I can’t talk now because you don’t want to.

It started with a Zoom meeting with a Stepford wife, which in itself was weird because most of the moms in the school district where I teach (soon to be “taught”) are shit-kickers, wearing stained jeans with ragged ropers and flannel or Carhart, depending on what the weather brings that day.

At least that’s when I thought it started.

In retrospect, it probably started a week or two earlier when I assigned a two-year-old article to my 10th-grade English class. It was about the GSA club at a high school in Salt Lake that, 22 years earlier, tried to form and instead got all clubs on campus cancelled.

The article was pretty innocuous, intended to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the scandal, document the problem, the eventual outcome, and provide a where-are-they-now for the key players. I liked the piece because it showed students that if they believed in something, they truly could make change, even as teens. It was inspirational and also a great example of how nothing, not even attitudes, lasts forever.

Apparently, however, it was a little too much for 15- and 16-year olds in small-town Utah. It was, after all, political because … it named politicians? I’m reaching.

Anyway, the Stepford wife with the lemon-chiffon blond hair coveted by Dallas Cowboy cheerleader-wannnabes everywhere, was seeking reassurance that we wouldn’t get political in class. Her son, an honors-student and football player, who I would later catch cheating on a standardized test intended to determine a child’s reading level, didn’t need to be bothered with that stuff.

“Well,” I told her, “we will discuss current events. Sometimes we’ll use news articles to practice informational texts standards and comprehension or for background for argument writing and discussions. I tend to take these from sites like the Salt Lake Trib, Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, NPR...”

Stepford interrupted: “I don’t want my son exposed to politics.”

This got a little tricky. Yes, I teach English, but part of the core requires we work on arguments. Other parts specify historic texts, and the list of suggestions from the state are all political. What Stepford would see as political, I didn’t know. So I stayed vague. “We try to focus on topics that matter to teens. I personally prefer to have students drive the discussions, but sometimes I do find the material and pick the topics. For this quarter, your son’s class is being asked to pick their own topics, but I do want them to select at least one article or opinion piece that reflects an alternative viewpoint.”

Stepford wasn’t impressed. As our Zoom meeting progressed, she walked through her house, giving me that rare glimpse into the home life of a student. Vaulted ceilings, which are hugely impractical in an environment where it’s winter for eight months of the year, were everywhere in her house, but they weren’t accompanied by the floor to ceiling view windows I’d expect to see in this mountain valley. Lots of wall instead. White. Very white. Really, I wasn’t judgey. Okay, maybe I was a little.

“And other viewpoints — they’re an important part of the argument standards… understanding both sides,” I said.

She stopped in front of white-painted, built-in shelves. As she spoke, I analyzed the walls. White, yes, but not bright or clean. Dingy. Painted frequently to look clean but by contractors who use cheap paint that can cover stuff up quickly.

Tchotke lined the shelves. Missing were the trail of coffee cups that led to the kitchen, Legos, stacks of junk mail, and wine stains, and books I’m accustomed to seeing in my own house.

“They pick the topic?” she asked.

“It’s not my intent to tell students how to think, just to get them to think and to understand that there’s more than one position to just about every issue,” I said.

A small metal horse sculpture rearing up on its hind legs was perched on the shelf behind her. It probably cost as much as my car, although it looked like the type of thing you’d find on clearance at World Market or Pier 1. Stepford herself appeared to be sitting at a built-in desk, a vestige of the 1990s, which is likely when her meh house was built.

She told me about her son’s plans for the future — actually her plans for her son (I would find out through the year that the son was quite intelligent but really didn’t make his own decisions about anything; decisions were made for him) and how he planned to go to law school at some Ivy League school where his uncle went and blah blah blah… I tuned out.

I’d started noticing a few months earlier that there was a very specific type of person who opted for the all-one-color blond, like Stepford’s. They were less likely to be working class like me. I’m someone who wants to eek as much life out of my dye-job as possible, which means highlights because they blend in. The all-one-color blonds were the type of people who had the time and the cash to go to the salon on a monthly basis, and who never showed roots. They weren’t looking for realism or reality.

“I just don’t think school is the place for politics,” she said. “Do you?”

Her vocal inflection brought me back. I considered the question and thought for a moment about my answer — do I remind her that her son will be in college in a few years and we’re trying to prep him for that now? Do I let her know that most students already have strong opinions but that maybe we as adults could try to build critical-thought into learning so that Gen Z’s opinions are grounded in truth? Do I tell her that seeing multiple sides is a form of learning?

I pivoted and brought up another project her son’s class would do: research information about their family’s immigrant and that immigrant group’s experience was upon coming to America. Stepford seems satisfied for a minute, possibly because she was mulling over the fact that her family wasn’t stuck at the southern border of the U.S. and she would be pretty sure that her son’s honors English class wouldn’t include any students whose family was (she was almost right — only one Latina was in a 10th grade honors English class).

Or maybe she realized that I was a problem that she’d need to do something about, that talking to me wasn’t going to fix the agenda that I no doubt had.

I never heard from Stepford again, at least not directly. I did learn that her spouse, a tiny guy with a huge bank account (hot, right?) was on the school district’s education foundation — the non-profit that provided schools with extra funding for stuff not covered by tax dollars. The Stepford wife was a small, rich guy away from the ear of the administration. I naively didn’t care. I just did my thing, which apparently ruffled more than a few feathers.

