41 Weeks

January 17, 2016

Just like that, it’s the nine month tipping point. It shouldn’t surprise me that, despite being awake for so much of them, the last nine months seem to have gone by in half the time of the previous nine. Time is strange like that. Sometimes I try to remember what I thought parenthood would be like, but, like many abstract thoughts, it seems just out of reach. What I do know: parenthood is both more and less terrifying, more exhausting, and less confusing than I thought it would be.

Parenthood has meant a splitting of my heart, and it has meant compromise—but neither of these are, contrary to expectation, bad.

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I’ve taught full-time for half of Z’s short life. Sometimes in the morning when dropping her off at her childminder’s or leaving her and C still enjoying breakfast in the flat, I wonder if there’s something wrong with me, that I’m okay leaving her with others so often. But then I step into my classroom, the bell rings, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else. My overactive guilt complex wonders if I love Z less because of how much I love my students. But thankfully, love is not a zero-sum game. When Z was born, my heart expanded to love this little person more than I ever knew that I could. But my desire to do right by my students, and my capacity to care for them is unchanged.

But my heart is split in a way I didn’t know it could be, and I daily feel the pang. Leaving Z in the morning is hard: every single day. But my mind is quickly full of the plans and challenges of the day. I’d be lying if I said that I thought about my baby every moment of the day; I don’t. My students fill my school hours completely. But when the bell rings at 3:25pm, and I walk down the road to pick up Z, but heartbeat quickens; I’m giddy. In 8 years of teaching, I’ve never been so eager for the school day to end. When I walk in the door, and Z catches my eye and smiles, I haven’t space in my brain for a single teaching thought. Often in the afternoons and evenings, the weekends, I couldn’t tell you what I’m teaching the next day if I tried. All I want to do is play with this wiggly, ever-changing (and surprisingly chill) little person.

This split is not easy. When Z is sick or my school duties spill over into time at home, there doesn’t seem to be enough of me. It’s not all sunshine and roses; it’s sleep deprivation and snotty noses, and crying because I haven’t exercised in weeks (or months). It’s racing to the toilet between classes to express milk. Most of the time, though, I have to pinch myself, because I can’t believe I get to have these two goods. I get to be a parent. I get to be a teacher. I don’t, like many women before me (and many women today), have to choose.

(I must interject at this point to give a shout out to generous maternity leave (hooray UK/EU pro-motherhood laws), an amazing spouse, and relatively affordable childcare. Unlike many parents around the world, I have choices.)

If these nine months have been a lesson in loving many goods, they have also been a long lesson in compromise—in giving up the idea of complete control.

Z was born via c-section: a beautiful, uncomplicated, non-traumatic c-section. I still haven’t gotten over my utter lack of control in the process—the disappointment at it not being natural—and I doubt I ever will. But so what? There are always going to be things in my life I wish had happened differently. What I have realized, what I am thankful for, is that this immediately disabused me of the notion that this child thing was something over which I would have ultimate control.

C and I have more than our share of opinions about babies, but we’re not the only ones raising our little Z-bot, and we have, as I’ve said, sometimes competing goods in our lives. So, there’s compromise. It feels silly to say some of these things aloud, but then I remember the force with which our society tries to communicate that ‘if only you do thus and such, then your child will be perfect.’ That voice of guilt, although misplaced, is real and loud.

So, yes. We only use cloth diapers a couple days a week, and I don’t inquire too deeply about her favourite foods at the childminder’s (I’m guessing she doesn’t eat plain yogurt and unsalted lentils). We use the paci a lot more than I’d like. We still don’t really sleep through the night, because mommy can’t quite say no to the early morning nurse. We probably didn’t do enough tummy time. Sometimes I’m not there when she’s sick. We use calpol when she’s teething … and she’ll probably watch movies much younger than we’d prefer. Also, it turns out that babies are people too; sometimes our grand childrearing plans don’t fit the child we have sitting in front of us.

Other items on a long list of natural parenting musts? Compromised.

And the rest of our lives? There’s compromise there too. Laundry isn’t done quite as often as I’d like (more like, I don’t always wear completely clean clothes to work). Papers aren’t always marked.  I don’t really talk to my colleagues because I get to work at the last possible moment and leave the second after the bell rings. And, we have the same seven meals on a rotating basis.

