on fear & curiosity

It’s August, and the first day of school for teachers is a little over a week away. As I start to put my brain in back-to-school mode, I find myself reflecting on the nature of fear.

There is plenty to fear these days. COVID is still a very real thing, where I’m located is currently seeing high transmission, and I don’t know what the COVID mitigations (if any) are going to be like in schools. Also add the text I got this week from our city’s public health alerts about monkeypox, another public health issue that I have no information about regarding mitigations.

I’m also starting in a new school, albeit one I’m somewhat familiar with, and there’s the swirling questions of “will I be able to connect with my students here the same way I did at my old school?”, “how will I connect with the adults in the building?”, and “how will I adapt to a different curriculum and environment?” A fear of failure, a question of “can I be successful here?”

And then there are just the general fears of working in public education in America these days. I definitely saw a rise in jackhammer parents over the past few years. I can understand and empathize that their “jackhammeriness” comes from a place of fear and wanting to control what they can to mitigate those fears, but I fear being on the receiving end of that relentlessness. Also, although I am not in a state that is currently trying to pass laws around what teachers can and cannot say/teach in the classroom, I see what’s happening in Florida, Texas and other places and how those laws are having a trickle effect. Consider, for example, what happened at Heinemann, where two anti-racist educators led the way in severing ties with the company when Heinemann tried to edit out parts of a reading curriculum because of the restrictions in some states. As a science teacher, and more specifically as a physical science teacher, my curriculum hasn’t come under the same level of scrutiny as, say, literacy or history, but sometimes it feels like it’s only a matter of time. As I work to make my classroom more culturally and linguistically responsive, as I work to make it a welcoming environment for all students, what if that is suddenly “too much”? What if something as simple as asking my students for their pronouns comes under undue scrutiny?

I wish it was straightforward to mitigate the fears of other people, because it seems that when the folks around me are reacting out of fear, my own fear rises in response. There was a study from Yale several years back about having conservatives imagine that they’re physically invincible leads to more liberal mindsets (on social issues, anyway). It seems that feeling physically safe leads to less of a hoarding/scarcity mentality. What could we do if we felt safe, if we weren’t governed by fear?

As I am getting more into planning for next year, I am reminding myself to approach things from a place of curiosity. Who are my students, and how do I get to know them? What is the community like that I am stepping into? What are the emotions behind what’s happening here? I’ve learned over the past few years how we can’t get away from our emotions, but also that emotions are not reality or permanent. Additionally, as Elena Aguilar has shared in so much of her work, emotions can tell us a lot if we invite them in. The work I’ve put into understanding emotions, my own and those of others, has helped me be more empathetic and compassionate.

Unlike the constriction of fear, this mindset of curiosity feels expansive. I do not know what this year will hold for me, but I am cautiously optimistic and curious to find out where things go. So here’s to starting Year 10 (!) and all the ups and downs that will come with it.

on leaving

pic.twitter.com/G6L2jrMSTR— the Awkward Yeti (Nick Seluk) (@theawkwardyeti) June 4, 2022

It is the end of my 9th year teaching, and I’m not only wrapping up the school year, I’m also wrapping up my time at this school. I decided that I needed a change for a variety of reasons. Even though a part of me did not feel quite ready to go (as so wonderfully illustrated by Nick Seluk above), I took the leap and now I’m going to be at a new school next fall, teaching a different type of curriculum (still chemistry though)!

When I left a place in the past, it was generally obvious that it was time to move on. After graduating high school and college, the next steps were clear. My first job out of grad school was basically as an admin assistant for a professor, and when he left for a different university that was my cue to leave too, and I transitioned into teaching.

9 years is the longest I’ve ever been in one setting, and so it is a strange feeling to leave. I’m still in the same city, in the same school district. This leaving is very much my choice rather than an “natural” life transition, and most days I feel like it’s the right one. I will be in a different school environment, hopefully one that allows me to better live out my values as an educator and just as a person. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to leave.

I’ve put down deep roots in this school community. The process of uprooting myself has been painful, even as I look forward to what comes next. I’ve been in a variety of leadership roles over my time at this school, and it’s strange (but also really a relief!) to think that I won’t be responsible for so many things next year. I’ve had some heartfelt conversations with colleagues, who I’ve loved working with, and it’s hard to leave what you know and are comfortable with to adventure on to the unknown (or at least, the less known).

This year was also, to be quite honest, really amazing in the classroom. I know that wasn’t true for all or even many educators, especially in this transition back to “normal” school. But I built some wonderful relationships with my students, and it felt like it went better than it’s ever gone before. My students gave me many little notes as I’m leaving, and it’s really hit me that in particular, it is the small things that they’re taking away from my class. (Turns out it’s unlikely that they’re taking away a deep love for stoichiometry, hah. Though several of them said they learned that they can be good at science this year and that is always a win!) The random Peardeck question that I posed to start the day. The STEM spotlights I tried out this year for all of the different heritage and history months. The way that I didn’t cold call them because, unsurprisingly, they hate it.

