Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is an English teacher in Minneapolis, MN, and in May of 2014 was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He writes and speaks about Teaching, Advocacy, and lessons from the classroom that can be applied outside of education.


To book Tom for speaking or training, email: mrtomrad@gmail.com, Twitter: @mrtomrad

How I Chose a Major

My cousin Alex wrote this letter to his younger sister as she got ready to head off to college.  He’s got a great voice and great message.

How I Chose a Major.

My name is Alex. I am 50% German, 1.6% Sioux, and I grew up in the great land of Wisconsin. I am in college.

Questions that people ask me frequently include: What are you studying? What do you want to do with your education? Is there any beer left?

To answer the first, I major in a mouthful: Supply Chain Management and Entrepreneurship with minors in Social Entrepreneurship and Music Industry. In my free time, I am normally either learning (and subsequently babbling) about environmental sustainability, literally stopping to smell the roses, or playing tunes with Royale [the band] (#indoctrination #shamelessplug #clickhere4tunes). My minors, which take up the smallest chunk of my undergraduate workload, take up the largest chunk of my personal life and are the areas in which I am actually planning career and life options.

Most of the businesspeople and business students I have met through my education are very different from myself. They communicate with professional business courtesies, they are driven and motivated by money, and, without giving thought to many long-term implications, they love when consumers consume.

The people I live with, on the other hand, are exactly like me. They would be more than happy to televisually absorb BBC’s Planet Earth for hours, they conduct scientific studies comparing intoxication level to hangover severity, they take their sweet time moving from place to place, and they love, like I do, to create more than they consume, whether it be music, dance, dinner, community, or anything else that they have the skills to create.

I’m not by any means suggesting that I or my friends are “better people” than the financiers with whom I study or the corporate employers for whom I have worked. Everyone in the world can agree on things like “I want to have a comfortable life” or “I want my children to go to college” or even “We are doing illogical, shortsighted, self-endangering things to the planet, and if we don’t stop, no one will be comfortable or go to college because we will all be quite dead.” However, everyone comes from different life circumstances, has access to different information, and has different ways of understanding and addressing these challenges.

The core reason I settled on my choice of friends is because they share all of my languages: English, science, music, art, environmental consciousness, humor, and ambitions. The reason I chose my major is because almost all of my professors and classmates speak few, if any, of my languages. So , I look at every single day I spend with them as a day of educating myself how to understand other people’s languages: profit, investments, accounting, corporations, politics, and money.

To answer the second question, kindly allow me to ramble a little more.

People usually assume that you go to school to study your passions, then you graduate and hopefully get a job in that field, but I believe that this type of learning strategy in any subject is less well-rounded, less eye-opening, and unfortunately makes people less likely to predict and control their career, their success, and their happiness.

I chose to study things I don’t understand instead of my passions, which I naturally pursue outside of class. Hopefully, I will translate all of that learning into a career through which I convince as many people as possible to consume less of Earth’s limited resources and create more uniquely human achievements like equality, art, literature, music, or community, all of which are unlimited. I want to make a positive, lasting impact on the world through my career and life, but I have realized that if I alienate people that don’t think or interact the way I do, then my impact is going to be limited only to the Alexes of the world.

No matter what major you end up choosing, if you want to make an impact in any career, make sure it makes you well-rounded as a person. Realistically, it takes a lifetime to become qualified in any area of expertise. Chances are that I won’t be a qualified social entrepreneur when I graduate, nor will I instantly be a professional musician. Chances are that Simba never would have toppled Scar’s totalitarian regime had he not eaten that first slimy grub. Your classwork and formal education is important as a way of proving to others that you have the foundation for a successful career, but all of your memorable, meaningful education is inevitably going to come from your interactions with other people and your understanding of what connects them.

To answer the third question, let’s examine some key facts.

Fact #1: I am in college.

Fact #2: I am from Wisconsin.

So nope, I guess that means there is no beer left. These new developments lead me to the conclusion that it is time to stop writing and start beer-running.

Enjoy college!

Like They Own the Place

During the last days of school, I did very little but play basketball.  My district was making up cold/snow days from the winter, and had already finished finals, so students had a wide range of choice classes they could attend.  I signed up for open gym because I thought some running would do me some good and help me shake bad habits picked up during cold/snow days.  

Halfway through the day, a student was walked over from one of the K-3 classes to sit.  The other staff member in the gym was the behavior specialist, and the boy was placed in his care.  The boy sat and watched everyone play basketball for about an hour, and then he walked back to class with us.  High school students took turns sitting next to him, being sweet in a way that high school students don’t often get a chance to be.

I have no idea what the student did, but I know he is often asked to do something similar to this.  He’s a rambunctious, wild young boy, but that’s only part of the issue.  There are plenty of wild boys on that floor who don’t end up sitting out of class, but those boy’s wildness is called wild, where this boy’s wildness is read as insubordination. On a few occasions, I’ve heard adults who work with him upset at his behavior, but not generally at any disruptive, rude, or violent behavior.  “He acts,” they lament, “like he owns the place.”

When I heard the comment the first time it raised no flags for me, but during those last days of school, playing in the gym with one of our few black staff members and a good majority of our black students, it hit me how few black spaces there are in school.  It occurred to me that the implication of the comment, “he acts like he owns the place” is that he is absolutely not allowed to own the place, that maybe one of the primary things keeping this boy from a sense of belonging at school may well be his belief that he belongs at school.

I heard the same refrain this year often directed at a student in the high school as well.  I was apt to agree during the year, because I was doing a very poor job of teaching that student.  Imagining that my failure was a fault of her hubris was an easy out, and I should know better by now that cheap wins in teaching often come at the large expense of someone else.

This girl battles with many of her teachers, at least those classrooms where teachers have not bought her good behavior with offers of food and diminished expectations for work.  This girl doesn’t just act like she owns the place, she is very forward about saying so. She takes the pieces that she thinks she needs, and ignores a lot of the stuff she thinks is pointless. These are not bad qualities outside of school, but she acts like she owns the place, and so the reaction of many teachers, and I have been guilty of it, is to make sure she understands that she is not in charge, and so there are battles.  It’s as if, as educators, we believe that teaching and learning must be accompanied by subservience.

The boy and girl are black, and I can’t help but think of comments made about white boys and girls that act like they own the place.  They are our future teachers, future leaders, our little principal, our little president.  Still, I am sure, we would like to believe this isn’t about race.

It’s as if, as educators, we are ok with promoting equity so long as equity is still something we get to give to the black kids.

I know there are more issues here than just the race of the young man.  I’m also not in his classroom, so it’s impossible for me to say exactly what is going on.  Certainly, whoever sent him to the gym would argue that the decision was not about race, and perhaps it wasn’t entirely.  Racism, especially systemic racism, is sometimes hard to spot and easy to ignore because systems are complex.  There is very rarely only one thing going on.

 In conversations about race, it’s important to isolate race, because it’s far too easy to make conversations about race about any other thing. Next time you’re in a room of educators and systemic racism comes up, grab a stopwatch and see how long it takes for the conversation to turn into one about poverty.  Of course poverty cannot be ignored when we talk about making schools better, but poverty and race are different things, and talking about one is never the same as talking about both.  Isolating race is not the same as ignoring all other factors and assuming race is always the only thing at play.  

If we are really anti-racists, and if we are really serious about eliminating racial disparities, then we need to be serious about isolating and addressing the way that race shapes our personal reactions, how the systems we support create or encourage the disparities we are trying to end.  

I notice parallels in the treatment of those students to recent attacks on my school’s principal, a black man.  Again, I don’t think race is the only factor at play in some people’s complaints, but when the group directing the attacks are all white (so far as I know), and when our black families are predominantly voicing strong support for the principal, the program, and the great good the schools do for their children, it’s hard to imagine there isn’t a racial component at play.

There is pushback to policies and cultural shifts that are ever so slightly chipping away at the whiteness of our building.  My principal for years tried to establish that the office was not a place that would simply dole out punishments to students. Instead, he, and the behavioral team, focused on doing what was necessary to get them back in class.  Some staff refused to support the method or even acknowledge the shift in philosophy had been repeatedly communicated and reinforced.  

It’s as if, as educators, we talk big on equity so long as it doesn’t impact our own white space or change the experience of our own white children.  

With staff and administration working with different goals, students suffered with a lack of consistency and a lot of confusion.  In the minds of those speaking out, this was entirely the fault of the principal, and not a problem shared by everyone involved.  This pattern has been repeated again and again over the last few years while a small group of teachers dismisses or intentionally blockades efforts that may by their success make the principal look better, and then places what struggles the school has entirely on his shoulders.  When he shows up smiling, he is cast as smug.  When he is quiet, he is criticized for not speaking, and when he takes leadership, he is decried for taking away teacher voice.

Again and again, we are told of his personal life, but I don’t believe anyone is really upset about that.  Scandal was recognized as a powerful weapon, a means to achieve what bringing their real concerns could not.  And so, to bolster their claims for change in our school, they have focused on casting our principal as an over-sexualized predator.  Still, they would say, this has nothing to do with race.

It was not always so.  In the first few of his years in the district, staff was broadly behind him.  He was new, young, and more unsure in his approach.  As he grew in confidence (read as egotism) and in vision (which often challenged white privileged norms), he found success. Our school, with him as our leader, gained national attention and recognition.  He won a large award, was the subject of a glowing profile in the Star Tribune, was asked to conferences and colleges to speak and teach.  Soon enough, the same call, “like he owns the place” came.  Shortly after came the attacks, the assumptions, the near obsession from some staff of where is he is during every moment of the day, what he’s doing with every moment of his night.  Still, they would say, this has nothing to do with race.

A few staff members and parents formed a group, veiled themselves in anonymity, and began to consistently attack the personal life, intentions, quality of the principal.  The anonymous claims were impossible to verify, and because the accusers kept themselves unknown, there was no chance of debate or discussion, no way to examine their own personal experience, biases, or perspective.  A facebook group was started so that anonymous claims about the personal life and professional shortcomings of the principal could be made publicly.  A reporter took up their cause and began writing articles that read like gossip columns, and a lawyer was hired to do the speaking for the group in public.  So a group of white people from law, media, and others under the veil of anonymity sought the embarrassment and punishment of a black man.  Still, they would say, this is not at all about race.

There’s been so much energy spent on personal attacks representing the narrow agenda of a few staff members.  One reason given for keeping their anonymity is the fear of being branded a racist as they call publicly for the removal of one of the few black male leaders in the region from leading one of the few schools in the country whose primary focus is racial equity. Still, they would say, this has nothing to do with race.

These are not bad people.  These are people who care deeply about the school community they are part of, and are doing what they see is best.  These are not people, to the extent that I know them, that get angry for no reason.  I know some of them to be good and committed teachers, and some of the parents involved have done an incredible amount for our schools over many years of volunteering and support.  The reporter is often a very good one, and a good writer at that.  I’m not calling anyone a racist, because I don’t see what good that does, just like defences of just how not-racist you are do not help to uncover how race may be an important part of what’s happening.

When we play a game of attacking and defending, we’ve stopped talking.

When we look for racism in schools, we so often look at numbers, at disparities in performance, in graduation, in suspension and expulsion rates.  We look at the low numbers of people of color, especially of black men, entering the profession, staying, and leading.  It’s easy to get in a room, to look at the numbers, and to say that this is not good enough.

It is the real and personal ways we treat, we see, and we conflict with black children in our schools create the numbers we wring our hands about and say our pledges to end.  We need to do better at unpacking each part of our day, of understanding the pieces, how economics, gender, and sexual identity play their roles.  But when we are looking to end racial disparities, we need to focus on race, and focus on how race plays a role in the creation of those numbers.

What I see, in my school and in the broader discussion of race in schools, are lines being drawn.  Anonymous allegations from one camp are met with sometimes-anonymous name-calling from another.  I see people so focused on being right and winning they lose sight of the biggest problems we face.  I see people digging in for a battle of bruised egos and absolutes that has little chance of solving anything.

Surely, we are better problem solvers than this.  Surely, as educators, with a product more important than any of its pieces, we can do better than follow the model of not-nearly-enough from places where politics and power games are being played.  Surely, as educators, we can raise our willingness to speak with honesty and respect, and to listen in the same way.  Surely, as educators, we can understand that we all have to own these places together.

Things I’ve Learned at the End of the Year.

In the last few days, I’ve talked to probably a hundred or more teachers nearing the ends of their school years.   I’ve learned many things.

I learned that many teachers are feeling the end of the year.  Those days of infinite possibility and shiny everything from the beginning of the year are long ago.  The days of “maybe this year” or “if we could just…” have become “hopefully next,” and “I guess we didn’t.”

I’ve learned many teachers are tired. Some feel defeated. I know that the day just after the school year ends is one of the easiest to feel productive and successful, but all the days just before are some of the hardest.

I’ve learned that many teachers have a balance sheet somewhere, in their homes or phones or tucked somewhere in their desks.  On one side of that sheet are the kids, the families, the co-workers they know and love.  There’s the sense of duty and possibility inherent in the work.  It’s a hefty, hefty side.  I’ve learned that many teachers are feeling the other side catch up or outweigh the faces of their last year or ten years.  I’ve learned it really means something when teachers decide to leave.  

I mean, really, it means something when teachers decide to leave.  No teacher does so easily, no teacher does so without the weight of it, and no teacher does so for no good reason, and still, at the end of the year, it is on the minds of many.

I’ve learned that the teacher, any teacher, in your life could use a hug.  Teaching would be easy if not for all the humans.  Teaching would be glorious if not for some of the adults involved.

I’ve learned the end of the year is the heartbreak of teachers leaving, the uncertainty of teachers staying, and the exploding pride of students moving on all wrapped in the consuming worry that maybe you didn’t do enough for any of them.

I’ve learned, I knew, teaching is tough on teachers and lives and families.  Teaching asks the impossible of teachers and backs its request with the faces of children who need you.

I’ve learned most teachers are tired not because of the work they did, but because of the walls they and their kids ran into.  I’ve learned those walls are stubborn, but we increasingly have numbers.

I met a group of teachers, heading into the summer before their first year, hungry and frightened and fantastic, talking about capital “E” Education while the specter of their first very own room shook itself, mean and glorious behind their eyes.  

I learned that new teachers remind me of all the reasons I love to teach, of all the possibilities of education.  

I learned that writing about new teachers reminds me of why I stopped trying to write poems, of all the tortured imagery of my optimism.

I learned that new teachers should be listened to, really listened to, because they have things to say.