But, you know what? I don’t really care.

I care that Z spends her days with people who love her. I care that she knows that C and I love her unconditionally. I care that she knows (eventually) that she’s not the only important child in my life. I want her to know that mom’s not the only adult who can care for and comfort her. I care that in the evenings we can read books together. I care that she has other adults to teach her songs and do crafts with her. I care that she gets to learn to play with other kids. I care that she’s happily pulling toys out of a bucket while I’m marking papers. I care that she sees C and I both pursuing the work we’ve been given to do, with as much excellence as we can muster. I care that she’s already becoming her own little person, with her own distinct little personality.

41 weeks in, I’m a much more laid-back parent than I ever thought I would be. And, I’ll be the first to admit that this is more due to our circumstances, and our child, than any particular intention on my part.  But I’m not unhappy about it. It turns out that most of the time, as long as you feed babies and snuggle with them, not much else matters terribly. And it also turns out, despite what people told us, that our lives didn’t have to completely change when we had a kid.

“I mean, you’re a lifer too, right?”

This was one of the early conversations I had with the other half of the English department at my little charter school. It was on the heels of a fantastic discussion of curriculum and management techniques. We had just finished each other’s sentences about the particular ways we wanted to grow in our abilities as teachers that year. Five plus years in, we had no intention of going anywhere.

“Yes.” I answered, not realizing this made me an increasingly rare commodity. I also didn’t realize that by the end of that year, my school would have replaced (either due to firing or resigning) over a third of its teaching staff. At the end of the year my students refused to believe that I was coming back to teach them for a second year, “You’re a good teacher, which means you’re going to leave,” they informed me, based on clear evidence from their years in charter schools.

There are two issues here, (1) the high turnover rate of charter school teachers, who are most often moving to other schools and (2) the gradual changing of the teaching profession from one which people make a lifelong career to one which attracts the young and then spits them out (to other, better paying careers) or up (to administration) a couple years later.

Although there are studies that argue for teacher turnover’s harm to student achievement, many charter organizations are starting to focus on the benefits of young, inexperienced recruits: enthusiasm, devotion and “moldability,” as Rich mentions in her recent article, “At Charter Schools, Short Career by Choice” (The New York Times. 26 August 2013). Many articles on the issue cite an increasingly familiar list of the reasons teachers are leaving schools or even the profession: attacks on (or complete lack) of unions, increased expectations (longer school days or other increased professional responsibilities), the pressure of high stakes testing, a pay scale that is back loaded (or, in the case of charter schools, below market standards), an increasingly low cultural regard for public educators and bottom-line administrators (as opposed to those focused on actually educating kiddos).

I write this as someone who, even if I had not made a transatlantic move, would have been looking around for other schools, for many of the above reasons. I’m the breadwinner of my family at the moment and couldn’t afford to be at a school that was paying me below market scale (and was making it increasingly hard to do real teaching). But I also saw the devastating effect of this turnover on my students. They had little consistency throughout their high school experience, making it difficult for them to ever build on what they’d learned. They rarely saw a teacher with more than a year of experience, which meant that they were always someone’s guinea pigs, getting an endless series of teachers who were learning for the first time how to manage behavior and plan a full timetable of lessons, let alone create an engaging classroom. Teachers were not involved in the community, and had little understanding for the long-term issues in their students’ lives.

Not a good sitch, to say the least.
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By way of contrast, I was shocked by the conversation in the English faculty lounge (“staff base”) during my first week of teaching in a mixed socioeconomic secondary school just outside of Edinburgh. Of the twelve English teachers in the department, seven have been teaching for nine years or more at the school. One was a supply teacher who has worked with the school for over five years. Three had taught for over five years (at a couple different schools nearby) and one was a probationary teacher (in her first year, sort of a second step of student teaching). This is everyone’s long term (and for most, their first) career choice. Although the pay scale has been affected by Britain’s austerity measures, the nationally set pay scale climbs significantly for the first 5-6 years, quickly rewarding those who make it through the rough first couple of years. The “principal teacher” (department leadership and curriculum development) role gives teachers a way to move up in their professional career without leaving the classroom. There is an incredible amount of freedom in curriculum (and no one has heard of multiple choice tests in English). The culture all this creates is palpable: the teachers love their jobs; they deeply know the community (and their students’ families); they are constantly striving to be better at their craft.