I almost never do cold calling as a teacher because I hate being cold called myself, but I wonder if it made a difference in the classroom dynamic to explicitly name that I would not be cold calling them this year because so many of them said they hate it. Several students pointed out the way that I listened to their suggestions (even the “silly” one about giving stickers for participation) and how that made a difference because… their teachers often don’t actually listen to their suggestions. And I am both happy (that my classroom was a space where they could be their authentic, sometimes ridiculous, teenage selves) and sad (that they don’t have those spaces everywhere).

There are moments when I still wonder if this is the right move, if leaving was really necessary. But I felt that I couldn’t do anything more to push for change at my current school, and I had tried really hard. There are moments when I wonder how I’ll transition to a new school community and build new relationships with both the adults and the students. As a rather introverted person, I still remember how my first year at this school, one of the security guards was convinced I didn’t like her because I never said “good morning”, when really I was just in a half-awake daze early in the morning. It took me a long time to expand my circle beyond the folks I worked with on a daily basis. I wonder about how I’ll build relationships with a different student body. And yet, when I find myself with these doubts, I go back to the idea of “unconditional positive regard” that Alex Shevrin Venet first introduced me to.

Unconditional positive regard is a stance I take in relationship to my students. The message of unconditional positive regard is, “I care about you. You have value. You don’t have to do anything to prove it to me, and nothing’s going to change my mind.” … This care infuses all of my teaching choices, from personal interactions to learning design. Importantly, unconditional positive regard stands in opposition to savior mentality and deficit thinking.

-Alex Shervin Venet

It seems like such a simple thing to say – that students (and colleagues!) don’t have to prove their value to me and that their value comes from their inherent worth as a person. And yet, in my past interactions with folks, I know that I’ve definitely made my regard conditional – what did or didn’t you do for me? These days, I think more and more about how to infuse unconditional positive regard into all my interactions, even for those that I might feel anger and frustration toward. 

As I wrap up, I’m reminding myself how much I’ve learned and grown over the past 9 years. I’ve learned how valuable it is to just speak up, to ask questions and point out how policies and procedures were unclear, nonexistent, or harmful to students. I’ve learned that I can create positive feedback loops with my colleagues, where our actions mutually encourage each other to keep pushing for change. I’ve learned that I could bring ideas and leadership capabilities, both with and without formal leadership roles. I’ve learned to recognize how dehumanizing some of the “typical” classroom policies and procedures are for students, and I’ve learned that grace & flexibility are more important than enforcing deadlines. 

Folks have been asking me if I’m excited for the next steps, and in many ways I am. (In other ways, I’m a bit terrified of the unknown, hello from an Enneagram type 6.) But it’s been a mix of both grief and excitement, as I process the good that I have experienced here and the anticipation of something new. I am thankful for these slow days at the end of the school year that have allowed me the time to stop and genuinely reflect on things. And it is a blessing to have good things to grieve as I leave a place that’s felt unsustainable for a long time. 

I am not quite sure what the future holds. Students and colleagues have said that they hope that my new school is everything that I want. I hope for that too, but I know that working in public education these days is a mixed bag even at the best of times. But at the very least, I will be reminded that I can do new things, and I will continue to grow. So, onward to good things.

on trust

It’s the Sunday before classes start, and I’m feeling both ok and doubtful of myself and my teaching practice this year. The past two school years have been strange and chaotic in ways that I could not have predicted, and I’m bracing for another year of chaos. I find myself emotionally depleted in ways I have not been before at the end of the summer, and I am trying very intentionally to not utterly flame out this year. I am slowly learning to hold myself with more grace and compassion, and I am learning how to genuinely extend that grace and compassion to those around me.

In the midst of all of this, I find myself thinking a lot about trust. How to build trust with my students, the trust that does or doesn’t exist among my colleagues, with our administration, with the district, the trust between families and the school, between families and the district…

I am realizing that just because I want my students, their families, and my colleagues to trust me, to know that I am doing my best to be compassionate and still maintaining high standards (the “Warm Demander” that Zaretta Hammond talks about in “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain”), that doesn’t mean that I will automatically get anyone’s trust. (There is also a lot to unpack with the term “high standards”, but that’s for another day.) That trust is not automatic seems like an obvious statement, but some things happened at our school last week (that I’m not going to get into here) really made me think about how sometimes we assume a level of trust that isn’t there, and it can be upsetting or offensive when we realize that other folks just… don’t trust us.

I’m currently reading Elena Aguilar’s book “Onward”, and the chapter for September is on “Building Community” and how vital trust is to community in any setting. It was a timely read this weekend, and Aguilar defines trust as this:

Trust is an emotional state. It is the feeling of confidence we have in another’s character and competence… Distrust, therefore, is suspicion of integrity and capabilities.

