Emily Dawson (Working Mother)

My job is not my life
School is not my kids’ life either
It’s something they do,
Something necessary,
But in the end,
What do any of us remember about high school,
College for that matter,
We do all that time in school,
Finish,
And go to work.

I’ve never written a paper for work,
I’ve never had lunch detention
For laughing at my friend’s joke,
I’ve never had a boss threaten me
With bad grades or an awful future
If I don’t get my homework done.

My high school was awesome.
We loved being there mostly because of our friends,
Our sports were awesome,
We won everything,
Football, basketball, soccer, track, baseball,
It didn’t matter because we rocked.

I feel for my kids
Because their school is not like that.
They never win, so
The aggravation of all that other stuff,
Homework, grades, testing
Has no outlet, no release,
School is just work because of that.

Problems arise when the cliques compete.
Bands and sports somehow have a natural rivalry.
Crazy, given that they represent the same school.

When sports are huge and teams are winning
The band becomes an afterthought,
When sports are small, the band seizes the moment.

The effect of the up and down
Makes it hard for the community,
Sports being the high profile player in the equation.

It’s easier to support sports
Identifying with the winning and losing
Is easier than appreciating the intricacies of music.

So when the teams are down
And the boo birds settle down
Support goes where the sounds seem sweeter.

Music, the domain of so many non-athletes
Takes over the top spot,
Leaving sports to mull the depths of a losing culture.

Jealousy ensues, petty differences spring up
And the small town mentality
Gets divided in the inability to figure out who it is.

The relationship of a community
To its schools
Is as cliquey as the groups of students
In the schools.

Parents follow their children
Dropping support in the forms
Of time, money, and presence
At whatever the events are.

For a few, it is the stage,
For the majority,
It’s music and sports,
Distant cousins at best.

Truth is, there is only a real difference,
Band kids practice their craft for hours,
Sports kids practice their craft for hours,
Both sets of parents wait around for hours.

But too many band kids
See athletes as low brow jocks who know nothing but brawn,
While too many sports kids
See the band as a bunch of geeks toting expensive instruments.

Parents of either get lost in the stereotypes
Furthering the angst,
Establishing lines of competition
Played out in the arena of social networking.

The rivalry is probably as old as sports and music,
Jealousy and arrogance ruling both sides of the fight,
It’s too bad really,
For communities could be more if they just get along.

As the machine keeps going
What is there to look forward to?
The first day of school?
Puberty?
Graduation?
College?
Jobs?
Marriage?
Grandkids?
Death?

Maybe all of those,
But who really can live
Only looking towards the milestones of life.
They are bumps on life’s continuum
That are nothing more the tally marks
On prison walls.

What then?
Small town identities…
Schools…
Of what,
For what,
Whosie what.

Schools offer sanctuaries
For souls needing identities.
Far beyond the academics
Are the social structures
Where kids find like minds
Testing the norms of friendships,
Creating the balance between group identities and stereotypes
Battling the war of tolerance and tribal acceptance,
Schools bring disparate people together
Letting them get to know that we are not so different
If only we see acceptance of our differences and
The need to learn how differences encourage growth,
That we are not some Internet logarithm,
Predictable, patterned, and programmable.

Schools are temples for learning.
Learning is necessary for growth.
Growth brings people together.

Small town schools are more than academic factories.
They are places where clubs allow for greater exposure
To stuff that might be more interesting
Than the latest standardized test
Or article proclaiming the rigorous machinations of education.
They are places were extracurricular activities like band and sports
Promote fellowship through accomplishments
Of a different sort than an A+ and GPAs can ever understand.

Schools are not factories or machines.
They are places with a heart,
If only the richness of the non-book stuff
Is viewed with a proper perspective.

“The elephants are dancing on the graves of squeeling mice.” Cream, Anyone for Tennis

Mandates make the job nearly impossible.
Contracts don’t help much either.
I’m in this job because I want to help children.
If I change one teacher,
Think of the number of students
I’ve made a difference for.
They say I’m an educational leader, but
I never taught under these conditions.
I never knew what it was like to answer
To the whims of politicians, parents, and even teachers.
Now they all call and I have to listen
Because I’m nothing more than a middleman in this job,
More manager that expert teacher.
Now I feel like I’m too far from the students
To make the kind of difference I once did.