Now, I know that this is not always the case (and I know that Scotland has serious issues in their educational system as well), and I know that I’m also experiencing the shock of having come from a deeply troubled little charter school. But … it’s good to know that it’s a bold-faced lie that …

– competitive pay not tied to high stakes testing,
– freedom from micromanaging, bottom-line administrators,
– rewarding experience,
– locally run state schools,
– a solid union

… will necessarily produce lazy, entitled, good-for-nothing teachers.

R. Card-Hyatt
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Articles Cited (in order of citation):

Ronfeldt, Matthew; Susanna Loeb and James Wyckoff. “How Teacher Turnover Harms Student Achievement.” American Educational Research Journal. 23 October 2012.

Rich, Motoko. “At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice.” The New York Times. 26 August 2013.

Blume, Howard. “High turnover reported among charter school teachers.” The LA Times. 25 July 2011.

Esquith, Rafe. “Why great teachers are fleeing the profession.” 
The Wall Street Journal. 17 July 2013.

“How to fix our schools: A manifesto by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and other education leaders.” The Washington Post. 10 October 2010.

CST Blues: Year Two

June 20, 2013

This is a nitty-gritty teaching post, fair warning for those who aren’t in the classroom.  My one sentence summary: Don’t make excuses for teachers who don’t get results, but do realize how freaking hard their job is.

 

I made myself and my students a promise when I started teaching in the public sector.

I promised to not make excuses for my failures.

I’ve been a teacher for long enough to know that teachers are full of excuses. There is always someone (or something) else on which I can blame the failures in my classroom.

But, I promised to not double-speak my failings. I made this promise because I believe that my students deserve the best possible education. They deserve teachers who can teach them to read and to write. They deserve respect and high standards. They don’t deserve to be sacrificed at the altar of teachers’ egos.

This is not to say that poverty, lack of parent education, insufficient prior education, poorly designed tests and curriculum don’t affect my students. I know that they do. It is ridiculous (and prideful) to think that one teacher can alter a lifetime of less than excellent educational and social experiences. This is why we need to hold teacher evaluations based on test scores with a wary hand. Anyone who is looking to “solve” education without a holistic understanding of larger socio-economic issues is just simply crazy.

But, at the end of the day, I believe in teacher accountability. Teachers should be held responsible for the quality of instruction in the classroom, for the gains or losses that students make while in their care. How? I have absolutely no idea, but it does need to happen.  It is a matter of justice.

So what does this have to do with me, this year? Well, I just received the raw CST data for my sophomores … and it’s not so hot. That’s an understatement. It’s awful. And, even as I write this, and as I look over my scores, my mind is coming up with a thousand and one excuses while this doesn’t mean I am a bad teacher–ways to spin the data (i.e. compare to other schools or LAUSD), explanations for certain students, fingers to point at other factors, poor administrative direction, etc..

But, I’m going to refuse to make excuses, as painful as it is to my ego, to my sense of vocation, and to my hopes for teaching in the future.

To be concrete, last year, 50% of my freshmen tested at proficient or advanced (roughly >70-80% of the questions correct). 32% of them tested at basic (roughly >55%-60%) and 19% of them tested below or far below basic.

This year, as sophomores (being tested on the same standards but with a harder test), 46% of them tested at proficient or advanced, 45% of them at basic and 10% at below or far below basic.

The biggest take away is that my proficiency levels went down. Around ten of my students who tested proficient last year, did not this year. Many of my students raw scores went down as well.  This is awful, and makes me almost sick to my stomach. The thought that students lost knowledge or stayed static while in my care as opposed to increasing their knowledge makes me cry.  It is inexcusable.