Elena Aguilar, “Onward”, p 101

Trust, and correspondingly, community, is built over time. Sometimes it seems to me that trust was quickly eroded, and I’ve felt astonished at how quickly trust disappeared, but now I think perhaps there wasn’t any genuine trust there to begin with. Perhaps what I thought of as “trust” was really a series of assumptions based on hierarchical roles and visible identity markers and the accompanying biases. In the classroom, I am an Asian American woman teaching science – my Asian identity may take precedence over my female identity when it comes to the competence that my students and their families ascribe to me in terms of science teaching. I am also in the positional role of teacher – surely someone evaluated my competence and decide that I was “good enough” to teach. But have I demonstrated any competence the minute my students walk into the room? What might a colleague with different identity markers experience when it comes to assumed trust in the classroom or in the school building?

Someone said to us this week “when students walk into your classroom, they’re asking, Can I trust you?” – which I think is true and not true. I don’t think students walk into my classroom wanting or needing to share their deepest selves with me, and that’s ok. I don’t need to be a trauma detective (thanks to Alex Shervin Venet for introducing me to that term, and I’d encourage all teachers to reflect on her blog post about setting up trust at the start of the year, What I wish teachers knew about “what I wish my teachers knew”). But I think my students are watching me, to see if I am competent and have integrity, to see if they can learn from me, how I will treat them, and whether what I say I value actually lines up with what I do. There are many different decision points throughout the school year that will build or erode the trust that my students have in me, and simply saying “trust me!” is not enough. (In fact, I think if I were to say that and not follow through, that would do more harm than not saying “trust me” to begin with.) All of this brings to mind the James Baldwin quote, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.”

I want my students and colleagues to trust me, and I want to trust them in return. I want to be a part of the resilient communities that Elena Aguilar describes in “Onward.” I want school to look different than the same old, same old that we had pre-pandemic (which honestly feels like a lifetime ago- this is now the third class of students I am teaching in this on-going global health crisis). But that level of trust takes demonstrated actions, consistent behaviors, and – figuring out how to deal with conflict in healthy ways. My hope for what school could/should be is not the same as that of others, and to work toward a goal we have to first agree on what the goal will be.

I feel like building trust in my classroom space is doable, but I honestly don’t know if I will be able to move the needle very much in some of the other (adult) spaces I’m in this year – I already know going into things that I am emotionally depleted, and teaching in any circumstances is an emotionally heavy lift. I’m learning how to set boundaries in my personal and professional life, and some of that means accepting that things will not be “perfect” in all the ways that I want them to be. It can be frustrating when I feel like that there’s a better way that things could go, and not seeing that outcome in reality. But I’m hoping that by working on my own resilience as an educator, and unpacking my own behaviors, beliefs, and ways of being (also from Aguilar’s work, this time from Coaching for Equity), it’s a start to building more trust in the spaces that I inhabit. And we all must start somewhere.

on grief

It feels strange and a little silly, a little overdramatic, to be thinking and writing about grief right now. I am fortunate – I have not lost anyone to COVID-19. I don’t even know anyone personally who has had COVID-19 (or at least, I haven’t heard about it). And yet, this last weekend before I start the 2020-2021 school year with my students, I find myself thinking about and processing grief.

I came across this interview with David Kessler early in the stay-at-home order, sometime in late March or early April. It resonated with me then and it resonates with me now. But the grief I felt earlier this year, when the pandemic still felt very new, is different than what I’m feeling now. Then, I was dealing with the unknown of what is coming, the uncertainty around how to protect myself and those around me. Now, after 6 months, I’ve adjusted to some things – masking in the grocery store (and feeling relief that everyone is masked now, instead of feeling like I’m the paranoid one), having only socially distanced, outdoor gatherings with friends, only doing take out/delivery from restaurants.

As we transition from the summer to the fall, the start of the school year has brought on a whole new set of grief. This past week was really rough for me both physically and mentally. My first week “back to school” is the teacher preparation week, full of meetings and planning and organizing the classroom. This year, that week was spent at home, doing meetings from Google Meet, figuring out how to teach remotely and teaching myself (and some of my colleagues) different tech tools. Spending 4-5 hrs in back-to-back meetings, processing all of the changes while also trying to be prepared for this coming week with students hit me harder than I expected. It was easy to spiral into unproductive, complaining, ranting conversations with coworkers – I can’t believe they’re expecting us to… Why don’t we know how to… Why won’t the district let us use… How are we supposed to… And as my emotions went all over the map this week, I realize that I’m grieving.

I’m grieving the loss of being in the building, seeing the nervous faces of my students (and them seeing my nervous face) as we get to know each other, as we interact. Even should we return to the school building this year, I know that it will not be the same – being in the building with everyone masked, staying apart, is unsettling. I went in once last week to grab a school laptop and it was strange. You know how it’s supposed to feel in the school building and it does not feel that way at all, and so – here comes a wave of grief.

I’m grieving the fact that I may not be physically in the same room as this group of students at all this school year. We’re doing all of quarter 1 remotely, and there’s no telling whether things will be at a place in November for us to be back in the building together. I am grieving the loss of lab experiments – this year, my chemistry and physics students may not do a physical lab experiment at all. We have to rethink how we are doing everything this year, and that is another exhausting reminder that nothing is the same as it once was.