I’ve learned there is no shortage of good thinkers, but there may be a shortage of good microphones.

I’ve learned, I knew, teaching attracts the very best of us, brings out the very best of us, and only feels easy on the days between the end and the next beginning.  I remembered that my next year is as full of possibility as my first.

Things I’ve Learned at the End of the Year.

In the last few days, I’ve talked to probably a hundred or more teachers nearing the ends of their school years.   I’ve learned many things.

I learned that many teachers are feeling the end of the year.  Those days of infinite possibility and shiny everything from the beginning of the year are long ago.  The days of “maybe this year” or “if we could just…” have become “hopefully next,” and “I guess we didn’t.”

I’ve learned many teachers are tired. Some feel defeated. I know that the day just after the school year ends is one of the easiest to feel productive and successful, but all the days just before are some of the hardest.

I’ve learned that many teachers have a balance sheet somewhere, in their homes or phones or tucked somewhere in their desks.  On one side of that sheet are the kids, the families, the co-workers they know and love.  There’s the sense of duty and possibility inherent in the work.  It’s a hefty, hefty side.  I’ve learned that many teachers are feeling the other side catch up or outweigh the faces of their last year or ten years.  I’ve learned it really means something when teachers decide to leave.  

I mean, really, it means something when teachers decide to leave.  No teacher does so easily, no teacher does so without the weight of it, and no teacher does so for no good reason, and still, at the end of the year, it is on the minds of many.

I’ve learned that the teacher, any teacher, in your life could use a hug.  Teaching would be easy if not for all the humans.  Teaching would be glorious if not for some of the adults involved.

I’ve learned the end of the year is the heartbreak of teachers leaving, the uncertainty of teachers staying, and the exploding pride of students moving on all wrapped in the consuming worry that maybe you didn’t do enough for any of them.

I’ve learned, I knew, teaching is tough on teachers and lives and families.  Teaching asks the impossible of teachers and backs its request with the faces of children who need you.

I’ve learned most teachers are tired not because of the work they did, but because of the walls they and their kids ran into.  I’ve learned those walls are stubborn, but we increasingly have numbers.

I met a group of teachers, heading into the summer before their first year, hungry and frightened and fantastic, talking about capital “E” Education while the specter of their first very own room shook itself, mean and glorious behind their eyes.  

I learned that new teachers remind me of all the reasons I love to teach, of all the possibilities of education.  

I learned that writing about new teachers reminds me of why I stopped trying to write poems, of all the tortured imagery of my optimism.

I learned that new teachers should be listened to, really listened to, because they have things to say.

I’ve learned there is no shortage of good thinkers, but there may be a shortage of good microphones.

I’ve learned, I knew, teaching attracts the very best of us, brings out the very best of us, and only feels easy on the days between the end and the next beginning.  I remembered that my next year is as full of possibility as my first.

Be Good to the Weird Kids.

Be good to the weird kids.  Teachers, be good to the weird kids.

Because it’s hard enough to stand out, hard enough when peers feel the need to point or exclude, to say in so many ways, “you are different, you are different, you are different than us.”

Because a kid who dresses in all black isn’t broken, and neither is one who dresses like the bad kids on tv, or like no one else in the world. Because mental illness is not the only thing going on with anyone.  Because it’s ok to be ridiculously into something that other people don’t understand.  Because disabilities don’t define.  Because ‘weird’ often means ‘you don’t fill my expectations of you,’ which is often really a good thing.

Because sometimes kids are pregnant.  Sometimes kids are a different skin color than everyone else, or just different than you.  Sometimes kids speak different languages or speak the same language in different ways.

Because being a gender queer kid with short hair and a feminine name is hard enough, and holding hands with the only kid who gets it is sometimes a political statement, and sometimes is just the very human need for affection and acceptance, and neither is a reason to be yelled at.

Because if teachers were honest with themselves, they would admit they enforce more rules on kids who make them uncomfortable, especially when they don’t notice it.  Because maybe the kids who so often have to stand up for themselves need us to stand with them.

Because being loud is ok, and so is being quiet, and so is being awkward or ridiculous or goofy or serious.  Because there is no way to be that is the best way.

Because the thing that makes them weird may be the thing that makes them feel comfortable in their skin.

Because students read our reactions and take our cues, and without realizing it, we can encourage kids being awful to each other when we smile at the right time, dismiss someone at the wrong time, let things go that need to be addressed.

Because teachers can encourage bad behavior when they talk about kids bringing behavior down on themselves because of the way they dress, talk, or act.  Because there are no people who deserve to be treated poorly because of who they are, and sometimes that gets forgotten in our hallways and staff meetings.

Because check your job description, and check your judgements, and check your privilege.  We get tired and when we get tired students look less like a whole lot of humans and more like a single problem, and outliers are issues.  We have students who need us to care about them, even when they make it hard to do so.
Teachers, be good to the weird kids, because it’s easy to be good to the good kids but they may not be the kids who need it most.

Be Good to the Weird Kids.

Be good to the weird kids.  Teachers, be good to the weird kids.

Because it’s hard enough to stand out, hard enough when peers feel the need to point or exclude, to say in so many ways, “you are different, you are different, you are different than us.”

Because a kid who dresses in all black isn’t broken, and neither is one who dresses like the bad kids on tv, or like no one else in the world. Because mental illness is not the only thing going on with anyone.  Because it’s ok to be ridiculously into something that other people don’t understand.  Because disabilities don’t define.  Because ‘weird’ often means ‘you don’t fill my expectations of you,’ which is often really a good thing.

Because sometimes kids are pregnant.  Sometimes kids are a different skin color than everyone else, or just different than you.  Sometimes kids speak different languages or speak the same language in different ways.

Because being a gender queer kid with short hair and a feminine name is hard enough, and holding hands with the only kid who gets it is sometimes a political statement, and sometimes is just the very human need for affection and acceptance, and neither is a reason to be yelled at.

Because if teachers were honest with themselves, they would admit they enforce more rules on kids who make them uncomfortable, especially when they don’t notice it.  Because maybe the kids who so often have to stand up for themselves need us to stand with them.

Because being loud is ok, and so is being quiet, and so is being awkward or ridiculous or goofy or serious.  Because there is no way to be that is the best way.

Because the thing that makes them weird may be the thing that makes them feel comfortable in their skin.

Because students read our reactions and take our cues, and without realizing it, we can encourage kids being awful to each other when we smile at the right time, dismiss someone at the wrong time, let things go that need to be addressed.

Because teachers can encourage bad behavior when they talk about kids bringing behavior down on themselves because of the way they dress, talk, or act.  Because there are no people who deserve to be treated poorly because of who they are, and sometimes that gets forgotten in our hallways and staff meetings.

Because check your job description, and check your judgements, and check your privilege.  We get tired and when we get tired students look less like a whole lot of humans and more like a single problem, and outliers are issues.  We have students who need us to care about them, even when they make it hard to do so.


Teachers, be good to the weird kids, because it’s easy to be good to the good kids but they may not be the kids who need it most.

My favorite section of the Teacher of the Year application materials was the “Additional Evidence.”  After a student reached out to me at the beginning of the year to tell me my English class helped him on a path to some awesome physics work, I asked him to take a picture “in front of some physics stuff.”  Word got spread, and I got to hear from very many fantastic former students.

I’m Not A Reformer

I have a student, a sophomore, who has been at times victim to a racist system that does not expect or support her brilliance, to sexist policies that do not value her strength, to homophobic bullying, to disengaged teaching, to threats of violence and the violence of invisibility.  She is one student, and she does not need school reform.
She is one student, not an amalgam of many.  She is a real person, the person I see when I dedicate myself to staying in the classroom, the person who I say, “just until she graduates.”  She is one in a line of last ones, and there are more that will be there after that keep me in the classroom, keep me engaged, and keep me angry.
I have students who are asked to participate in power struggles with adults that hold the power of the building they stand in; a building that should exist solely to give opportunity to that student.  
I have students asked to convince the adults around them of their full humanity, and students who stand up, and students who are still ignored.  Those students don’t need reform. 
I have a student, I have ten and have had a hundred students who look to school to be the only safety, the only stability, the only warmth in their lives.  I have students with promise, with intelligence, with creativity who are failing.  I have students who have schools that make them cry, who have schools that do not recognize their gender, their sexuality, their culture, their family, their language; who have schools who tell them they don’t talk right or dress right or act right.  My students don’t need reform. 
I know teachers who are struggling and teachers being made to struggle.  I see a system that requires too much ridiculous before you can get to things that makes sense.  I see teachers struggling towards distant solutions that are already long overdue.
It’s so easy to feel like I’ve done nothing, or not nearly enough, which is good.  If I felt like I was doing enough with so many problems left to fix, I’d be fooling myself.  I’d be complicit.  My room is a universe will conflicts and accomplishments on the scale of angels and monsters, of armies and gods.  It is large enough, too large perhaps, to fulfill me professionally, to provide challenges and rewards enough for a career and a life, but it is a piece of a building, a piece of a district and a state and a country whose systems shape the room I teach in and the students I see.  My universe is enough for me, but focusing on my room alone is not enough for my students.  
The thing is there’s this job we do, this calling we have, and there’s a profession to steward, and there’s this world of education, and at the center of all those things, there’s these kids.
Fighting for the schools that kids deserve means fighting battles on many fronts while making sure your room fulfills the promise of your convictions.  Don’t worry though, it’s actually harder than that sounds.
We need teachers who are revolutionaries, which is much less hard than it sounds, because teaching is already a revolutionary act.  Each act of true teaching, of nurturing, educating, inspiring a mind to do a thing it has not done before is a revolutionary act.  We need that, only that, every day, all day long, from everyone.  That’s all, except it’s not.
Teachers do so much, incredibly so much work, but we need to do more.  There’s too many battles out there that need to be fought, and teachers need to be there.  Teachers need to look out of our classrooms at what shapes our student’s experience with the same kind of intensity, intelligence and reflection that we use to create experience in our own rooms, departments and schools.  We must be agents and not recipients of change.
My students don’t need reform, and so I am not a reformer.  My students don’t need reform, they need schools that deserve them.  My students don’t need reform, because reform is not enough.  They don’t need reformers in their classrooms, in their hallways, in the front offices and district offices of their schools. My students don’t need reform, they need a revolution.

I’m Not A Reformer

I have a student, a sophomore, who has been at times victim to a racist system that does not expect or support her brilliance, to sexist policies that do not value her strength, to homophobic bullying, to disengaged teaching, to threats of violence and the violence of invisibility.  She is one student, and she does not need school reform.

She is one student, not an amalgam of many.  She is a real person, the person I see when I dedicate myself to staying in the classroom, the person who I say, “just until she graduates.”  She is one in a line of last ones, and there are more that will be there after that keep me in the classroom, keep me engaged, and keep me angry.

I have students who are asked to participate in power struggles with adults that hold the power of the building they stand in; a building that should exist solely to give opportunity to that student.  

I have students asked to convince the adults around them of their full humanity, and students who stand up, and students who are still ignored.  Those students don’t need reform.

I have a student, I have ten and have had a hundred students who look to school to be the only safety, the only stability, the only warmth in their lives.  I have students with promise, with intelligence, with creativity who are failing.  I have students who have schools that make them cry, who have schools that do not recognize their gender, their sexuality, their culture, their family, their language; who have schools who tell them they don’t talk right or dress right or act right.  My students don’t need reform.

I know teachers who are struggling and teachers being made to struggle.  I see a system that requires too much ridiculous before you can get to things that makes sense.  I see teachers struggling towards distant solutions that are already long overdue.

It’s so easy to feel like I’ve done nothing, or not nearly enough, which is good.  If I felt like I was doing enough with so many problems left to fix, I’d be fooling myself.  I’d be complicit.  My room is a universe will conflicts and accomplishments on the scale of angels and monsters, of armies and gods.  It is large enough, too large perhaps, to fulfill me professionally, to provide challenges and rewards enough for a career and a life, but it is a piece of a building, a piece of a district and a state and a country whose systems shape the room I teach in and the students I see.  My universe is enough for me, but focusing on my room alone is not enough for my students.  

The thing is there’s this job we do, this calling we have, and there’s a profession to steward, and there’s this world of education, and at the center of all those things, there’s these kids.

Fighting for the schools that kids deserve means fighting battles on many fronts while making sure your room fulfills the promise of your convictions.  Don’t worry though, it’s actually harder than that sounds.

We need teachers who are revolutionaries, which is much less hard than it sounds, because teaching is already a revolutionary act.  Each act of true teaching, of nurturing, educating, inspiring a mind to do a thing it has not done before is a revolutionary act.  We need that, only that, every day, all day long, from everyone.  That’s all, except it’s not.

Teachers do so much, incredibly so much work, but we need to do more.  There’s too many battles out there that need to be fought, and teachers need to be there.  Teachers need to look out of our classrooms at what shapes our student’s experience with the same kind of intensity, intelligence and reflection that we use to create experience in our own rooms, departments and schools.  We must be agents and not recipients of change.


My students don’t need reform, and so I am not a reformer.  My students don’t need reform, they need schools that deserve them.  My students don’t need reform, because reform is not enough.  They don’t need reformers in their classrooms, in their hallways, in the front offices and district offices of their schools. My students don’t need reform, they need a revolution.

