Brian Has Left the Building

I had to go to a meeting at school the other day, in which my ‘learning community’, which is our new term for ‘department’, meets to discuss our ‘learning objectives’ which means ‘test scores’, and our ‘content objectives’, which means ‘things on which we are to be evaluated’, which means, really, ‘word walls and foldables’. You may recall that word walls are a complex intellectual stimulatory tactic, wherein the educator puts words on walls, and foldables prompt cognitive retention sparked when the learner folds things, particularly if said things are very colorful. For a low performing high school like ours, these ‘teaching strategies’ are non-negotiable, and educators must be constantly reminded of their importance and application. That is why we have staff development training and learning communities; if we all understand how to comply with non-negotiables like these, if we believe, we will achieve, and failure is not an option!
These meetings just kill me. I used to bring a book, but then I felt guilty about being openly rude, even though apparently texting during a meeting, especially if one is an administrator, is considered acceptable etiquette. I have tried to participate in the ‘dialogue’, but I found out that ‘dialogue’ really means monologue, and too many questions will get you a room out in the portables, where fire alarms don’t ring and metal detectors don’t matter. Now I just sit quietly and draw, singing show tunes in my head from musicals featuring transvestites. (I call them my tranny tunes, and I can’t tell you how many times they have been the only positive elements in otherwise unbearable situations. I have worked up a very impressive mash-up from Rocky Horror and Hedwig songs, if you want to hear it later.)
As if the actual attending of the meeting wasn’t bad enough – I could be more detailed about how totally excruciating they truly are, but I don’t want to appear bitter – they start well before school begins, at the crack of dawn. Perhaps you don’t know this about me, but I am not so much of a morning person. I wake up like the Blob, morph into Young Crankenstein, and eventually become enraged, like the Incredible Hulk, by the very fact of morning…what I’m trying to say is that waking up, for me, is a monstrous experience. (Like how I did that?) So, because I don’t like to be told to get up and go to work (see the last several posts on my you’re-not-the-boss-of-me attitude), I am always late, no matter how early I get up, and my clothes are always mismatched, because on meeting days I tend to get dressed in the dark.
When I got to the meeting, they had just finished discussing new innovations in word walls (your rooms can be even more print-rich and stimulating if your word walls are colorful, graphic, and in fun shapes and sizes!), and about how our evaluations would hinge on important teaching strategies like how often we changed or added to our word walls, or if our lesson plans made note of how we were incorporating foldables into our instruction on test taking for success, which is basically all that we teach.
I was happy that I missed that part.
I am then chided for being late, and told that a note will be made of my tardy and it will go into my file for my evaluator. We have to be constantly reminded that our evaluations, on which our future employment in the glorious BSISD depends, can and will be used against us if we don’t ‘buy into and comply’ with the ‘data-driven best practices’, because it has become clear to our administrators that if left to their own devices, teachers would just do what they thought was effective and meaningful, as opposed to what the district’s highly paid consultants decree is effective and meaningful.
As I thought about that, I began to get cranky.
The meeting culminated with our learning community’s administrator, a former English teacher who often seems to struggle with subject-verb agreement, sharply reminding us that we had to add more rigor to our lessons about word walls, foldables and test-taking. While we would be asked to defend anything over a 10% failure rate (a good teacher motivates kids to pass and does whatever he/she can to make sure that students are successful in learning! Remember, failure is not an option!), it is imperative that our classes are not easy, blow-off classes. We want our students to have a high degree of ‘college-readiness’, and according to the data, we have not yet reached that goal. (Last year, 3% of our graduating students were deemed to be college ready in an independent survey conducted by our town’s newspaper. This year, our goal is 80%.) The reason we have not reached our goals (or is it ‘our objectives’?) is because teachers are not completing the mountains of paperwork we must fill out in order for us to truly know our students and meet their needs, because teachers are not using the best practices the highly paid consultants have been recommending for the past 15 years (I wish I could be highly paid to recommend the exact same stupid strategies year after year!), and because teachers just refuse to make their classes appropriately rigorous, mostly on account of – here, the administrator winked and said, “You all know who you is!” – laziness.
Buttons popped off of my blue and red plaid shirt. My purple (they looked blue in the dark) pants frayed above the knees as my rock-hard calves ripped through the flimsy fabric. I was pissed, David Banner-style, and I needed to kill.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to satiate my blood lust because the bell rang. Today, I was going over the concept of the journey motif, as evidenced by the archetypal epic poem, The Odyssey, and revisited in the movie Cast Away. Today we were discussing how Odysseus had to recognize and overcome hubris, just as Chuck Noland, the hero in the movie, had to give up the need to control, in order to discover what Maslow calls “self-actualization’, or what occurs when a human being’s highest level of needs are met: morality, creativity, spontaneity, adaptability, a lack of prejudice and an acceptance and understanding of fact. I didn’t have time to do a foldable on this stuff, so my students probably weren’t learning anything, and the notes I have been desperately trying to teach them to take and use most likely won’t add to their college readiness, on account of I forgot to put key words up on the wall. Worse still, I did not make a lesson plan this week, for the fifth year in a row, so it is impossible for me to have any idea of what I am doing and, worse still, if I get evaluated today, my administrator will not be able to see that what I am teaching is what I said I would be teaching – with foldables!- in the weekly lesson plan I am supposed to turn in by 8:00 every Monday. Crap.
At lunch, the Sign Language teacher came into my room, all sweaty and wild eyed. Seems he’d been upset by the rigor talk, and in order to be in compliance, had attempted to make meaningful connections for his students with the real world by focusing on a topic in current events, having his students research and write about it, and then debating the topic in sign language. I had suggested the use of current events to him previously, because, even though I had not seen any data to prove it, I suspected that our students didn’t know anything about what was going on in the world. I came to this conclusion by talking to them. Obtaining information in this way is generally frowned upon, for it has many variables and is difficult to standardize and thus measure effectively.
The teacher – I’ll call him Fraidy Fraiderton- was worried because he couldn’t understand one of his student’s opinions as it was stated, and so he didn’t know how to grade it, and, even though it was nonsensical to him, he wanted to give it a high grade, because the student “tried so hard.” Since I was an English teacher, could I read it and tell him what the student was trying to say, so that he could give the kid 100 points? He already had three students in that period who he had to fail, because they didn’t ever come to class, and his passing rate was beginning to look suspicious. Students LIKE to go to GOOD teachers classes, and so they show up. Absence rates go in teacher’s evaluations also.
Before you read the kid’s paper, let me remind you that I teach in a high school. The topic, the debate over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” had been discussed for a week in class, and students had 15 minutes to write their opinion. The student is a general education student in the 10th grade, has never failed a class, and is liked by all of her teachers, because she always turns in her work and pays attention. She is by no means the weakest student in the class. What follows is exactly what was written.

