Why I Can’t Teach Elementary School

I can’t discuss the day I had yesterday…not because I don’t want to…because of confidentiality. I never discuss things that can be pegged to individual students unless they are positive shout outs. It was a Class-A challenging day, filled with the crises I get from time to time teaching high school. It used to rattle me, but now each emergency of scale winds its way to my doorstep. I return each serve, and take the day in stride. In between, I manage to teach, knowing I’ve helped a kid or two in the process. I try to remember to smile.

Teaching high school is easy. I get to be a real person, flaws and all. Kids pick off flaws if I try to hide them, anyway. I wish I were an elementary teacher. Elementary teachers are magical. They don’t have flaws. They never lose their cool. They always smile. They dress really nice, and they have panache. I don’t have panache.

homeworkI leave my school and go home to Elementary Boy Declan. He likes bad words and fart jokes. I imagine his elementary teacher smiling as she tells him this is “inappropriate.” I try to raise him right. I don’t teach him bad words and jokes…but things get away from me. I help him do his homework. He procrastinates.

“Mommy, rub my shoulders.” I do.

“Oh, that feels really good. Way better than when I say ‘crap’ a thousand times in a row.” He tries to hide his bad words. He goes to his room saying, “I need privacy. I want to have a conversation with myself.” I listen in. “Shut up, shut up, shut up, crap, shit.” Should stop this or let him work through this developmental moment privately? What would an elementary teacher say?

“You know, saying bad words isn’t nice. You’ll grow up and have no friends.” That’s what I say. I know it’s untrue. An elementary teacher would never say this. I continue, “You’ll get bad karma.” He bumps his knee on the chair. He cries. “See?” I say, “Bad karma.” He growls. He tells me he’ll turn into a dinosaur and eat me.

“It’s NOT bad KARMA!” I tell him it is. You never know when karma is coming…

For now, I accept his compliment in the interest of finishing homework. Mommy, you make me happier than saying the word “crap.” That’s a big endorsement. I tell him not to say “crap.”

In my high school classroom, “crap” is passé. Even the “f” word gets a quick check for the first offense, “Um, language alert.” For repeat offenders, “I’m sure I can find you a hundred or so nice ‘f’ words to write about…” Hint: I’m about to make your day inconvenient. Knock it off.

My son wants to be “inappropriate.” He thinks it’s fun.  He’s received some positive reinforcement in this department. What I call “fresh,” and “obnoxious,” was relabeled “entrepreneurial,” “visionary,” “renegade.”

“That kid’s going places,” I’m told. Yeah, straight to bed. Or time out. Or the gypsies…

deskI went to open house last night. I sat in his teeny, tiny chair. There, on the desk, was a star chart. One of two star charts in the class. In teaching land, that’s not good. Where I’d give a student “the death stare,” Miss, knock that off. You can’t do the ‘death stare.’ You don’t have it in you. I just laugh…[“Well, I got you to stop, didn’t I?”], elementary teachers give encouragement. A star chart.

This means that Declan needs to behave. Last night, I received appropriate elementary strategies meant to encourage. I can’t smile that much while I encourage, though. Elementary teachers never seem to rattle. They impress me. The charts, graphs, stars, and incentives are amazing. I sat in the tiny desk thinking of what I could steal and repurpose in my classroom to “encourage.”  I’d have to white out all the smileys, frogs, and apples, though, or it would encourage students to laugh me off the planet. My charts can’t smile. Maybe I can design charts with avatars wearing sagging jeans or something. If the jeans on the chart sag, that’s not good. Students get to pull up the jeans on their avatar as they achieve more and more.

I try to encourage. Probably not so well. My elementary educator friends tell students to “make good choices,” in the face of inappropriateness.  Teaching high school, I encourage my students to do listen, or they can encourage themselves to some grave penalty.

“You like to throw paper? Awesome! You can throw paper for three hours after school. I’ll let you aim at the basket. I’ll send your stats to the NBA.”  Nobody usually chooses my offer, probably because I tell them I am a nerd, have no life and can stay till six to help their paper-throwing jump shot if need be. They pause. They decide it might just be true. They cease and desist.