Reblogged from misterrad  94 notes
misterrad:


HACK YOUR SCHOOL
A guide for students, from a teacher.
Helpful hints from within the system of how to change your school for the better.
DISCLAIMER:
Actions have consequences.  Challenging existing power structures is not an activity often met with ice cream parties and awards.  You may have people frowning at you.  I cannot promise there are not punishments that go along with some of the things I will present as options.  It’s on you to do things right, to know your school and its rules, and to act in ways that you are ready to accept responsibility for.  Hopefully doing the first options of change well will remove the potential “you’re in trouble mister” options from the table.
This information is intended for (and, really, only useful for) positive action to create a better school for students.  Schools are not perfect places, and sometimes can be wholly awful places.  Though it should not be the student’s responsibility to fix things, sometimes nothing will happen until the wisdom, energy, and organization of young people make it happen.
Know Your Power
When I was in high school, I was a pain in the ass, and I was loud about it.  Some things I did well and were helpful, and some things were annoying enough to distract and deter from the intended goal, but both were important times to learn and grow.  Now, I’ve been teaching for a decently long while and wish I could send a letter to that kid with the pink hair writing articles and organizing protests in his friend’s basement.  That’s what this kinda is.
Let me tell you a secret that I doubt is really a secret.  Schools are scared of kids.  Kids make schools difficult places to run, difficult places to work in.  Kids are so human, so full of feelings and histories and constantly evolving lenses through which they see their world.  Teaching would be easy if there weren’t people involved, but, every day, there they are leaving their backpacks in weird places and falling in and out of love and hate and getting in actual tickle fights with the person next to them and then looking at you like, “well, why aren’t you teaching?”
I think teaching high school is pretty hard.  I’ve written about 50,000 words of a book in the last few months that, so far, could be titled, “teaching high school is hard, plus jokes.”  Teaching is tiring and frustrating work, but it’s work.  It’s a place I go to and a place I leave.  I think about teaching a lot when I’m not at school, but I don’t really need to.  So, teaching high school is pretty hard, but going to high school is a whole heck of a lot harder.
Going to high school means being surrounded by high schoolers, plus teachers, plus administrators and parents, all with a thousand expectations on how to act, dress, feel, think, not to mention what to read, what to write, and when, and how.  When you leave the school building, most of those expectations are still there.  Except for summer and select exceptional weekends, school is an unfairly large chunk of your whole life.  So, it’s worth having a school that you like.  Sometimes, that means screwing with the school that you have.
Also, you should understand that you have the right to a school that does not suck.  School sucks sometimes because it’s school, and because you’re a teenager, and because life.  Sorry.  That said, you do have rights.  Here’s a list of rights I think students have. Feel free to make your own better one.

STUDENT RIGHTS:
You have the right to a positive environment.
You have the right to be free from embarrassment, shaming, or screaming in your school day.
You have the right to have your identity, your passions, and your personal history affirmed.
You have the right to be heard.
You have the right to good classes, good teachers, and work that is good for you.
You have the right to be weird and still be treated like you belong.
You have the right to use changing your school as practice for changing the world.

If you feel like any of those things aren’t happening, then you have the right to ask and then demand and then work for and then jump up and down and stomp your feet until those things happen.  Here’s how.
Understand Your School
Before you start making change in your school, you need to understand as much as possible about how your school works.  This means understanding how the system works, what you can expect as far as support and resistance from people in different roles, and, above all else, understanding just how much power students have, so, let’s start there. 
It’s easy to imagine that students are at the bottom of the power ladder in a building.  They are subject to more rules with less input than anyone else, which is why there is so much work that needs to be done.  Students have things like detention and suspension, they are subject to grading, and as individuals need more from their school than their school needs from them.
A single student may struggle, but a group of students is the most powerful entity in a building.  Really. I promise.  It’s true, and schools hate when students start to figure that out.  Schools are given exactly the amount of power students collectively allow.  
Like I said, I was a pain in the ass when I was in high school.   I started an underground school newspaper that was critical of school policies (plus jokes).  I organized protests against deteriorating art budgets and fought the school on the censorship of materials in the library. In a high school of around 1,000 kids, about half the members of my school board knew me by first and last name, and I don’t think it was because they liked me very much.  Still, I didn’t push nearly as much as I could have because I was scared of what they would do to me.
Looking back from inside that structure, I realize now I could have done one whole heck of a lot more.  When it comes down to it, there’s almost nothing your school can do to you unless you break a rule or a something or attack someone.  Don’t do those things.
Really, seriously, don’t break stuff or hurt people.  I’m not discounting the whole history of violent rebellion in the world, but as much as your school may suck, your school is not a tool of fanatical fascism.  Your school is not stealing your family or cutting off any of your limbs, so long as you don’t break the big rules, and especially if you can manage to stay polite and keep a smile on your face, your school can do almost nothing but frown at you.  You can’t be suspended for disagreeing.  You can’t be suspended for asking questions or raising issues.  Your school should treat you fairly and respectfully.  If they don’t, fight (but not really) until they do.  Sometimes, that fight is easier if there are adults on your side.
It’s unfortunate and ageist and ridiculous, but sometimes one parent in a principal’s office is worth ten students.  It’s important to have parents behind you so that if the school is calling home with grumpiness, they have your back.  It’s important because parents may have easier access and a different audience if you can recruit them to your cause.  If your issue is the right sort of issue, you may find a friend in your school’s PTO, and certainly they should be interested in your side of whatever story needs to be told. 
Teachers are pretty restricted in terms of open rebellion.  This is my cop-out paragraph, and it’s going to be full of the same sorts of cop-outs you will likely hear from teachers.  Many teachers have family and mortgages.  It may be harsh, but they are not willing to risk those things to fight their bosses on hat rules.  When I was in high school, I had a few teachers that I knew were friendly to my various goals, and those teachers were profoundly helpful in talking through my plans with, in coaching my language on letters, and at least pointing me towards maps of the system I was trying to navigate.  When I asked them about their bosses, they would often smile, say they loved their bosses and every decision their bosses made, then show me a picture of their house with their family standing in front. 
In my high school, our fight was often with admin. Your situation may well be different though, and those bosses, the administration, may end up being a great help to you.  In fact, if you’re planning on being a student activist, it is not a bad idea to seek a positive relationship with your administrators along the way.  I’ve worked with some really brilliant people who run schools, and those people love to hear student voices and student concerns, and love to work with those students.  Principals are people too.  Reach out to them, be respectful and calm and informed.  Trips to the principal’s office are one heck of a lot better when you’ve asked to be there in the first place.
Once you’ve understood the school you’re in and the people around you, it’s time to pull a chair up backwards with a cup of hot chocolate and have a nice healthy chat with your very own special self and whatever minions you’ve gathered to your cause.  If you are angry, upset, offended or passionate about your cause, your instinct will be to sit and complain about said thing.  It feels good to say something is wrong in front of a group of people, and it feels even better when people in the room nod their heads.  Don’t get too caught up in this.  You have work to do, and your first job is to ask the best possible questions.
Ask the Right Questions
What is the root of the issue?
Lots more questions.  Is someone not being heard?  Not being represented?  Does the problem stem from mistreatment or from opportunities being limited?  To really fix something, you have to know more than what it is, you have to know where it’s coming from.
What do you want?  
Don’t stop at what you think is dumb, or what you think is wrong.  Come up with a plan for how things would be better, or how things could be instead.  Imagine the meetings you may have.  Will you be focused on solutions?  Will you bring new ideas to the table?  People shut down quickly when all you are doing is telling them they’re wrong, even if they are wrong.  People get defensive when you tell them they’ve screwed up, even (and especially) if they screwed up.  If you don’t need to establish past problems, don’t.  Focus on moving forward.  If all you’re looking for is an apology, you likely won’t get it, and if you do, an apology to you won’t help the next kid.
Will what you’re doing get you what you want?  
Anger feels righteous, and breaking rules is pretty fun, but will it accomplish your goals?  When I was a teenage rabble-rouser, I always wanted to jump first to whatever action was the most dramatic.  Sometimes those things worked, but often times it took a lot longer and a lot more compromise to change things after a loud, messy first attempt.  Keep your goal in mind, and make sure your plan is pointed at achieving that goal.
What is the scope of the issue? 
Is this a classroom problem, a building or district problem?  Is this regional, national or global?  If this is something just happening in your school, or just happening to you, you should look around and see if there are larger issues at play you can ally with.  If this is a global issue, finding global support may be easier, but you also need to figure out how you can make your issue personal and local to the people you are trying to convince.  There is no problem too big or too small for good work to be done, but you should be aware of the size of the problem at hand.
Does everyone have all the information?
If students are taking issue at the actions of a single teacher, great.  Before you move forward with massive protest, does that teacher know?  Does their boss?  Do they know, and do they know the whole story, and do you?  You have strength in your truth, but you compromise that strength when you only share it in pieces, or when you tailor it to different audiences.  Collect and distribute information to all stakeholders.  Doing so may just make everything move that much better as you move forward.  Information may solve the problem all on its own.
Take Action

Low Level Rucussing
Get Organized:
You can do this alone, I promise you, because you’re a beautiful magical snowflake and everything is possible.  Still, you should figure out if you have any support, and you should bring those supporters together.  Start a facebook group, an email chain, a twitter hashtag, whatever works for the people you are bringing together.  You could also, if people still do this, meet, like for real, so you can talk.  Organize your allies, your ideas, and your plan of action before you start.
Your group needs to decide:
1.)  What is the problem?
2.)  What needs to be done?
3.)  How should we do it?
Don’t do anything until everyone involved knows the answers to those questions and how you came to them.  Communication is organization, and organization is power.
Schedule a Meeting:
There are few great, productive options when you start agitating for change.  This means, like all great revolutionaries in history, you have to ask for a meeting. First and foremost, you need to give whoever has the ability to fix the problem a chance to fix the problem.  Figure out who that person is, and then make sure that person knows who you are.  That person may be a teacher, a staff member, a building administrator, a superintendent, the school board, or someone in the state government.  When I was your age, you little whipper-snapper, that meant writing a letter to a person who talked to the person who might be the person you want to talk to.  Now, you have e-mail, and e-mail kicks the ass of all but the most ridiculous bureaucracies.  Email someone in charge, introduce yourself, say a bit about the thing you are interested in changing, and ask for a meeting.  If they don’t respond in a day or two, email again.  If they don’t respond again, or respond in the negative, find out who that person’s boss is, and email that person instead.  Wash, rinse, repeat as necessary.
When you get a meeting, be sure to use it well.  The person you will be meeting with will most likely be a professional-meeting-being-atter.  They will want to drive the meeting to fit their needs.  Walk in knowing exactly what you want to say and not say.  Come with a plan, and look for resolutions, and don’t spend too long establishing there is a problem unless they need extra convincing.  Don’t waste their time, and don’t expect that everything will get fixed instantly.  They may need some time to think things over and talk to other people, and if you represent a group of people, you should make no final decisions without consulting them. There may need to be follow up meetings, which may sound super awesome, but be careful.  It’s very easy to confuse having a meeting with actually doing something.  Keep your eye on your goal, and keep working until it’s done.
Meeting To Do’s:
1.)  Know what you want said.
2.)  Be confident in your message.  Be courteous in your delivery.
3.)  Listen to what they say.
4.)  If they promise to do something, write it down and remind them later.
5.)  Keep pushing. 
Go Public:
If meetings aren’t working or the people involved refuse to have them, it may be time to take your message public.  The advantage of trying to settle things quietly and civilly before you go public is that all those emails you have unanswered are now ammo to prove you’ve done things right and been ignored.  If you aren’t getting heard in private, go public.  
Going public can mean lots of things.  It may be that news media is already sniffing around the school and all you need to do is raise your hand and step forward, or it may mean you need to contact them.  The problem with jumping towards the media first is that you are ultimately not in control of what they say.  Someone’s genie wish gave us the internet (bless their heart), and you should use it.  Write blog posts, start a Twitter or Facebook campaign.  Be funny, be satirical, use art, use your brilliance.  Make sure that anyone who can hear you knows you’re someone who should be listened to.  Sure, sometimes those people may also be media members, but unless your issue is, “I’m never on the news,” getting interviewed is not achieving a goal.  You need to make sure it helps you get there.
Talking to the media is dumb, because the media is pretty dumb, and also full of its own agendas and biases.  In order to help them helpful, you should make sure you (and anyone in your group who may get a microphone shoved in their face) have some talking points.  What are the crucial things you want to say?  Make it simple, and say them over and over and over.  Video and print media need to pick little clips of what you say, and your hour-long interview will be condensed down to 15 words you only kind-of said unless you give them those 15 words over and over again.  
But what if your 15 words are great, but no one will listen?  Well…
The Nuclear Options
Walk Out:
There’s a lot of reasons that Walk Out’s are dumb.  Really.  I’m not just saying that because I’m an adult and adults always tell kids not to be loud and ridiculous.  They don’t work because kids walk out and have no idea why.  That kid, that one with the hair thing and the shirt and stuff, that kid?  That’s the kid the news is going to talk to, and there’s no way that kid is going to say anything about your issue.  That kid just hates Biology.  I’m not saying don’t do a Walk Out, I’m saying if you’re going to do one, you better work your butt off to do it well, or it may just make things worse.
Sit in/Occupy:
Like a Walk Out, if you’re going to go here, you need to have all your ducks in a row, and then you need to be ready for your ducks to get in some serious trouble.  If you’ve gotten this far and nothing has worked and the only way to fight the system is to disrupt it, fine, but do everything you can to think of a better way first.
Make Change
Disruptive protest is a beautiful thing when it is done for beautiful reasons.  If there is great injustice, fight it with greatness, with fierce courage.  If the best brains around you are working with you, you can think of a better way to protest than ripping off the 60’s.  Go big, go loud, go brilliant and creative and wonderful.  Celebrate the beauty of human voice and experience in the faces of those who would restrain it.  Don’t be scared of work, because there will be work. Don’t be scared of set-backs, because you’ll get your share. Don’t just advocate for change - that’s what adults who are scared of losing their jobs do.  Make change. 
Push and push until the wall gives way.

misterrad:


HACK YOUR SCHOOL

A guide for students, from a teacher.

Helpful hints from within the system of how to change your school for the better.

DISCLAIMER:

Actions have consequences.  Challenging existing power structures is not an activity often met with ice cream parties and awards.  You may have people frowning at you.  I cannot promise there are not punishments that go along with some of the things I will present as options.  It’s on you to do things right, to know your school and its rules, and to act in ways that you are ready to accept responsibility for.  Hopefully doing the first options of change well will remove the potential “you’re in trouble mister” options from the table.

This information is intended for (and, really, only useful for) positive action to create a better school for students.  Schools are not perfect places, and sometimes can be wholly awful places.  Though it should not be the student’s responsibility to fix things, sometimes nothing will happen until the wisdom, energy, and organization of young people make it happen.

Know Your Power

When I was in high school, I was a pain in the ass, and I was loud about it.  Some things I did well and were helpful, and some things were annoying enough to distract and deter from the intended goal, but both were important times to learn and grow.  Now, I’ve been teaching for a decently long while and wish I could send a letter to that kid with the pink hair writing articles and organizing protests in his friend’s basement.  That’s what this kinda is.

Let me tell you a secret that I doubt is really a secret.  Schools are scared of kids.  Kids make schools difficult places to run, difficult places to work in.  Kids are so human, so full of feelings and histories and constantly evolving lenses through which they see their world.  Teaching would be easy if there weren’t people involved, but, every day, there they are leaving their backpacks in weird places and falling in and out of love and hate and getting in actual tickle fights with the person next to them and then looking at you like, “well, why aren’t you teaching?”