Did we talk about LGBTQ rights again? Probably, although I shied away from the topic after I saw how many students wrote in their reflections that they don’t agree with people being gay. Does that make me a puss? Probably but I couldn’t understand the logic of “not agreeing with” gay since gay isn’t something anyone gets to agree upon.

Plus, by November, I knew my work in that district was pretty much done. We hadn’t solved the myopic views of the students, but I closed my ears to almost everything because I couldn’t hear about one more complaint registered by a Q-anon mom.

How many were there?

A lot apparently. When we discussed cancel culture in class, which was a taboo subject (if I had been watching Tucker Carlson, I would have known), they called administration. When I asked students to read an infographic that reflected survey data about teens and their pro-gun-control attitudes, they called administration.

When a student brought up Defund the Police in an early morning class, I mentioned that the slogan was a great example of how you can grab the audience’s attention with very few words but that it was also terrible because it could turn people off from the message immediately. They called administration because that discussion of rhetoric was blatant indoctrination. They called administration when we read Langston Hughes and compared the theme, delivery, and message to Childish Gambino. They called administration all the time. Sometimes before we started class. They just knew I was up to some indoctrinating.

In retrospect, however, it probably didn’t start with that Zoom meeting or the GSA article. It may have started days earlier when I asked students to respond to a getting-to-know-you-survey question that asked which social movements they cared about. I left Q-anon off the list.

My bad.

How I learned to loathe marketing and love the classroom?

It’s been a weird year. Maybe not for the reasons that you’re already thinking, including racial reckoning, which is long overdue, and COVID-19’s divisive and ever-present annoyance. My year was weird because it was my first year in a new job — as a public school teacher.

Teaching wasn’t what I studied in college decades ago as an undergrad or grad student, not what I had ever really intended to do, although it was always in the back of my mind that I’d somehow find a way to end my professional career in a classroom full of teenagers who really wanted to learn how cool math was from me.

Anyway, I didn’t teach math. I taught English, which was my least favorite subject other than PE in school. Granted, I kind of hated history, too. The teenager part was a bit of a stretch, since this was 8th grade, which is just the start of the teens, but that’s really not the point.

The point is I made it through the first year, signed up for a second, and now need to figure out if I’m making any sort of difference, how, and why.

How I learned to loathe marketing…

I’m writing this as I see the barrage of Black lives matter marketing emails hit my inbox and the social channels that I finally have time to look at. I’m positive that a number of these companies are practicing what they’re preaching and others will begin initiatives to make changes, although at 54 years old, I have to wonder why they’re just starting to pay attention now. This includes all of the 99% white companies I worked for that were housed in office parks on very white sides of town and with no pigment at all in their “corporate leadership” profiles. I’m not calling anyone a hypocrite tho. Things change, companies change, right?

Okay, this is the kind of skepticism that made me a terrible marketer, which is where I was before moving into education, even if I was actually kind of successful in the field. At least my paychecks said I was successful. My attitude, however, didn’t. The higher I climbed the corporate ladder, the lower my opinion became of my own contribution to the profession. I just wasn’t feeling it.

I worked mostly on the B2B side of marketing because, you guess it, that’s where the money is/was. Selling widgets and services to companies that really needed neither. Toward the end of my marketing run, I oversaw content marketing teams — that ugly intersection of journalism and marketing that’s really little more than throwing words at prospective customers to try to convince them that you’re empowering people to make smart decisions. You aren’t. You’re empowering a long-form commercial that says how freakin’ amazing you are.

Yeah, I’m biased. Actually, content marketing doesn’t need to be the dreadful beast it became to me. It should be the “news” and education side of corporate messaging. On the surface, this sounds great. You arm consumers with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions on their own. You build trust in your brand because you’re completely transparent. You help consumers by showing your strengths, your weaknesses, your beauty marks, and your warts. You, the company, are a rockstar. Your customer is in complete control.

Sadly, that’s not really how content marketing plays out these days (there are exceptions, I’m sure). My experience is that content marketing is used primarily as a means of building a false corporate image that pretends to respect the consumer, while its true goal is to convince Google’s algorithms that its message is valuable enough to be on page one of that customer’s search results. (Oh, the stories I could tell about heads of marketing teams and budgets and the ways they were gaming the system!) If a company really wanted to empower its prospective customers with info that could be used to make decisions, it would never use the term “content marketing.” The company would opt for a more straightforward term like “education.”

I should have seen the writing on the wall …

… and love the classroom

That subhead, btw, is a lie. I’m not sure I actually love the classroom, but I’m getting ahead of myself and thinking about concepts I’ve not really considered yet.

Regardless, I hated being in marketing. It wasn’t me. I wasn’t the corporate cheerleader that these companies needed. I saw through the glossy coat and focused more on the tics that were festering on the underbelly. I was collecting a paycheck. A big paycheck.

Then 2016 happened. I know, another 50+YO woman who still can’t get past the 2016 election. Didn’t realize that this would devolve into another Trump-is-to-blame or What’s-wrong-with-you post, eh?