Now, I know as well as the next teacher this test doesn’t measure increased student motivation, writing, the books we’ve read this year, or non-multiple choice reading comprehension. But, having spent several years with the CSTs, I do know that they are effective at measuring some things. And this data means that for roughly half of my students, I wasn’t able to improve their basic reading comprehension or grammatical understanding. And, there are no excuses for this.

The data does tell me that for the other half of my students (mostly my lower performing ones), I was able to bring their reading comprehension/grammatical understandings from the below 40-50% to 60-70%. This I am happy about. These are students who couldn’t really comprehend at the paragraph level, and now can show basic comprehension at the several page level.

But–No excuses.  In many ways, I failed this year.  I didn’t fail in all the ways, and I succeeded in some ways.  But, I do know that I let down some of my students (whether or not they are aware of this).  And so, because I care so desperately about my students and this work, I am angry at myself. It is a terrible feeling to have worked as hard as I possibly could, to have put in way too many hours, to have creatively exhausted myself trying to get as many books as possible into my students’ hands … and to not have seen the results that I hoped for.

What does one do?  I’ll think about what was effective this year, and what was a waste of time.  I’ll try to examine specific students and figure out why I didn’t see growth. I’ll look over specific lessons and try to analyze why students didn’t retain information.  I’ll think about what I would have done differently had I planned to teach my students next year.  I’ll try to be humble and talk to other teachers.  I’ll cry a little.

And, I will remind myself that I am in this for the long-run, and it is the height of pride to think that I would have mastered the art of teaching underperforming students in two years.

I won’t beat myself up (as I’ve told my students over and over again). But, I won’t make excuses.  I did my best this year, and it wasn’t enough. But, the stakes are too high for me to give up.  My students deserve better.

So, next year I’ll strive to be better than I was this year.  And for right now, that’s all I can do.

Ms. C-H

What you have taught me

June 11, 2013

Graduation Speech / Class of 2013

Here’s a secret I’ve learned from years of teaching: Many high school students are boring.

But this is the last thing that is true of you. Our conversations this year have given me just a hint of all that you do. You make music. You support your families. You paint and draw. You play sports.  You help your classmates where they are weak. You explore your city. You party.  You volunteer because you love it–not for the hours.

You are a class of students who does things and goes places.  You know Highland Park, Downtown and Hollywood–your cities–better than most of your teachers.

Going to college won’t magically make an unmotivated student motivated… but for those of you who already live a life of activity and service, college is going to give you the skills to do that better.

And because of that, I’m not worried about you. Don’t get me wrong, college is going to be hard, and it’s going to be harder for some of you than for others. But the key to success (and you know a little part of me dies when I say this) is not reading books and writing papers. The key to success is being able to love people, to serve people, to work with people and to live well in your city, your home.

And this, class of 2013, this is what you have taught me this year. You have taught me, by your example, how to unconditionally love and accept each other, how to give people second chances, how to never give up on your friends. You have taught me to take risks, to do the thing that seems impossible. You’ve taught me that when in doubt, sometimes you just need a dance party.

You’ve taught me that if you keep working at it, the thing you don’t understand will eventually become simple.

You’ve taught me that all things, including APEX math and a very long year, will at last come to an end.

Thank you for letting me join you this year.

My charge to you, the class of 2013, is this: Keep exploring, keep taking risks, keep working hard and keep loving each other … and you’re going to be just fine.

The Sound of Silence

March 7, 2013

I tell my students that classrooms shouldn’t be silent.

A place where learning is happening isn’t chaotic, but it isn’t quiet either.  Questions are noisy and don’t always follow a raised hand.  Frustration can be even louder.  Conversations that connect readings to life are often accompanied by laughter.  Passionate arguments that lodge ideas and information deep into students’ hearts are loud.

The silence I hate most of all in my classroom is the silence of the standardized test.  It is heavy, overbearing, and depressing.  It makes my soul start to shrivel up.  I’m all for tests; I think it’s important to be held accountable to teach information.  But, the oppressive silence of students weighing their choice of A, B, C or D makes me want to punch somebody.  As I proctor, all I want to do is to talk to students about their choices, to crack a joke, to say something that will make hands shoot up and wave for attention.