Allen looked at Frank with a skeptical eye. “Who’s watching?”

Frank answered carefully, “At the retreat Ralph Hanby asked me to keep an eye on things. He wanted to know stuff about the high school.”

“Ralph Hanby? The same Ralph Hanby who…” started Allen.

“Who what, Allen?”

Sometimes our mouths get ahead of our judgment. Allen’s mouth had rushed far ahead of his thinking. He nearly said that Ralph Hanby had been the board member who forced Allen to send Frank to counseling. Because of his position on the school board, Hanby had access and authority to get what he wanted from the school district. Most board members respect their position, but Hanby recognized opportunity and felt emboldened by his power.

Allen decided to tell Frank. “It was Hanby who complained about you to Dr. Russell. He wanted you to be fired, but Dr. Russell stuck by your side.”

“Stuck by my side? Right. A girl makes up a story and I end up going to counseling. It was humiliating.”

“Better than getting fired,” joked Allen.

“Allen, I swear to you, I never asked her about her birth control. She offered up that she was using it so that she could miss class. I let her go to study hall and then I asked her guidance counselor what was going on. Her guidance counselor was the one who called the parents. Not me. I did nothing wrong.”

“I believe you, Frank, but Hanby was putting the clamps on Dr. Russell because his daughter who is a friend with the girl said you asked her if she was taking birth control. Dr. Russell had to do something to get Hanby to back down.”

Frank shook his head. For all the talk of the school district being a community and family, Frank’s experience had been that of a disowned child. The experience felt like a chunky rock being dropped on his foot. The pain radiated, but eventually went away. The memory, however, was recorded deeply in his ability to believe anything that was said about how the teachers, administration, and community were all in this education thing together. Hanby was a roadblock to Frank feeling trust in school again.

“Well, it would seem to me that if he didn’t get me fired and that’s what he really wanted, revenge might be on his mind. You and Dr. Russell let him down. Since he probably thinks I would rat you guys out, he came to me for dirt to use against you. I’d say his is doing more than watching.”

Allen was used to being the conniving one. Being on the defensive was something knew for him. He liked to think that he was the offensive person in most social situations, something Frank would have agreed to, but in this case he was caught off guard. There had been rumblings that the board was dissatisfied with the achievement gap between the lower socioeconomic groups and the upper crust kids. There was also a growing frustration in the community about the lack of success with the sports teams. He wondered if these could be reasons for Hanby to approach Frank. He also wondered if it was worth engaging Hanby at all.

“So what are you going to do, Allen,” asked Frank.

“Probably, nothing.”

“Are you going to say something to your girlfriend?”

“I don’t have a girlfriend?”

Frank chuckled, “I mean, Dr. Russell.”

“Do you think Hanby would go after her? Should I say something to her?”

“Allen, you do what you want, but I think Hanby is only thinking about Hanby. He wants to present himself as a community minded person. He has shown that he only thinks for the things that benefit his kids or his close friends. You need to make sure you account for every invoice, keep all of the chrome polished, and figure out how to make this PIOUS thing seem like a true innovation.”

“Or what?” asked Allen.

“Looks like counseling for you, son. I know a place with great rates.”

“Yes you do,” said Allen. “Will you keep me in the loop if Hanby gets back to you?”

“Sure, but I’m playing both sides. I may even talk to the union just in case. I don’t feel good about this.”

Allen extended his hand to Frank, “Deal and I agree with you. Something isn’t right.”

Frank shook Allen’s hand and said, “I wish I could just teach.”

pexels-photo-94327

Trigger Warning: There is a bad word in this…

The time had come for me to take a unit test in a sixth grade Language Arts class. This was a big test for me because I thought I might have a chance to move to the back table with the coolest kids. Little did I know back then, but one would someday have a cool job working in a lighthouse up in Maine. Anyway, the test included a reading and then some comprehension questions. One of the tasks in the test was to make an outline about clouds.