I think teaching high school is pretty hard.  I’ve written about 50,000 words of a book in the last few months that, so far, could be titled, “teaching high school is hard, plus jokes.”  Teaching is tiring and frustrating work, but it’s work.  It’s a place I go to and a place I leave.  I think about teaching a lot when I’m not at school, but I don’t really need to.  So, teaching high school is pretty hard, but going to high school is a whole heck of a lot harder.

Going to high school means being surrounded by high schoolers, plus teachers, plus administrators and parents, all with a thousand expectations on how to act, dress, feel, think, not to mention what to read, what to write, and when, and how.  When you leave the school building, most of those expectations are still there.  Except for summer and select exceptional weekends, school is an unfairly large chunk of your whole life.  So, it’s worth having a school that you like.  Sometimes, that means screwing with the school that you have.

Also, you should understand that you have the right to a school that does not suck.  School sucks sometimes because it’s school, and because you’re a teenager, and because life.  Sorry.  That said, you do have rights.  Here’s a list of rights I think students have. Feel free to make your own better one.

STUDENT RIGHTS:

You have the right to a positive environment.

You have the right to be free from embarrassment, shaming, or screaming in your school day.

You have the right to have your identity, your passions, and your personal history affirmed.

You have the right to be heard.

You have the right to good classes, good teachers, and work that is good for you.

You have the right to be weird and still be treated like you belong.

You have the right to use changing your school as practice for changing the world.


If you feel like any of those things aren’t happening, then you have the right to ask and then demand and then work for and then jump up and down and stomp your feet until those things happen.  Here’s how.

Understand Your School

Before you start making change in your school, you need to understand as much as possible about how your school works.  This means understanding how the system works, what you can expect as far as support and resistance from people in different roles, and, above all else, understanding just how much power students have, so, let’s start there.

It’s easy to imagine that students are at the bottom of the power ladder in a building.  They are subject to more rules with less input than anyone else, which is why there is so much work that needs to be done.  Students have things like detention and suspension, they are subject to grading, and as individuals need more from their school than their school needs from them.

A single student may struggle, but a group of students is the most powerful entity in a building.  Really. I promise.  It’s true, and schools hate when students start to figure that out.  Schools are given exactly the amount of power students collectively allow.  

Like I said, I was a pain in the ass when I was in high school.   I started an underground school newspaper that was critical of school policies (plus jokes).  I organized protests against deteriorating art budgets and fought the school on the censorship of materials in the library. In a high school of around 1,000 kids, about half the members of my school board knew me by first and last name, and I don’t think it was because they liked me very much.  Still, I didn’t push nearly as much as I could have because I was scared of what they would do to me.

Looking back from inside that structure, I realize now I could have done one whole heck of a lot more.  When it comes down to it, there’s almost nothing your school can do to you unless you break a rule or a something or attack someone.  Don’t do those things.

Really, seriously, don’t break stuff or hurt people.  I’m not discounting the whole history of violent rebellion in the world, but as much as your school may suck, your school is not a tool of fanatical fascism.  Your school is not stealing your family or cutting off any of your limbs, so long as you don’t break the big rules, and especially if you can manage to stay polite and keep a smile on your face, your school can do almost nothing but frown at you.  You can’t be suspended for disagreeing.  You can’t be suspended for asking questions or raising issues.  Your school should treat you fairly and respectfully.  If they don’t, fight (but not really) until they do.  Sometimes, that fight is easier if there are adults on your side.

It’s unfortunate and ageist and ridiculous, but sometimes one parent in a principal’s office is worth ten students.  It’s important to have parents behind you so that if the school is calling home with grumpiness, they have your back.  It’s important because parents may have easier access and a different audience if you can recruit them to your cause.  If your issue is the right sort of issue, you may find a friend in your school’s PTO, and certainly they should be interested in your side of whatever story needs to be told.

Teachers are pretty restricted in terms of open rebellion.  This is my cop-out paragraph, and it’s going to be full of the same sorts of cop-outs you will likely hear from teachers.  Many teachers have family and mortgages.  It may be harsh, but they are not willing to risk those things to fight their bosses on hat rules.  When I was in high school, I had a few teachers that I knew were friendly to my various goals, and those teachers were profoundly helpful in talking through my plans with, in coaching my language on letters, and at least pointing me towards maps of the system I was trying to navigate.  When I asked them about their bosses, they would often smile, say they loved their bosses and every decision their bosses made, then show me a picture of their house with their family standing in front.

In my high school, our fight was often with admin. Your situation may well be different though, and those bosses, the administration, may end up being a great help to you.  In fact, if you’re planning on being a student activist, it is not a bad idea to seek a positive relationship with your administrators along the way.  I’ve worked with some really brilliant people who run schools, and those people love to hear student voices and student concerns, and love to work with those students.  Principals are people too.  Reach out to them, be respectful and calm and informed.  Trips to the principal’s office are one heck of a lot better when you’ve asked to be there in the first place.

Once you’ve understood the school you’re in and the people around you, it’s time to pull a chair up backwards with a cup of hot chocolate and have a nice healthy chat with your very own special self and whatever minions you’ve gathered to your cause.  If you are angry, upset, offended or passionate about your cause, your instinct will be to sit and complain about said thing.  It feels good to say something is wrong in front of a group of people, and it feels even better when people in the room nod their heads.  Don’t get too caught up in this.  You have work to do, and your first job is to ask the best possible questions.

Ask the Right Questions

What is the root of the issue?

Lots more questions.  Is someone not being heard?  Not being represented?  Does the problem stem from mistreatment or from opportunities being limited?  To really fix something, you have to know more than what it is, you have to know where it’s coming from.

What do you want?  

Don’t stop at what you think is dumb, or what you think is wrong.  Come up with a plan for how things would be better, or how things could be instead.  Imagine the meetings you may have.  Will you be focused on solutions?  Will you bring new ideas to the table?  People shut down quickly when all you are doing is telling them they’re wrong, even if they are wrong.  People get defensive when you tell them they’ve screwed up, even (and especially) if they screwed up.  If you don’t need to establish past problems, don’t.  Focus on moving forward.  If all you’re looking for is an apology, you likely won’t get it, and if you do, an apology to you won’t help the next kid.

Will what you’re doing get you what you want?  

Anger feels righteous, and breaking rules is pretty fun, but will it accomplish your goals?  When I was a teenage rabble-rouser, I always wanted to jump first to whatever action was the most dramatic.  Sometimes those things worked, but often times it took a lot longer and a lot more compromise to change things after a loud, messy first attempt.  Keep your goal in mind, and make sure your plan is pointed at achieving that goal.

What is the scope of the issue?

Is this a classroom problem, a building or district problem?  Is this regional, national or global?  If this is something just happening in your school, or just happening to you, you should look around and see if there are larger issues at play you can ally with.  If this is a global issue, finding global support may be easier, but you also need to figure out how you can make your issue personal and local to the people you are trying to convince.  There is no problem too big or too small for good work to be done, but you should be aware of the size of the problem at hand.

Does everyone have all the information?

If students are taking issue at the actions of a single teacher, great.  Before you move forward with massive protest, does that teacher know?  Does their boss?  Do they know, and do they know the whole story, and do you?  You have strength in your truth, but you compromise that strength when you only share it in pieces, or when you tailor it to different audiences.  Collect and distribute information to all stakeholders.  Doing so may just make everything move that much better as you move forward.  Information may solve the problem all on its own.

Take Action

Low Level Rucussing

Get Organized:

You can do this alone, I promise you, because you’re a beautiful magical snowflake and everything is possible.  Still, you should figure out if you have any support, and you should bring those supporters together.  Start a facebook group, an email chain, a twitter hashtag, whatever works for the people you are bringing together.  You could also, if people still do this, meet, like for real, so you can talk.  Organize your allies, your ideas, and your plan of action before you start.

Your group needs to decide:

1.)  What is the problem?

2.)  What needs to be done?

3.)  How should we do it?

Don’t do anything until everyone involved knows the answers to those questions and how you came to them.  Communication is organization, and organization is power.

Schedule a Meeting:

There are few great, productive options when you start agitating for change.  This means, like all great revolutionaries in history, you have to ask for a meeting. First and foremost, you need to give whoever has the ability to fix the problem a chance to fix the problem.  Figure out who that person is, and then make sure that person knows who you are.  That person may be a teacher, a staff member, a building administrator, a superintendent, the school board, or someone in the state government.  When I was your age, you little whipper-snapper, that meant writing a letter to a person who talked to the person who might be the person you want to talk to.  Now, you have e-mail, and e-mail kicks the ass of all but the most ridiculous bureaucracies.  Email someone in charge, introduce yourself, say a bit about the thing you are interested in changing, and ask for a meeting.  If they don’t respond in a day or two, email again.  If they don’t respond again, or respond in the negative, find out who that person’s boss is, and email that person instead.  Wash, rinse, repeat as necessary.

When you get a meeting, be sure to use it well.  The person you will be meeting with will most likely be a professional-meeting-being-atter.  They will want to drive the meeting to fit their needs.  Walk in knowing exactly what you want to say and not say.  Come with a plan, and look for resolutions, and don’t spend too long establishing there is a problem unless they need extra convincing.  Don’t waste their time, and don’t expect that everything will get fixed instantly.  They may need some time to think things over and talk to other people, and if you represent a group of people, you should make no final decisions without consulting them. There may need to be follow up meetings, which may sound super awesome, but be careful.  It’s very easy to confuse having a meeting with actually doing something.  Keep your eye on your goal, and keep working until it’s done.

Meeting To Do’s:

1.)  Know what you want said.

2.)  Be confident in your message.  Be courteous in your delivery.

3.)  Listen to what they say.

4.)  If they promise to do something, write it down and remind them later.

5.)  Keep pushing.

Go Public:

If meetings aren’t working or the people involved refuse to have them, it may be time to take your message public.  The advantage of trying to settle things quietly and civilly before you go public is that all those emails you have unanswered are now ammo to prove you’ve done things right and been ignored.  If you aren’t getting heard in private, go public.  

Going public can mean lots of things.  It may be that news media is already sniffing around the school and all you need to do is raise your hand and step forward, or it may mean you need to contact them.  The problem with jumping towards the media first is that you are ultimately not in control of what they say.  Someone’s genie wish gave us the internet (bless their heart), and you should use it.  Write blog posts, start a Twitter or Facebook campaign.  Be funny, be satirical, use art, use your brilliance.  Make sure that anyone who can hear you knows you’re someone who should be listened to.  Sure, sometimes those people may also be media members, but unless your issue is, “I’m never on the news,” getting interviewed is not achieving a goal.  You need to make sure it helps you get there.

Talking to the media is dumb, because the media is pretty dumb, and also full of its own agendas and biases.  In order to help them helpful, you should make sure you (and anyone in your group who may get a microphone shoved in their face) have some talking points.  What are the crucial things you want to say?  Make it simple, and say them over and over and over.  Video and print media need to pick little clips of what you say, and your hour-long interview will be condensed down to 15 words you only kind-of said unless you give them those 15 words over and over again.  

But what if your 15 words are great, but no one will listen?  Well…

The Nuclear Options

Walk Out:

There’s a lot of reasons that Walk Out’s are dumb.  Really.  I’m not just saying that because I’m an adult and adults always tell kids not to be loud and ridiculous.  They don’t work because kids walk out and have no idea why.  That kid, that one with the hair thing and the shirt and stuff, that kid?  That’s the kid the news is going to talk to, and there’s no way that kid is going to say anything about your issue.  That kid just hates Biology.  I’m not saying don’t do a Walk Out, I’m saying if you’re going to do one, you better work your butt off to do it well, or it may just make things worse.

Sit in/Occupy:

Like a Walk Out, if you’re going to go here, you need to have all your ducks in a row, and then you need to be ready for your ducks to get in some serious trouble.  If you’ve gotten this far and nothing has worked and the only way to fight the system is to disrupt it, fine, but do everything you can to think of a better way first.

Make Change

Disruptive protest is a beautiful thing when it is done for beautiful reasons.  If there is great injustice, fight it with greatness, with fierce courage.  If the best brains around you are working with you, you can think of a better way to protest than ripping off the 60’s.  Go big, go loud, go brilliant and creative and wonderful.  Celebrate the beauty of human voice and experience in the faces of those who would restrain it.  Don’t be scared of work, because there will be work. Don’t be scared of set-backs, because you’ll get your share. Don’t just advocate for change - that’s what adults who are scared of losing their jobs do.  Make change.


Push and push until the wall gives way.

