be in the oldest and often least respected jobs.

It is too easy to lose sight of our importance in this world, and lose ourselves in the vast needs we see in front of us, without each other. Blogging has changed my world by both making it bigger and bringing it in closer. In those wee morning hours, when I lay my daughter back down to sleep and get dressed in total darkness, I know I am getting ready to do something important. I don’t feel part of a daily grind, even while some would like us to just be abiding cogs in a wheel.

As a teacher, and now as a mother, I am inspired knowing that my life simply isn’t about me anymore. It’s about the faces I see in front of me, whether it be at 3am, or 8am, and it’s about the world they so desperately need to understand so that, one day, they can indeed change it.

This post was inspired by Matt Ray and the Rockstar Meme– how blogging rocked your world. Now I’d love to hear from: @used2bprincipal, a former principal whose opinion I value greatly and who taught me self-respect as a teacher, jd2718, a teacher blogger who influences and inspires me, @naomishema, a blogger I like to read, @KKSorrell, who I have interacted with ao my laflecha blog, and who I enjoy reading, and Mike Harrison, an EFL teacher across the pond who helped make Twitter a welcoming place for newbies like me, and helped me realize my colleagues span the globe :)