Elementary teachers never lie like that. My friend Amy tells me I can’t design punishments I can’t carry out. “You can’t take away computer or TV from your son forever…” 

Maybe she’s right. I’m not sure…she is far better than me in this department.

I tell my son it’s time to go to bed, no more negotiation, he’s not buying a company or anything. Finally, I get him to bed. He only turns into a dinosaur once to try to eat me before he is fast asleep…without saying one bad word.

Wanted: One Teaching Job

Wanted. One teaching job. Setting negotiable, for a genius who hasn’t yet been hired. 

Screen Shot 2013-08-19 at 8.06.42 AMThe candidate is certified in social studies, but social studies isn’t all you get with this candidate. He connects to any subject at the drop of a time, weaving in student interest.  Students flock to him like he’s the Pied Piper.

The candidate started in my class a decade ago, where, for a project-based midterm, he tried to save an establishment in New York City from a grave social and economic injustice. He failed. The place closed. I gave him an A.

He wanders in periodically, co-teaching at the drop of a dime. Truth be told–the candidate is much, much smarter than me. On the days when I’m feeling “blah,” he shows up and embarrasses me into greatness. Sometimes I feel guilty, if I’m having a rare lazy day. I straighten up, think intellectual thoughts, and work to be an even better teacher. The kind that never has a bad day because that’s the day someone will show up and put you to shame.

The candidate has a serious work ethic. He worked through school, paid his own way in life, and plans lessons down to the last entertaining detail. He feels strongly about social justice and student success, righting wrongs in both categories. He struggled to get through the teacher prep program only because the requirements kept changing–I know, it happens to us all. I failed the “tech test” in the same program. Apparently, “the test” didn’t know I studied typing in the olden days on a cast-iron Royal. It wanted me to hit “tab” in the fake email but I indented the paragraph manually. I failed. Almost couldn’t teach as a result. Similar things have delayed the candidate.

This candidate might just be the best teacher you child never gets. There are a lot of candidates out there, but I’m partial to this one, not only because of his loyalty and inspiration, but because he’s that good. If I was of good moral fiber, I’d hand him the keys to my classroom, but I’m not going to, because I like to teach, too.

However, in my will, I have mentioned this in a subparagraph. If I get flattened by a truck, struck by lightning, kidnapped in a foreign nation, or have any other problem in life that removes me from my classroom, this candidate gets my class (Exclusion 1: Unless it is he who causes my demise). The candidate has made me realize a few very important things:

1. Teacher prep programs should recognize and laud people like this.

2. The best teachers–they have a glow about them–they should never be waiting on the sidelines.

3. Hard work, vision, ethics, and love for students should be rewarded. Every time.

If you want to hire this social studies visionary, comment below. I’ll connect you. We’re in Rhode Island but I wonder if he’d move? I’ll waive my usual headhunting fee, which I haven’t yet established because I have never done this. If he works out, just send me coffee sometime in the middle of the day when I need it most.

To all of you who have jobs and classes, enjoy them. Even in the chaos. Think of those who so want to be where you are now. To those of you who want and deserve jobs and classes, persevere. Be great! You will get the classes you deserve. And when you do, you will shine!



My Season of Obnoxious

Screen Shot 2013-06-29 at 8.44.06 AMToday’s Saturday. Dates and times are irrelevant to me for the next seven weeks until school starts. This is the time of year when you hate me. The time of year when I call you randomly, email you at all times, and disturb you at work. You get annoyed. “I’m working! Don’t you have something to do?”

Nope. Don’t you know teachers never have something to do after 2PM, or during vacations and summer?

This is the glorious time of the year when I don’t yet have my schedule so I can’t possibly think about what I’d like to do next year. I can’t make goals, I can’t write curriculum, and I can’t obsess about the lessons I’d like to plan to reach my students better. I am forced to have fun.