Reblogged from misterrad  17,077 notes
misterrad:

The Myth of the Disrupted Classroom
When I was a Junior in high school, my girlfriend was sent home from school for wearing inappropriate clothing.  She was wearing layers of slips on top of each other that, together, broke no established rule of our dress code.  She was told by our principal, formerly the principal of a parochial girl’s school, that her dress was more appropriate “for a garden party,” and therefore inappropriate for learning.  She sat in the principal’s office and told the principal that she was being singled out because her clothes were weird, and because her clothes didn’t cost a lot of money.  She was offered a sweater to cover her arms and go back to class.  She refused.  She got into her gold Cadillac and drove home for the day.
I married that girl.  People should marry those kinds of girls when they find them, and if they can get those kinds of girls to fall for them.
Now I am a teacher.  I went into teaching to, of all things, teach.  I’m not sure I went into teaching to be a Teacher.  Being a Teacher feels like teaching, plus all the other stuff.  I learned a lot from great educators and mentors in my life.  I remember hating most of my Teachers.  I remember Teachers discussing the clothing of students and scoffing and “oh my god did you see”ing.  I say I don’t care what kids wear.  I remember Teachers talking about a disruption to learning.  
I can’t tell you how much I don’t care what anyone wears to school.
I can’t tell you how few times I’ve ever seen clothing of any kind disrupt class in any way.  In fact, let me say this:  I have never seen clothing of any kind disrupt class in any way.
I’ve certainly seen disruption, pretty massive disruption, caused by enforcing dress codes.  Students often, and understandably, react poorly to being told that clothes they have on or body parts they have make them inappropriate for school that day.  There are melt-downs, to be sure, and indignation.  There is yelling and arguing and many things that are massive disruptions to learning.  Sometimes kids go home for the whole day, which is a whole lot of learning not happening.
I’ve seen administrators enter active classrooms, walk around the room sticking their heads under desks to look at the length of skirts and shorts.  Really, in the real world, I’ve seen this.  I’ve seen girls asked to stand up in front of classes, looked up and down and then told, “yeah, I guess you’re ok.  Sit back down.”  I’ve watched administrators leave, and then cared for embarrassed, shamed, angry students.  I’ve seen whole hours and whole days of learning disrupted by enforcing dress codes, and that doesn’t take in to account the emotional damage done to students by a system that should be protecting them.
I’m certainly uncomfortable with the message we are sending.  Kids are self-conscious enough.  Girls especially have enough people commenting on how they look and holding them to an often impossible and moving target of appropriateness, attractiveness, and self expression.  I don’t like the message of a school telling someone that the clothes they put on their own bodies made them a problem for the whole school they attend, so much so that they need to go home, or cover up.  So much so that they need to feel shame.  Shame disrupts learning more than skirts.  I promise.
We’re more comfortable confronting the girl wearing the thing, and not the boys who say the things about her.  We are comfortable putting the blame for the actions of boys onto the girls around them.
We are no one to say what is right or wrong, appropriate or not.  We are no one to say how kids should act or dress or what jobs they should wish for or what friends they should have.  We should give them all the information we have, any information that will help keep them safe and successful and sane, and then we should let them make their own choices.
Schools are not moral authorities.  When we create judgement calls about things like appropriate or not, acceptable or not, we leave room for each teacher and administrator to judge a student against their own moral code.  When we enforce dress codes, we leave room for every staff member to address students that make them feel uncomfortable.
To be honest, I’m not sure why we act as authorities at all.  As a school, we offer something so precious and so valuable.  We offer the skills and ideas, we offer a path to success.  So why do we spend so much time tracking tardies, enforcing behavior and dress codes, demanding silence and a level of respect that is reverential at best and fear-based at worst.
Anyone who knows enough teenagers knows that the more rules you give them that don’t make sense, the happier they will be doing the opposite of what you tell them.  The more you shake your head and act stern, the more they will see you as someone to disobey.
We have this phenomenal power as teachers, as workers in schools.  We control this massive amount of time students are required to be with us.  We control their grades, their access to opportunities, the experience of many years of their lives.  We control great portions of their self image, of their confidence, of their skill levels.
We don’t need to grab any more power than we already have.  We don’t need to feel like we have to control every single thing to maintain the power we already have.  We have important things to do all day.  We don’t need to spend time on other stuff.

misterrad:

The Myth of the Disrupted Classroom

When I was a Junior in high school, my girlfriend was sent home from school for wearing inappropriate clothing.  She was wearing layers of slips on top of each other that, together, broke no established rule of our dress code.  She was told by our principal, formerly the principal of a parochial girl’s school, that her dress was more appropriate “for a garden party,” and therefore inappropriate for learning.  She sat in the principal’s office and told the principal that she was being singled out because her clothes were weird, and because her clothes didn’t cost a lot of money.  She was offered a sweater to cover her arms and go back to class.  She refused.  She got into her gold Cadillac and drove home for the day.

I married that girl.  People should marry those kinds of girls when they find them, and if they can get those kinds of girls to fall for them.

Now I am a teacher.  I went into teaching to, of all things, teach.  I’m not sure I went into teaching to be a Teacher.  Being a Teacher feels like teaching, plus all the other stuff.  I learned a lot from great educators and mentors in my life.  I remember hating most of my Teachers.  I remember Teachers discussing the clothing of students and scoffing and “oh my god did you see”ing.  I say I don’t care what kids wear.  I remember Teachers talking about a disruption to learning.  

I can’t tell you how much I don’t care what anyone wears to school.

I can’t tell you how few times I’ve ever seen clothing of any kind disrupt class in any way.  In fact, let me say this:  I have never seen clothing of any kind disrupt class in any way.

I’ve certainly seen disruption, pretty massive disruption, caused by enforcing dress codes.  Students often, and understandably, react poorly to being told that clothes they have on or body parts they have make them inappropriate for school that day.  There are melt-downs, to be sure, and indignation.  There is yelling and arguing and many things that are massive disruptions to learning.  Sometimes kids go home for the whole day, which is a whole lot of learning not happening.

I’ve seen administrators enter active classrooms, walk around the room sticking their heads under desks to look at the length of skirts and shorts.  Really, in the real world, I’ve seen this.  I’ve seen girls asked to stand up in front of classes, looked up and down and then told, “yeah, I guess you’re ok.  Sit back down.”  I’ve watched administrators leave, and then cared for embarrassed, shamed, angry students.  I’ve seen whole hours and whole days of learning disrupted by enforcing dress codes, and that doesn’t take in to account the emotional damage done to students by a system that should be protecting them.

I’m certainly uncomfortable with the message we are sending.  Kids are self-conscious enough.  Girls especially have enough people commenting on how they look and holding them to an often impossible and moving target of appropriateness, attractiveness, and self expression.  I don’t like the message of a school telling someone that the clothes they put on their own bodies made them a problem for the whole school they attend, so much so that they need to go home, or cover up.  So much so that they need to feel shame.  Shame disrupts learning more than skirts.  I promise.

We’re more comfortable confronting the girl wearing the thing, and not the boys who say the things about her.  We are comfortable putting the blame for the actions of boys onto the girls around them.

We are no one to say what is right or wrong, appropriate or not.  We are no one to say how kids should act or dress or what jobs they should wish for or what friends they should have.  We should give them all the information we have, any information that will help keep them safe and successful and sane, and then we should let them make their own choices.

Schools are not moral authorities.  When we create judgement calls about things like appropriate or not, acceptable or not, we leave room for each teacher and administrator to judge a student against their own moral code.  When we enforce dress codes, we leave room for every staff member to address students that make them feel uncomfortable.

To be honest, I’m not sure why we act as authorities at all.  As a school, we offer something so precious and so valuable.  We offer the skills and ideas, we offer a path to success.  So why do we spend so much time tracking tardies, enforcing behavior and dress codes, demanding silence and a level of respect that is reverential at best and fear-based at worst.

Anyone who knows enough teenagers knows that the more rules you give them that don’t make sense, the happier they will be doing the opposite of what you tell them.  The more you shake your head and act stern, the more they will see you as someone to disobey.

We have this phenomenal power as teachers, as workers in schools.  We control this massive amount of time students are required to be with us.  We control their grades, their access to opportunities, the experience of many years of their lives.  We control great portions of their self image, of their confidence, of their skill levels.

We don’t need to grab any more power than we already have.  We don’t need to feel like we have to control every single thing to maintain the power we already have.  We have important things to do all day.  We don’t need to spend time on other stuff.

Keep Kids in the Room

We should not be suspending kids for non-violent actions.

I am often out searching for nuance and perspective, for pro’s and con’s, and how can we negotiate and compromise to make something happen.  Not this time.  This time, I think schools need to stop non-violence-related suspensions, and they should do so now.

I want the kids in my room.  Unless there is an issue of physical danger, I want them in the room, and I want the support to keep them there.

I want the kids in my room, and I want them all there.  The kids getting sent home are disproportionately black and brown kids, and they’re getting sent home for not fitting in a white, white system.  I want them in my room so they can show me where that system needs pushing, and call me on my shit, and because it’s absolutely criminally stupid that we haven’t figured out how to serve them better yet.

I want the kids in my room because it’s their right to be there.  Because schools aren’t built for me to have a nice day, they are built to create opportunities for kids, to discover and expand talent, to give tools for all the work our students may someday do.  These are the things we can’t do without kids in the room.

I want kids in my room now because I’ll be forced to fix what’s wrong in my room.  If we keep kicking the can, and say suspensions will go down when schools are better, then we don’t have enough pressure, enough urgency, to make schools better.  Let me keep the non-violent kids, let the issues shape and strengthen my craft, let me learn things about teaching the kids I’m not teaching well.  Make me learn things.

I want the kids in my room.  I want to teach them.  If something in life is so much that they can’t focus on what we’re doing, I want them there so I can tell them I care that life is so much, because school is only kind of important compared to people.

I want kids in my room now, and if we’re sending them home for being disrespectful we should be ashamed of ourselves for not earning their respect.  If a student is having a problem, and the problem only escalates as we intervene, we should not be suspending that student, we should be taking a hard look at our interventions.  Sending them home is the easy way out for the day, but builds nothing for their return.

I want kids in my room now because kids are not bad.  Kids are not bad.  No student is inherently bad.

The Middle Road


Yesterday, a student was almost five minutes late to class.  I let it go.  The student started talking to the person next to her as soon as she sat down about a girl who said a thing to another girl who said… … I asked for their attention for a moment.  The student took out her phone, and I was done asking.  I told her to put her phone away, look up at me, and pay attention. The student put the phone away and put her head promptly down on the table while not-so-quietly remarking, “fuck this shit.”  I told the student to get their head up, and launched into a speech to the class (but obviously directed at said student) about how the class is more than one person, about my expectations for behavior and engagement, how everyone needs to live up to at least the bare-minimum expectations of blahblahblah because we have real work to get done here everyone.

I was being a pretty crummy teacher at that moment. I was calling this student out, and I could feel her anger growing to match my frustration. But, In the back, I saw a student nodding her head along with me.  She was happy I was calling out a student who had disrupted many of her classes, a student who is more than occasionally open about not caring about school or anyone in it.  This student thought I was being a pretty great teacher at that moment.

So, a tricky, weird, shitty part of me felt emboldened by the approval of the “good” student, and so felt justified in calling out the “bad” student.  It’s hard to be honest about that part of me, it really is.

A few weeks ago, I did this training with Tony Hudson, an Equity Director from another school district, on Anti-Racist Bonding.  I was there because I absolutely consider myself an anti-racist leader in my building and among my peers.  I was also there because I recognize that there is a lot of work to do on a building level and within my own practice.

The training occurred to me, there in the classroom, because of another kind of bonding Mr. Hudson talked about.  The student being scolded was a black girl, and a white student was validating my behavior by nodding along in approval.  We were bonding in our whiteness, and in our tacit approval of maintaining cultural whiteness in the classroom.

It’s really hard to be honest about that too, but it’s entirely what happened.

My journey as an anti-racist teacher started in my very first years.  Through open, challenging conversations with coworkers and students, I began to understand whiteness as a racial identity; that my skin color had often given me privilege and power, even without my asking.  It’s a difficult thing to understand intellectually during a conversation, but I found it even harder to carry my privilege daily in my awareness.  I still struggle with that.

The next step was to apply my developing understanding to my practice and try to structure my work in a way that worked against systemic racism.  My first attempts were clumsy.  I tried to connect the lyrics to “Drop it Like It’s Hot” to the sonnets of Shakespeare.  We studied the racism of WWII Germany and Apartheid South Africa without authentically linking it to student experience.  I tried, oh how I tried, to be down with my black kids.  I sought the approval of my black and brown students as proof of my non-racist status.  I also continued to grow and reflect on my practice, and began to address race on a deeper level.  

I added a quarter-long unit that studied and validated different dialects of English and focused on the concept of code-switching.  I use my class now as way to teach students how racism operates, teaching them the concepts of marginalization, dehumanization, and mis-representation.  I try to give them tools to understand and dismantle racism in media, but still struggle to infuse those lessons with concrete examples of how race operates in systems of power.  I understand personal relationships as a key, but see the difference between being a cool teacher and a respected one.  I understand there is no set of mores, morals, or behaviors that captures every student from every cultural group, no certain reason that each black, brown, or white student acts the way they do.

Anti-racist teaching is a process.  It is likely a process without end, without a graduation and certification as officially anti-racist, which is all the better reason to work with urgency.  A fully successful anti-racist school does not exist yet, and it won’t until we figure out what one even looks like.  Every step down the road is difficult.  I’m constantly afraid of saying the wrong thing, constantly afraid of making mistakes, but I don’t know another way.

I’m at my point in my journey, and the view from where I am changes regularly.  I have no idea If anything I think is right, but they’re the rightest things I’ve found so far.  This isn’t an essay of answers.  I do not feel I’ve reached the end of the road, and I often need to turn around to pick up things I left behind. At this point, I am at an intersection in my practice, a sharp right or left turn, and I’m trying to figure out how to go down the middle.  

The sharp left leads to a reinforcement of an already dominate white cultural norm.  In terms of my classroom, it means that when a student it talking in my class, or openly defiant in any way, I respond with rigidity.  One minute late to class means a call home.  Talking while I’m talking?  Step outside.  Disrespectful when I talk to you outside?  Down to the principal.  The structure of school is designed to give me the power as the instructor to forcibly apply what some would call “classroom culture” or “school culture,” but which almost always plays into quiet-is-best white cultural norms.

The sharp right is what is often called “liberal racism” (I suppose I should have made this the left turn).  This turn means that I recognize the many hurdles of microaggressions and the  high wall of institutional, generational racism placed before my black and brown students.  When they are a minute late I say, “well, strict time structures are not common in the culture of people of color,” or “my cool black friend (I hope he’s my friend) calls this BPT (let me google that quick to make sure that’s what he calls it).”  When they are ten minutes late I say, “Yeah, I guess that’s ok too.”  When they resist my calls for quiet, I say, “they are resisting white cultural oppression,” and when they tell me to go fuck myself for asking them to put their phone away I say, “Yeah, I guess I could have sounded kindof oppressivey there.”

I know that in the guise of “rigor” or “high expectations” it’s easy to take the road left, and in the desire to be cultural conscious, the road right is full of instant rewards.  However, the road left just makes the wall higher, and the road right certainly doesn’t build a ladder high enough to climb.  The road down the middle is harder, because I’m not sure what it looks like.  

The road down the middle means that my room is a safe space for kids no matter their cultural identity.  It means I have relationships with students that allow me to push them to reach their potential while allowing room for their voice and some repairing of damage done from systems that have too often told them they are capable of less. The middle path may involve lots of little fixes along the way, but it involves a total rebuild.  The left and right paths are filters over a white classroom, but none of the whiteness is addressed.  I’m trying to imagine what the middle road will look like.
 

It’s so damn hard, and it’s hard to admit that it is hard.

Back to my classroom yesterday.  This girl, the girl I was calling out in front of the class, is a black female with issues I cannot begin to comprehend.  She’s new to the school this year, and our awkward attempts at relating are counterbalanced by our battles.  She can be verbally abusive to other students, sometimes to the point of threatening.  She’s also smart, really smart, and failing almost everything.  Some days she seems to care a lot.  Some days, not so much.  Some days are really bad days, and there is something in her eyes that hits me right in my parent spot.  The thing is she makes it clear she doesn’t want my help as often as I offer it, which doesn’t make me stop offering.