This summer has also thrown a glaring spotlight on the unhealed, infected wounds of racism at my school. I won’t go into the details, but social media and zoom local school council meetings revealed a lot over the past two months. I knew these hurts were present in my school community, but in my privilege and obliviousness (and I recognize the privilege of being able to be oblivious) I did not realize how deep some of those wounds run. And so I’m grieving that too – how do we even start healing our school community when the wounds are so deep, especially when we cannot meet in person? How do we move forward when there are those that are demanding their right to comfort? Transitioning to remote learning has taken up all of my capacity – how do I also make room for the discomfort of addressing systemic racism?

I find myself at a loss. I’m usually the person with the answers – I know how things work, I remember the information I’ve been given, so people come to me with their logistical questions – how do you do …? what do you do if …? what’s our policy on …? and I know, or can find, the answers. This year, I have no answers, and so that adds to the list of things I’m grieving.

I do not know how to handle grief. On Friday, at a course team meeting, I was upset and frustrated and expressed it visibly. Normally, I hold it together and I push through, I figure out the details, do what needs to be done. Friday afternoon, after logging off everything, I cried. I don’t remember the last time I cried over work.

As a society, we don’t talk about grief much. I’ve had friends lose their parents, siblings, friends, and I have never felt like I had a good response. Words feel painfully inadequate. And so I don’t know how to respond to, talk about my own grief. But this school year is going to be a constant reminder of what is not. And therefore, there will be this constant undertow of grief.

I’m just sitting with that today. And I will have to sit with grief throughout this school year, in the many ways it manifests. I will have to remember that we are all grieving what used to be, what could have been, what should be.

the least that I can do

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We are now heading into Day 6 of the Chicago Teachers Union Strike, and I am tired.

Being on strike has been exhausting on just about every level. It’s physically exhausting to be on the picket line from 6:30 am – 10:30 am, then go to a rally/march in the afternoon. It’s mentally exhausting to not know when we’ll be back in school and if/when we’ll make up the lost days, and to think through all the contingency plans for where to start once we get back into the classroom (and into email and Google Drive, where my teaching life lives). And it’s emotionally exhausting to see the city’s responses to the union’s bargaining team, to hear all of the excuses, and especially to read the letter that the mayor sent to the union on Monday.

And yet, to be on strike is in one sense the least that I can do as an educator for the students of Chicago. The strike makes all of us take a stand on the issues that are being raised, and I stand with the CTU. The union is fighting for the common good. We are asking for a nurse in every school. A librarian in every school. Staffing at clinician-to-student ratios as recommended by the appropriate national organizations. A student-to-counselor ratio and limiting ‘non-counseling duties’ so that the counselors can actually do their jobs. More teacher-directed prep time so that we can actually do our jobs. And the bargaining team is making progress on these issues. It just took a teachers’ strike for the city to move.

I’ll be honest, my school has been doing just fine. I’ve spent all 7 years of my teaching career at a selective enrollment high school in Chicago, which in many ways puts me in a bubble and makes it easy to ignore what’s going on in the rest of the city. At our school’s Back-to-School night in September, a parent asked if our teachers would also be on strike if the union went on strike (also a sign of how confusing the high school system is in Chicago). Earlier in October, our CTU staff had a joint “walk in” with the SEIU workers at our school, and one of the students on the school newspaper stopped me to ask how the contract negotiations, the (at the time, potential) strike would affect our teachers and our students. The Wednesday before the strike, during the last period of the day, one of my students commented “yeah, but this strike won’t affect us that much”. And this confusion about how the contract negotiations would affect our school is understandable- we often don’t feel the effects of district-wide issues in the same ways that other schools do. When the CPS budget crisis happened a few years ago, our parent group was able to fundraise $250,000+ to cover the shortfall. Our science department budget has always been able to cover the supplies I need for labs, and I have never had to put together a Donors Choose project to fund the activities I want to do in the classroom.  We already have a full time librarian, a nurse in the school every day, 6 counselors for our approximately 2000 students (note: still a higher student-to-counselor ratio than what’s recommended by the American School Counselor Association). 

I have to remember that all of this makes us the lucky ones. And it’s absurd when I think about how this makes our school lucky, because these are things that students in other school districts take for granted. 

There are clear systemic issues affecting the youth in our city. Even in our privileged school, we have students dealing with homelessness and trauma, we see the effects of systemic racism and injustice. I have conflicting feelings about the very existence of selective enrollment high schools – I love where I work, but I also want all students in the city to have well-resourced educational experiences that doesn’t depend on how well they do on high-stakes standardized tests. But, as one of my colleagues said to our staff yesterday morning on the picket line, systemic problems require systemic solutions, and our teachers’ contract is one place to start.