There is one silence I love, through, and it boggles my mind that the same absence of noise can feel so different.  When every student has a book in open on his or her desk and is intently reading, the silence is full.  The draw of a story or a character cannot be broken by sounds in the hallway or my moving around the classroom straightening up from the last class.  There is a peace in the classroom that I feel at no other time.  When I tell my students we have to move on to our lesson, there is the briefest of sighs as they close their books.  Their eyes light up and they want to tell me what happened in the couple of pages.

The moral of this story?   Testing days make for a grumpy teacher and sad students.  Reading days make for a happy teacher and contented students.

Sometimes educational pedagogy isn’t rocket science, people.

against the unknown

June 12, 2012

a speech given on 11 June in honor of the graduating class of 2012.

On behalf of the staff and faculty of LAICHS, I’d like to thank you all for being here to celebrate the graduation of the class of 2012.  It is an honor and a privilege to have taught these students who are before us today.

We began the year by reading Beowulf.  It’s the story of a warrior who saves a city by killing a monster.  It’s a classic image of courage, of a brave hero who is willing to sacrifice himself.  A hero is one who is willing to fight even when the odds are against her.  Sometimes, or perhaps often, it is hard to connect this kind of courage to our daily lives.  For high school students, this is merely a fairy tale (that their English teacher is forcing them to read).  It is not something they expect to see as they walk through the halls of their high school.  It seems less than real.

As I graded final papers over the last weeks and considered this class of students whom I’ve grown to love, I looked for something that united them all.  What is it about this bunch that has grabbed the hearts of each teacher and staff member here?  Each one is unique, and talented, and hilarious in their own way (and some in more ways than others), but the quality that immediately came to mind was the one we began the year discussing: bravery.

The students sitting before us, more than any I have ever known, are brave.

Some are brave, because each morning they wake up with the full knowledge of past (or current) tragedy—and every morning they move forward.  Some are brave because they took the academic challenges their teachers threw at them this year in stride and pushed themselves to write clearer and think harder than they ever had.  Some are brave because they are treading upon untried soil, they are the first in their families to earn this diploma and head to college.  Some are brave because they passed classes this year that it took them years to pass.  Some are brave because they faced personal failure, but chose to not be defined by it, but rather, to learn from it and keep growing.

All are brave because it is the scariest thing in this world to keep getting off the floor and trying again.

It is fitting that you, the class of 2012, have named yourself The Last Standing.  You’ve kept standing these four years, and I’m confident that you’ll keep standing over the next four years and beyond.  Your desire to keep running forward, despite odds being stacked against you will keep you standing.  Your bravery is worth more to you than grade point averages, and college acceptances.  It’s what will keep you in college and pursing your dreams even if no one else believes in you.

We, the staff and faculty of LAICHS, are proud.  Unbelievably proud of you—today.  We are proud of where you have come from and where you are going.  But most of all, we are proud of who you are.  Today you can say, with Beowulf: “We have gone through with a glorious endeavor and have been much favored in this fight we dared against the unknown.”

CST Blues

May 2, 2012

Or, Why I Will Feel like a Failure Every Spring

My freshmen took their English CSTs yesterday, and last night I got a bad case of the CST Blues.  I was a basket case—puddle-on-the-floor basket case.

I’m not against standardized tests; as a general rule, I’m a huge fan.  I appreciate the accountability, and the focus and drive that it can provide to administrators.  There are basic things that I think students should know and be able to do in each of their subjects, and the CSTs (and like tests) make a good stab at them.  They’re not perfect, but they’re okay.  And, as my master teacher told me, meeting the standards should be the easy part.  It’s the passing on a life-long love of reading and learning that’s difficult.

But, as I look over the standards that my students tested on this week, I know for certain that I’m not going to have more than 50% proficiency (>60%), if that.  My students, for the most part, came into high school below grade level (ranging from 3rd-8th grade reading/writing skills).  I’ve been a good teacher, but that’s not enough.  Effective teachers don’t teach one year’s worth of material.  They teach 1.5-2 years worth of material in a year, and they also motivate and instill a love of learning (while battling reduced budgets (i.e. no novels provided to students) and poor home and community support systems)

So, as I look at my students, as they traipse into my classroom this morning (lured by bagels, nutella, and OJ) to tell me that they “had that test”, “it was super-easy!”, “I kicked it’s ass!” … I’m sad.  I know that there was way more I could have done.  I know that I was clueless as to how to teach some of the standards.  I know that a couple of them failed before they opened the test booklet, weighed down by the shear number of words they wouldn’t understand.  I know that I wasn’t always consistent, that I caved to the occasional busy work, and that I didn’t always differentiate like I should have.

