"With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black, cat-shaped holes in the universe."
-- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Why I am Leaving Teaching

As most of you know, I am a teacher.  And as many of you know, I have decided to quit teaching.  This week, I officially declined my contract for next year.  The district then sent me an “Exit Survey” which amounted to about 10 multiple-choice questions and a small box which asked, “Do you have any additional comments?”  It turns out, I did.  Below you will find my “additional comments” to my district.

The System is Down

The easy answer to why I am leaving the district after 13 years of teaching 7th grade Language Arts, the one everyone likes to hear, is that I am quitting my job to pursue a career as a writer.  It is true, and it is exciting and scary and inspiring and all those wonderful adjectives that people use when they hear it. 
                 It is true that I have always wanted to write.  It is true that I am at the right place in my life, personally and financially, to take a stab at my dream.  But the bigger truth lurking behind my decision is that I no longer love being a teacher.  And that makes me so sad. 
For 12 years, I loved my job.  I loved it DESPITE all of the craziness that comes with it.  I loved my students (well… most of them), and the few parent issues I faced were easy to laugh off later.  I talked about my students to anyone who’d listen, telling silly classroom stories and describing the antics of those select few every year that make themselves memorable in one way or another. 
I spent too much time during those 12 years working at home and grading wherever and whenever I could, but for the most part I loved that too.  I loved reading my students’ poems and essays and, especially, their memoirs.  I loved helping them to dig deep into their stories to find the real feelings and themes and life lessons stored there and seeing them emerge on the page.  I can still remember the cartoons that D.S. used to draw in the margins of his work in 1999, the story N.H. wrote in 2004 about accidentally hitting his brother in the head with a shovel, the poem about electrons that L.C. got published in 2009 and read in front of a large audience at Ruta Maya Coffee House.

I have so many wonderful memories of teaching at both of the middle schools where I was employed.  And in any other year, I would have never taken a break from loving it long enough to realize I wanted to do something else.
But this year… is different. 
This year, I went from teaching 56 students 90 minutes a day and getting to know each and every one of them as readers, writers, and people, to teaching 126 students 52 minutes a day and having almost no connection at all with any of them.  Believe it or not, I don’t know what books my Language Arts students are reading.  I can’t remember which ones have dogs or cats or little siblings at home.  I get mixed up about who is in choir and who is in cheer, and I am having trouble bringing to mind what most of them wrote for their personal narratives two months ago.
This year, all the “little things” that used to be easy to shrug off after a quick happy hour are staying with me, weighing me down.  Common assessment score due dates that I have missed yet again, standardized test rules and regulations that change (literally) every single day, 29 students that I am supposed to keep detailed documentation about weekly, a computer grading system that doesn’t allow me much control over my grades, writing that has to be condensed into 26 handwritten lines, pointless meetings held by people who are too out of touch to understand how much we are suffering and how valuable our time really is, and parents emailing to tell me that their son wouldn’t clean his room for weeks so finally his mom cleaned it for him and it made him really happy- oh by the way, how is he doing at school?  (Yes, that was a real email—you should see the whole thing.) 
This year, our school’s focus is student ownership of learning, but I don’t even have enough time to teach them to write a metaphor, much less teach them the valuable accountability and time management skills they so desperately need.

I know I sound like a complainer.  I know that other districts have been teaching more students than this in a tighter schedule than this for years.   I know (now) how very spoiled I have been.  But we were doing it RIGHT.  And those other teachers, in those other districts?  There is no way that they are using the same in-depth curriculum with authentic assessments that we are.  No way.  The only bubble test my students have taken this year is STAAR.
So, yes, I am quitting being a teacher so that I can try to be a writer.  And (fingers crossed) someday you may be able to buy my novel at Book People, and that would be awesome.  But the bottom line is, I wouldn’t be venturing out into this new endeavor if this school year had not been so terrible.   People have asked me, would you stay if things went back to the way they were last year?  No.  This year has damaged me.  I need a break.  Besides, my trust in the system has been shaken, and I wouldn’t believe in the perfect schedule even if they promised it.  People have asked me, are you just taking a year or two off, or are you quitting for good?  I don’t know what the future holds.  It’s possible that I’ll be back in the classroom in a couple of years.  But that is not my plan.  I know that I will miss teaching, but I do not believe that I will miss schools.  
For now at least, I am done.   Although part of me still can’t believe it, after forty-three readings of The Outsiders, I have survived my final rumble with the Socs, seen Dally crumple under the streetlight with a look of “grim triumph” for the last time, and will tell Ponyboy to “stay gold” no more.  And now, I leave the lives of S.E. Hinton’s gang, and the fate of my students in your hands.  Don’t let them down.

(And I have a hunch there are quite a few others out there who could say the same.)

1.  Most days, I use every single minute of my “off” periods and usually every minute of my lunch to work.  Then I work after school.  Then I work at home. 

2.   Here’s a math problem for you.  I have 126 students.  If they all turn in an essay and it takes me 3 minutes to grade each essay (which would actually be quite a fast time for me!) then it would take me 378 minutes, or 6 hours and 18 minutes to grade them all (assuming I did not have to eat, sleep, or go to the bathroom during that time).  If you add up all of the contract time that I have during the day that is not automatically taken up with teaching (i.e. before school, conference periods, lunch, and after school) you get 214 minutes, or 3 hours and 34 minutes.  So… in order to NOT have to grade that assignment at home, I would need TWO FULL work days where I did not have any meetings, ARDs, tutoring, or any other tasks to complete, in which I could spend EVERY SINGLE MINUTE THAT I WASN’T TEACHING to get those assignments graded.  Ok, I did the math for you, but I hope you can still see the problem.

