I feel betrayed.

I love teaching, more than I ever expected. 

My school days pass in one-hour segments filled with jokes, smiles, and as much learning as I can pack in, Spanish and otherwise. Sometimes the kids are great, other times not, but I figure this is what I signed up for, to care about and do what I can for every one of them. 

After the students leave my classroom, it is different.

Vicious parent emails filled with insults and demands that require an hour's worth of careful email wordcrafting in response. 

Administrators who treat your time as though it were Mary Poppin's bottomless carpetbag.

Politicians who pass laws without ever consulting an actual educator, only a budget sheet. 

A local and national community that continually announces their contempt for practicioners of my profession and the dastardly way we have organized to make obnoxious demands, such as compensation comparable to other professions that require the same amount of schooling and expertise.

A public that believes my job requires little effort and less skill, and that probably any parent could do better, when in reality the complexity of what I do makes me (a dedicated overachiever who is actually really good at this) stretched beyond my limits on a daily basis. 

Weekends filled with the week's overflow and hours of catch-up that is never, ever diminished. 

Friends who remark casually about how I am "paid" for two month's summer vacation, not realizing that A) I have a ten-month contract, so my "pay" is only what I asked the school to withhold during the school year, B) I probably work enough during the school year to make up the difference in hours, and C) I still work during the summer developing and improving my curriculum, for free, and D) Have you ever tried to find a job for two months? What else do you want me to do?

I guess I am not surprised by this. I knew all of this on my way in. But I guess I expected it to be more distant, less personal, more abstract. But in fact, all of these negative features - the derision of parents and the community, the insulting comments plastered across the Internet, the laws passed and the administrator responses to disciplinary citations - affect my daily work in tangible ways. I frequently find myself feeling angry, overwhelmed, unappreciated and hurt because of these things. 

If I quit before five years, like almost half of new teachers do, it will not be because I dislike my students, my school, my material, or because it is hard. It will be because a person can only be a national punching bag for so long before it's no longer worth it. 

Who keeps telling my students' parents that I'm out to get their child?

If I ever find out who it is, I'm going to have a word or two for them.


Stop telling me that I am young and female

Sometimes, when I am having a hard time with a student or parent, a sympathetic colleague or well-meaning mentor will occasionally say, "It might just be because you are young and female." 

They say this benignly, meaning that the student might think that I am an easy target, though the speaker will assure me that I am not. This is pointed out particularly when it comes to rebellious boys who resent being bossed around by some girl who looks not much older than his sister. 

Ok. I get it. This is said with sympathy, and not intended in an inappropriate or offensive way. I also understand that the first impression I make on students is largely based on my appearance and age, and that could indeed affect their behavior. 

But I'm growing tired of hearing it nontheless. 

Does no one else have to overcome bias to win their students? Does no one else have to combat an unhelpful first impression? Every teacher must, in some way, win her students. A teacher who is ready to retire will have to overcome bias for his old-fashioned way of doing things. An eccentric will have to help students feel comfortable and learn to accept a different way of seeing the world. A teacher from another culture must come to terms with her host culture, and help her students to understand hers as well. 

Over time, I too win my students. I see the difference from the beginning of the year until now. I see the difference from my level one classes to my level two classes. Eventually, my students and I grow to understand one another, and they respect me, and I care about them. And I make sure every single one of them knows who is in charge. 

So when someone tells me, "It is because you are young and female," I do not hear "Your student is obviously a terrible person," though I am sure that is the way it is intended (mostly). Instead, I interpret it as, "You have somehow not managed to demonstrate to this child that age and gender have nothing to do with respectability. Maybe it is because your age and gender have actually made you less respectable." 

In other words, when people bring up my appearance, I think it is because they themselves have not yet come to believe that I am a competent professional, because, well, after all, I am only 26 and female.

You would not tell someone that a student was disrespecting him "because you are old and fat." You wouldn't say "It is because you are black/Asian/Mexican."  You wouldn't say, "It is because your face looks like a potato." People don't do that, because everybody knows that people with potato faces can, in fact, manage classrooms well. And so do 26-year-old women. 


Your story is not as funny as you think it is.

When people learn that I am a teacher, I often become the recipient of peculiar and informative anecdotes. Through these stories, I have realized that many people see their childhood and adolescent misbehavior as clever, even laudable.

For example, pranks played on teachers are often remembered with cheerfulness. The time that every student fell asleep, the time they kept unplugging the computer, the time they lied and got away with it.

I am told these stories as though I understand, ha ha, aren't kids so funny? But my actual, internal response is one of horror. I immediately wonder, what if my students did that to me? Whenever one of my students act out, no matter how minor it is, I am, at minimum, upset. I would feel disrespected and demoralized. For some things, I have to involve administration or parents. And, if it became bad enough, I would begin to reconsider if teaching is actually the job for me.

These types of actions, at their extreme, can even fall under the umbrella of bullying and/or harassment. These actions can cause psychological trauma for the teacher, endanger his or her job, and endanger others in the environment. It doesn't matter if the teacher "should have been able to handle it". That's not the point. We are adults, and we should all agree and teach our children that this type of behavior is not ok.

I am not opposed to telling nostalgic stories about past misdeeds with humor. I think my students are funny and I tell stories about what they do, including their misbehavior, all the time. But the proper attitude of an adult telling a story should not be, Ha ha! Weren't we hilarious? but, Oh, how stupid (and even cruel) we were back then. 

What is the difference? The first response makes someone the victim of a not-very-funny joke, and it suggests (to me, at least) that the speaker has not progressed beyond an adolescent way of perceiving their past. The second indicates that some maturity has been gained.

I can deal with fourteen year olds. I can deal with their misbehavior and I consider it part of my job to teach them better ways to do things. I think it is terrifying to deal with fourteen year olds who are being encouraged and egged on by their still-adolescent-minded parents. 


The Importance of Establishing Group Norms

I had the opportunity to listen in on a conversation between two teachers last week that helped me to understand how certain things work at my school.

(I wasn't eavesdropping, btw. These teachers were talking to each other while I was working nearby, and occasionally I had a contribution or question, but I mostly listened.)

They were talking about school trips. During their conversations, I learned that:

  • If a teacher takes you on a trip with them, you should offer them the choice of joining you if and when you plan your own trip, before offering the opportunity to another teacher.
  • It is inappropriate to ask to be invited on a trip, you should wait until you are asked.
  • Teachers should coordinate with one another to make sure that they are not competing for the same students, such as alternating the summers that they plan their trips, etc. 
As a person who has not participated in a school trip before, it was helpful for me to hear what some expectations might be. But what interested me was that these teachers spoke as though these norms were obvious, which was not actually the case. I could easily envision circumstances in which the norms were different or even opposite of what these teachers assumed. For example, if I was going to ask another teacher to join me on a trip, I might be inclined to ask the teacher who speaks the language, which may not be the same teacher who asked me to join their trip the previous year. And if I heard a teacher was going to a certain country that I really wanted to visit, I might have volunteered to help without realizing that it was not considered appropriate to put myself forward in that way. 

These group norms are neutral, neither good nor bad. They have been established in response to dynamics that are specific to my school. As a new person and without knowing those dynamics, it would be easy to misread a situation and inadvertently offend another.  

I have been a part of groups before where, at the very first meeting, the leader would establish "group norms". While slightly cheesy, it seems to me that those groups are able to work productively together much more quickly than those groups that leave it up to their members to slowly and sometimes painfully learn how to work with one another. And when a new member joins the group, they can hear from the start what the expectations are, rather than talking one-on-one with all the different members, each of whom may have a different interpretation on what is ok and what is not. 

Moral of the story: Make it easy for new people. Tell them what you expect, and they'll feel much more comfortable jumping right in.


Examples of Disconnect Between Administrators and Teachers

"I don't want you to feel like this is 'one more little thing' but..."

(Something that will take me "only five minutes" but multiplied by twenty students = 1hr 40 min)

"Your focus for next semester's evaluation will be to create engaging lessons not just once in a while, but every single day."

(So many implied insults. 1. I already work hard to create interesting lessons every day. 2. I cannot physically spend more time on lesson planning than I already do, I am already behind in everything always, and I stay at school until 5 pm and work on weekends. It's not like there's extra time that I just don't feel like giving up here. 3. What's wrong with having the kids do some writing and book work once in a while? Sometimes, it is just what they need to do.)

"You should call five parents per week, and contact each parent at least once per semester."

(Ha ha ha. See above.)

"The student said that they were not texting, they just had their phone out and were not using it."

(Why are you assuming the student is telling the truth, and that I misjudged the situation?)

"You need to make retakes available to every student, even if he or she cannot stay after school."

(Because unsupervised retakes in the hallway during class time is such a great idea, and it's not like I am trying to do anything else during class.)

"You need to make your lessons more student-centered, not teacher-centered."

(I am the only Spanish-speaker in my room. Who is going to speak to them in the language if I don't?)

"Maybe you should translate more things into English so that he/she doesn't get confused."

(1. This is contrary to every single pedagogical development in language education in the last twenty years. 2. Do you really think that I don't have any back-ups built in to help them figure things out? 3. Do you understand at all the amount of work it has taken for me to have my students accept any amount of Spanish-only instruction? 4. Did you not see the twenty-nine other students who were getting along just fine even though I spoke exclusively in Spanish for fifteen straight minutes in a level 1 classroom?)

"Can you stop by during your prep so we can touch base on ____? It won't take long, just ten minutes."

(Sure. Even though it will take five of my fifty minutes of prep to walk to and from the office, ten minutes to find you, another ten to talk to you, and another five to make small talk, and then I only have a twenty minutes left to do anything, which is basically enough time to answer emails. Fifteen minutes for you, practically an entire prep period sacrificed for me.)

"You need to keep every student engaged for the entire class period."

(Because students always do what I want them to do?)

"Why doesn't your class website only have the homework for the week, and not from previous weeks? And can you attach documents organized by chapter so that absent students can just download them from the website when they are absent?"



Learning doesn't always feel like learning.

Sometimes my perception of what occurs in my classroom does not always match up with my students' perception.

I remember one day a student said that her friend had told her that we were "doing a worksheet" for the entire class. I told her, "Oh? Well, wait and see." 

I handed out a page with some notes and practice problems on it, yes. But we also learned and practiced a rhyme that included motions, used whiteboards and props to practice writing, and had a class discussion. Technically, the page with notes was in front of students for most of the class period, but we really only spent about ten or so minutes "doing the worksheet."

"So, did we only 'do a worksheet' today?" I asked her as the students were packing up. 

"Yeah, we did," she answered. 

Le sigh. 

She's by no means alone in her perception. It seems that students - of any age - often feel that nothing much is occurring in their classrooms. 

Students focus on what is concrete, for one thing: a worksheet completed, a song memorized, an item produced. Classroom discussions, for example, often lack in durables, and so they do not "feel" like very much has occurred at all. 

Also, students don't always see their own growth. They don't think about how, at the beginning of the year, they didn't know more than ten words in Spanish, and by the end, "all they knew" was how to introduce themselves, say what they liked, and "conjugate a few verbs". They have an attitude that dismisses the complexity of those tasks, and their memories only hone in on what is memorable, and they forget the daily work of developing each of those skills. 

Finally, while students often equate effort to learning, teachers work hard to make learning feel effortless. That girl left the room knowing at least twenty words in Spanish that she did not know before, but by the time she left, those words were obvious to her, and wouldn't anyone be able to figure them out? But if I had sent her home with a list and told her to study for a quiz the next day, she might have "felt" more learning occur, even if the quality of that learning was less. 

I see this in myself sometimes. Not so much as a student, but as a person. I have certain goals, you know. Like becoming more efficient, procrastinating less, or showering at least a three times per week. I often feel that I fall short of those goals, but then sometimes I look back and think, hey. Wow. I never would have done that two years ago, or five, or ten. 

Sometimes, things take a long time. That doesn't mean that nothing is happening.