Moving down

At the last faculty meeting of the year, my principal honored a few teachers who were moving on from our school to become administrators. They were becoming assistant principals at other schools. It was joyous. There were reflective speeches, congratulatory hugs, and bittersweet goodbyes. These people had spent years and years in the classroom, one was even a co-teacher of mine for three years. But now, in the name of school leadership, they were leaving the classroom to serve students on a broader scale.

This is natural. We teachers often find ourselves so well-versed in classroom affairs that our influence expands. Our impact seeps out of the walls of our classroom and into the larger community. Or, if this hasn’t happened, we know that it can with some persistence. Often our principals make us believe, too. We then spend lots of money to go back to school, suffer through long nights of rewording essays, all to earn a piece of paper that says that we’re fit to lead a school.

This is commonplace and part of the gravitational pull that exists on teachers. It’s a force works to drive us out of our classrooms. We’re promoted, but we become one step removed from our students. We move up.

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Now I’ve known for a long time that I’m a classroom lifer. I have no ambitions of becoming an assistant principal or principal. A progression up the educational food chain is natural, but never something that interested me.

So as I sat there during the faculty meeting thinking about how my colleagues were moving further away from students, my own career flashed before me — especially these few years. While the pathway of these people had taken them up, away from students, mine had actually brought me downcloser to students.

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I don’t think this downward movement is the norm — at least it wasn’t for me. I had to really work to move down. I’ve had to reflect, find myself, and then change my entire approach to teaching. I had to learn to be aware of my kids in ways that were foreign to me. And attending to my students’ lives in a personal way — to, paradoxically, not see them as students at all — is what has pulled me down to them. I’ve grown as an educator to affirm my students as sons, daughters, brothers, step-sisters, nieces, and nephews — as young people, as confused young adults, as budding leaders. This mindset is fueled by emotion and it’s not encouraged by the state, nor by the tests, nor by the curriculum. But it’s the single biggest reason why there’s a distinctive oneness that I feel when I’m with my students.

Just like it takes years to move up towards administration, it took my whole career for me to move down towards my students. It’s not a depth that I would have been prepared for early in my career, just like no new teacher is ready to be an assistant principal.

I get now that my career hasn’t been about reaching as far out as I can, despite all that has been fed to me all these years about success and impact. Instead, it has been about appreciating that my career will probably never extend beyond the walls of my classroom; it has been about understanding and tending to the depth of my students. It’s been about moving down. 

 

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Haiku #4

As an alternative means of capturing my thoughts and reflections, I’ve been writing Haiku about my teaching practice. This is the fourth post in the series.

As my career has matured through the years, I have learned to embrace my summer more and more. These two months represent precious reflection time for me. For this reason, I outwardly defend my summer. I purposely stay away from any sort of teaching environment; I can’t genuinely reflect if I’m still in the game, making decisions, and in the flow.

Outside of the personal benefits, this time away from the classroom allows me to pause my teaching and check in with myself. This summer is no different. My thoughts about my teaching have been plentiful and will surely evolve and change over the next several weeks. But before they do, I wanted to gather some recent, and important, reflections with this Haiku.

Letters to know one

Muggy thoughts, discerning sun

Who will we become?

 

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Dear K, (Student Letter #5)

To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging with individual students, I’ve decided to write letters to some of my current and former students. This is the 5th post in the series.

Dear K,

This letter is a few weeks overdue. I apologize.

We had some really enjoyable and unforgettable interactions this year, K. I don’t know where else to start this letter but by commenting on your insatiable curiosity. I mean, you are questioning machine. I love this. I swear, every time we talked or you wrote a Friday Letter, there was always something new and imaginative on your mind. And your hunger for knowledge was equaled by your thirst for answers. Whenever an open question lingered too long in your mind, you got antsy. You needed answers so bad that it made me feel guilty for being so appreciative of good questions. More often than not, you found the answers you sought. This passion for learning was exciting for me to be around.