That gives me plenty of time to bother you. You know you love it. Really. It makes you feel important. Deep in your mind, you’re convinced teachers don’t do anything most of the year and work a seven hour day.  It’s why you secretly want to go into teaching–there will be plenty of spots soon, trust me–we’ll take you. Especially if you are good at math and those multiple choice tests.

This summer, I am doing the following, which should give you a break from me: 

Gardening: I want to get off the grid and eat out of my own garden. But the cabbage worms are beating me to the produce, and they’re gross, so I don’t think I’ll be eating as much cauliflower as I want. I still have about eight weeks of Swiss Chard to cook and a ton of weeds to pull. That should keep me busy, but if I have time, I’ll call you during your important business meeting.

Learnist: Next year, I will get rid of my textbooks, whatever they are destined to be, almost entirely. When I know what I’m teaching, I’ll create and locate a ton more boards on Learnist to accomplish this, but one thing I’ll be doing differently is collaborating more. You’ll probably start to see me writing articles about using Learnist to crowdsource; about not “recreating the wheel.” I often think I work too hard when I could be sharing the load better. This sounds deep and prophetic, but truthfully, it’s pretty selfish. I really want to save myself some time, so I can bother you during the school year as well. Perhaps you have a presentation due or a deal to negotiate–that’s when I’ll Skype in or send a really long email. It’s the least I can do.

Developing a better plan for tech in my classroom: I did well this year with Learnist, my class braincountry.com blog, and Twitter, but in the next year two, I plan to do even better. I didn’t tweet enough on the @braincountry handle with the students, although we did tweet the debates and election. They wanted to tweet more. I can do better with my class blog. I want the students to do more writing, and the parents to see and comment on what students are doing. I will figure out a way to do this from Day One to make lessons more relevant and engaged, and save me time to–you guessed it–bother you.

Fitness: I’ve enjoy yoga and running, and am ditching The Boy to get back to my fun at iLoveKickboxing.com.  Fitness is never a burden for me, it’s fun and often meditative. I can Screen Shot 2013-06-29 at 8.48.35 AMuse this addiction to give you a break when the other time-saving innovations give me an excess of time to insert annoyances into yours. I’ll try to recognize your righteous indignation and kickbox or run for an hour or so. That should give you enough time to pack up and move to a nation I can’t spell.

Don’t worry…it won’t be too long before I’ll know what I’m teaching and start focusing on that instead of calling you while you’re trying to be productive so you can avoid being outsourced.  My writing and other projects will fill up my time to give you a breather, and the last week of August–when I return to teach–is coming before you know it.

By then, you should hear the crickets chirp in your email. But until that time, it’s really nice bothering you again.


[images: cbsnews.com and 2dayblog.com]

You Can’t Handle The Truth: Asking Students What THEY Want

Sometimes I’m searching for something obscure. I go to Google. I put in the first letter– something nobody thinks about, like aardvarks.

Google knows as soon as I type “a.”

I check to see if the webcam turned on–if someone’s spying on me and UStreaming me all over the world. Nope. It’s just Google. It knows.

I want Google to sponsor my classroom. Every time a student thinks a thought, I want it on the smartboard helping me with student engagement. Students are a little strung out and bored with life lately. It’s “the Junes.”

Screen Shot 2013-05-24 at 6.19.22 AMOne day, I was talking to my seniors. A great group with keen insight. You can’t really bullshit these guys. One can write a several-page analysis on any topic–but never does, because he says, “This is stupid.” If pressed, he’ll tell you why. And if you can’t validate his concerns and make it real for him, he’ll be right. Another can do a Rubic’s cube in 15 seconds but is entirely disengaged with school; it’s “boring.”  The others are just as deep, in their own quiet way.

One day, we were talking. Paper Writing Kid rejected my assignment. We were discussing the effect of advertising on psychology and the economy.

“It’s stupid. It’s all consumer-based mind control. Have you seen this video?” He provided a V-sauce video on the flow of money throughout the economy. Fascinating.

“School is stupid,” he vented. “That’s why I never do anything. All we do is testing and packets. And my class always seems to be the experiment for all the new stuff–testing counting for graduation, projects, teacher goals–it’s always my class.”