Even though I was here every single day, didn’t spend my class sessions texting while my students completed worksheets, and prepared upwards of 750 hours of mostly engaging and thoughtful lessons … my students are still way below grade level.

My only comfort, right now, is that I’m slightly above average.  And, that is small comfort to a driven woman who is firmly convinced this is her vocation.  I feel like many of my students as they opened their test booklets:

The standards are high and are where I’m supposed to be, and I know I have no possible way of meeting them fully.

So what is one to do?

Be sad and disappointed in oneself.  But, also remember that most of my freshmen haven’t dropped out and that my seniors are more ready for college than they were a year ago.

… and start planning for next year.

Ms. Card-Hyatt

New Every Morning

April 3, 2012

Because of the steadfast love of the Lord, we are not cut off;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning

I think, as a teacher, that I must be like Hosea.

Each morning, as I greet the students who enter my classroom, they all have a clean slate.  It doesn’t matter if a student has refused to learn and participate for the last 4 months … if she wants to learn today, I will be eager, ready, and willing to come along side.  If a student has struggled to respect me in the classroom for the entire semester, but decides today that he wants my help, I will be available.  I must constantly forget who students have been, even as close as yesterday.  I must allow them to change.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t have students who are not going to pass my class, not going to graduate, and not going to do much with their lives.  I do, and it kills me.  But, it does mean that when the student with a 43% in my class shows up ready to work on Tuesday (even if it’s the only day that month that he or she does), he or she is going to get as much of my devoted attention as the student with a 97%.  I think this is what it means to never give up on a student.  I allow them to be new every morning.

I am honest with them, at the same time, I’m not going to lie to my student who shows up the afternoon before something is due, utterly lost but wanting to do well.  She’s not going to do as well as the student who has been working diligently all semester … but she’s here and she wants to work, and for that she deserves respect and attention.

Somehow this mercy, this not considering the day before, is balanced with justice, of course.  I’m not going to do my students any favors by letting them off “easy.”  Students who don’t turn in my work on time get zeros.  I’ve given an entire essay a zero for one plagiarized sentence.  I don’t run after students asking them if they need my help.  They must come to me, but when they do, I will be there.

I can tell, by the embarrassment, hesitancy and fear that my students bring when they ask me for help, that they’ve had bad teachers in the past.  They’ve had teachers who held grudges, weren’t willing to walk through the instructions for an essay for the fifth, sixth, or seventh time, and who made them feel like they were imposing, by coming in with questions over lunch.  I can see in my students’ eyes when they ask for help, apologizing.  I always tell them to stop.  This is my favorite part of my job, I tell them, working with you.  Seriously.

I don’t know if they believe me.

I know that it takes extraordinary courage to change your habits, to try at something you’ve never tried at before.
I know that it is painful to attempt something you’ve always failed at.
I know that I have the same grace being extended to me, new every morning; I have never been cut off.

R. Card-Hyatt

Over dinner tonight, CH and I hear the familiar sound of a police helicopter.  An unfamiliar noise follows– a loudspeaker urging ——, ——, —— to contact their parents, for anyone knowing their whereabouts to contact the police.

Lahiri reminds me that we have less control over our lives than we would like to think.  I am sobered by the slow unraveling of lives.  Nothing dramatic, simply measured disappointment.

A student asks me, in quick succession, how did you know you wanted to be a teacher?  How did you know you wanted to marry your husband?

Over lunch, I try to explain our summer reading group to my fellow student teacher.  “We read books … and talk about them …”  “That’s it?”

“‘Civil blood makes civil hands unclean.’ Ms. H… that can’t just mean one thing, can it?”

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask.”

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There are things I do not pretend to understand.