So, it took me a while to accept that there was something pervasively wrong with our society. For a little while in November 2016, I listened to Alex Jones to find out what the hell people were thinking. I talked to my mom — a Trump cheerleader — only to realize she wasn’t thinking for herself and then wondered why I thought she would since she had let other people make decisions for her for most of her life. I watched and rewatched the episode of Samantha Bee (Full Frontal), when she spoke with people in Pennsylvania about electing a woman as president and the women she talked to said stupid shit like women couldn’t lead, were too emotional. WTF? Really, WTF? I talked to my son, who was 15 at the time, about people like Paul Joseph Watson and some other whackasses who were targeting young white males on video game messaging sites, presumably in preparation for 2020, 2024, and beyond.

Anyway, beyond the rhetoric, November 2016 showed me just how short life is and that I really really didn’t need to be wasting my time selling widgets when I gave less than half a shit whether any business needed those widgets. I wanted to shake some sense into people, but in a non-violent way. I think I finally snapped the day my then-boss told me that voting for Trump didn’t make him racist and that people should stop saying that. True, it didn’t make him a racist; it more likely reflected the racism that was in him all along. BTW, my dumbfounded look also prompted him to share info a buddy of his had forwarded him about Hillary Clinton laughing at her success in helping a child rapist escape jail time (“She laughed about it!” he lamented. “Um, no, that’s a doctored video,” I said…) and the fact that democrats were funding the Evan McMullen campaign (“Really? I don’t remember hearing that …” I said.). I think pizzagate came up, too.

Virtually every bullshit lie I heard, I researched and realized was spread simply because people had stopped thinking for themselves. Frequently, I did a quick search and found the facts associated with with each scenario ASAP. Did no one question anything before? I mean, people actually listened to Alex Jones (did you know that liberals take babies from backyards and suck the souls from them before returning said babies?) and not for the entertainment value because hours of listening to his bloated gut barf out nonsense was anything but entertaining. My mom, boss, and those women in Pennsylvania had all checked their common sense at the voting booth, too. The more I looked around, the more I realized that there were lazy people on all sides who just wanted to read headlines or have someone digest information for them so they could get back to watching reruns of Friends on Netflix. WTF was I or anyone supposed to do?

I made it my mission to change this, which brought me to my next problem — how?

I stewed on it for nearly two years because there are some things you shouldn’t just jump into. I mean that was my whole premise here, right? I batted around the idea of finally going to law school so I could become a civil rights attorney. But would that change the way people thought? I considered getting my Ph.D. in rhetoric so I could deconstruct messaging for the masses and show everyone they had been hoodwinked, but no one wants to listen to an overeducated blowhard, which I’m positive I would be. Finally, I settled on the most humble of all options — teaching. I mean, at the time, I was pretty sure that the country and earth would be around for a while and that maybe as a teacher, I could at least convince a few hundred minds each year that they needed to seek to find the whole truth before acting or even sharing a news story with the underling in the cube next door. Granted, that “be around for a while” is looking less and less likely right now …

I decided to become a teacher. I already had some experience teaching college English classes, so I went through an intensive year of schooling to learn to tackle education for teenagers, too. Then, I took a job as a teaching intern. Eight grade. Rural America.

Me, the first-year teacher

That’s where I am today — cleaning the last items out of the classroom where I spent my first year as a full-time teacher. I held off doing this for almost 10 days since I needed a break when school finished. Mental exhaustion. Thus far, my break has consisted of everything un-mental I could do. I made nine loaves of bread, rearranged my laundry room and my sock drawer, arranged to purchase an out-of-state camp trailer that I still need to pick up, ran 18 miles, hiked about 12, biked 41, changed a bike tire with brut strength, scrubbed a carpet that our geriatric pets continually confuses with a lawn or litter box, found a way to block access to the now-spotless carpet from the geriatric dog who started the craze, read a book about a local homeschooling-polygamist-militant family of separatists whose compound I can see from my bedroom, scrubbed some bathrooms, floors, the patio, ordered cute masks for the family to wear this summer, experimented with making vegan chorizo, scooped litter boxes, and more.

My job now is to start thinking again. Did I do anything right? Did I do everything wrong? What can I do so that we’re never in a state again where white people, 50+ years after the end of the civil rights movement, are still trying to comprehend that Black lives actually matter and that the systems we created in this nation, education included, are the biggest contributors to the attitudes that perpetuate the problem?

Stay tuned, post your comments because I’d love to hear what you have to say. And realize that now that I’ve started thinking again, I have a lot to say.

Nice tech, if you can get it

I worked in tech for more than a decade. Needless to say, if I had the time to automate every aspect of my life, I would. Smart lights? Check. Refrigerators that order milk for me when I get low? Check. An entire house that changes its ambience when I say the magic word? Check. Honestly, I have plenty to do — if there’s a tool that can do some of it for me, I’m in.

And then there’s education. Honestly there’s so much tech in education, it could make someone’s head spin right off. In my own classroom, I use multiple tools to deliver, track, and accept assignments alone. Then there are the gamifying apps, collaboration apps, apps to make writers pretend to know how to draw. There are the apps to check your grammar and word count (ideal for students who never bothered to see that these are built into Google Docs), apps to keep you scheduled, apps to find out if you plagiarized. You name it, education has an app for that.

