Lay it all on the line

I lay it all on the line each day because pre-existing structures will only get stronger if I don’t.


Those are the words of a colleague of mine. I’ll call him Mr. N. We started chatting at lunch during a recent day-long PD and found ourselves still engrossed in conversation long after everyone else had left. He was referring to his teaching style, which many in our school community view as overly demonstrative and demanding. He pushes harder than any teacher I’ve ever known for students to be on time to his class. He tracks down those who miss his tutoring like a heat-seeking missile. From collaboration to self-assessment, Mr. N’s class functions with the expectation of greatness each and every day.

This has led many students at our school to say that Mr. N is “doing too much.” But in his eyes, “doing too much” is precisely what’s needed from him. If the future will be a just one — one that is full of productive, generous, thriving citizens who can reimagine society — Mr. N believes that it begins in his classroom. Because of this, he shoulders the burden of manifesting a better world. He bears direct responsibility for it with each lesson plan he writes, class demonstration he designs, and exit ticket he creates. If a given lesson of his doesn’t move the needle toward justice, then he doesn’t consider that day a success.

This may seem like Mr. N is putting a lot pressure on himself, that he’s setting unachievable expectations, and that his mindset is unsustainable. In the midst of a pandemic-induced teacher shortage, these are all valid responses.

But as someone who knows him well, I can tell you that he doesn’t experience it as pressure. Instead, his stance is one that treats each day as an opportunity. These opportunities are small, but they’re stackable. Over time, they can lead to change.

How is today’s lesson helping to unlock my students’ potential? How will what I teach today contribute to a better, more humane world? How will my pedagogy undermine systems that perpetuate injustices like sexism, classism, and racism? When he says, “I lay it all on the line each day,” I believe it’s these types of questions that his subconscious is asking himself. His classroom — like all of ours — is a microcosm of society. He teaches as such.

Cornelis Minor captures this mindset well in his book We Got This.

A kid can’t be successful in my classroom if I have not created the opportunities for that child to be successful. Each decision that I make in the classroom is an opportunity created or denied. If I’m intentional about these choices, then my classroom can become a place where kids aren’t just incidentally powerful but powerful by design — in all the ways that we want them to grow.

When we consider school as it functions best, kids learn. When learning does not happen, it fails because there are things that get in the way. Lots of those things come from outside of the classroom, but a good number of them originate from within it. We can’t take on the world’s challenges without first acknowledging the structural boogeymen that live in our own classrooms. (pp. 36-77)

Mr. N will be the first to admit that he fails often at achieving his goal. But when a lesson bombs, he doesn’t kill himself. He does what he can and works hard to understand the result. Like a coach, he carefully studies what happened, looks inward, and devises a plan to make better decisions tomorrow on behalf of his students. His work, often flawed, is powered by the importance of the everyday.

It’s invigorating to work beside someone who goes all-in each day, motivated to weaken systems and structures that do us no good. Though things like grading, pacing calendars, and broken copy machines consume much of his attention each day, he has a boundless vision for his students that extends far beyond his classroom. This vision is a gift. I think this type of thinking alludes many of us in this profession because, despite doing right by students, we get lost in the grind of teaching and forget our why. By positing that he can improve society by way of his classroom, Mr. N discovers motivation of the highest order.

So while colleagues stand in awe of his persistence and students might be put off by his expectations, I see him as someone who simply knows who he is and what he’s about. Standing on the wrong side of history is not an option for him. His teaching is his testimony.

bp

Being a Parent and a Teacher

The intersection of being a teacher and parent continues to enlighten me. Over the years, I’ve learned how the two roles inform one another. The more I do one, the more I know about the other.

A recent example of this is parent-teacher conferences. In my first several years as a teacher — before I became a parent — I relied heavily on statistics during my conferences. I did this by prepping individual score reports for each of my students before conferences and saving them on my computer. Armed with this wealth of data, I waited for parents to arrive, knowing that I was ready. I had the answers they sought — in a spreadsheet.

My talks with parents would always begin with me printing out their child’s report, stapling it (it was always more than one page), and sliding it across the table for their viewing glory. Everything that followed was based on the report. A high exam score here, a mediocre quiz there, and, of course, missing homework. These numbers told the story.

I took a lot of pride in those score reports. They were my evidence of being a good teacher because, well, they showed that I was “data-driven.” They went beyond their child’s report card and showed that I was able to quantify my students’ learning experiences accurately and in great detail. The scores showed exactly where a kid was and how they got there. This, in my eyes at the time, was a trademark of quality teaching. In an era of big data, what more could a parent want but a teacher who maintained every possible metric on their child?