We talked about so much this year. Like, SO much. Most of it was pretty random — based on whatever you woke up thinking about. A few times this year, though, we landed on the topic of formal schooling. You have strong, unwavering feelings about it and I loved going down this path with you.

You shared that, in your experiences, schools work to deteriorate the hearts and minds of young people. You mentioned that there is little creativity in classrooms these days. That “learning” is never the goal. Instead, over the course of their time in school, students just get better at satisfying the needs and wants of their teachers. Students are just jumping through hoops; students follow rigid essay structures and memorize stale formulas to determine x, but are never asked to find themselves. The school system strips away individuality and replaces it with conformity. Characterized by many as a “model” student, you offered yourself up as an example of this epidemic.

When we did talk about things like this, no lie, I forgot that you are as young as you are. You’re so wise.

Looking back, it’s these sorts of conversations that stand out. But it’s because of a very different conversation that I’m going to remember you for the rest of my career.

You know the one I’m talking about. It was the second-to-last Monday of the year and after reading your letter the previous Friday, I pulled you out of the library and we went to the lab. I knew there was a lot that you needed to talk about. I told you to spill the beans.

You proceeded to open some deep wounds. You shared a pain that you kept hidden for two years. Choosing to dress up your struggle as positivity, you had been out of your comfort zone for way too long. Outside of your parents, you hadn’t told anyone about these feelings. You were hurting. You were confused. You cried.

Though you always seem to find answers to your uncertainties, this was one instance where you were at a loss. And I wasn’t going to pretend like I had the answer. That was beside the point. You indirectly called out and I needed to be there for you…just like you had been there for me all year with your thought-provoking conversations. You needed to be heard. You needed a shoulder.

The more we talked, the more I felt the gravity of the situation. And, looking inward, the more I understood how much I overlooked you. I saw the side of you that you so eloquently displayed for the rest of the school — and I blindly accepted it. Given your depth of character and thought, I should have known better. But I failed to look below the surface. And with our constant stream of communication, I had so many opportunities. You wrote to me every week. We talked at length at least twice a week. As an unofficial mentor, I cannot help but say that I could have been better at recognizing your needs. I could have been better attending to your pain. You will never blame me, but I have to own this — at least partially.

Although we were the only two voices in the lab that Monday during 4th period, I heard so many others. They were my current students, your peers. They were also my former students. And their voices were loud. They were telling me that if you, K, a “model” student, a student who thrived in AP classes, a student that volunteered for leadership positions, a student that elevated my thinking, a student who served as role model for many, could keep so much pain suppressed for so long…then I needed to open my eyes. I was missing something. And it was a big something.

What were my other, less-vocal students telling me that I wasn’t hearing? What about the other students that I know well? How well do I even know them? What about my former students? How many of them went unheard despite spending hours and hours in my class? How did I let their pain go unnoticed?

This realization gave me pause. The walls collapsed on me, the rug pulled out from under my comfortable, privileged feet. I resorted to whispering my responses to you because my breath came up short. We both teared up. I was shook.

After our talk, you couldn’t go to another class. You spent the next period in the nurse’s office, then you called home and your dad picked you up.

I tried to follow up with you over the next several days, but I got the feeling that you didn’t want to talk about it. While polite as ever, your vulnerability made you shy away from me. If I’m honest, this bothered me because I know burying all this pain is part of the reason why you crashed. I didn’t have anything explicit that I wanted to say to you, I just wanted to check in. Send some good vibes your way. But I couldn’t force it. The year finished with us never again mentioning our talk in the lab.

Here, right now, in this letter that you’ll probably never read, I want you to know that I’m never, ever going to forget you or your story. Thanks to your courage in dealing with your discomfort and sharing this battle with me, I’m going to work even harder to uncover the needs of my students. I’m going to fight to be there for them — even if this means that I’m only able to reach only 1 additional student next year or 2 the year after that. The risk is too great.

