“mrs. russ, we need at least 75%”

Each quarter I have a meeting with my assistant principal and lead teacher.  I am required to bring sets of data that include my student’s latest test scores, overall averages, and responses to a number of questions in which I label curriculum objectives as “70% or more proficient”, or “less than 70% proficient”, etc. 

I loathe these meetings.  The stated goal is to improve strategies to raise student test scores, so from the beginning I am ethically and philosophically opposed.  Never once have I been asked, “which unit did your students enjoy the most?” or “how will they be able to apply these lessons to the real world?”  Those things don’t matter.

At my most recent data talk, I was asked to submit a list of students who will potentially fail the test and the course based on their performance this marking period.  As we discussed each one, I began to explain home situations, medication adjustments, injuries.  It was as if I was invisible and mute, because when I was finished, I was reminded that “they don’t need to love it, they just need to pass the test.”

I nodded.  If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s when to voice a complaint and when to keep my mouth shut.  There are appropriate forums, and this was not one.  Maybe that’s what made me so upset – I am powerless, my lead teacher remained silent, and even my administrator has been turned into a testing puppet.  If I can’t voice my concerns to these authorities, then who?  Where will the system be changed?

As I stood up to leave, my administrator reminded me that “we need at least 75% to pass the test, and that’s the very least.”  I remained silent and thoughtful as I walked back to greet my next class.

When my students entered, I found myself repeating instructions written on the screen, refereeing slapping matches, and wondering who stole my pencil sharpener for the 10th time this year.  As they struggled to understand the concept of inflation, or read the word “authority”, I thought about how that would fit onto my data sheet. 

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“you’re a terrible teacher”

I’ve been called many things in my very short tenure as an educator.  “Bitch” comes to mind, as do “racist”, “weird”, “corny”, and “shiny forehead”.  I’ve learned to take it all in stride and even laugh at most of it, but when I was accused by a student last week of being terrible at my job, my world nearly ended.

It was the beginning of my first class of the day, and my students were instructed to review for their quiz on the four types of economic systems.  He came in as he always does – just as the late bell rang and with no supplies.  When he asked what we were supposed to be doing, I pointed to the instructions on the screen and repeated them to him.  That’s when he lost it.

“What quiz?  We haven’t even learned anything.  You never teach us, you’re a terrible teacher.  I don’t learn anything in here.”

I have never felt so ill in my life.  I could feel the color leave my face, and my arms felt heavy at my side.  I just knew that I was going to either collapse or hit someone.  I slowly walked towards him, increasingly aware of the 17 other sets of eyes now watching me, waiting to hear what I was about to say.

“Maybe if you start bringing your notes to class, you won’t feel so unprepared.”

He scoffed and rolled his eyes.  This was not how I wanted to resolve our altercation.  I tried again.

“What can I do better?  How else can I help you learn?”

No response.  I waited, but still nothing.  At that point I made the decision to re-focus my attention on the other 17 students who were prepared for class that day.  After another class with a failed quiz and general disengagement, I sought out the advice of another teacher, explaining what happened.

I hate learning new information.  I wanted to be mad at him, treat him like the data-producing robot that the government wants.  Now he was human again, and his actions had reasons behind them.  Reasons that I don’t know how to solve.

The next day I went to the girls and boys basketball games to support my students who play, and he happens to be one.  Both of our teams are really good, and I was particularly impressed with his skill.  After the game I spoke to a few parents, complimenting them on their student’s performance, updating them on grades.  He had no family there to support him.

The next day in class he came in quietly and asked for help with the assignment.  I sat with him and walked him through the online budget simulation.  Once he began working, he had no more questions and he finished his assignment.  I helped him highlight the sections that will be on his next quiz.

As class ended, I stopped him at the door.

“Good game,” I said.

He stopped.  He smiled.

“Thank you,” he replied.


“can we buy shoes at the mall?”

I had the pleasure of accompanying 100 eighth graders to Washington, D.C. last week.  I’ve been to D.C. and even lived in D.C. for a short while, but I have never experienced Washington’s City like that before.

As we rode into the city on our charter bus, several students asked about our itinerary for the day.  I explained that our first stop would be the National Mall. 

“Oooh!  Can we buy shoes at the mall?!”

They were so innocent.  I calmly explained what the mall really was, and they were a little less excited.  We picked up a tour guide and made our way to the new Martin Luther King Memorial.  Along the way the guide quizzed my students on everything from colonial history to civic knowledge, and I was so proud of their knowledge!  Except for the kid who still thinks the Supreme Court makes laws…

After the MLK Memorial, we walked to the Lincoln Memorial.  As I walked around with several students, they began asking about the Civil Rights March and wondered where Martin Luther King, Jr. stood when he spoke.  We hunted for a few minutes and found the tile.  They stood around it and took pictures and marveled at the vastness of the space that was filled with supporters of Dr. King and the civil rights movement.  One student spoke up:

“If we had been alive, we would have been here.  We would have let you come too, Mrs. Russ.”


“why don’t we just give ’em bread?”

About two years ago, I taught Government & Economics to a special group of students.  Intelligent, unique, and highly motivated…most of the time.  One day I pulled up the US Debt Clock, which tracks the money our government owes to other countries in real time.  My class was astonished, and without my prompting they began trying to devise a solution to this astronomical problem. 

Today I came across this article, which reminded me of one of my own student’s solutions to the US debt crisis.  It went something like this:

“We owe most of our money to China, right?  China has too many people, and they need food.  So why don’t we make a deal with them and just trade them bread to pay back the money we owe?”

I tried to answer him, but I couldn’t decide if it was the most illogical thing I had ever heard, or the smartest idea ever.