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].

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.