Here’s the other thing.  This girl scares white teachers and knows it.  Had I pushed one more little bit, she would have started yelling loudly and inappropriately  (she could swear competitively).  The end result of the outburst would many times had led to her being sent to the office (I don’t believe in it unless violence is involved) or the teacher backing off and doing exactly nothing.  No things.   Both options reinforce the behavior, and so, consciously or not, she had learned that loud anger, even when she’s not particularly angry, is a handy tool to do what all of us really wish we could do, which is whatever we want.  

I’ve seen what I really think is false anger from her on a few occasions.  Of course, nothing is actually that cut and dry, because I’ve seen very real anger from her as well, and it’s impossible to reduce the anger to the inciting incident.  Some days, a snide remark from a teacher or another student is the tenth snide comment too many that day, the final shifted weight that releases an avalanche of anger built in the walls of school and beyond.  Some days, the anger isn’t nearly so deep.  Ultimately, it’s impossible and inappropriate for me to be the one that judges whether her reactions are authentic or not, but I do think it’s important she develop coping mechanisms for difficult situations beyond anger.

I don’t know what to do for this kid.  I don’t want to get into battles, because I’m scared to win them and I’m scared to lose them.  When I don’t confront her most destructive behavior, it only persists, it only expands.  I think I could bend and twist and beg and shift and get her to do ok in my class, I’ve gotten good enough at that, but I don’t think it would help her do much better in whatever class comes next, or whatever will come five years from now. 

In the very middle of calling her out, just gaining momentum for what was sure to be a fantastic and predictable speech on how important it was to listen to every perfect word I ever say,  and  in the middle of recognizing the reinforcement of school as a place that isn’t for her, I stopped.  As is often the case when I am tired or frustrated, lessons that should have been learned before I ever had a class to myself finally kicked in minutes after a confrontation actually started.  These are not the conversations to have in front of a class, and if you are asking for a student to listen to you who would throw something at you, asking them in front of thirty people is not how it’s going to happen. I dropped it, I got the class started, and after a few minutes, asked the student to talk to me in the hall.  We talked over what happened. I asked her what I did to get her so upset, I really listened when she talked. I said my own piece about wanting her to do well.  I tried to be specific about which behaviors (swearing and texting, mainly) I saw hurting her ability to do her best.  I didn’t want to reduce problems to “behavior” or “attitude,” because I’ve seen those words used too often to mean too many things.

I also talked with her about anger.  I tried not to accuse, but I told her what my perception of her behavior sometimes is.  She agreed that she sometimes acts angrier than she really is.  I told her I would always let her address her anger, but that her anger would never scare me away. I told her that she was smart, really smart.  I told her that if she could get more from school than she was getting, and if she wanted to at any point, I would love to help her do that.  In the mean time, I told her, I would love to see her involved in class as best as she could be, and if she was honest about when the bad days were really bad, I would trust her honesty and give extra room on those days.  I wasn’t being a great teacher yet, but I repaired most of the damage of being a bad one that day.

Today was a pretty good day with her, but that doesn’t mean more than that today was good.  This has been and will be a journey of a thousand questions a day, hundreds of humans who have their own human things going on, and lots of mistakes.  There will be so many mistakes, the occasional win, and a few steps down the middle road.

The Middle Road

Yesterday, a student was almost five minutes late to class.  I let it go.  The student started talking to the person next to her as soon as she sat down about a girl who said a thing to another girl who said… … I asked for their attention for a moment.  The student took out her phone, and I was done asking.  I told her to put her phone away, look up at me, and pay attention. The student put the phone away and put her head promptly down on the table while not-so-quietly remarking, “fuck this shit.”  I told the student to get their head up, and launched into a speech to the class (but obviously directed at said student) about how the class is more than one person, about my expectations for behavior and engagement, how everyone needs to live up to at least the bare-minimum expectations of blahblahblah because we have real work to get done here everyone.

I was being a pretty crummy teacher at that moment. I was calling this student out, and I could feel her anger growing to match my frustration. But, In the back, I saw a student nodding her head along with me.  She was happy I was calling out a student who had disrupted many of her classes, a student who is more than occasionally open about not caring about school or anyone in it.  This student thought I was being a pretty great teacher at that moment.

So, a tricky, weird, shitty part of me felt emboldened by the approval of the “good” student, and so felt justified in calling out the “bad” student.  It’s hard to be honest about that part of me, it really is.

A few weeks ago, I did this training with Tony Hudson, an Equity Director from another school district, on Anti-Racist Bonding.  I was there because I absolutely consider myself an anti-racist leader in my building and among my peers.  I was also there because I recognize that there is a lot of work to do on a building level and within my own practice.

The training occurred to me, there in the classroom, because of another kind of bonding Mr. Hudson talked about.  The student being scolded was a black girl, and a white student was validating my behavior by nodding along in approval.  We were bonding in our whiteness, and in our tacit approval of maintaining cultural whiteness in the classroom.

It’s really hard to be honest about that too, but it’s entirely what happened.

My journey as an anti-racist teacher started in my very first years.  Through open, challenging conversations with coworkers and students, I began to understand whiteness as a racial identity; that my skin color had often given me privilege and power, even without my asking.  It’s a difficult thing to understand intellectually during a conversation, but I found it even harder to carry my privilege daily in my awareness.  I still struggle with that.

The next step was to apply my developing understanding to my practice and try to structure my work in a way that worked against systemic racism.  My first attempts were clumsy.  I tried to connect the lyrics to “Drop it Like It’s Hot” to the sonnets of Shakespeare.  We studied the racism of WWII Germany and Apartheid South Africa without authentically linking it to student experience.  I tried, oh how I tried, to be down with my black kids.  I sought the approval of my black and brown students as proof of my non-racist status.  I also continued to grow and reflect on my practice, and began to address race on a deeper level.  

I added a quarter-long unit that studied and validated different dialects of English and focused on the concept of code-switching.  I use my class now as way to teach students how racism operates, teaching them the concepts of marginalization, dehumanization, and mis-representation.  I try to give them tools to understand and dismantle racism in media, but still struggle to infuse those lessons with concrete examples of how race operates in systems of power.  I understand personal relationships as a key, but see the difference between being a cool teacher and a respected one.  I understand there is no set of mores, morals, or behaviors that captures every student from every cultural group, no certain reason that each black, brown, or white student acts the way they do.

Anti-racist teaching is a process.  It is likely a process without end, without a graduation and certification as officially anti-racist, which is all the better reason to work with urgency.  A fully successful anti-racist school does not exist yet, and it won’t until we figure out what one even looks like.  Every step down the road is difficult.  I’m constantly afraid of saying the wrong thing, constantly afraid of making mistakes, but I don’t know another way.

I’m at my point in my journey, and the view from where I am changes regularly.  I have no idea If anything I think is right, but they’re the rightest things I’ve found so far.  This isn’t an essay of answers.  I do not feel I’ve reached the end of the road, and I often need to turn around to pick up things I left behind. At this point, I am at an intersection in my practice, a sharp right or left turn, and I’m trying to figure out how to go down the middle.  

The sharp left leads to a reinforcement of an already dominate white cultural norm.  In terms of my classroom, it means that when a student it talking in my class, or openly defiant in any way, I respond with rigidity.  One minute late to class means a call home.  Talking while I’m talking?  Step outside.  Disrespectful when I talk to you outside?  Down to the principal.  The structure of school is designed to give me the power as the instructor to forcibly apply what some would call “classroom culture” or “school culture,” but which almost always plays into quiet-is-best white cultural norms.

The sharp right is what is often called “liberal racism” (I suppose I should have made this the left turn).  This turn means that I recognize the many hurdles of microaggressions and the  high wall of institutional, generational racism placed before my black and brown students.  When they are a minute late I say, “well, strict time structures are not common in the culture of people of color,” or “my cool black friend (I hope he’s my friend) calls this BPT (let me google that quick to make sure that’s what he calls it).”  When they are ten minutes late I say, “Yeah, I guess that’s ok too.”  When they resist my calls for quiet, I say, “they are resisting white cultural oppression,” and when they tell me to go fuck myself for asking them to put their phone away I say, “Yeah, I guess I could have sounded kindof oppressivey there.”

I know that in the guise of “rigor” or “high expectations” it’s easy to take the road left, and in the desire to be cultural conscious, the road right is full of instant rewards.  However, the road left just makes the wall higher, and the road right certainly doesn’t build a ladder high enough to climb.  The road down the middle is harder, because I’m not sure what it looks like.  

The road down the middle means that my room is a safe space for kids no matter their cultural identity.  It means I have relationships with students that allow me to push them to reach their potential while allowing room for their voice and some repairing of damage done from systems that have too often told them they are capable of less. The middle path may involve lots of little fixes along the way, but it involves a total rebuild.  The left and right paths are filters over a white classroom, but none of the whiteness is addressed.  I’m trying to imagine what the middle road will look like.

 

It’s so damn hard, and it’s hard to admit that it is hard.

Back to my classroom yesterday.  This girl, the girl I was calling out in front of the class, is a black female with issues I cannot begin to comprehend.  She’s new to the school this year, and our awkward attempts at relating are counterbalanced by our battles.  She can be verbally abusive to other students, sometimes to the point of threatening.  She’s also smart, really smart, and failing almost everything.  Some days she seems to care a lot.  Some days, not so much.  Some days are really bad days, and there is something in her eyes that hits me right in my parent spot.  The thing is she makes it clear she doesn’t want my help as often as I offer it, which doesn’t make me stop offering.

Here’s the other thing.  This girl scares white teachers and knows it.  Had I pushed one more little bit, she would have started yelling loudly and inappropriately  (she could swear competitively).  The end result of the outburst would many times had led to her being sent to the office (I don’t believe in it unless violence is involved) or the teacher backing off and doing exactly nothing.  No things.   Both options reinforce the behavior, and so, consciously or not, she had learned that loud anger, even when she’s not particularly angry, is a handy tool to do what all of us really wish we could do, which is whatever we want.  

I’ve seen what I really think is false anger from her on a few occasions.  Of course, nothing is actually that cut and dry, because I’ve seen very real anger from her as well, and it’s impossible to reduce the anger to the inciting incident.  Some days, a snide remark from a teacher or another student is the tenth snide comment too many that day, the final shifted weight that releases an avalanche of anger built in the walls of school and beyond.  Some days, the anger isn’t nearly so deep.  Ultimately, it’s impossible and inappropriate for me to be the one that judges whether her reactions are authentic or not, but I do think it’s important she develop coping mechanisms for difficult situations beyond anger.

I don’t know what to do for this kid.  I don’t want to get into battles, because I’m scared to win them and I’m scared to lose them.  When I don’t confront her most destructive behavior, it only persists, it only expands.  I think I could bend and twist and beg and shift and get her to do ok in my class, I’ve gotten good enough at that, but I don’t think it would help her do much better in whatever class comes next, or whatever will come five years from now.

In the very middle of calling her out, just gaining momentum for what was sure to be a fantastic and predictable speech on how important it was to listen to every perfect word I ever say,  and  in the middle of recognizing the reinforcement of school as a place that isn’t for her, I stopped.  As is often the case when I am tired or frustrated, lessons that should have been learned before I ever had a class to myself finally kicked in minutes after a confrontation actually started.  These are not the conversations to have in front of a class, and if you are asking for a student to listen to you who would throw something at you, asking them in front of thirty people is not how it’s going to happen. I dropped it, I got the class started, and after a few minutes, asked the student to talk to me in the hall.  We talked over what happened. I asked her what I did to get her so upset, I really listened when she talked. I said my own piece about wanting her to do well.  I tried to be specific about which behaviors (swearing and texting, mainly) I saw hurting her ability to do her best.  I didn’t want to reduce problems to “behavior” or “attitude,” because I’ve seen those words used too often to mean too many things.

I also talked with her about anger.  I tried not to accuse, but I told her what my perception of her behavior sometimes is.  She agreed that she sometimes acts angrier than she really is.  I told her I would always let her address her anger, but that her anger would never scare me away. I told her that she was smart, really smart.  I told her that if she could get more from school than she was getting, and if she wanted to at any point, I would love to help her do that.  In the mean time, I told her, I would love to see her involved in class as best as she could be, and if she was honest about when the bad days were really bad, I would trust her honesty and give extra room on those days.  I wasn’t being a great teacher yet, but I repaired most of the damage of being a bad one that day.

Today was a pretty good day with her, but that doesn’t mean more than that today was good.  This has been and will be a journey of a thousand questions a day, hundreds of humans who have their own human things going on, and lots of mistakes.  There will be so many mistakes, the occasional win, and a few steps down the middle road.

I Fail.


Two weeks ago I finished the fourth chapter of my book for the fifth time.  The chapter is on something I call “The Google Test,”which involves asking of any assignment or work I’m giving my students, “can Google do this?”  The goal is to stop giving students work they don’t need.  The smartest kids I went to school with could remember everything and were almost never asked to think about anything. A good memory now is much less useful than the ability to analyze and synthesize information, so those are the skills I focus on in my teaching.

The chapter, started last year, focuses mainly on my unit on Othello.  I developed the unit last year hoping to link classic lit genius with modern-day issues and skills.  So, to teach Othello, to make it relevant to students, to make sure the unit passes The Google Test, and to make it so my class isn’t too full of Englishy stuff, I teach Othello through a critical racial lens.

We discuss the casting of Othello as the Other by Iago.  We link the history of performance of race in Shakespeare’s England to the history of blackface in America and racial stereotypes in modern media.  While we study the play and the concept of the Other, students focus on a solo project where they identify a marginalized group, any marginalized group, study media to deconstruct the creation of stereotypes of that group for a presentation, and then create a creative counter-story to the issues they uncover. 

I mean, really, I teach the shit out of Othello.

This is a unit I’ve obsessed over, written about, reflected on and consistently bragged about using big teachery words to anyone who will listen.  I teach so much shit out of Othello that it’s become too easy for me to feel like I actually know what I’m doing.  I can remember the best examples from last year’s projects, I have students from last year telling the students from this year that Othello is “bomb.”  I wrote a whole damn chapter about it.  In fact, I wrote a whole damn chapter about it five times, and I have a whole training on The Google Test all mapped out in my mind for a group of interested teachers that has not yet materialized.  I feel like an expert on very few things, but I feel like an expert on teaching English enhanced by technology and media in ways that are engaging and meaningful.  It has, really, been my lifes work since I started working at life.