“I never give you packets.” I was getting a bit defensive. I want my students to love each of my classes.

“No. But look at THIS…” He whipped out packets. And packets. A grove of trees somewhere in the universe is no more.

“What would you do if you were me, given that I am required to teach this?” I explained the standardized curriculum for one course I am teaching. I used to be able to teach what I wanted, provided it was on topic, but curriculum’s getting more standardized because “every student should have the same experience.” I don’t think each student should, because they all have different gifts and interests, but nevertheless…

“So, I’m required to teach this, but I want to accomplish this as well.” I pointed to the sign on my board, “WHAT’S YOUR BIG IDEA?” I talk about “money skills.” Entrepreneurial skills. Advanced skills–the things that really helped me in life–interpretation, communication, writing, presentation, pitching, debating, researching and speaking skills. When students leave, I want them to think “I have these skills. I can be great. I can write my book, start my business, be determined, think outside the box, have an impact.” I want my students to be better than me.


“Well,” he said, “First, get rid of all these ridiculous tests. Everyone’s always testing.” True. I’d just finished up a megavolley of tests collecting data on goals I had to write for the new teacher evaluation system. It took me six days total just at the end of the year with two groups. That’s not counting pretests, correcting, and check tests–all told, I’ve spent well over a week per student on tests. In that time, I could have taught a unit. Or more. All this to prove I’m competent. Teachers must do this in every class.

“These tests are pointless, and they make me not want to come to school.” I’m not going argue. I agree. I find myself apologizing to students.  “Sorry, I have to give this test.”  I can assess students fairly easily through other–fun–means, yet testing has become this mammoth process of data collection I really don’t understand all too well myself–I accidentally designed goals that are mathematically impossible for me to meet. Maybe that’s appropriate karma for overtesting. I fail, too. High five!

“So,” I asked, “What would you do?”

“Well,” he said, “I think the problem with education today is that teachers design things, students design things, but nobody sits at the table and designs it together. You write a lot of curriculum, but do you ever write it with students? Students should be at that table.”

Ding, ding, ding… we have a winner. I am such a moron. That IS the answer.

“What would you write?” I asked.  He told me. Good stuff.

Students should be at that table. Indeed.

I’ve spent the greater part of this year working with people connecting educators and entrepreneurs to provide classroom solutions. I’ve learned from some of the best and brightest people in the nation. Solutions only occur when the parties sit down at the table together. This must happen everywhere. Student engagement requires student input.

Why aren’t students at the table for policy, design, reform, and curriculum? They’re my customers. They’re the people I serve. I ask for their thoughts and opinions every day in class–why aren’t they part of the instructional design process? It’s simple. We ask: What do you want to learn? How can you show what you’ve learned, and that you can do great things?

Doing it together–that is the answer–I may not need Google at all.

[image: http://www.lahsconqueror.com]


Kids in the Hall: The Bell’s About to Ring (Surviving the Day before Christmas)

Screen Shot 2012-12-21 at 6.01.28 AMIt’s between classes.

I’m looking down the hallway at the kids running around, scattering in every direction in the five minutes between classes. I’m remembering what it felt to be one of those kids.

The kid with the outrageous fashion, the kid talking to her friends in hushed tones. The kid with the entourage spearheading her way through the crowd joking with another girl, implying “I own this hall.” The kid who’s about to start a family.

The drama queen. The seven-foot basketball player. The bully. The one who stands up to bullies on behalf of kids who won’t. The one who hates school but will talk to me. The one who I hope will not try to kill herself this year. The one who acts like a jerk but I think there’s something going on at home and I just can’t get the time to figure it all out yet. I feel bad about that. The kid who annoyed everyone two years ago and is now featured in articles on the fast track to success.

The kid with the hipster glasses and Chucks, who half-a decade ago would have gotten himself locked in a gym locker but in today’s hip-is-cool fashion stands out a leader. A group of “those that care.” A group of “those that do not.”