I believe that education is a right, not just for the privileged. I still have individual work to do – I could have done a better job of talking about the strike with my students before it happened, I could do a better job of finding places within the science curriculum where we can discuss issues of injustice and inequity. I am tired, as are many of my colleagues. Being on strike takes “teacher tired” to a whole new level. I would rather be back in my classroom, thinking about electron configuration and periodic trends. But this strike is a time for me to literally put my money where my mouth is. So as long as it takes to get the wins our students and communities need, I will be out on the picket line. It is, after all, the least that I can do.

this is not a drill

“Your attention please, this is a lockdown. This is not a drill. Teachers, lock your classroom doors. Once again, this is not a drill.”

29 students huddled up against the whiteboard, in the safety shower and out of sight of the hallway doors. I go to close and lock the classroom door and turn off the lights. I have no idea what’s happening, but suddenly in the silence I hear the sound of sirens, and this all feels very real.

It took 10 minutes for a second (then third) PA announcement to let us know that the incident was happening outside the building and we were not to leave the classroom. Was this now a soft lockdown? Could I have my students resume their end of semester lab practical? I waited, tensed, and on high alert.

Maybe 5 minutes later (though it felt much longer), we were given the all-clear to resume class- someone had been arrested on a nearby corner. The students got back to their assessments, and I was left feeling shaken and unsettled. Why? There wasn’t a “real” threat. Nothing “bad” had happened. (Later, I found out from a very brief news story, that there had been a report of an armed robbery nearby, but it turns out no weapons were found. And two boys – boys – were arrested.) We all got back to class, moved on, just another day.

I am still feeling shaken and unsettled. And when I shared this story on Facebook, other teacher friends shared their stories about lockdown scenarios. Thankfully, none of them resulting in an actual incident at the school, but my fellow teachers still feel upset when they think about what happened. How many other schools, teachers, students, have experienced the trauma of a lockdown? We only hear about the situations that result in gunfire (and honestly sometimes not even then – did you know there have already been at least 13 school shootings in the US this year?)

We will shrug this off. We will say “thank goodness nothing bad happened.” We will move on with our lives, go through finals next week and everything will be fine. Next year, we will have another lockdown drill or two. But as I’m trying to process what happened, why I still feel a vague sense of panic hours later, I have to wonder: what is the toll on us as teachers, on our students, when we live in a world where lockdowns are not drills? What will the after effects of this incident be on our school community? And how much will those effects be openly acknowledged, and what is the damage and the danger in not acknowledging them?

I don’t have any answers. And in some ways, it seems ridiculous to call this a traumatic event (after all, “nothing happened”). But as I’m dealing with my own personal, very visceral reaction, I realize that I don’t really know how to process this. And perhaps that’s the most unsettling realization of all.

tired

“There’s no tired like teacher tired.”

That statement is generally accepted as true, and there are a whole slew of memes to go along with it. But as I’m winding down on winter break and finding myself a little mentally exhausted at the thought of going back to school, I have to wonder why.

What do we expect from our teachers? A few years ago, I explored the idea of what is “good teaching” and what makes a “good teacher”. Some of the points that came out of my personal investigation into good teaching indicated that good teachers have all of the following:

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About a year later, I talked about “good teaching” on a podcast with some other teacher writers and we agreed that good teaching isn’t sustainable in isolation, and it is something that can/should be developed, rather than being an innate quality of a teacher. We shouldn’t expect to be excellent at teaching every day, from Day 1.

Yet right now, in the middle of my 6th year teaching, I find myself wondering if we still expect too much from our teachers, if we as teachers expect too much from ourselves.

In this 6th year of teaching, I still find myself working crazy hours. My timecard from before winter break showed too many 12 hour days. (And yes, I have a timecard because although I don’t get paid overtime, my school district requires us to clock in and out.) I sometimes think that I’m doing myself a favor by staying late and grading, but there is always more to do. And I feel like I already work at 100% efficiency, but I still need more hours in the day. It’s hard to get away from the mentality that I should return assessments to students ASAP (particularly mid-unit assessments) so that they have the feedback, that work done for a team should take priority over work done just for myself (I teach on two different subject teams), that I should be available for students outside of school hours, that I should contribute to my school community by sponsoring clubs and joining committees. All of these these “shoulds”, plus the work of, y’know, teaching and the other aspects of my life.

And I so wonder – what is the value of my time as a teacher? Is the value of that time different than the value of my time not spent teaching? There was an interesting article about a similar problem in higher education, where PhD’s find themselves in low-paying adjunct faculty positions. Elizabeth Segran argues that PhD’s are choosing to stay in an unfavorable labor market.

No one but Ph.D.’s themselves expect Ph.D.’s to live without the dignity of a living wage or to work for academic institutions that do not respect them. Indeed, when adjuncts continue accepting temporary work with no benefits, they perpetuate the very system that is taking advantage of them. The laws of supply and demand dictate the academic labor market as they do every other labor market, and universities have no incentive to change their labor practices when adjuncts willingly work for so little.