I think we should keep Dont ask dont tell, because if you dont ask you cant tell somebody what you want to say Cause all you couldnt do is not saying anything just stare at the person that you were going to talk too. That would be soo boring! but if you cant tell by talking you could always finger spell to the person if not than you could just write it down I mean if we don’t do does things than I guess we don’t have a Brian. We just can’t ask somebody What there talking about cause they might be talking about your friend that you talk too. Don’t you agree????

I feel sorry for Mr. Fraiderton. He loves his students. He knows that they have been undereducated for their entire academic careers, because the system that is in charge of educating them is totally and irreparably damaged, and has lost focus of what it means to teach and learn. He understands that many of his students, while perhaps illiterate, are smart, and eager to learn new things. They come from a different world, one in which harmful, hopeless cycles are seldom broken or altered, and where problems are more dire and pressing than those encountered in algebra class. Sometimes, their parents die, or go crazy, or are deported, or locked up. Sometimes they just split, or they stay, and do absolutely everything in their power to give their children any available opportunity or luxury. They look for answers not on word walls, but in the advice of others, and often, that advice is incorrect, poorly thought out, not applicable to their situations, or in a language they can’t understand. They cut themselves and sniff air freshener, glue and heroin, join gangs and have sex in alleys behind dumpsters. They have babies. They look for comfort. And they come to school.

The teachers take them in, and do the best that they can. They cajole, joke, scold, suffer abuse, lash out, wheedle, persuade, compromise, give second chances, aim high, and go low in order to meet the students at a common ground. They call CPS and buy pizza for parties they aren’t supposed to have. They stay after the bells ring and come early, and buy gifts and coats and binders and books. Sometimes they cheat for the kid, and sometimes they don’t and risk being hated and turned upon. They are highly educated or downright stupid. They love the students, and the students follow them around like loyal puppies, sometimes, and other times, the students break the teachers’ hearts or steal their wallets. Some kids soar with wings that have had the feathers plucked one by one, and inspire everyone lucky enough to have watched them take off. These kids never give up, and refuse to succumb to the gravity pull of despair or doubt. They are amazing. Some kids never stand a chance, and some just don’t care.

Little by little, the daily drama gets to be so much. It’s overwhelming. Some teachers like Mr. Fraiderton cave in to the pressures from above and feel like if they just follow the rules, if they just do what they’re told, everything will be all right. Some teachers think the data has meaning, and is pure and factual, above manipulation and agendas, and others don’t even look at it, but mindlessly copy and paste numbers into columns because that is what they are asked to do.Some take up drinking, or become obese, or get prescription pills, or have nervous breakdowns. Some do become lazy and ineffective, or stubborn and mean-spirited. It does happen. But not that often.

I have started to think that if I teach anything, pretty much anything at all, and if I can connect with a kid, and show them that the world is big and life can be wide and crammed with possibility, I am doing good. Maybe not a good job, but doing good, and that has become the most important thing to me. The lessons don’t fit on the plans I no longer make. The “teaching” part is getting harder and more ridiculous. I’m frustrated and beaten down. I am out of sync with the pedagogy of my field, and I am resentful of authority. I want to give up, but something in me keeps me from finding something else. I want to scream and wish I would just shut up. It’s been this way for along time now.

TGIF, right?