What there isn’t is consistency, which becomes a problem for students and teachers alike. See, I want to try all of these tools. On the occasion that I have a chance to use a tool,  I need it to work the whole time and the first time, so I give myself a one-strike policy: if I can’t make it work as planned ASAP, then I dump it. Ain’t no one got time for that.

So, back to my school — the autonomy is great. The lack of tech tools, however,  is sort of a nightmare. And we’re not alone. In most schools, there are no offcially endorsed tech tools — teachers can pick what works for them. Autonomy for all (is that a thing?)! But no one has time to see which tech they might want to use, offer guidance or suggestions to each other or their coworkers. So we’re back to square one. The students, BTW, are just as confused.

I’m writing all of this because tonight, Canvas, decided to stop talking to PowerSchool. I’ve received countless emails from students about their grades — emails from student who were hoping their updated would chance their grades because, well, holidays are coming and no one wants to feel the wrath of an angry parent who happened to see that slacker son and/or daughter didn’t do the work. I, however, can’t fix this right now. I always want to help my students but sometimes I can’t.

I’m thrilled that my students are finally taking responsibility for their grades. It’s part of why I still dedicate time to reminding students to check their grades daily and build it into a Powerpoint that I frequently want to stop creating but the students are so used to seeing that they can’t start class without it. These are elements I’ve been trying to get them to adopt and understand since day 1. I’m just bummed that they seemed to have picked a bum night for it.

Should teachers be jacks of all trades?

My English 8 students are working on a writing unit right now. Okay, I’m working on a writing unit and honestly my outlook is far more relaxed and better because it’s writing rather than reading.

I’m going into teaching for the writing — I’m a writer, I love writing, and I want other people to understand that writing is essential, easy, and nothing to be feared. Reading? Yeah, we all need to do it but there are people better than me out there to teach the students the ins and outs of reading and build excitement around it.

Which brings me to this: our first education reform should be to encourage specialization. I’m in a tiny school — one teacher per subject per grade (and then we need to teach something else, too, to fill in the gaps) — but I’d gladly teach 6th, 7th, and 8th grade writing if someone else handled the reading. We could collaborate and SHOULD collaborate on what writing/reading we’d each teach, but students and teachers would probably all be happier and more confident if we approached teaching this way. I’d likely need to grade more, but that’s okay. That’s how I learn what needs to be taught and how to teach it.

I’ve talked to other teachers, particularly science, who would agree. Most science teachers I know have a true love for some aspect of their curriculum, but not all of it. They had to pick up the rest of the info along the way. Letting a bio teacher specialize in genetics while another teacher specializes in anatomy (no, I don’t know exactly what’s in the core) would make everyone, including the student, more engaged because we’d all be sharing the thing that brought us to teaching. English teachers, too, have a preference. Most of the ones I went to school with dreaded the writing units. They were readers, lovers of literature. Why shouldn’t they be encouraged to stay that way?

Our current system encourages teachers to be jacks of all trades, but that often puts us in the category of master of none. If we fix the system, I’m pretty sure everyone would fare better.


Burnout and education

I’m too busy for burnout right now. That doesn’t mean I’m not there — it just means I don’t really have the time to process it yet.

I catch glimpses of a normal life — the one I used to have — and I know I’ll have it again … eventually. With every job I’ve ever held, it’s taken between 6-12 months for me to snap and take control because it’s my life, dammit.

Here’s the deal: the teaching industry itself does require a lot of dedication, work, and devotion, but the way it’s been set up is bordering on abusive. It seems like it harkens back to the early days of women entering the teaching industry, when schoolmarms were to be married to their jobs, not to an actual spouse. As the industry became female dominated, however, administration and regulation were still run by males. Somehow it became okay to continue to make the workers jump through absurd hoops in order to do their jobs, hoops that frequently had little relationship to the end goal — ensuring children were ready for the real world.

Regardless of sex or gender today, the teaching profession holds onto some of these archaic notions that teachers should hold a 24/7 devotion to their jobs. You’re always  on, regardless of your contract hours. In what other profession are you expected to give up your lunch in order to help someone? Where else are you expected to stay late because of someone else’s needs? Which other profession expects you to show up on the first day fully planned and ready to go, knowing full well that you couldn’t possibly create those plans in a few short professional development days, especially when most districts expect you to spend those days listening to an overpaid, inspirational speaker who has repackaged and rebranded some strategy that you’re already doing anyway?

I don’t just blame the administrators and regulators, however. I blame the teachers, too. Too many take the martyr role — “I have to give everything of myself” — which simply perpetuates the abuse. Too many also enter the profession never knowing how business operates. They teach; that’s what they know. They’re performing the most important job in our society. They should feel honored that we’re allowing them to hold this position. Yes, we’ll make you  get more education, show us a paper certificate, spend time on stuff that may or may not be valuable in your own classroom in order to earn $30 more on each paycheck. Yes, we’ll give you a partial pension so you can collect a portion of your $40k/year after you retire, but you’ll have put in 60+ countable hours each week during the school year — as well as plenty of time during your prescribed vacations — in order to get it, so you could really see it as deferred compensation. Yes, we’ll relentlessly poke and prod you during your day-to-day, ask you to manage a team of 150+, ensure you’re again jumping through frequently arbitrary hoops that simply may not make a bit of difference in how your students learn. Yes, you can have a sick day but you’ll need to ensure you’ve already done the work so that your class is occupied and learning. Yes, we’ll encourage you to try something new, but we’ll also place so many must-dos on you that rocking the boat simply can’t happen. While we’re at it, we’ll hold you accountable for students who opt not to engage. We’ll ask you to change your plans to ensure your team of students each receives a different education because we’re all different. We’ll expect you to be on your best behavior when you’re off the clock, although you’re never really off. We’ll check up on you every few years and threaten to take away your license if we find out you did something dumb. We may even put you on some sort of probation for a single screw up. And we’ll continue to expect you to do more and more with fewer and fewer resources.