Tons of girls holding each other’s hands–gay rights buttons, shirts, artsy fashion.  Tons more throwback jerseys. Some I-want-to-be-Japanese outfits. Kids with phones-that-are-illegal-in-schools popping out of pockets for one last check of the social media making sure all’s clear for 40 minutes of lockdown in a class they didn’t choose.

The bell’s about to ring. Someone peeks out the door to see if any teachers are watching. To see if I am watching. I am. I say, “Sit down, the bell’s about to ring.”

The bell–that relic of the factory era to which we still teach like hamsters in a cage or Pavlov’s dogs.  It rings. I obey. I enter. I teach.

I struggle lately. There’s too much to teach. Too many students. Too many systems. Too many requirements. Too much in my mind. I’m buried in systems. No time to make larger connections. To build relationships. Will have to do it all online. “Email me your homework.” I wonder if they feel that way, too. “Okay, Miss.”  I’m starting to have nightmares. I can’t keep up with the numbers. There are too many. They don’t pass the test. I can’t save them all. They can’t become numbers. They are my kids.

My husband tells me not to be ridiculous. I try to listen. He makes a lot of sense. He’s expanding a business. An entrepreneur. Worrying about real things like funding, contractors, plans, paying his staff. Not just about data, a million students, a new evaluation system, and my first bad evaluation. EVER. People are starving in the world. There are bigger things to worry about.

But today, I try to make class fun, engaging, less like a tread mill of prep-for-tests-wait-for-another-evaluation-did-you-use-higher-level-questioning-do-your-senior-project-I-failed-my-evaluation-rubrics-checklists-teacher-training-oh-my-god-I-have-252-students-and-I-really-want-to-read-their-stuff-I’m-overwhelmed-you’re-overwhelmed-are-we-all-in-a-sinking-ship?

I try to make it real. More like the magic that swirled around me when I first walked through the doors in education. When I got all the time in the world to teach lessons that made kids return from their busy lives to say, “Remember when you said…” “That time we learned…” “When we discussed…” It mattered. It still matters. It matters more.

I remember when my heroes transformed me when I was that nerd wearing India cotton walking down the hallway talking to my friends, knowing that the biggest thing of the day was the crush I felt on the kid coming my way…that if I just stayed in that spot one extra second after the bell–that bell–I could have a decent conversation and feel the butterflies in my stomach. Even though he liked my best friend.

Back to the class I am presently teaching–I make some big connections. I share some laughs. I ask about someone’s mom.  Someone else has been out all week. I email a link to the kid who’s in Columbia for a month–he can participate, too, thanks to technology. I talk about opportunity cost. I take some late papers. Someone says, “I handed that in.” I say, “You did not.” They find the paper and hand it over. “My bad.” I tell them not to forget to study.  Someone asks me if they can have a cup of coffee. “You have to earn your cup. Report before school. We’ll talk.”

“Miss, what time does class end?”

I shrug my shoulders.  “I don’t know. When the bell rings. The bell rings, you leave, It rings again, more of you come…the bell….” It’s always the bell.

I remember feeling freedom in school.

Lunches outside near the track. Finishing projects into the afternoon unsupervised.  Secret meetings in the band room, theatre, drama, picnics, games. Freedom. Writing notes. Folding notes. Stuffing them in locker vents to wait for the 20 years until trees would be rescued by texting.  Walking to school early–5AM–to run the track for an hour then shower before school–to get a piece of peace. Alone. Freedom.

Back to the present. I smile. I wish these kids freedom. They may never taste it. Things are different now. Tough to think outside the box in schools and buildings with locks, chains, and gates. With high-stakes tests. With cameras. With so many rules. With police. I’m thankful we don’t have police. Yet.

Oops. There it is. The bell. They get up. Some say “thanks.” I say, “See you tomorrow. Don’t forget to finish…” Someone complains about a test. I say, “Come in the morning. We’ll fix it.”  I take a sip of coffee. I’m hungry. Didn’t eat lunch again. Corrected papers. Went to the bathroom. Got ready for the next class. Five periods gone, a million connections made, a billion more left to make, two more periods left to teach.

One more day till vacation.

I think I’ll make it.

I need to relax.

[image: deadhomersociety.com]