I see her argument, and I see similarities in the K-12 teaching profession, where teachers are continuously expected to do more with less. But I don’t know how to shift the market to incentivize higher value for our time, or if that’s even a good way of thinking about the problem. (I have issues with applying a market mentality to education, and this Washington Post article articulates better “Why schools aren’t businesses”). I know I contribute to the problem when I stay for 12 hr days, when I sponsor the Scholastic Bowl team (which does Saturday tournaments that go all day several times a year) for no additional compensation, when I take care of work that may or may not be explicitly within my job description (I honestly don’t know what is explicitly in my job description). I also struggle to be okay with doing less on a personal and moral level – in order to teach at the standard that I hold myself to, I need to do all those “shoulds”.

Jose Vilson, a teacher and a writer whom I respect enormously, wrote about the value of a teacher’s time recently. He argued that we should be given less classes, less students:

However, in countries that have done away with those arguments*, they’ve learned that teachers do much better by having less classes, less students, and more time for the mounds of paperwork they’re obligated to grade.

* “Those arguments” being that students need more time with teachers/teachers don’t spend enough time with students

Don’t get the wrong message – I love working with students. When my non-teacher friends ask me what’s the hardest part about teaching, it’s never the students. Yes, there are challenging students to work with, and yes, if you catch me in a certain frame of mind I will vent about said students. But honestly, if I had fewer students, fewer classes, I could give those students and those classes more of my attention. I feel guilty because I don’t know all my students, but I have 150 of them and that makes it hard. When I hear that a student of mine is through something in their life that I had no idea about, I wish I had the time to cultivate more and deeper relationships with my students. And if all of the teachers at our school had this time, what would be the impact on our students? Would there still be as many students who are struggling, academically or personally? Would we finally be able to close the “opportunity gap”? And would we as teachers feel less tired, less burned out or demoralized, by the work that we face every day?

There are a lot of narratives about teaching out there. Becky Van Tassel, another teacher writer whom I admire enormously, wrote recently about how the perception of what is “normal” can shift our behavior. But what is “normal” for teachers? Is “teacher tired” just normal, and I (still) need to figure out how to just deal with it? Is the lone “superhero teacher” who bucks the system and rises above (and pulls their students up with them) normal, and what I should be aspiring to? Or is the disempowered, burned out, demoralized teacher the normal, and I need to find my own personal coping mechanisms? I don’t want any of these things to be normal for teachers, or for myself.

I go back to school on Monday, and although I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions, I’m taking the time to take stock of where I’m at. I’m still tired, and I don’t want to continue this way. There are things I can tweak to take better care of myself personally and professionally, which I will probably try. But I’m still wondering how we can shift the narrative, shift the perception of what is “normal” for teachers, and how we can make school a better place for all who pass through, both students and teachers.

 

the emotional weight of teaching

Mood Meter (2)

It’s not quite over yet. The last day for students for us isn’t until Tuesday- but it’s finally the end of the school year. This was Year 5 for me, and I feel… tired. Drained, even. It’s not unusual to be exhausted and counting down the hours until summer break. But this year felt more emotionally heavy than previous years.

I know other teachers in other schools deal with a lot more emotional trauma than I’ve come across these past five years. I work in a school where it seems like everything is fine and great, and it always seems like most of our students have (relatively) stable home lives. I spent my first four years teaching focusing on the teaching – the lesson plans, the curriculum, the classroom structures. And sometimes, when you’re focus on those things, it’s easy to ignore things that may be happening underneath the surface. But this year, maybe because I’ve had to spend less time and energy on the day-to-day of teaching, I’ve been more aware of and more worn out by the things that may have just slipped under my radar before.

My colleague and friend started a student-teacher mentor program, where at-risk students in our school were paired with a one-on-one teacher mentor. Partly because of this program, partly because mental health just came more on my radar this year, I’ve become more aware of the issues that some of our students face, and more than once I found myself on the verge of tears as I’ve found out more about what my students are going through. I attended a Mental Health First Aid course this spring, which was super useful (and I would definitely recommend it to any teacher or anyone who works with youth), but also emotionally exhausting to think about all of the students who may need help and may not be getting it right now, for a variety of reasons.

For the first time in my teaching career, I’m having regular interactions with upperclass students. I had a junior homeroom this year and we implemented a more advisory-type thing in our school with social/emotional check-ins on early release Fridays, roughly 2x’s/month, so I had more regular interactions with students who are clearly stressed about their grades, test scores, and futures. How do I help students manage this stress, and also help them get some perspective that their high school grades are not the arbiter of their success as adults? How do I do this in a way that is helpful and authentic, and not patronizing or dismissive of their very real feelings in this moment?

There was also the never-ending news cycle of Something Terrible happening in the world. It seemed like every day, there was something new and (from my perspective, somewhat horrifying) happening and it was both hard to keep track of and hard to avoid. In particular, some of the stories that have come to light with the #MeToo movement hit really close to home in the school setting, and that’s been hard and uncomfortable.

