“pain upon pain”

I attended a conference recently for work about helping youth from foster care, a topic that I am very passionate about. Part of my journey learning about this issue is understanding, as one young woman pointed out, that “it’s not like the movies.” People end up in foster care for different reasons, and being “in” foster care doesn’t always mean there’s a dramatic home removal. Often these kids bounce back and forth between their families and the child welfare system.

One of the keynote speakers at this conference I attended was Dr. Steve Perry. He’s known for his in-your-face antics and real talk with youth and families who are beyond troubled. He got into his groove during his address one afternoon telling a story from his work and I listened as he said “We pile pain upon pain and call it a family.”

In that moment I started to remember the stories from teaching that weren’t like the movies, either. The months and months of hard work and bending over backwards, trying every trick in the book only to find that your classes did not get the test scores you wanted (or needed). Struggling with students (and sometimes colleagues) all year only to go home for the summer with unresolved conflict. And whether we’d like to admit it or not, we don’t all look like Hilary Swank.

And I remembered that first year of teaching with that student who I thought was a terror. He said and did rude, mean, evil things. I tried to be patient but he took advantage. I tried to be firm but he acted worse. I thought “he’s just acting out because he’s academically insecure,” but that wasn’t it either. When I exhausted all my options, I sat down with the headmaster. We called him in for a conversation, where he showed slightly more humility than the previous weeks in my classroom.

And then the headmaster called his father.

When his father came to pick him up, everything changed. My memory of that day came back suddenly and in slow motion. A father yelling at his 8th grade son as he dragged him out of the school building. My unruly, surly, rude, evil student transformed into a terrified, embarrassed child with his head hung low, unwilling to make eye contact with anyone. They got into a pick-up truck and sped away.

I have no conclusion to this story, no happy ending, no clever quip that makes everything ok because I learned something valuable.

We pile pain upon pain and call it a family.


“the teachers who cared more than i ever knew”

I love Butch Walker.  I’ve been reading his memoir lately, Drinking With Strangers, and it solidifies for me the fact that he is my second-favorite musical artist.  My husband, of course, is my all-time favorite. 

I didn’t catch the above lyric in Butch Walker’s song “Summer of ’89” the first time I listened, or even the second or third.  I was in a daze one afternoon while driving home from school when I caught the quick ode to his former educators.  It isn’t significant, except that it’s in the middle of a country/rap breakdown of his life story, and he obviously felt that his teachers were worth the shout out. 

It was a new and interesting perspective for me: no matter their experience, my students will remember me twenty years from now.  At first this was a source of much anxiety, as I am a naturally paranoid person.  “Do they like me?”  “Will they remember me at all?”  “Am I doing anything that will change their lives for the better?” 

Then I took comfort in this – my students will remember me.  I do something every day that will stay with students for years after they leave my classroom.  And I also get to teach them. 

When Butch Walker was in school, and when I was for that matter, there were no high stakes tests to monopolize the attention of our teachers.  Educators could afford to invest in their students without being afraid of being put on probation because of low test scores.  And when a student was asked how they like their 6th grade social studies class, their response was something more than, “I scored a 470 on the exam.”  Now even with the added responsibility of these assessments for both student and educator, teachers still find time to know the people we see and teach every day.  And we remember all of them. 

Today is the StoryCorps National Day of Listening.  Take a minute, or even a few, to tell your former teachers that you remember them.  It makes us feel good, and it helps us write the lesson plans, do the paperwork, and answer for the test scores. 

I’m posting and writing about the teachers who help me teach, and about the ones who taught me when I was a student.  Teachers like Mr. Raven, who taught me that mitigate = make less severe because you were driving in your car and you swerved to hit a gate (rhymes with mitigate) to avoid hitting another car.  And Madame Perney, who introduced me to Le Petit Prince, which is one of my favorite books to this day because of what it says and because of how she taught it.  And Mrs. Holland, who taught the geographic regions of South Carolina like it was her job…because it was.  And Mrs. Smoak, who taught me US History, and taught me how to love history, and inspired me to be a teacher.

Thank you.

“cause you a black male”

We use silent lunch at our school as a consequence for poor behavior.  Philosophically, I am still waivering on the merits of this type of system.  Professionally, I have learned to rely on it as a motivator for students who need to sit up, shut up, and work. 

Today I assigned silent lunch to two of my young men in 3rd block.  It was convenient – since that’s our lunch period, I just dropped them off on my way.  The teacher who oversees silent lunch is untouchable; think Madea, but better.  As I was leaving, one of the boys said to me, “But Mrs. Russ, why are we in here?”  To which the silent lunch warden responded:

“Cause you a black male, that’s why.  Now sit down and shut your mouth.”