I think I was already starting to dislike school. Maybe that sounds crazy since my whole career has been as a teacher, but it’s learning that I love, not school. On the outlining part of the test, I could not remember where the Roman numerals went and where the capital letters were supposed to go. My teacher kept sending the test back with directions for me to fix the outlines and I kept sending it back wrong. I’m sure that I just didn’t care. I didn’t care about the outlines. I didn’t care about the clouds. I only really cared about sitting with those guys in the back of the room. Finally, Mrs. K. gave in and let me move on to the next level. She also kept me in my desk near the front of the room.

Really?

I’ve thought about that day many times over the course of my career as a teacher. I thought about it a lot while I was working on my doctorate in education. During those Monday night classes where we debated that state of education in the context of creating change, I began to believe that we are missing the boat on education. As we are forced to squeeze more from students in the name of achievement and accountability and as we continue to force canned instructional programs on students for the sake of standardization and efficiency, we are losing the essence of learning. To learn is to have interest. To learn is to be passionate about something new. Learning is more than a college prep course, scripted instructional programs, or a one dimensional program focusing on some motivation inspired by industrial interests.

Recently, two former students talked to me about school in those terms. The first is a current high school junior who wants to be a physical therapist. She is working in an experiential program that has her paired with professionals in the field. She lit up when she talked about her opportunities to get practical experience before going to college. She also shared her disappointment at not being able to take fitness classes, because of all the other “academic” stuff she had to do. She felt like being in an environment where she was exercising and learning about how the body worked was more suited for her goals than learning about history. Names, dates, and the struggle for power…

I agree with her in principle. Core academic subjects are important, but how many of our students will use the content knowledge that is required in those courses? We miss the opportunity to link the content to life skills in meaningful and practical ways. For example, how often are students asked to write goals. While schools spend a great deal of time talking about students following their goals, we give them very little opportunity to follow them. Goal setting will continue to be nothing more than an academic exercise until students are allowed to pursue those goals and demonstrate commitment to achieving them. For my student, the traditional academic requirements are not necessarily meeting her needs. Too bad…

The second student graduated last year (2015) and I was fortunate to teach him for all four years in high school. When I asked him as a freshman if he was thinking about going to college he said, “I don’t have no time for fuckin’ college.” Instead of shutting him down for his language or telling him he would be closing doors if he didn’t go to college, I just said, “Cool,” and left it alone. He worked hard in my classes, helped other students succeed, took care of large family at home, and lived a social life straight out of Dazed and Confused. Today, he is landscaping and not regretting his decision at all. He does what he needs to do without giving in to the singleminded focus of college as the only path to success.

I love my job as an educator. Some would say that being a gym teacher is not really teaching (Try it, I dare you…). Health is an academic subject, but this is not about me trying to justify whether Health and Physical Education are important parts of a student’s learning. What this is about is whether we have the students’ best interests in mind or do we have the best interest of education in mind? I wonder about instructional programs that are based on shaky research practices. I fear that coercion is the tool that gets used to motivate students rather than finding positive ways of helping students find intrinsic motivators. Maybe the current model of success set for students and schools is unattainable because the logic of continuous improvement is flawed and I write cynically, schools are not allowed to succeed by politicians and the media (uh-oh…Am I running for office? Never.) Can we ever be satisfied when the goals are always changing? When will we be good enough? Remember, I love my job. Helping students learn to love learning is about the most satisfying thing there is for me as a teacher.

Please don’t confuse my criticisms of my profession as an indictment of my school. We are evolving into a building that values persistence, embraces innovation, and understands that an education can take many forms. There is an energy in my school that is shifting and it’s very exciting.

As for outlines, I’m not sure I ever made another outline after sixth grade. Check that, Mr. Yates’s history class in seventh grade was one serious outline. At least I only had to copy his outlines for notes. It obviously worked for him, but I can’t say the roller-overheads about the colonies or Thomas Hooker made more of a difference in my learning than if I had been allowed to format my own notes. Despite, or maybe because of, I like studying history. Names, dates, and the struggle for power… Clouds, though? When they are big and heavy it’s likely to rain or snow. That’s all I need to know.