Other industries are dedicated to finding time for employees to innovate and ensuring that the always-on mentality created by a connected society goes away. Private business, especially tech, VALUES workers’ time to think, relax, create. Education isn’t there yet, and based on what I’ve seen in terms of budgets and funding and the people we keep voting into our legislative branches, we’re nowhere close.

To me this says one thing: teachers need to push back more. Teachers and unions need to peel back the curtain and show legislators and the public exactly what it takes to teach a child — and multiply that by 100+. Spend a day in a classroom to find out what teachers are really up against. Until we do this, nothing will change. People simply don’t understand what our society is putting teachers through and how educators with the greatest plans ever are hobbled to the point of ineffectiveness.

I was warned by instructors at the college where I’m getting my teaching license to expect nights with little sleep — hell, even a whole year of sleep that most people would call a “nap” instead. Interns and student teachers sit through lessons in avoiding burnout. It’s no secret that this is a huge problem in the profession. But still, no one is doing anything about it.

The industry needs to change.

I see teachers who won’t make it past their first year. I see teacher who will stick it out and drop from the profession by year three.  I have friends who were amazingly dedicated teachers and who dropped out because working for a corporation was easier and paid more. I know they’re sad to have left the profession, but they’re happy to reclaim themselves.

It’s early days for me, I admit. Sometime between January and March, I will snap and take control of my life again — I know this because that’s just how I am. Still, I’ll be in a profession that may not see much value in me. Yes, I am working with unbelievably supportive administrators, the kind that I know teachers in two other districts in the area pine for (in fact, one of those other-district teachers has already indicated to me that he’d be willing to take a cut in pay simply because of the conditions at the school where I’m interning — yes, teacher crave that type of support). But the one thing those great admins can’t do is change the fact that education as a profession and education as a system MUST have an overhaul. Without this, we’ll continue to lose the best teachers and force the really great ones who do stay to never live up their profession. Pay more? Yes. But also look at the conditions because no increase in pay can fix the fact that you’re in a system where you’re being set up to never truly excel.

I’m making this my mission: to fix education for teachers and the students. And trust me, it will happen. Listen up, because I’ll be the squeakiest wheel you’ve ever heard … once I get through this year.

8th grade: I don’t know what I don’t know

I don’t know what I don’t know. I think that’s what freaked me out so much about teaching “theme” to my 8th-graders. I know what theme is, but I don’t really know how to teach it.

I read all of the advice online. It was … fine. But none of it was concrete, and I hate teaching when there’s nothing concrete to attach it to.

I already knew that theme was subjective. It’s dependent upon the experience, background knowledge, and perception of the reader. I also knew that most online sources recommended framing theme as the message the WRITER wants the reader to take away from the work. But as a writer, I can tell you that I never once considered theme while writing. It’s all very confusing.

I’d been advised by teachers to let students identify the themes on their own. I’d also been advised to give them a few themes that I found in the book and let them provide proof that these were themes. I was told to give them scaffolding, but also told to let them seek their own truth. No matter what I did, there was no real answer.

The best tip? “Theme is very difficult for students to understand. Expect to teach if repeatedly through the year.” Thanks to my principal for that.

That’s the funny thing about teaching English — the hard, fast rules are few. The soft, fuzzy guidelines are many. There are exceptions, of course, particularly when it comes to grammar, where we have specific RULES that are simply not intended to be broken, which is what made it so ironic that in the same week that I struggled to find a formula for my students to determine theme, I watched two of my fellow soon-to-be English teacher butcher some of the only rules the language actually has. The first involved word choice (“upmost” instead of “utmost” — seriously, how is that a thing?); the second didn’t know the proper placement of quotes relative to end punctuation.

Uptight? Yes. But here’s the deal: education IS uptight. That’s how we all land on universally accepted truths. Without these, we can’t possibly do our jobs as teachers. There absolutely must be universal rules that we accept and follow. For example, if you’re a U.S. history teacher, you should teach that the Civil War was steeped in racism and slavery,  not northern aggression. If you’re a science teacher, you must teach evolution and global warming, not some creation myth (unless you’re looking specifically at myths and how people used these to make sense of things they didn’t understand prior to having access to accepted truths). And, if you’re an English teacher, you should teach — and model — some of the only truths we know: word choice and grammar. And if you can’t remember them, just do a quick internet search to find them!