“So,” I kneel next to a table of students (one of whom has been gone for the last few days of introducing and starting the solo project), “James,” (James has been here for every moment, front and center) “tell Sam about the project we’re working on.”  I love hearing students show off the high level of work we’re doing, love to see them connect with each other to really dig into ideas often reserved for college.

“Oh,” James says confidently, “you have to write a paper about black people.” So. I failed.  I failed, I failed, at the thing I was so sure I was an expert on.

This Saturday, from 12-2, during the hopeful naptime of the three year old insane tyrant who runs my house, I’ll be tackling the chapter for the sixth time, adding a section about needing to make sure you are connecting with kids along the way, putting examples in their hands, scaffolding better the new kinds of thinking you’re asking them to do.  My chapter, my ideas, my imaginary training will all be better because, for whatever reason, James didn’t listen to a damn thing I said all week.

Every day, I fail and fail and fail.  It is splendid.

This doesn’t mean that failing isn’t pretty awful.  When you fail your students, you are failing people who need you.  Teaching, however, is a job that is impossible to do perfectly, so you are always going to fail.  The real question is, are you going to acknowledge and learn from your failure, let your failure sharpen your methods and motivations, or are you going to pretend they didn’t happen, focus on the smilingest face saying the smartest things, and convince yourself that everything is fine, convince yourself that you absolutely know what’s going on.  It’s hard to admit you’ve messed up, perhaps especially for teachers, but messing up makes you better.  Failure is what makes you a real expert on teaching.

Failure is the enemy of absolutism, and I mistrust anyone telling me how to teach or write or think who is not currently failing at that thing.  Failure while teaching is inevitable, not only because I’m human, but because so is everyone around me, and that’s a whole hell of a lot of humans.  This is why I am continually frustrated by how often teacher trainings start out with a story about how the presenter used to teach.  It frustrates me how many times at conferences or in large conversations about education, active teachers are celebrated as “the experts,” and then are absent from meaningful roles in what is being said.  

So many times that I try to be better at what I do, I am told to sit and listen to someone who does not do what I do.

The best researched, reflected on, and cleverly written idea, the best inventions from the best systems of pedagogy, debated and constructed by the best educational brains in the country can be thoroughly, embarrassingly, and hilariously dismantled in ten seconds by a 15 year old who was just dumped by his girlfriend.  If you pay attention though, that kid is going to show you the little pieces that may be wrong in a big good idea, or may show you that some big ideas sound wonderful away from real classrooms, but really have no business being there.

On a small scale, I experience this every year.  During the summer, months away from my last interaction with a teenage face, it’s easy to think I know what I’m doing.  When I wrote my first version of the chapter on the Google Test, I was on a pleasant break between two long legs of a summer bike ride.  I was writing on a patio drinking a beer the color of honey and had nowhere to be for four hours.  I could not have been further away from the reality of teaching actual kids if I tried (or, I suppose, that’s exactly what I was trying to do).  From summer, it’s so easy to remember all the things that went well, to think of the kid that got it and said something brilliant and not the three kids behind that kid who had no idea what the hell I was talking about.
This is why I’ve promised myself that as long as I’m in education, I’m staying in the classroom.  In order for me to be able to write my best ideas on how to teach, I need to constantly test and revise and reform those ideas.  If I’m going to write in a chapter or talk to a group any message that portends, however generally, “I know this thing,” I promise I will always be in a position to watch that thing fail.

I Fail.

Two weeks ago I finished the fourth chapter of my book for the fifth time.  The chapter is on something I call “The Google Test,”which involves asking of any assignment or work I’m giving my students, “can Google do this?”  The goal is to stop giving students work they don’t need.  The smartest kids I went to school with could remember everything and were almost never asked to think about anything. A good memory now is much less useful than the ability to analyze and synthesize information, so those are the skills I focus on in my teaching.

The chapter, started last year, focuses mainly on my unit on Othello.  I developed the unit last year hoping to link classic lit genius with modern-day issues and skills.  So, to teach Othello, to make it relevant to students, to make sure the unit passes The Google Test, and to make it so my class isn’t too full of Englishy stuff, I teach Othello through a critical racial lens.

We discuss the casting of Othello as the Other by Iago.  We link the history of performance of race in Shakespeare’s England to the history of blackface in America and racial stereotypes in modern media.  While we study the play and the concept of the Other, students focus on a solo project where they identify a marginalized group, any marginalized group, study media to deconstruct the creation of stereotypes of that group for a presentation, and then create a creative counter-story to the issues they uncover.

I mean, really, I teach the shit out of Othello.

This is a unit I’ve obsessed over, written about, reflected on and consistently bragged about using big teachery words to anyone who will listen.  I teach so much shit out of Othello that it’s become too easy for me to feel like I actually know what I’m doing.  I can remember the best examples from last year’s projects, I have students from last year telling the students from this year that Othello is “bomb.”  I wrote a whole damn chapter about it.  In fact, I wrote a whole damn chapter about it five times, and I have a whole training on The Google Test all mapped out in my mind for a group of interested teachers that has not yet materialized.  I feel like an expert on very few things, but I feel like an expert on teaching English enhanced by technology and media in ways that are engaging and meaningful.  It has, really, been my lifes work since I started working at life.

“So,” I kneel next to a table of students (one of whom has been gone for the last few days of introducing and starting the solo project), “James,” (James has been here for every moment, front and center) “tell Sam about the project we’re working on.”  I love hearing students show off the high level of work we’re doing, love to see them connect with each other to really dig into ideas often reserved for college.

“Oh,” James says confidently, “you have to write a paper about black people.” So. I failed.  I failed, I failed, at the thing I was so sure I was an expert on.

This Saturday, from 12-2, during the hopeful naptime of the three year old insane tyrant who runs my house, I’ll be tackling the chapter for the sixth time, adding a section about needing to make sure you are connecting with kids along the way, putting examples in their hands, scaffolding better the new kinds of thinking you’re asking them to do.  My chapter, my ideas, my imaginary training will all be better because, for whatever reason, James didn’t listen to a damn thing I said all week.

Every day, I fail and fail and fail.  It is splendid.

This doesn’t mean that failing isn’t pretty awful.  When you fail your students, you are failing people who need you.  Teaching, however, is a job that is impossible to do perfectly, so you are always going to fail.  The real question is, are you going to acknowledge and learn from your failure, let your failure sharpen your methods and motivations, or are you going to pretend they didn’t happen, focus on the smilingest face saying the smartest things, and convince yourself that everything is fine, convince yourself that you absolutely know what’s going on.  It’s hard to admit you’ve messed up, perhaps especially for teachers, but messing up makes you better.  Failure is what makes you a real expert on teaching.

Failure is the enemy of absolutism, and I mistrust anyone telling me how to teach or write or think who is not currently failing at that thing.  Failure while teaching is inevitable, not only because I’m human, but because so is everyone around me, and that’s a whole hell of a lot of humans.  This is why I am continually frustrated by how often teacher trainings start out with a story about how the presenter used to teach.  It frustrates me how many times at conferences or in large conversations about education, active teachers are celebrated as “the experts,” and then are absent from meaningful roles in what is being said.  

So many times that I try to be better at what I do, I am told to sit and listen to someone who does not do what I do.

The best researched, reflected on, and cleverly written idea, the best inventions from the best systems of pedagogy, debated and constructed by the best educational brains in the country can be thoroughly, embarrassingly, and hilariously dismantled in ten seconds by a 15 year old who was just dumped by his girlfriend.  If you pay attention though, that kid is going to show you the little pieces that may be wrong in a big good idea, or may show you that some big ideas sound wonderful away from real classrooms, but really have no business being there.

On a small scale, I experience this every year.  During the summer, months away from my last interaction with a teenage face, it’s easy to think I know what I’m doing.  When I wrote my first version of the chapter on the Google Test, I was on a pleasant break between two long legs of a summer bike ride.  I was writing on a patio drinking a beer the color of honey and had nowhere to be for four hours.  I could not have been further away from the reality of teaching actual kids if I tried (or, I suppose, that’s exactly what I was trying to do).  From summer, it’s so easy to remember all the things that went well, to think of the kid that got it and said something brilliant and not the three kids behind that kid who had no idea what the hell I was talking about.

This is why I’ve promised myself that as long as I’m in education, I’m staying in the classroom.  In order for me to be able to write my best ideas on how to teach, I need to constantly test and revise and reform those ideas.  If I’m going to write in a chapter or talk to a group any message that portends, however generally, “I know this thing,” I promise I will always be in a position to watch that thing fail.

SEEKING
Now available, one young, passionate teacher-leader for indoctrination. Accepting all offers.  Apparently, need to pick a side and really don’t feel like picking.  Do it for me?   Are you a potential brainwasher looking for a loudmouthed teacher and teacher-advocate? This is what I need from you:

I need a debate about ideas, and I need good ideas to matter more than the affiliations of the person who said them.

Union Traditionalists (and I) believe that teacher’s unions are pretty great things, a history full of progress, of fighting for things that make schools better.  Unions are good, are the best instrument we have as teachers to give our profession a voice and a path. 

There’s solid ground to stand on, a continent of solid ground and consolidated power.  So, why pry up small chunks of that rock just to toss them at other people?  Still, in article after article after blog post, the word “reformer” is used like a swear word (even better are the people who use the word “deformer” just to add an additional insult every time a point is being made.  There is no quicker way to get me dislike you and to invalidate your argument for me than to change the name of someone in a way you think is clever).  In those same articles, I never hear mention of what these awful, misguided, or just-plain-evil reformers are after.  Articles say things like “all their reforms will benefit corporations” without explaining what and how and who.  Reformers are called anti-school, anti-teacher, and anti-union without any further evidence or nuance.  

Look, I get why things feel that way to you, but is there room to admit there are people in the reform movement who honestly believe their ideas will make schools better, serve kids who need to be served better, and support teachers to make their jobs more productive?

Of course, those damn DEformers are not blameless.  They (and I) believe that schools are not living up to their promise, and that radical change is needed (my best argument on this front is mainly to just jump up and down and point and scream, “because look!” over and over.  I need to work on that).  However, a passion for better schools does not mean one needs to marginalize the work being done in them.

Too often, teachers who advocate for their colleagues and profession can be made to feel like they are not interested enough in students.  Too often, supporting and working within the structures we have and have fought for is characterized as “doing nothing.”  Every day that I teach doesn’t feel like doing nothing, and every teacher I work along-side or who I have watched push and push from their classrooms for the resources, climate, and education their students deserve can hardly be accused of nothingness.  

Surely, guys, there’s plenty of room to say that there is a ton of great work being done, a ton of progress being made, a ton of new ideas being tried and refined that doesn’t fall under the ‘reform’ umbrella.

So, everyone grow up, yeah?  Anyone who has read this far does not need be convinced that schools and students are too important to put up with people arguing about what t-shirt to wear instead of just getting work done.  Debates deserve better than reducing the arguments and intents of each other to “I hate schools and children but love corporations,” and “I love teachers more than I love students.  Also, I’m lazy.”

I need a third option.

I hear that test scores are a poor measure of the real worth of a teacher or school.  I get that.  I hear that a measure of teachers and schools is needed.  I get that to.  I don’t want to pick one or the other, I want something better.  What’s the third option?

I hear that I can be an educational leader, or I can be a teacher, but I can’t be both.  Unacceptable.  What’s the third option?

I refuse to throw my hands up and blame the failures of school on factors I cannot control.  I refuse to believe that teachers are not doing enough.  What’s the third option?

I understand the need for qualified teachers and rigorous standards for licensure and know a few great EA’s who would be great teachers tomorrow.  What’s the third option?

I love my tenure and give it a little kiss every night before laying it down on a pillow I sewed just for it, and I think it’s pretty ridiculous to have the job security I have because I managed (just barely) not to get fired for three straight years.  What’s the third option?

Are we a match?

I’ve found a few remarkable places where the work is getting done.  Groups of people whose experience and intelligence make me feel sweet and dumb, but accept and encourage my energy.  I’ve found groups and leaders that focus on actually making things happen and look for allies where they can be found. My problem is I read too much, and the problem there is I really really care what words can do when you put them together.  I’m new enough to the conversation to be just getting my bearings, but have been around long enough to know the conversation needs help.
The passion and drive of the people engaged in this conversation is unbelievable, and would be inspiring more often if they were more public about making good ideas, anyone’s good ideas, better.

SEEKING

Now available, one young, passionate teacher-leader for indoctrination. Accepting all offers.  Apparently, need to pick a side and really don’t feel like picking.  Do it for me?   Are you a potential brainwasher looking for a loudmouthed teacher and teacher-advocate? This is what I need from you:

I need a debate about ideas, and I need good ideas to matter more than the affiliations of the person who said them.

Union Traditionalists (and I) believe that teacher’s unions are pretty great things, a history full of progress, of fighting for things that make schools better.  Unions are good, are the best instrument we have as teachers to give our profession a voice and a path.

There’s solid ground to stand on, a continent of solid ground and consolidated power.  So, why pry up small chunks of that rock just to toss them at other people?  Still, in article after article after blog post, the word “reformer” is used like a swear word (even better are the people who use the word “deformer” just to add an additional insult every time a point is being made.  There is no quicker way to get me dislike you and to invalidate your argument for me than to change the name of someone in a way you think is clever).  In those same articles, I never hear mention of what these awful, misguided, or just-plain-evil reformers are after.  Articles say things like “all their reforms will benefit corporations” without explaining what and how and who.  Reformers are called anti-school, anti-teacher, and anti-union without any further evidence or nuance.  

Look, I get why things feel that way to you, but is there room to admit there are people in the reform movement who honestly believe their ideas will make schools better, serve kids who need to be served better, and support teachers to make their jobs more productive?

Of course, those damn DEformers are not blameless.  They (and I) believe that schools are not living up to their promise, and that radical change is needed (my best argument on this front is mainly to just jump up and down and point and scream, “because look!” over and over.  I need to work on that).  However, a passion for better schools does not mean one needs to marginalize the work being done in them.

Too often, teachers who advocate for their colleagues and profession can be made to feel like they are not interested enough in students.  Too often, supporting and working within the structures we have and have fought for is characterized as “doing nothing.”  Every day that I teach doesn’t feel like doing nothing, and every teacher I work along-side or who I have watched push and push from their classrooms for the resources, climate, and education their students deserve can hardly be accused of nothingness.  