In my own quiet way, in the coming years I am going to be thinking of you and wishing you well — wherever your journey may take you. I plan on anonymously passing on your experiences to other teachers and students with the hopes of inspiring us to be more mindful of each other’s presence. I learned so much from you.

I need us to stay in touch. Hang in there.

Sincerely,

Mr. P

P.S. I told you this already, but I deeply respect the relationship that you have with your dad. You talked about him so much in our talks and letters. I only hope that one day I can have a bond with my daughter that resembles the one that you two share.

A cold, lifeless 27-page booklet

At this very moment, 109 of my students are sitting in various classrooms around my school. They’re sitting in rows. They have a 27-page booklet in front of them that has 37 math problems printed in it. They have a graphing calculator. A pen. A pencil. They’re not looking at one another. They’re working in isolation, like robots, focusing only on their booklet. The clock ticks. They have an unapologetic three hours to squeeze all of their ideas out of their heads, into their hands, and into the booklet. A teacher displays the current time on the board.

And the rooms are quiet. They’re deathly silent as a matter of fact. Silent of any life. Void of any creativity, any debate, any togetherness. Vacant of anything that can respectably be called a meaningful assessment of their mathematical abilities. The rooms are absent of what so humanly filled my students’ hearts and minds all year.

In other words, the rooms are empty.

On this day, in these waning afternoon hours of June 21, 2019, a beautiful journey that delighted, surprised, confused, empowered, angered, created laughter, caused tears, produced smiles, forged bonds, and changed lives, reaches its final turn. Yes, it ends today with a cold, lifeless 27-page booklet.

I tear myself away from writing this post to visit them one final time as their teacher. To inject some of warmth into these hollow rooms is the least that I can do. I need to be there for them once more. There are seven rooms. A bold, red piece of paper is taped to the outside of each declaring it a TESTING ROOM. I open each door and stand in the entryway. I’m there for a minute, maybe two. I’m waiting for nothing in particular. I don’t speak. No words would dare attempt to capture how I feel. Many of them look up, see me, and smile. Some smirk because my beard is missing. I grin. Pleasant thoughts sooth me. I’m happy. I’m proud.

During my visits, I’m told on three different occasions that I cannot be there, I cannot share the space with my students, no matter how brief it is. The voice is annoying, like a gnat. I shoo it away and maintain my presence. While this voice is a lonely one, emanating from a single body, a body that doesn’t understand the bonds — the love — that I have for the young people in those rooms, it is also the blaring siren of a stolid, tyrannical system that is engineered to maintain a strict distance between everyone and everything that operates within the system. It’s only fitting that I am confronted with this siren — this force — now, in these final moments, because it has been trying to disparage the closeness that I share with my students all year long. I guess it couldn’t let go until the very end.

But the bottom line is that nothing was going to remove me from those final moments with my students. Bring my AP. Bring my principal. Bring my superintendent. We went through too much together. I belonged there.

I crawl back to my desk. The exam is coming to an end. So are the algebra 2 experiences of my kids. Attempting to capitalize on the moment, other teachers brought in water and snacks for their students. Candy is common. Others dished out high fives and personal notes as students walked into school. These various forms of nourishment serve as one last round of encouragement, a hopeful send off that the kids can collect enough points to satisfy New York State.

I feel guilty because I just couldn’t bring myself to do any of these things. It’s not that I didn’t want to, I did, but something in me resisted the urge to pour more energy into this lifeless day. I couldn’t contribute to building up an event that means so little. It’s bad enough that our 10-month campaign to better ourselves terminates like this, with a cold, lifeless 27-page booklet. I couldn’t make this apex moment any more sour by advocating for a higher score.

I remain in the building until the end. Not because I have to or plan on seeing any of my students or hearing how things went. I don’t care to discuss the exam with them or anyone else. Not now. There will be a time and place for that in this score-hungry, pass-rate driven mess of a school system. Hanging around till the end of it all just seems to me like the right thing to do. To see my students off, however vicariously.