Society currently has a problem with trying to find the easiest way out. Let someone else give us the answers, and we’ll just repeat them. As teachers, that means our job is two-fold: first, we need to encourage students to think critically before they accept information as fact; second we need to ensure we’re providing accurate information up front. I can’t teach you not to smoke if I have a cigarette hanging out of my mouth. I can’t teach you not to say things like “upmost” if I’m writing it all over my white board and on social media.

I’m all for encouraging students to find the truth on their, but only to a point. When a truth is universally accepted, like word choice and punctuation in American English, I’m still old-fashioned enough to believe that truth should be handed to students. Study it, learn it, know it, and use it. There are plenty of other things to mess around with in English education, like theme. Conventions, on the other hand, simply aren’t open to debate.



8th grade paranoia

I remember 8th grade. It was 40 years ago, so 1979. I hated my math class, which is probably the only time in my life I ever said that about a subject I still cherish. I adored civics, which I believe is now called government or political science and definitely not approached in junior high. My science teacher was … well I don’t remember who that was. And homework, yeah, I think we had some.

What I remember most about 8th grade, however, wasn’t the subjects I was taught. It was me. What it was like to be 13. It’s like … nothing. Teenage angst was still a few years away. You had some responsibility that you needed to wield during babysitting gigs mostly. Physical appearance was important but you could only fight it so much (face it, middle school years aren’t pretty for most folks). I think I read a lot, at least when I wasn’t playing some sport or participating in another extracurricular activity. Eighth grade was full of staying occupied.

What I don’t remember was malice or anything that went beyond the surface level. If I seemed happy, I was. If I didn’t, I wasn’t. If I was confused, I was genuinely confused. If I was tired, I just needed sleep.

All of this comes back to mind whenever I encounter an 8th grade teacher who’s, hmm, how do I say this … MEAN.

We work with kids — kids with their own lives and their own self-centered existences.  They’re pretty surface. The distracting ones are simply distracting, not because they’re trying to get back at you or ruin your career. They simply have no abilty to focus. The ones who don’t have their homework either genuinely forgot it or genuinely didn’t do it (even if they lie about it, it’s just to save their own skin, not make you look stupid in yours). There’s nothing to see here that you don’t really see when you look head-on at a 13 year old. They wear their heart, brain, and everything else on their sleeve. That’s what they’re capable of.

Yet I still, at least a few times each week, hear about the 8th graders who are trying to pull a fast one on me. And all I can do is wonder, really? I remember exactly two of my 8t grade teachers, one because she was so terrible that they disbanded 8th grade algebra that year, the other because she was amazing and cared about us as people. Honestly I don’t think I ever gave enough of a damn about a teacher to actually connive against him or her.

Still, encounter teachers in the profession frequently trying to convince me that their students are doing just that. They’re out to get me.

Maybe times have changed and 13 year olds are full of retribution but I don’t really believe that. I think it’s more likely that a 13 year old occasionally gets lucky and the stars align to cover something up and the world positions itself squarely on his/her/their side. Maybe…

Or maybe it’s that a teacher like me — someone who’s new and wants to fast-track my learning by consuming the experiences of others — catches wind of the criticism simply because I asked a question or made a comment. Yeah, I get it, that kid doesn’t turn in his homework or sits in class and plays video games all day and I should be on him like stink on shit to ensure he can’t find the time. But if I do that, I’m pretty sure I’ll lose track of all of the other students, so I ask if other teachers have found a good way to handle junior in the classroom. That’s when I hear how it’s junior’s goal to thwart any progress I might make. “Watch that one,” they tell me.

I’m not buying it, at least not at this age.

K, in all fairness, there are plenty of veteran teachers who will take my question and give me a real answer and help me figure out ways to work with  a student who isn’t engaged and directly or indirectly takes the rest of the class down with him or her. Those are the teachers I love talking to. I can learn so much from them, like how to accept the fact that I’m not perfect, how to try new techniques and strategies to improve engagement, clues to watch for that might make my task more effective and easier.

The others? The ones who are convinced they’re the subject of some 13 year old’s evil plan? I can probably do without them. While I’m sure they bring amazing insight into their own classes, I can’t possibly imagine spending my days believing my audience is out to get me. Even a 13 year old has PLENTY of better things to do. I say this because I DO remember life 40 years ago. And I also remember never thinking twice about the person at the front of the room and how I could make his or her life miserable.


8th grade: The one with the socratic seminar

I tried a socratic seminar today. Not sure why — I’ve never been impressed with the idea of a socratic seminar before since they always look/seem so incredibly dull, but we had a topic that I really wanted to discuss and it felt very appropriate. So I said “why not,” and did it.

It was scary. Actually, the scariest part was getting up the nerve to try it. But I’m cool with making myself uncomfortable or I wouldn’t spend five days a week with 13 year olds.

My classes range in size from 21 to 30 students. Behavior ranges from asleep in my first hour to a complete zoo in 6th hour. The others are somewhere in between. I decided that for this first socratic seminar, I would blend the concept with a group discussion. Rather than have the whole class contribute, which I see doesn’t work for some of the students in each class who would rather I jam toothpicks under their fingernails than call on them to speak (I have no toothpicks, so don’t worry), I decided I would split each class into three large discussion tables. I assigned a group leader and provided a set of questions for the group leader to ask. I created my rules and explanation — what students could do and what they couldn’t. I also, at the last minute, decided that students should spend 5-10 minutes before the seminar preparing themselves for the discussion by filling out some guided notes on the topic. This was the best thing I did all day (that shows you how novice I am, BTW; a veteran teacher would know that students need this type of preparation before any discussion).