Surely, guys, there’s plenty of room to say that there is a ton of great work being done, a ton of progress being made, a ton of new ideas being tried and refined that doesn’t fall under the ‘reform’ umbrella.

So, everyone grow up, yeah?  Anyone who has read this far does not need be convinced that schools and students are too important to put up with people arguing about what t-shirt to wear instead of just getting work done.  Debates deserve better than reducing the arguments and intents of each other to “I hate schools and children but love corporations,” and “I love teachers more than I love students.  Also, I’m lazy.”


I need a third option.


I hear that test scores are a poor measure of the real worth of a teacher or school.  I get that.  I hear that a measure of teachers and schools is needed.  I get that to.  I don’t want to pick one or the other, I want something better.  What’s the third option?

I hear that I can be an educational leader, or I can be a teacher, but I can’t be both.  Unacceptable.  What’s the third option?

I refuse to throw my hands up and blame the failures of school on factors I cannot control.  I refuse to believe that teachers are not doing enough.  What’s the third option?

I understand the need for qualified teachers and rigorous standards for licensure and know a few great EA’s who would be great teachers tomorrow.  What’s the third option?

I love my tenure and give it a little kiss every night before laying it down on a pillow I sewed just for it, and I think it’s pretty ridiculous to have the job security I have because I managed (just barely) not to get fired for three straight years.  What’s the third option?


Are we a match?

I’ve found a few remarkable places where the work is getting done.  Groups of people whose experience and intelligence make me feel sweet and dumb, but accept and encourage my energy.  I’ve found groups and leaders that focus on actually making things happen and look for allies where they can be found. My problem is I read too much, and the problem there is I really really care what words can do when you put them together.  I’m new enough to the conversation to be just getting my bearings, but have been around long enough to know the conversation needs help.

The passion and drive of the people engaged in this conversation is unbelievable, and would be inspiring more often if they were more public about making good ideas, anyone’s good ideas, better.

Teacher Time

There’s a debate among staff at school right now about the appropriate amount of time to give teachers at the end of the semester to grade and prepare.

Sounds like a fascinating discussion, right?

The essential issue is that there are a very few times during the year that are teacher work days and that there are not students around to muck up the work.  During those days, there is often some attempt at staff development, there are meetings with groups of teachers who can’t meet during usual school days, and there is often time to grade whatever needs grading and plan whatever needs planning.

The problem is that, all said, there are about 20 hours of things to do for every hour we have, so decisions need to be made.

For this staff day, a committee of staff members suggested we do a day worth of work on Racial Equity.  I would argue that the number one thing hurting our students right now is the systematic racism of society and school systems, but that’s just my argument (which is a completely correct argument). So, the Equity committee put together a day of workshops on Equity because it had been far too long since the staff had all worked together on the issue (in my opinion, “too long” is anything longer than all the time, but it really had been well over a year).

My goodness, the hyperbole that followed.  The gnashing of teeth, the threats of one more thing.  The despair!  Oh Ye Gods!  When are we supposed to grade?  On our own time?  Unpaid?  Why must we be so punished!

Yes, some frustration is completely allowable and understandable.  And yes, since the norm is a half day of grading, we’re only talking about a grand total of perhaps four hours of time.  I am exaggerating the response because I am writing this in the lobby of a convention of 1,000 teachers, and they’re all dressed so completely teachery, and they’re all talking about such teachery things, and we all got these not-quite-canvas bright red bags that everyone is walking around in, and the bags are the exact too-big and too-thin size as to be completely useless for anything in the world other than walking around this convention looking like a dweeb.  Also, I have to wear a name tag.

It’s possible I’m a little teachered out.  I’ve been here for an hour.

The thing is, I really love teachers, really, and I most especially love teaching.

It occurs to me that there are two very different ways to look at teacher contracts and teacher pay.  In the first way, we work too much for far too little.  You can read the contract to the letter, of course.  In that case, I will work 184 days this year.  That means, if my math serves me (it hardly ever does), that I will not work 181 days.  For required work juuuuuuust over half the year, I will be paid around 55,000 dollars this year (as an 8 year teacher with a master’s degree).  I will be provided healthcare (fairly crummy health care, but still), and some retirement funds I’ve been too frightened to look at for like five years.  I will be given an additional 12 days to take off essentially as I please, and the days I have not used in years past are still with me, meaning if something big happened, I could take off about two months of work without losing a penny.  Also, since I managed to not get fired in my first three years and now have tenure, I have remarkable job security.  While doing some life planning with my wife the other night, I asked the question, “how much is it worth it every year to know for almost certain that I will have a job in five years?”  The number was very high.

Oh, also, if I work that many days, and I work only during the duty day of 8-4, there is no way, absolutely no way, that I will be able to do my job.

For some teachers, the discrepancy in hours required and hours actually spent working is a source of constant frustration.  We must be paid more, they understandably believe, because we work more hours, many more hours, than are in our contract.  Everything they do outside of that contract, every suggestion that they may have to do something outside of of eight hour days during half the days of the year, is too many things.  Of course, we all do it.  It would be really impossible to do this job without working more than those days.

I also find it hard to believe that anyone managed to get themselves licensed as a teacher without anyone breaking the news to them along the way that it was a job of long hours, and they would not be making Lexus money.  Still, some teachers seem to be much, much more unhappy with it than others. 

 Extra hours don’t bother me, and I think they don’t bother me greatly for two major reasons.  For starters, it’s possible, just maybe, that my sincere anxiety and self-doubt issues make me work too hard at all the things I do because I assume otherwise I’m not doing enough and need to prove constantly to myself that I am not, in fact, awful and unlikable in almost every situation.  So, there’s that.  Additionally, although I work under a contract that spells out the days and hours that I am supposed to work, I tend not to think about my job that way.  When I look at the totality of the job I do, and at the salary and benefits that job gives me, I feel like I get compensated just fine for the job that I do.

I am a Teacher with the biggest capital ‘T’ I can manage in the word.  To be able to do my job with any amount of success is a badass talent that I am fiercely proud/cocky about.  To have a classroom of my own and a place in a passionate staff is something that many deserving people would do many humiliating or itchy things to get.  For this job, I get paid a certain amount of money.  That money covers the job I do all year long, and whatever it takes to do that job well.  Some days, that means coming early or staying late, or, and this is the itchiest thing for me, sitting in rooms of adults and talking about stuff.  Some days in the summer, it means that I ride my bike to the beach by the airport just to look at the water for awhile and take the long way home.  

I can’t say that the days off equal out the extra work.  I have no idea, really, if they do, and don’t really care.  The life I lead is a life I’ve chosen, and the work I do is sincerely important to me.  There are things I’d like to do professionally, things that need to be better in my classroom, kids that are smarter than me with less opportunities than I’ve had that need all their teachers to be transformative and inspiring and relentlessly creative.  To do those things, there is work that needs doing, and I try to find time to do all the work that I can.  There’s a constant flux of what job needs to get done and figuring out how best to do it.  This often means scratching three of thirty things off a to-do list at the end of the day, and it often means failing ten times for every success, and it often means feeling like there’s not enough time or enough me or enough cupcakes that will make the job I need to do possible in the time I have.

All of that.  The failure, the work, the time, the frustration, is the job, is the permanent state of teaching thirty squirming humans.  Fighting each one means feeling constantly put-upon, constantly targeted, constantly the victim of a job that will just not let you be.  Embracing that state means knowing that every day is just about impossible, but you have to do it anyway.  I love it, I do, and I get to do something in my life that feels really important.  Would I like more time to grade and prepare?  I would.  I teach high school english to around 160 students, and the week ahead of me is full of finals and essays from all those kids.  Would I like more money?  I would.  Of course, convincing anyone that they don’t make enough money has got to be the easiest sell in the history of sells.
There are so many more reasons to be content, to be excited about teaching than there are reasons to be upset.  There are so many things we get to do, so many things we get to be proud of and passionate about and rewarded by.  It can be easy to focus on all the things that are wrong, on all the ways we feel slighted, about all the things about our day that are impossibly hard or just staggeringly stupid.  Those things need attention, they need fixing, but there’s too many, by landslide too many things about Teaching, the great good of Teaching, to not be proud of that capital ‘T’ in my job title and proud to share it with all the other red-bagged dweebs walking all around me.

Teacher Time

There’s a debate among staff at school right now about the appropriate amount of time to give teachers at the end of the semester to grade and prepare.


Sounds like a fascinating discussion, right?


The essential issue is that there are a very few times during the year that are teacher work days and that there are not students around to muck up the work.  During those days, there is often some attempt at staff development, there are meetings with groups of teachers who can’t meet during usual school days, and there is often time to grade whatever needs grading and plan whatever needs planning.


The problem is that, all said, there are about 20 hours of things to do for every hour we have, so decisions need to be made.


For this staff day, a committee of staff members suggested we do a day worth of work on Racial Equity.  I would argue that the number one thing hurting our students right now is the systematic racism of society and school systems, but that’s just my argument (which is a completely correct argument). So, the Equity committee put together a day of workshops on Equity because it had been far too long since the staff had all worked together on the issue (in my opinion, “too long” is anything longer than all the time, but it really had been well over a year).


My goodness, the hyperbole that followed.  The gnashing of teeth, the threats of one more thing.  The despair!  Oh Ye Gods!  When are we supposed to grade?  On our own time?  Unpaid?  Why must we be so punished!


Yes, some frustration is completely allowable and understandable.  And yes, since the norm is a half day of grading, we’re only talking about a grand total of perhaps four hours of time.  I am exaggerating the response because I am writing this in the lobby of a convention of 1,000 teachers, and they’re all dressed so completely teachery, and they’re all talking about such teachery things, and we all got these not-quite-canvas bright red bags that everyone is walking around in, and the bags are the exact too-big and too-thin size as to be completely useless for anything in the world other than walking around this convention looking like a dweeb.  Also, I have to wear a name tag.


It’s possible I’m a little teachered out.  I’ve been here for an hour.


The thing is, I really love teachers, really, and I most especially love teaching.


It occurs to me that there are two very different ways to look at teacher contracts and teacher pay.  In the first way, we work too much for far too little.  You can read the contract to the letter, of course.  In that case, I will work 184 days this year.  That means, if my math serves me (it hardly ever does), that I will not work 181 days.  For required work juuuuuuust over half the year, I will be paid around 55,000 dollars this year (as an 8 year teacher with a master’s degree).  I will be provided healthcare (fairly crummy health care, but still), and some retirement funds I’ve been too frightened to look at for like five years.  I will be given an additional 12 days to take off essentially as I please, and the days I have not used in years past are still with me, meaning if something big happened, I could take off about two months of work without losing a penny.  Also, since I managed to not get fired in my first three years and now have tenure, I have remarkable job security.  While doing some life planning with my wife the other night, I asked the question, “how much is it worth it every year to know for almost certain that I will have a job in five years?”  The number was very high.


Oh, also, if I work that many days, and I work only during the duty day of 8-4, there is no way, absolutely no way, that I will be able to do my job.


For some teachers, the discrepancy in hours required and hours actually spent working is a source of constant frustration.  We must be paid more, they understandably believe, because we work more hours, many more hours, than are in our contract.  Everything they do outside of that contract, every suggestion that they may have to do something outside of of eight hour days during half the days of the year, is too many things.  Of course, we all do it.  It would be really impossible to do this job without working more than those days.

I also find it hard to believe that anyone managed to get themselves licensed as a teacher without anyone breaking the news to them along the way that it was a job of long hours, and they would not be making Lexus money.  Still, some teachers seem to be much, much more unhappy with it than others.


Extra hours don’t bother me, and I think they don’t bother me greatly for two major reasons.  For starters, it’s possible, just maybe, that my sincere anxiety and self-doubt issues make me work too hard at all the things I do because I assume otherwise I’m not doing enough and need to prove constantly to myself that I am not, in fact, awful and unlikable in almost every situation.  So, there’s that.  Additionally, although I work under a contract that spells out the days and hours that I am supposed to work, I tend not to think about my job that way.  When I look at the totality of the job I do, and at the salary and benefits that job gives me, I feel like I get compensated just fine for the job that I do.


I am a Teacher with the biggest capital ‘T’ I can manage in the word.  To be able to do my job with any amount of success is a badass talent that I am fiercely proud/cocky about.  To have a classroom of my own and a place in a passionate staff is something that many deserving people would do many humiliating or itchy things to get.  For this job, I get paid a certain amount of money.  That money covers the job I do all year long, and whatever it takes to do that job well.  Some days, that means coming early or staying late, or, and this is the itchiest thing for me, sitting in rooms of adults and talking about stuff.  Some days in the summer, it means that I ride my bike to the beach by the airport just to look at the water for awhile and take the long way home.  


I can’t say that the days off equal out the extra work.  I have no idea, really, if they do, and don’t really care.  The life I lead is a life I’ve chosen, and the work I do is sincerely important to me.  There are things I’d like to do professionally, things that need to be better in my classroom, kids that are smarter than me with less opportunities than I’ve had that need all their teachers to be transformative and inspiring and relentlessly creative.  To do those things, there is work that needs doing, and I try to find time to do all the work that I can.  There’s a constant flux of what job needs to get done and figuring out how best to do it.  This often means scratching three of thirty things off a to-do list at the end of the day, and it often means failing ten times for every success, and it often means feeling like there’s not enough time or enough me or enough cupcakes that will make the job I need to do possible in the time I have.


All of that.  The failure, the work, the time, the frustration, is the job, is the permanent state of teaching thirty squirming humans.  Fighting each one means feeling constantly put-upon, constantly targeted, constantly the victim of a job that will just not let you be.  Embracing that state means knowing that every day is just about impossible, but you have to do it anyway.  I love it, I do, and I get to do something in my life that feels really important.  Would I like more time to grade and prepare?  I would.  I teach high school english to around 160 students, and the week ahead of me is full of finals and essays from all those kids.  Would I like more money?  I would.  Of course, convincing anyone that they don’t make enough money has got to be the easiest sell in the history of sells.


There are so many more reasons to be content, to be excited about teaching than there are reasons to be upset.  There are so many things we get to do, so many things we get to be proud of and passionate about and rewarded by.  It can be easy to focus on all the things that are wrong, on all the ways we feel slighted, about all the things about our day that are impossibly hard or just staggeringly stupid.  Those things need attention, they need fixing, but there’s too many, by landslide too many things about Teaching, the great good of Teaching, to not be proud of that capital ‘T’ in my job title and proud to share it with all the other red-bagged dweebs walking all around me.