 

Photo Credit: unsplash.com via Pexels

The inner sanctum turned out to be the last of the original houses on the Chickahominy River from the 1970s construction boom out on the Haven. The house was a simple ranch with a wobbling deck that extended into the river. Jack had gotten to the retreat a little early so he could scout out the scene. He was not prepared for what he would see.

First was the arrival of Betty and Allen. She drove and he got out of his car and hustled around his champagne colored Mercedes to open her door. She thanked him and touched him on the shoulder as she got out of the car. Allen played off her touch well by not acknowledging what had just happened and then shut the car door with a gentle push. “He must have been a valet,” thought Jack.

Jack also thought there must be something going on. He could not be sure, but it looked like Betty and Allen might be having a little something-something. The thought of the two of them together made perfect sense. He did whatever she said. She bossed him around in an overly dramatic way. It was all a ruse. This retreat house was a perfect metaphor for their relationship. They were shacking up.

“This is going to be something-something else,” thought Jack.

The other administrators and board members began arriving and the mingling began. As people introduced themselves to Jack, he pulled his classic move of acting like he was interested in meeting them. The truth was they were doing the same to him, no one cared what a gym teacher had to say about the district’s new instructional program. Finally, it was time for the retreat to begin.

Betty started, “I welcome you all to the retreat for the Willet School District. We are here to discuss the long range goals for the district, which includes the implementation of the PIOUS program. We think that this is the most appropriate solution for resolving the discrepancies of achievement between the various sub-groups of our diverse student population. Let’s start with PIOUS as we have Dr. Jack Rice, who is a teacher at our high school and has been invited to the retreat to share his views on PIOUS. We are fortunate to have him and are looking forward to hearing what he has to say.”

Jack heard a clear message from Betty. She made it clear that she was trusting Jack to do the right thing as she saw it. Jack was ready to play her game without going all Trump on the friendly audience that was sitting in a house decorated in the style of Dicker and Dicker of Beverly Hills. Sometimes it takes awhile for things in education to catch up.

“Thank you, Betty. And thank you to all of you for your kind greetings and the opportunity to share with you my excitement about PIOUS. As you are well aware, this is a program that helps teachers identify the most practical implications for the content being taught. By doing so, teachers can design lessons that will prepare students for the rigors of the world after their schooling ends.”

“The real world,” said Allen.

“No, Allen, I don’t think that is correct. By saying that you are implying the school is fake. If it’s fake, then why should the students take any interest in what they are doing now? School is their “real world” and we need to treat it as such.”

(Trump-1 and Jack-0.)

Allen looked at Betty and smiled. He kept the smile even as he turned and squinted at Jack. If looks could kill…

Jack continued, “This program has potential. Hopefully, you guys will have the patience to include it in the long range planning for the district. There will be problems. Students will tire of the routine of PIOUS and teachers will resist the idea that a canned program built on shaky research will know more about teaching than they do. But, if the district remains firm and allows the teachers to have an honest say in how PIOUS is implemented, it will benefit the students. That’s all I have.”

(More Clintonian this time…)

None of the other members of the retreat had any questions. Betty thanked Jack for his words and optimism. She let him know that she would be in touch and told Jack he was free to go. On his way out the door someone grabbed Jack’s arm from behind. It was a confrontational board member, Ralph Hanby who had once gone after Jack.

“Jack, do you have a moment.”

“Anything, for you, Mr. Hanby.”

“Ralph.”

(I feel like I could…)

“Jack, we’ve had our differences.”

“We have?”

“Ha, always the jokester. Honestly, my kids that you were a real ass.”

“That’s a compliment compared to what you have said about me.”

“Now, Jack, we are over that. Let’s talk about PIOUS. You don’t really believe that it is going to help kids do you?”

“I think it has a chance, Mr. Hanby.”

“Ralph. We have our concerns. Since you have put yourself out there, we on the Board, would like your input about how things are going with PIOUS and the general mood at the high school.”

Jack could see there was more than PIOUS involved in Mr. Ralph Hanby’s mission. “As long as you keep things professional, I would be glad to help you.”

“Good. We will be in touch.”

As Jack walked through a cloud of Chickahominay gnats he said, “I’m sure you will.”