Our topic was pretty focused. It stemmed from something that happened in the book we’re reading at this point, where a 13 year old sports phenom is suspended from play by his mother. I chose this as the topic because my wildest class — the zoo — is full of kids who play sports. I figured this was one of the few ways we’d get a valuable, focused discussion into the mix that these kids would engage with.

We started with my 1st hour class, which is small and unbelievably quiet. I went over the rules, assigned leaders, let them go at their own pace, and allotted 15 minutes for the discussion, although I decided I’d go to 20, if they needed it. I walked from table to table as they spoke and listened in. They used about 18 minutes, interrupted each other frequently but mostly stayed on task. In fact, it was the first time I think I heard some of the students in that class willingly say a word about school. Overall, I was okay with it but we didn’t have as much time left in the class as I had hoped so when I tried to start out instructional section on “theme,” it fell apart. I made a note of that.

Second hour — my 30-person class. We started quickly and the students focused pretty fast. It’s an incredibly diverse class with different learning styles, abilities, lexile levels, and more, and each group required a full 10 students, but most experiments like this work with them. The seminar was no exceptions. My takeaway from this class was that the pacing was off and that I still wasn’t doing a good job of getting each student to contribute, but overall I was happy with how it went. I chalked it up as a success.

Third hour. This is normally a really big class but there were a lot of missing students today. For this class, I required each question be discussed for two minutes with no exceptions. It took longer, so I gave up on the “theme” instruction we were planning after the seminar. Still the two-minute requirement meant everyone participated. Everyone. No question. Even students who I didn’t think were doing anything more than going through the motion of reading the book actively engaged in the conversation. Students questioned each other, and conversation felt natural.

Fourth hour went well, too. They’re a high achieving class, but can frequently get sidetracked when they’re moved into casual conversation environments. This was no exception — a few of the best and brightest were distracted to the point of incapacitation. We did, however, finish early so we ended the hour with a group discussion.

Finally, we got to sixth hour, the one I fondly refer to as my “zoo” class. Everything about this class points to distraction. This is the class that I hate testing new ideas on because so many of them shut down at the thought of change. They were the only class to complain when they learned they’d be doing work in my class on computer rather than paper, the only class to be happy when I switched things up one week and asked for a paper reading log, even though it meant the students would need to complete the assignment a full day early. They’re the only class that wants everything to be familiar.

The class is also so full of “watch-me, look-at-me” types that I couldn’t separate the distract-ers and I had no fewer than three at each table of eight. Incidentally, creating a seating chart for this class is impossible. Even some of the really great students are incapable of remaining focused in here.

The experiment was meh at best for this class. It worked surprising well for one of the groups, possibly because their leader was this incredibly strong girl who is very capable of shutting down the clowns in the class. This exercise was no exception. Her group stayed on task the entire time. She is my hero.

The other two groups? Eh, not so much, but I can’t blame the leaders. It was an uphill battle that no one was going to win.

Overall, however, I never regretted trying the experiment, and we’ll keep working with the idea of the socratic seminar and ultimately build to a real one on a class-by-class basis. Some classes will be ready to try quickly. Others may take until May.

I felt like students got more out of this discussion than any other discussion we’ve had in class thus far. As I listened to each group, I had to restrain myself (not so effectively at times) from telling students how fantastic his/her/their answer was and how impressed I was by the depth of their thought. This, btw, NEVER happens when I’m running the show (depth of thought? Oh that’s out of the window).

Some students had incredible evidence from the book that they recalled to prove a point; one of my SPED students even grabbed a book to show other students the page he was referring to. Students who wouldn’t normally share a “why” were defending their ideas and beliefs publicly. I had one class about to start fighting, which I reminded them wasn’t allowed since this wasn’t a debate, but I was happy they were so truly engaged that they cared to sling empty threats.

The experiment worked far better than I would have ever imagined.

I also learned, however, that in some classes, I need to take a more active role in the discussion until we’re a bit more versed at respect. In my sixth hour class, for example, we’ll work with assigned seats during the discussion (it became weirdly handsy by the end for some of the students — all male, which I guess is what 8th-grade boys do. Hmmm.). I want to move to a bigger group, especially in that class, but my wallflowers aren’t going to have that, so I’ll need to determine how to make this work. Still, it’s only October, so there’s plenty of time.

Lessons learned (because I don’t want to forget):

  1. Add “don’t interrupt” to the rules. Bad oversight on my part.
  2. Ensure I’m overseeing each groups (if only there were three of me).
  3. Always have guided notes to work with.
  4. Pick topics that have a little controversy. That’ll be easy.
  5. Continue with timed questions — but bring a buzzer rather than rely on me shouting it’s time for the next question (a few groups moved on whenever they wanted to and it didn’t work so well).
  6. Hand pick the groups. That’s for 6th hour only.
  7. Work harder to find the right group leaders. Again, 6th hour. I can’t have my rockstar leader do everything every time, sadly.
  8. Try again in about two or three weeks … I think. If I can find the right topic.


