“tell us you love us”

When I was growing up, there was something on television called TGIF – a lineup of amazing shows every Friday night starting at 8pm.  I lived for this each week, and though the lineup changed over the years I can still remember my favorite shows – Full House, Family Matters, and the incomparable Boy Meets World.

Boy Meets World was a series about Cory, Shawn, Topanga, and their adventures through adolescence with friends and family.  Central to their seven year journey through middle and high school was Mr. Feeny, the wise and beloved teacher.  During most 30-minute episodes, it was Mr. Feeny who provided the sage advice and cohesion that Cory needed in order to understand school, relationships, or life.

As I was flipping through the channels on my second day of summer vacation, I stumbled upon the series finale of Boy Meets World.  Suddenly I found myself nearly weeping during the last scene, a dramatic conclusion of the relationship between Mr. Feeny and his students.  In the classroom where he taught them for so many years, they asked if he had anything else to teach them.  When he said no, they asked for one more thing.

“Tell us you love us.”

What a loaded statement coming from a student to a teacher.  Mr. Feeny handles it with his usual certainty,

“There is a line between teacher and student that must never be crossed.”

And he’s right. The relationship between teacher and student is special and encompasses so many other roles.  As a teacher, I’ve attended concerts and games, punished teenagers, bought clothes and school supplies when my students couldn’t afford any, organized celebrations, and answered every question imaginable.  I’ve worn the hat of counselor, cheerleader, parent, disciplinarian, judge, jury, and audience.  Like most other educators, I’ve pulled 12-hour days only to bring work home with me at night so that I can wake up and do it all again the next day.

After his students have left and he is alone in his classroom, Mr. Feeny proclaims quietly, “I love you all.”

Whatever else I believe to be true, I know that love is an action, and I love my students too.


“celebrate the successes”

Our school has a lot of really great technology for students to use, including iPad and iPod carts. I’ve been using the iPod cart quite a bit lately for test review, and my students are able to play a lot of interactive (and free) social studies apps.

This morning while I was swearing in a new group of National Junior Honor Society students, several of my homeroom students covertly stole 7 iPods from the cart in my room. The substitute had no clue what happened , and I didn’t even realize they were gone until an anonymous tipster encouraged me to take inventory.

After a four-hour investigation, lock-down, and manhunt, all but one iPod was accounted for. As my day ended, I walked in the holding room to face the twelve thieves and conspirators. I looked around and was all-at-once disappointed, shocked, and angry. I stared at the faces of students who I invested countless hours in and some of whom I thought I knew better than this. I felt betrayed, and thought that after all these days, hours, and classes together, they would make better decisions. I thought they were different people.

I have been a teacher for five years; the last four have been in urban, at-risk schools. Whenever I tell people where I teach, the reaction is usually, “Oh, you’re brave”, or “I’ve heard those kids are terrible.” My reaction is always to ask, “Have you ever been to our school? Do you know my students?” The answer is always no, because people are always judgemental.

I have always been proud to teach where I do, and to teach who I do. For a little while today, I was upset, mad, disappointed, and sickened. But I am still proud of my students – not the decisions they made today, but the growth and progress the vast majority of them have shown throughout the school year.

As I looked through my emails from the day, there was a reminder from my principal about the best way to tell students their test scores. “Be mindful of those who did not pass,” she warned, “and celebrate the successes.”

Days like today happen. Students grow up and make their own decisions – sometimes they’re bad. But today was just one day, and I still have many successes to celebrate.

“there is no overnight success”

My second year of teaching began at a new school with a new teacher orientation that included a pep talk of sorts from my principal. I learned that he, like me, is an NC State fan, and he quickly earned my trust when he quoted the famous coach Jimmy V.

“Success doesn’t happen overnight.” He paraphrased. He talked about attending district events where other principals, teachers, and superintendants would ask him what it was like to be such a huge “overnight success”. He quickly pointed to the 180 days worth of instruction that took place to get to that “overnight” success, and his point was well-received. Small steps to a larger goal.

This morning as I monitored students taking their Civics & Economics exam, I was reminded of the sentiment I learned years ago from a principal who has been through many more challenges than me. For a moment, I worried that they wouldn’t know the answers; but then I remembered how far they have come. Most importantly, I remembered that their lives will continue beyond the answers to a 50-question multiple choice exam, and I taught them things that they can use and remember forever. They learned because of me.

I don’t have their results back yet – the administration withholds the scores for some unknown reason. Whether they are 9% proficient or 99% proficient, I will rest easy knowing that we all did our best for 180 days, and that any success achieved was fought for every single one of those days.

And when all else fails, I know this to be true: Testing sucks.

“if i were president…”

It’s no surprise that presidential campaigning has begun.  It seems to start earlier and earlier each year, and we don’t even have an official Republican nominee yet. 

One of my favorite parts of teaching is learning about my students – their ambitions, likes, habits…everything.  During our unit on the Federal Government and in recent weeks, my students have become particularly vocal about how they would handle the affairs of the nation if they were to win the White House.  I have recorded my favorite ideas for future posterity:

“I would have a big party and everybody would drink kool-aid.”

“If I were president, I would just print more money so we would all have what we want.”

“The first thing I would do is paint the White House black.  Then it would be the Black House.”

“I would bring all our troops home, cause that’s probably why the rest of the world hates us.”

“I would definitely legalize marijuana.”

“If I was president, I would get rid of school.  It doesn’t do any good anyway.”

I laugh on the outside, but secretly I hope that someday I’ll be watching their campaign ads on television.  Maybe we will have kool-aid in the White House…

“i don’t want to talk about it”

Last week a student asked if I was going to miss his class. 

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said. 

I have started and deleted this post approximately 13 times.  I have at least a million things I want to say about teaching, my students, and education in America.  Right now though I have this sick feeling in my stomach because it’s the end of the school year and I have to say goodbye to another incredible group of kids. 

When I start each year, I don’t know anything about these people who enter my classroom to learn, and they have no reason to trust me.  It’s amazing that after just 180 days, I can’t stand the thought of saying goodbye.  There are so many things I want to say to “my” kids, and we’re running out of time together. 

I want to tell them how excited I am each morning because I know I get to see them, talk to them, and teach them.

I want to tell them I’m sorry for the times when I lost my patience.

I want to tell them I think they’re hilarious.

I want to tell them how much cooler they are than I was when I was in the 8th grade.

I want to beg them to keep in touch, because I can’t stand the thought of not knowing the adults they turn into.

I want to tell them to keep their knees together and wait it out.

I want to tell them they’re right, sometimes school isn’t fair and I’m trying to fix that.

I want to tell them that some days they make me feel better.

I want to tell them not to forget me when they make it big in the NBA, because I came to all those middle school games.

I want to tell them to calm down.

I want to give them a big hug and tell them that everything will be ok.

I want them to know how proud I am of what they have accomplished.

I want to tell them to pay attention as November gets closer, because I taught them everything about elections and the electoral college.

I want to tell them I will miss them.

I want to tell them thank you for being who they are and making my job so worthwhile.

I became a teacher because I love what I teach; I kept teaching because I love who I teach.  These students, these people have taught me more than I could ever hope to teach them.  I am changed because of my experiences with them, and there are no words to describe this feeling I have at the end.

The student who asked if I would miss them smiled at my response.  “We’re going to miss you too,” he said.

Totally worth it.

“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. 

“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.