After I became a parent, things changed. Parent-teacher conferences changed. Actually, no, the conferences stayed exactly the same, it was my perception of them that changed. I saw them differently. I started noticing that most parents didn’t care about the score report that I prized so much. After I handed it to them and explained the dazzling display of numbers, the parents would frequently look back at me and ask plainly, “So, how is my child doing?”

What I began to realize is that my stuffy, multi-page reports meant very little to them. Despite being presented with columns and columns of performance info on their kid, they needed me to tell them something that beyond and between the numbers. I’m with their child everyday. What was I seeing? What did it mean? Being fed data was not what they came for. They needed me to talk to them like a parent, not a data analyst.

I didn’t notice it before becoming a parent, but looking back, this had always been the pattern at PT conferences. The score reports were never as helpful and informative to parents as I thought they were. This was numbing realization, but also a beautiful one. It took becoming a parent to see this.

As a new, young, and less confident teacher, I had a tendency to hide behind numbers, just like I did with my score reports. Relying on the data gave me conviction. It gave me answers. I didn’t know the struggle that comes with loving, raising, and parenting a child. The score reports helped me pretend that I did. I was talking about their achievement in modeling exponential functions. The parents I met were concerned on whether their child was doing the right thing.

I saw the young people on my roster as students. The parents needed me to see them as kids.

As a father, I’m beginning to notice this trend in my own kids’ teachers — and it’s VERY annoying. Seemingly every meeting I have with one of them opens up to an ocean of data that does nothing but give me an truncated perspective on my kid’s development. It stays there until I bring up something less measurable, like my kid’s behavior, ability to ask questions, receive feedback, or work well with others. My questions about these types of things seem off-pitch given tone that’s already been set by the teachers. It’s always Fountas and Pinnell this and Expeditionary Learning that. The whole experience is unfriendly, impersonal, and treats my kid like a collection of data points and not a child. It erases their personhood. I make a living in academia, I know my kids’ levels are important. But I’m a parent first. I wish they spoke to me as one.

Despite my bitterness, I have grace for my kid’s teachers. Given the data-hungry institutions they function under, they’re doing the best they can with what they know. Just like me.

I think if I wasn’t a teacher who once did the same thing, I wouldn’t be as peeved as I am. If I really think about it, maybe this means that who I’m actually frustrated with is not my kid’s teachers, but with myself. My past self.

I mean, I was them. I was a teacher who didn’t know any better but to lean on data to connect with parents. Meeting with teachers now as parent makes me cringe at all those score reports and “data-driven” conversations I initiated. It conjures all those missed opportunities I had for more meaningful exchanges with parents. Instead of speaking with them about what really mattered, I forced so many parents to stare at a sheet of numbers. I’m not proud of this.

In this way, my kid’s teachers help me see how much I’ve evolved as a teacher and how my meetings with parents are different now. I have no score reports. No big data. There’s only attentiveness, stories, and love. I’m hopeful that one day the meetings with my kid’s teachers will offer me some of the same.

bp

A Thousand Words a Day • Nov 14-18 (No. 11)

I am documenting my 2022-23 school year through photography. Each day, I take a photograph and include it in a weekly post here on my blog. The goal is to create a compilation of photos that tells the story of my year and challenges me to go beyond the written word. This is the 11th post in the series.

Monday, November 14

A rare overhead view that I moved like a ninja to take

Tuesday, November 15

Better Together

Wednesday, November 16

Eighth period pelting me with paperballs (and a notebook)

Thursday, November 17

A funny story exists behind this bottle

Friday, November 18

“It has always been there for me” – A student gave the Token of Appreciation to one of the plants in the room

bp

A Thousand Words a Day • Nov 7 – 11 (No. 10)

I am documenting my 2022-23 school year through photography. Each day, I take a photograph and include it in a weekly post here on my blog. The goal is to create a compilation of photos that tells the story of my year and challenges me to go beyond the written word. This is the 10th post in the series.

Monday, November 7

On my walk for tea: the biggest tarp I’ve ever seen

Tuesday, November 8

Staff in circle during our professional development day

Wednesday, November 9

Not gonna lie, they posed for this one

Thursday, November 10

A little to the right…

Friday, November 11

No Class • Veteran’s Day

bp