Week 2: 8th grade

View from a 1st-year teacher.

Just one thought: why are teachers paid so little? Why are they poked and prodded and judged and scrutinized so much with virtually no “thank you”? Why are teachers trained so rigorously but put into positions where they’re almost destined to fail? Why are teachers the first to be blamed and the last to be credited? And why doesn’t the public listen to someone who knows — A TEACHER — and find out what’s really wrong with our education system?

Trust me, we don’t have failing teachers. We have a system built on a century-old framework that doesn’t fit the needs of society any more. Teachers, who have never been given the power to fix the system, are simply doing what they can to work within that framework and succeed. That a teacher can still accomplish anything within a flawed system built by people who haven’t occupied a seat in a classroom in decades is utterly amazing.

I’m forever in awe of what I see around me.


Day 1: face-to-face with destiny in English 8

I realize the night before the first day of school that I’m completely unprepared. I don’t know the names of my students, unsure what they even know about English. Last year’s 7th grade teacher retired and left town ASAP before I ever knew that I’d be interning, so I can’t really ask her what to expect. I’m the sole 8th-grade English teacher in the school. Tomorrow there will be 130-ish students expecting me to teach them something – or trying really hard to do anything but learn — I’m not even sure about that.

I know when I was in 8th grade, I hated English. It was the single most boring class I had. For the life of me today I can’t tell you who my teacher was. I can name other teachers — the ones who had an effect on me, the ones I liked, the ones I probably, inadvertently learned something from — but no clue as to who taught me English. It was 40 years ago, so maybe it’s all for the best.

I’m in bed before 1 a.m., which I think is late. Deep down I know that pretty soon this will seem super early.

School starts at 7:40a. I arrive around 7:10a and realize that I have no way to get into my classroom because it’s locked and I don’t have a key. Are there keys? I don’t even know. It’s not my real classroom; I’m unsure when I’ll be able to get into that one because of summer construction delays that are preventing occupancy of the entire 8th-grade wing. I’m in the art class, which sounds fun, but really it’s just dark and dirty.

I’ve decorated little — just a few borrowed posters for inspiration and to add life to rust- and brown-colored walls. I don’t want to get too attached, especially since I’m sharing this room with other teachers who will be teaching during my prep and the elective I recently learned I would be teaching. None of us wants to really claim these walls and we’re all hoping we’ll depart quickly. BTW, the elective I’m teaching — creative writing – I’ve spent far too little time planning for it. I know this will bite me in the ass soon, but hopefully not today.

Students start to pop into and out of the class around 7:30. They’re taller than me, with a few exceptions, but I already knew that this would be the case. I’m pretty sure the students don’t want to learn and would rather be doing anything other than sit in class. Right now I kind of agree.

I’ve seen the social media posts of some of my fellow education students who are also interning this semester.Some of them are completely mum about their impending plans. For all I know, they changed their minds and decided to wait tables this fall instead. Others have spent what seems like 100s of hours in the classroom prepping, decorating, being prepared.

I, on the other hand, have just been kind of wandering around confused and more concerned about personal stuff. My college coursework finished in May for last years, and by the end of that month, I was thinking seriously about delaying my student teaching gig until spring semester so I could either amass a stockpile of cash, which would give me one less thing to worry about or delay the inevitable decision that I didn’t really want to move into a public school classroom. Then, sometime in late June, the person who I would soon discover would be my new principal asked me to come in to talk to her. She and I formerly shared a fence when she lived in the house behind mine, or vice versa, depending on where you were standing. She was always lovely and nice but I never really had a discussion with her before.

When I got to her office, we talked. I learned the previous principal decided to retire unannounced at the end of the school year, and she, my former neighbor, had been tapped to take his place. In lieu of a new assistant principal, she wanted to add instructional support positions, one of which was a literacy coach and interventionist — the 8th grade English teacher. Would I want to do an internship and teach the 8th grade English class instead of simply student teaching?

I hadn’t really expected this. And, because I’m horrible at saying no to almost anything, I thought for a few minutes and said “yes.” It seemed like the right idea at the time. But on day 1 of school, I’m no longer certain.

The day, however, goes by pretty smoothly. Okay, that’s not actually true. It’s probably better described as a shit show, which I fear is how I’ll label year one, too. The students seem great … I think. My head spins so quickly, I really don’t know. We have an unannounced assembly, so all classes are super short. By the end of the day, I know maybe one student’s name. I feel like I talked at my students all day instead of with them. Bells weren’t programmed and never ring that day. I know students didn’t learn anything other than that my email wasn’t working, which has been the on-again-off-again problem since I took this job. Did I remember to tell them my name? At the end of the day, the school goes on lockdown because there’s a police chase through our sleepy little town, which is something that never ever happens. I have no idea which classes covered what, but I know I’m still holding the full stack of disclosures that I meant to distribute.

I make it out alive, which I guess is as much as I can hope for. But the questions race through my head. Why am I doing this? Am I actually the best person for this role? Do I really want to be teaching? Would students be better served by the former 8th grade teacher who has 16 years of experience and an incredibly calm demeanor when the best analogy I can muster for myself these day is “rabid badger”? Am I prepared for tomorrow because I’m pretty sure I already need to change directions…? Is 8th grade English really where I should be?