3.  My stress is making me physically ill.  By 10:00AM on the Monday of spring break, my backache, constant indigestion, shortness of breath, and acne had all gone away.  By the Tuesday following spring break, most of it was back.

4. I believe in the standards-referenced grading system.  I think it works and, when it is properly administered, is the best thing for kids.  But I do not see HOW to properly administer it with our current schedule, student load, and curriculum demands.  I hope it can be saved, but it is going to take a lot of hard work and a lot of flexibility.

5.  The new APS class isn’t working.  And it never will.  I would hate to see teachers lose jobs, but you’ve got to give that time back to the core subjects. 

6. I firmly believe that it only takes 3 years out of the classroom to be out of touch with the reality of teaching.  Whether you just forget what it’s like day-to-day or whether the curriculum/technology/culture changes and passes you by, it happens to everybody.  I have seen it happen to principals, counselors, and facilitators, and I know it is going to happen to me, and I dread it.  Even though people have good intentions, after a few years out of the classroom they start too many sentences with, “Well, why don’t you just…” or “It only takes a few minutes to…” and we sigh and try not to roll our eyes.  A counselor at my school (an excellent counselor who is compassionate with the students and supportive of the staff) once asked the Language Arts teachers to complete a non-academic task with our classes to help with the upcoming open house.  When we politely grumbled later about how it took 20 minutes of our time, he was flabbergasted.  “Are you serious?!  I thought it would take about 5!”  No, sorry, but you’ve forgotten the speed of the 7th grade animal.  To his credit, he did not ask us to do it again.

7. Following up on #6, I believe that every single person who works in the district should be required to spend at least three hours a year observing in classrooms.  I mean EVERYONE.  From the Document Production Center Employee to the Help Desk Person to the Facilitator of Facilitating, if that exists.  (And if it does, do we really need it?)  And I don’t mean a 5-minute snapshot either.  Sit, stay, listen, watch.  Note:  I did NOT say that they should schedule outside meetings with teachers to take up their time with random feedback.  Just go, just be, just observe.  No dog and pony show, no big ordeal.  Just get in the classrooms and be reminded what it’s like.

8. I have the utmost respect for my principal.  I admire and appreciate my assistant principals.  I adore my campus Language Arts department.  All of the adults I work with at my school are amazing and I will miss them dearly.

My door for the decorating contest last year

9.  My coworker J.S. is one of the most incredible people I have ever worked with.  She is a creative, dynamic, dedicated teacher who pushes her students to perform at high academic levels.  I am in awe of her as a person and as an educator.  She teaches 140 students this year, and she works ALL THE TIME for them.  Teachers like J need a break.  They need someone to listen to them and to give them the freedom and the time and the adequate technology they need to create their magic.  Be careful, because if you keep pushing our teachers to the brink, they will keep leaving.  And losing someone like her would be a much bigger loss than losing me.  Take care of her.

J.S.'s door for the decorating contest last year
(Yes, real steam came out of it.)
10. I have wanted to be a teacher since I was in the 9th grade.   Until September of this year, I had never seriously pictured myself doing anything else.  I thought I would teach until I was dead and love every second of it.  I hope there are still plenty of others out there who feel that way.  I hope they are staying in this profession, not because they have to, but because they want to.  

Friday, March 16, 2012

It's a Rough Life

I’ve been reading Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins.  Every time I read his work, I find myself wondering how in the world I can ever write a poem again when Billy (he lets me call him that) has already covered every subject, said everything there is to be said, and captured it all so perfectly?  Each new page, I think, “Yes, that’s just how it is.  You’re right.”  Each new line feels like I thought it one half-second before he wrote it, except he got the wording right, found the adjective I’d been looking for or knew instinctively that no superfluous adjective was needed.  Just like that.  Superfluous was superfluous in that sentence.  Billy would have known that.

For instance, in “The Straightener” Billy describes his obsessive ordering of things in flawless simplicity.  Where I would have used 200 words to capture the same image, he writes:

Even as a boy I was a straightener.
On a long table near my window
I kept a lantern, a spyglass, and my tomahawk.

Never tomahawk, lantern, and spyglass.
Always lantern, spyglass, tomahawk.

You could never tell when you would need them,
but that was the order you would need them in.

I totally get that.

And I love how he can mix the serious with the joyful, how he says the things most of us are afraid to say in our poems or in our lives, and how he can make me chuckle by poking fun at his own choices as a writer.  In “Good News”, he says:

For example (and that’s the first and last time
I will ever use those words in a poem),
I decided I should grate some cheese…

So below you will find a poem inspired by Billy Collins.  And when I say “inspired by” I really mean “partially stolen from” since lines 19 and 20 are un-subtle revisions of a couple of lines from his poem “On Turning Ten”, one of my all-time favorites.

It’s a Rough Life

No one sighs like my dog.

Heavily flopping his 53 pounds on the hard tile,
thunking his head against the floor of the kitchen
where he has been banished for partaking
in the delicacies of the litterbox,
he huffs out a deliberately loud and drawn out sigh,
calling attention to my cruelty.

Prostrate on the cold stone
he lies motionless,
except for his eyes--
his ever-accusing eyes--
darting up to meet my own,
to hold my gaze for one elongated moment
condemning me for my torturous ways,
then focusing straight ahead again
still, staring, lifeless,
all his energetic puppy will
drained out of them.

If you met my dog in this moment
you would never know (how could you guess?)
that shelf space had to be made
for his abundance of toys,
his pillow cost more than my comforter,
and he has never spent one single night outdoors.