And then, school shootings were both in your face and under the radar this year. My sister semi-joked after the Parkland, FL shooting that she was considering getting her young kids bullet proof backpacks and then suggested that actually, I might need it more. When the Santa Fe, TX shooting happened last month (only last month!), one of my students commented “10 people died and no one is talking about it.” There was a shooting at a middle school in Indiana, just a few days after the Santa Fe shooting, which hits close to home on a number of levels. A teacher tackled the shooter, and I’ve had conversations with my colleagues – would you or wouldn’t you step in front of a shooter to save your students? What kind of world do we live in that teachers even have to think about this? I used to think lockdown drills were just something you do, but this year, the possibility of a school shooting made our most recent lock down drill emotionally difficult for me as I found myself running through scenarios – what would we do if there was actually an active shooter in the school?

I can’t tell if there was actually more going on this school year than normal, or if it’s been about the same level of emotional turmoil and I was just more aware of it this year. I can see why teachers quit, particularly in the schools where students are dealing with much more overt social/emotional/mental health needs. Sometimes, the emotional weight of teaching feels like it’s too much, and we all (teachers and students alike) need a break.

And yet, I am hopeful for the next school year, despite the exhaustion of this one. In some ways, there’s not a lot I can do about the Terrible Things that are happening in the world at large or about the risk of school shootings. But I am hopeful that I can find ways to better address my students’ social/emotional/mental health needs. That I can better acknowledge them as people and all of the stuff they are going through (even if it’s “just” the “normal” experience of being a teenager, which can feel traumatic all on its own). And I am hopeful that the conversations that we’re having- at my school, with friends and family, in the world at large – will make us more thoughtful, reflective, and lead us towards positive change. Let us do the small things with great love.

We can do no great things — only small things with great love.

Mother Teresa

what’s in a title?

Teacher. Leader. Writer.

I’ve been referred to as all of these things, yet only the first one feels comfortable. And I’ve been probing myself – why? Where is the discomfort coming from? And what are the implications of that discomfort?

I’m comfortable with the title of “Teacher” because if anyone asks what I do, I tell them I teach. And in a very real way, teaching is a part of who I am. Teaching is what I do daily. Teaching is always on in the back of my brain, even during “breaks” – I’m not sure that it ever truly turns off, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, to be honest. Also: it’s on my paystub: “Job Title: Regular Teacher”. So I have no problem with being referred to as a teacher.

“Leader”, though – that’s a loaded word. I don’t have any formal leadership roles. What does it mean to be a “teacher-leader”? Does “teacher-leader” mean that I’m involved in official initiatives, or presenting at conferences, or influencing educational policy in some way?

Becky Van Tassell, another Knowles Senior Fellow, probed her own ideas about teacher leadership in “Leadership as a Stance: Leading from Inside the Classroom”, and summarized it this way:

Teacher leadership has been defined differently in the literature, but many researchers agree that teacher leaders are distinguished from other teachers because they influence teaching and learning within and beyond their own classrooms (Wenner & Campbell, 2016).

So then, by this definition – Do I influence teaching and learning beyond my own classroom? Probably- I work on two different course teams (physics and chemistry), and I contribute ideas and strategies to both. Do I consider myself a leader because I do those things? Not really, because I also gain a lot from those collaborations (namely, the ideas and strategies of my colleagues). And honestly, the work I do with my colleagues just feels like a part of my job, so I shy away from using the term “leader” to describe myself or the work that I do.

And then there’s “Writer”. It’s strange, because I’ve written plenty as a teacher, but I’ve never considered myself a Writer-with-a-capital-W.  Does having my own teacher blog count as being a “real” writer? Do I avoid referring to myself as a writer because it’s just something I do on the side, for myself? This space has been mostly so that I can process the things on my mind, and there’s not really another, broader, goal for my writing. Am I a writer just because I write? (To me, taking on the title of Writer just because I write feels disingenuous to those who make their livelihood writing; as someone who loves reading, I would like to acknowledge and honor the work that goes into writing for a living.)

I’m left wondering – even in adulthood, how am I developing my identity? My identity as a teacher comes from a very clear job title – someone else decided that I would be acceptable as a teacher and gave me this job. No one has given me a formal title as leader or writer. So am I only allowing others to assign my identity, rather than developing it for myself?

Identity is a complex thing, and our identities influence how we teach, how we interact with our students, how we interact with our colleagues. And their identities influence how they interact with us. (I loved this blog post by Michelle Cheyne about how she came to realize how important teacher and student identity is in the classroom, and how we often don’t know all the facets of another’s identity.) So how does my reluctance to take on the identities of leader or writer impact how I interact with others? Am I neglecting to acknowledge the ways that I am contributing to my school, and perhaps the conversation about education at large? Is there a value in acknowledging those contributions? What does the discomfort that I feel when others classify me as leader or writer actually mean? And how do I acknowledge (or fail to acknowledge) the contributions of others who may also not have a formal title to go with the work that they do?

Maybe the title Teacher feels most comfortable because that is what overshadows all of the other work. If I lead, it’s so that I can be better at teaching, so I can make things better for my students. If I write, it’s also so I can be better at teaching, by processing my thoughts in this medium I can also make things better for my students. But I’m trying to be a better teacher, and that process seems to involve picking up some new facets to my own identity, and going through this discomfort. After all,

One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.