I smiled and shook my head as I left, because I knew what they were doing without having to look back- they were sitting down and shutting their mouths.  I also knew that I could never, ever get away with saying anything like that. 

I have been reminded countless times over the past four years that I am a young, white female.  I cannot do anything about this.  But it is useful to know that, even in 2011, there is a collective history that I do not share with my students.  The silent lunch warden does, and she speaks to them differently than I do. 

There were many days when, before I knew myself as an educator, this angered me.  Now I am grateful that I can rely on the strengths of my colleagues, and proud that I have my own history and attitude to bring to the classroom that my students appreciate and respect.

but what about weed?

Each year, I am forced to act shocked about and interested in the ongoing debate over legalizing marijuana.  I hear the same arguments every year:

“Nobody ever got high and killed someone, but people get drunk and kill others all the time.”

“Marijuana is actually good for you.”

“It’s legal in most other countries.”

Today I was pleasantly surprised to be in the midst of the debate over marijuana and field this question:

“But what about weed?”

In case you were wondering, there is a difference (on “the street”) between the two, though I would never be so bold as to attempt to recount it here.  Plus I’m pretty sure the Feds are reading.

Today was especially long (longer than the usual 10-hour day) because we hosted Back-to-School night for parents.  It gives families an opportunity to come, meet the teachers, walk through the schedule, and sign up for conferences if necessary.  It was mildly productive, but I did have two eventful visits. 

First there were Daron’s parents.  He transfered into my class last week, and on a block schedule that means I’ve seen him about 2 1/2 days.  I didn’t even know that his name is pronounced darON, not DAREon.  Woops.

Then another student of mine stopped by with her mom and younger brother.  They were the last of the night for me, so we informally chatted about the course and I discovered that the mother holds a degree in history.  We began discussing various topics related to history and Civics.  In the context of the Bill of Rights and equal rights, she then revealed to me that she has a partner and they have a civil union together. For some reason I became very excited about this, and I’m afraid I came off a little too eager.  She might even think I was trying to hit on her. 

Tomorrow’s class with her daughter should be interesting.

you want me to do what?

Today I lost track of the number of times someone said to me, “You just have to teach to the test.” 

After just five years in education, I’ve seen a lot of changes.  When I began teaching, we were being trained in things like assessment writing, project building, and curriculum design.  Now we’re being told how to implement someone else’s lesson plans, how to fill in someone else’s paperwork, and how to teach to someone else’s test.  Most days I feel like a factory worker, assembling the next big doodad that someone else far far away created. 

What about my ability and need to create?  What about the fact that I know my students?  And why are we paying people (good money) to write curriculum if we’re “just teaching to a test” that isn’t based on any curriculum at all? 

What will our students learn?  Who decides what they learn?  How will they learn?  And what is my role in that as a teacher?  I thought after 5 years I would have solidified all of this, but each year I find that more gets taken away from me.  It’s a terrible feeling. 

Other phrases I wrestled with today were as follows:

“We have a test today?”

“She get that from her mama.”

“I’ll just call you ‘white girl’.”


oh canada

The news of impending government shut-down provided some interesting material for class discussion. After taking a few minutes to review the Federal budget process as well as Congressional powers, I led my students into a seminar on the shut-down. Thankfully many of them were watching the news over the past several days and were somewhat aware of how a shut-down would impact the public. Others had a more creative view…

“So if I kidnap someone and take them across state lines, the FBI won’t stop me?”

“Does this mean no one has to pay their taxes?”

“We’re gonna get blown up, aren’t we?”

“It’s time for Canada to make their move.”

After being asked about US debt as compared to other countries, I came across this chart.  One of my students pointed out that the top debt-holders are also democratic nations.  An interesting thought…

the grade-in phenomenon

I read a post on Facebook tonight from the President of the local NEA chapter.  He shared a link to a story about a “Grade-In”, a new trend sweeping the country. The Grade-In seeks to show the public what teachers really do, that it’s not all fun and games, and that we teach because we love it.

What an incredibly refreshing idea – teachers making a statement by doing what we do best rather than leaving our posts to rally at state capitals. I would never deny or disparage someone’s right to peaceably protest, but some of my colleagues make me ashamed to be an educator when I see them yelling on the news…in the middle of the school day.

If we are to bring about a positive change, why don’t we try being positive about it?

Many thanks to the FCAE for posting the story on Facebook, and for hosting their own “Grade-In” on April 30th in Winston-Salem, NC.

Video from a Grade-In that took place in New Jersey: