Category Archives: Learning

The Irony of Our Times

A grad professor of mine always talked about an assignment one of the student teachers he oversaw did with her class.  She was reading The Age of Innocence with her students and asked them to complete the sentence, “We live in an age of ________.”  In other words, she was asking students to come up with one word to define the times in which we live.

I love telling people this story because I usually tell people that the perfect word for our times is “retraction.”  This is because I always think people say what they mean, what they’re really thinking, then when the world (or sometimes just a few) disagree, they retract their statements, apologize, and vow to be less offensive later on down the line.

These days, though, perhaps the word for our times is “contradiction.”  Why?  Because the world we live in is filled with people who shop at Whole Foods and buy Fair Trade products, but who no longer support labor unions.  Because the world we live in has people who would never put their child in a school that had 35 days of testing (in fact many of them would pay exorbitant amounts of money in tuition to avoid it), but they would force that amount of testing on people who have no choice but to public school-educate their children.  Because we have a president who is a Democrat, a traditionally pro-union party, but who seems to be joining his Democrat friends in demanding union money for their campaigns, but leaving unions hanging with silence and lack of support when it comes to the laws that want to rip unions to shreds.

I don’t know how to fix the world or its problems, but I do know that a lack of common sense seems to be plaguing many of those around me.  Perhaps the easiest thing to do to change the age we live in is to simply start using some more common sense and encouraging others to do the same.  Perhaps we could put it in a letter and send it to the President himself!

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What I Taught My Students Today

Today was the first day back to school.  It felt invigorating to be back in the building.  The kids seemed to really miss school and their teachers and the teachers seemed happy to be off the picket line and back in the classroom.  I can talk more later about whether or not our deal was as good as we’d hoped (we definitely made some concessions in terms of salary and wages in order to really benefit our students), but what I did today was showed students that every once in a while, a strike was necessary.  I had them read this article and this article.  Then, we discussed the similarities and differences between the Teacher Revolts that happened 79 years ago and the strike that happened seven days ago.  Let me tell, it saddens me that not much has changed.  It’s as if we just haven’t learned our lesson.

I’d like to think my students learned a bit about Chicago history today (and got some Common Core non-fiction in while they were at it).  What I hope they really learned though was just how much teachers love kids.  I hope they really learned that throughout history teachers have always stood up for the welfare and benefit of our students.  That no matter what anyone says, pay is often the last things on our minds.  After all, no teacher gets into teaching for the big bucks.  We do it because we want to make a difference in the world.  We do it because we are idealistic and hopeful that the day-to-dayness of our job will one day make a difference in a child’s life.

PS.  The coolest part of the day?  When we all met in the parking lot, wearing red, and entered the building together.  : )

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I Teach Criminals*

This week, a student walked into my class.  He immediately started copying down the assignment I’d written on the board.  He was focused, respectful, and covered in tattoos.  He looked tough and older than the other students.  After I spoke to the class as a whole, I went up to him to catch him up on what we were doing.  After my spiel, I asked him if he had any questions.  He replied, “Do you mind if I turn this in tomorrow instead of Friday when it’s due?  I have to meet with my P.O. Friday.”

For those of you not in the know, P.O. stands for parole officer.  Yup, that’s right.  I’ve got a criminal in class.  Don’t worry.  He’s not the first.  He won’t be the last.  When I was student teaching, I was verbally assaulted by a kid with a record.  At my first school, I was punched in the chest trying to break up a fight.  Last year I taught a student who was recently arrested for shooting and killing another young man.  By now, nothing surprises me.

The thing is, as curious as I am about why this kid was in prison, I also don’t care.  Why?  Because when that kid walks in my door, he gets a second chance.  Because I always think, what if this is the year that kid changes his life?  What if I’m the one who helps make that happen.  My old friend Nick Carraway was right, “Reserving judgement is a matter of infinite hope.”  And I, like most of my colleagues, are constant idealists.  Constant optimists who believe in the power of education.

So instead of asking him why he was in prison, I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.  His answer?  A music teacher.  Now, we talk about playing guitar.  See?  A fresh start.

*Somebody has to.

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Our Fight

Last week, I began the 2012-2013 school year and without a contract.  Like most Chicago Public School (CPS) teachers, I sat around, wringing my hands wondering if I would strike and if so, what would happen as a result.  I mostly wondered what that would mean for my family and the families of my colleagues.  If I strike Monday morning, I will not be paid and risk losing all my benefits, depending on the length of the strike.  Currently, I am the sole provider of healthcare benefits in my family.  This means that because, after more than 45 negotiation meetings where Mayor Rahm Emmanuel has not budged despite findings from independent arbitrators and support from a study by the University of Illinois, all of which back the union and its requests, my husband and I would have no healthcare coverage and half our income would disappear completely.  That is a very scary thought.  It would be even scarier if we had children.

Six years ago, I went back to school to get my graduate degree in education.  I graduated with a 4.0 and worked hard to prepare myself for the world of education.  I wanted to be the best teacher I could be.  I wanted to work in Chicago’s public schools because I attended a public K-8 school (as well as undergraduate college!) and it profoundly affected who I am as a person.  Midway through my first year of teaching I realized nothing could prepare me for the world of education.

Each year I teach five sections of high school English.  That’s thirty (or more!) students in a room.  That means that in my short career, I’ve already influenced almost 500 people directly!  This doesn’t even include students I’ve taught in summer or night school, students who I mentor, have in my after-school club, or just smile at in the hall on a day when no one else did.  Being a teacher is the most challenging thing I have done in my life; it is also the most rewarding.  I can’t even fully describe it.  Everyone always points to the moment when the kids “get it,” but it’s so much more than that.  Kids teach you, too.  They teach you how to be better parents, because you parent them when their parents don’t.  They teach you how to be accountants, when you dig into your own pocketbook to buy them supplies or give them money for lunch.  They teach you how to be lawyers, when you defend them to their peers or the school because they had a bad day unlike any bad day you or I will ever have.  They teach you how to be doctors, too, when they come to you and tell you their most personal medical problems (seriously, that happens) and you have to decipher the level of care they will need (and often how they will get it).  Sometimes, they even teach you how to be a MMA fighter when you have to break up a fight.  And yet, the one thing they don’t teach you, the one thing my students haven’t taught me is why, despite the fact that I am all of those things to all of those students, I am mistreated by my district and the mayor of the city I was born and raised in and in which I work as a public servant.  They can’t teach this to me because they don’t understand it either.  As a teacher, I am vilified and my profession is denigrated by the mayor and his office’s media tactics.  Last year, as my husband can verify, I cried more than I ever did.  You have no idea what it’s like to work until 5 or 6 or later at night, come home with a pile of work that there aren’t even enough hours in the day to get done, watch the news and hear that you don’t work a “full” school day.

As a child, I had amazing veteran teachers all of whom worked incredibly hard and taught me to be a creative, critical thinker who continues to love learning.  That is an extraordinary feat!  Some of those teachers are still teaching and still inspiring students daily.  Did you have a teacher like that?  Someone who inspired you and changed you in far-reaching ways?  I’d like to believe I am that teacher for some students.  I know some of you are that teacher for your own students.  Imagine what our world would be like if teachers like that weren’t around.  What happens in this fight for a fair contract could very well make that decision for future generations.  When we settle for less than we are worth and less than we deserve, we send a message to future generations of teachers that this is not a profession worth entering.  That this is not some place where you will be treated fairly in a job that already demands so much of your body, mind, and soul.  Ask yourself if you would want the children in your life to have that as their future.

I know not everyone is pro-union.  Perhaps your ideologies and political beliefs do not align with that of a labor union.  However, this fight is about more than unions.  It’s about the future of public education in this country.  It’s about the slow and steady eradication of a working middle-class.  It’s about the dismantling of a public education system and neighborhood schools in particular.  It’s about the dirty not-so-big-a-secret that labor unions no longer have a political party.  It’s about the world we live in and the world we want to have for our children and their children.  What we do matters.  And support for the Chicago Teachers Union is paramount right now.

If you have a Facebook account, I am urging you to post this image on your account.  And if you don’t have a Facebook account (like me), please forward the link to this post to those you know that do.  Tweet about our struggle with the hashtag #insolidarity.  Tell people to read the facts.  Explain to people that this isn’t about money, that’s the only thing we have left to strike about, but we’re using that as leverage for other things that our students need: smaller class sizes, more resources, art classes, music classes, physical education, and experienced teachers.  We need to send a clear message to the world that teaching matters, that teachers matter, and that a public education is worth saving.

I also urge you to explore the issue of teacher pay and its effect on the state of education in our country, the turnover rate within the profession, and the problems it is creating with recruiting teachers for future generations by watching the film, American Teacher (a movie I would see).  If you have Netflix instant watch, it’s free!  It is the ONLY movie I’ve ever seen that accurately portrays what teaching is like.  Except for Dangerous Minds.  That’s true, too.  : )

(Support the CTU Facebook designed by Martin Ritter via Fred Klonsky)

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Why I Teach

There are many days when I really, really hate my job.  These days usually involve a meeting where five million unmanageable new tasks are asked of me.  That happens every week.  These days never involve my classes.  Okay, well, maybe that’s a bit untrue.  We all certainly have bad days with classes, but for the most part, every minute I spend in the classroom is pretty amazing.  It’s fun and energizing when they’re really getting it.  It’s also a crap ton of work.  Before entering teaching, I worked in advertising.  That was fun, too, but I was only helping people make a ton of money (and I wasn’t on that list as of yet).  Here, I’m helping kids learn and think and grow into awesome adults.  Or at least that’s the goal.

But if you only knew what teaching was like.  I thought I did.  I thought I was clear on what my life was going to be like: work with kids, inspire them to learn, get off earlier in the afternoons (though the waking up at the crack of dawn part is no bueno), have summers off and some extra time around Christmas.

Here’s what my life is actually like: wake up when it’s often dark out, fumble to get ready, go into work dead tired because I rarely get enough sleep during the school year, and from the moment I walk into the building, feel overwhelmed.  I’m overwhelmed by everything.  The insane demands put on me by my district, the constant needs of the children, and the feeling of my personal life and time just flying by.  Getting off in the early afternoon is nice, but I rarely get to take advantage of it.  I get home around the same time as my husband who leaves later than I do every morning for his corporate 9-5.  Some nights, I get home later than him.  Summers off?  That’s a myth.  I’ve worked every summer I’ve been a teacher.  I’ve either taught summer school, attended training, did a school club, or planned and helped my department.  Sure, summer is easy-going, but frankly, it was that way when I worked in advertising, too.  And winter breaks?  The few days before Christmas are always spent overpaying for Christmas presents because I had zero time to shop and the days after Christmas are spent planning for the upcoming weeks and grading work I collected before break.  Last year, I forced myself to take the first week off completely, then I worked non-stop the second week and still didn’t get everything done.

That’s teaching: It doesn’t end until it ends in June and even then, it continues.  The work of an educator never stops.  Sure, sometimes I get some down time and there are definitely weeks in the summer where I’m not doing much, but for the most part, I’m working harder now than I ever have.  And it’s exhausting.  And it affects my health.  And my stress level is through the roof.  So…why do I do it?

I teach because I had good teachers who inspired me to be a lifelong learner.  I teach because at the end of the day there’s no other job I’d rather do.  I teach because I love inspiring kids to be a lifelong learner.  It’s hard and there are days when I feel like I just can’t, but I do.  But let me tell you that every day, something great happens that makes me remember why it’s worth it.

Still, teaching today is not what my retired teaching friends tell me it was pre-NCLB.  Teaching pre-NCLB seemed to be more about learning.  Teaching now is not.  Teaching now is about testing.  The two are so married that it’s hard sometimes to distinguish between them.  The messages are so mixed.  And I worry.  I worry there will come a point where I can’t do this job anymore.  And I know it will break my heart to leave.  I do.  Because as much as I might complain or worry or cry, even, I love what I do.  It’s a blessing and a curse, but that’s how love is sometimes.  In the mean time, I just keep doing what I do and try to get better with each passing year.  I learn the tricks, try new things, and watch kids grow and leave.  And sometimes, on a seemingly gloomy afternoon, an old familiar face of a former student will pop into my classroom’s door and say, “Hi, Ms. P!” and boom!  The gloom is gone, the funk is over, and I remember why I do this.  I teach because slowly, but surely, one at a time, I am trying to make the world a better place.  Somebody has to.

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