— Abraham Maslow

 

group-worthiness

It’s (the end of) winter break, and I find myself feeling vaguely dissatisfied with my teaching this year. There’s nothing major, just- particularly in my chemistry classes- things aren’t quite right. Mostly, I’ve noticed issues with student participation that make me feel disgruntled- and make me feel like I’m not doing enough to promote equity and collaboration in my classroom. I could (and have) come up with all kinds of excuses- my chem classes are 1st period and 7th period; 1st period, they aren’t quite awake yet so they don’t always talk to each other. 7th period is so close to the end of the day that they’re either super distracted or just want to get the work done. But I still feel like I could and should be doing something more to facilitate student collaboration.

How do you help students see the value in working together? In mulling this over this recently, I think part of the problem is I haven’t been giving students enough conversation-worthy or group-worthy tasks in my chem classes. If a student can mostly complete a POGIL-style activity on their own, why wouldn’t they? It’s faster and easier. And if a group is at completely different points in the POGIL, should I not answer student A’s question about #10 while student B is still working on #7?

I struggle with inquiry in teaching chemistry more than I do in teaching physics. I’m pretty sure I’ve said it before, but it often feels like my chemistry curriculum map is a mile wide and an inch deep. My students have complained about frequent quizzing. On principal I actually agree with frequent quizzes (frequent quizzes are shown to improve student learning), but I understand the frustration on constantly being quizzed on new material. And then, with the sheer amount of content that I’m supposed to cover in the school year, it’s difficult to come up with inquiry-based activities that aren’t just a variation on a POGIL. Don’t get me wrong, I love POGILs and I think they’re way better than lecturing at my students. But recently, I’ve been wondering if I’m relying too much on these paper-based activities instead of changing things up. And are these POGIL-style activities actually giving students a reason to talk to each other?

The answer, at least right now, seems to be no. And I think there were some subtle changes I made this year that actually negatively impacted some of the group dynamics in my classroom. I stepped away from introducing group roles at the start of the year, because I’ve always dropped them by the end of the year (or more realistically, by the end of the first quarter). But now I wonder if having those artificial-feeling roles was a good way to train students to work together more, even if they only lasted a few weeks at the start of the year. (I also struggled with finding authentic roles where each student actually had a specific role to contribute to the group. So maybe I need to look into this more/again.) I also think I’ve let issues of status slide this year, so right now my high status students take over in a group while the lower status student(s) sit back, if they work together at all. How can I be more conscious about developing status of my students? I’ve been less conscientious about this, and I’m seeing the effects in the classroom.

And then there’s grouping. How do I group students to best facilitate their interactions? One of my classes this year is full of students who are already friends (about 1/2 the class, actually), and if I sit them with some students not in their friend group, I often end up with two mini-groups at one table. Where do I find the time to have students reflect on the effect of such interactions on their peers and even on their own learning? (Side note: I need to collate and organize the peer feedback that students have been submitting for the past semester.)

I’ve had this blog post by Ben Orlin in the back of my mind for a few weeks: The three barriers to deep thinking in schools. Do my assessments actually assess students on deep thinking, or just rote memorization? I feel like in chemistry, it’s particularly easy to fall into rote memorization, especially in a first year course. I would like students to think more deeply, and I love the questions that they can come up with in class. But sometimes (often) we have to move on. And I struggle with this on a pedagogical level as well as on a personal, I love chemistry and want them to understand how awesome it is level.

It’s basically the end of winter break; classes start again on Monday. A part of me feels like I should have taken more time to reflect on these issues, worked more on revamping the upcoming content so that I have more group-worthy and conversation-worthy pieces in my chem classes. I really want to incorporate goal-less problems in my physics classes (and it seems quite doable for both me and my students), and I would love to figure out a way to do this in chem as well. I want to revamp the escape room I tried last year for a semester final review. I want to incorporate some of the ideas I gleaned from reading “How We Learn: The surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens” by Benedict Carey. I want to better challenge my higher level students, and foster a deeper understanding of content in all of my students. There are so many goals, and so little time.

However, my friend and cohort member Alex Steinkamp wrote a piece for the most recent issue of Kaleidoscope, the journal published by the Knowles Teacher Initiative. His piece on Self-Talk and Sustainability is a good reminder that “I must give myself the grace to value the subtle work that I do towards the goals that underpin my work. This is not meant to be a call to complacency. Rather, this is meant to be a reminder that our real moral imperative is that we sustain our practice. Even when we fail to reach our targets, the value we add is from trying.” So, right now, I’m trying and I’m trying to see the value in trying. I’m taking the space to reflect, and hoping that in the next few weeks I can make some adjustments, no matter how small, to promote collaboration, to make the tasks I give my students more group-worthy or at least conversation-worthy. And I’m not going to beat myself up for taking more time during winter break than I have in the past to mentally and physically recharge. So hopefully, at the end of second semester, I won’t be feeling quite so disgruntled.