I wrap up my thoughts, try to bring closer to this disheartening day. As I leave, I walk around to each of the rooms that housed my students just minutes before. I peer in. They’re still empty.

 

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My beard was a thing this school year

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It was after school last Friday. The room was filled with over 50 excited students. There was a buzz. Most all were standing. Some on chairs. Phones were recording. Having waited 10 months for this moment, the room was bursting with anticipatory energy that easily spilled out into the hallway. The sense of community was staggering and unlike anything that I had ever been a part of. Unsure what was happening, other teachers walked in.

All of sudden, out of nowhere, a loud chant breaks out among every student in the room. “Cut it off! Cut it off! Cut it off!”

Where was I? Sitting on a chair in front of it all. Their chant was being directed at me. Or at least at the student standing next to me who had the clippers.

What was happening? My beard was being shaved after 10 months of untouched growth.

This was all so unexpected. In September, I met a student in my third period class and noticed that he had a pretty nice beard. It was thick, mature. He seemed to take it seriously. I’m not sure why, but I asked him if he would consider not shaving it (or trimming it) for the duration of the school year. If he was on board, I promised that I would match his effort and leave my beard in its natural state until June.

It was the second week of school and I didn’t know this kid a lick, but he didn’t even think twice about my offer. Unbelievably, he wanted to do it. Right then and there I vowed to not shave or trim the hair on my face for the rest of the school year. The next day I made it public and told all of my classes. Of course, being so early in the year, my students and I barely had a relationship at that point. They probably didn’t think twice about it — it was just a random thought, an off-center commitment, a promise that would surely be forgotten by their new, overzealous math teacher.

As the year unfolded, my beard got longer. And longer. It was untamed. Raw. I didn’t use any fancy oils. It started growing sideways off of my face. I think in late February was when it really became a thing for us. So while the original student’s mom made him cut his soon after our pact, mine started to build momentum. We talked about it in class, like how my family felt about it. I started to strike up conversations with random bearded men on the street and on the subway, getting tips. I unknowingly joined a club that I never knew existed. This was all unfamiliar to me but never felt strange — it always felt right.

As June approached, I started thinking about the end of the year. What was going to happen to my beard? My face had been through so much. Was I going to keep it? My beard (literally) grew on me. I really liked it. It gave me character. I considered it my “wisdom beard.” I enjoyed stroking it and pretending I was Socrates.

On Wednesday of last week, I knew what had to be done. In a decision that was somewhat last minute, I brought my clippers to school. My students were going to cut my beard. It was the natural thing to do.

While it began as a playful agreement, my beard blossomed into much more than the growth of hair. It was symbolic. It was a physical manifestation of all the growth that my students and I had experienced this year. Like my beard, our growth was of the type that required a long stretch of time to develop and mature into its full form. You can’t grow a beard like what I had in a week — sideways growth and all. Our bonds were no different. 

And it’s not like I could take it off when I wasn’t in school. My beard was with me everywhere I went this past year. It was with me before school, after school, at home, on the weekends. It was a part of me. In this way, the hair that slowly crept out from my chin and cheeks signified the closeness that I had with my students. The connections we shared this year transcended school, transcended the learning of mathematics. Like my beard, their stories and histories and passions and pain stayed with me long after the school day ended. My kids took me to unfamiliar territory, like my beard did. In terms of culture, community, and togetherness, my kids set a new standard for me. This is humbling.

More than my curriculum, more than my pedagogy, more than my colleagues, more than anything else, it was my students who were the definitive part of my growth this year. They were my beard. Every hair.

Friday was the last day of classes. They were no longer my students. They were leaving me. My beard had to go.

 

While I am getting so many compliments on how much younger I look now, I hate destinations. The journey is so much more fun.

I miss my beard. I miss my kids.

 

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