“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.

“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. 

“did she really just say that?”

We tested this week, which should be enough information for you to determine how the week went.  Our students worked so hard, which is the only explanation for their otherwise quirky and bizzare behavior.  I will share what I have not blocked from my memory:

1.  At the end of the day on Wednesday, a young man walked into my classroom for homeroom and greeted me by saying, “Hey baby.”  He was dismissed early that day.

2.  While standing in the hall during a class change on Tuesday, one of my female students walked right up to me and proclaimed, “Mrs. Russ, I think female condoms are ugly.”  Apparently they’ve been learning about contraception in Family Life class.  I’m so glad she’s comfortable sharing such things with me.

3.  As one of my more hyper students ran towards me in the hallway, I pulled him aside before he entered my classroom and told him to calm down.  He said that he was too “hype”, and then he punched the wall with his fists.  Five minutes later he asked if he could go to the nurse for some ice packs.  During lunch I turned around just in time to see him holding the ice bags against his chest and telling his friends, “Hey look at me, I have jugs!” 

4.  Friday was “Dress to Impress” day, and students were encouraged to dress as if they were going to an interview.  I saw lots of well-groomed 8th graders as I stood in the hallway, but one student caught my eye.  He was walking down the hallway in a tuxedo singing “I’m too sexy”.

This week made me smile and laugh a lot, and it was nice to be able to enjoy the time I spent with my students.  Most weeks you’ll hear teachers collectively moan and groan about how hard we work, but this week was a good reminder that our students work hard too.  They’re so young to have to do so much – we all need to laugh a little (or a lot) every now and then.

“i ain’t about that life”

Several months ago my students asked me to say the above catch phrase.  When I did, it was all they could talk about.  For some reason, whenever I say slang they think it’s hilarious.  From time to time I like to interrupt my own rants by daintily proclaiming, “I’m about to fry”, or “I know she did not just say that.” 

“I ain’t about that life.”  It means a lot of different things depending on the situation, but lately I’ve been reminding myself that I’m really not about the things I see around me.  Somehow education has become a business, and the profits are test scores.  The argument has been made so many times and in so many ways that even I’m tired of hearing it. 

Lately I have been reminded of another casualty of 21st century public eduation – professionalism.  Instead of working together, teachers more often than not act like competitors.  Rather than sharing best practices, we share insults and exchange passive-aggressive remarks during meetings.  Instead of finding solutions for our students, we find ourselves working in isolation against insurmountable challenges in the classroom. 

And the test scores aren’t enough.  We must be leaders in every area of school culture, even if it means backstabbing, lying and cheating our colleagues out of the recognition they deserve.  The incentive programs designed to recognize good teachers and encourage others do just the opposite – they recognize teachers who find shortcuts, and discourage the truly great educators. 

This school year has put me on the verge of reconsidering a career in teaching altogether.  Moving states and schools was difficult enough, but I was looking forward to being part of a team and being able to teach the subject that I love.  Instead I have been called derrogatory names by my “colleagues”, purposefully left out of meetings, been thrown out of a classroom by another teacher, been hung up on, been mocked, and told that my presence was not wanted.  When I’m asked why I will not be returning to my school next year, I will have only one response:

I ain’t about that life.

“security of testing materials”

I hate testing, especially when it screws up an already loathsome schedule. 

On Wednesday I spent 2 1/2 hours with a math class full of students I’ve never taught before.  “We” chose to test all math classes in one day, and all social studies on Thursday.  So for nearly three hours I entertained 28 13-year olds who I have never seen in my life. This meant that my Civics students were scattered among other 8th grade teachers, and some of them were with the other Civics teacher. 

During our last class, it was brought to my attention that he gave them a copy of the midterm study guide that he used with his class.  How nice.  The only problem is that it’s a copy of the actual midterm.  He typed out the answers to a district-level test and gave that to all of his classes as a study guide.  All they have to do is memorize that piece of paper and bubble in the correct responses and they’ll get a high score. 

Meanwhile, I’ve been busting my ass to create engaging, unique, cognitively appropriate, and standards-based lessons for my classes.  We simulated, organized, matched, classified, researched, wrote, and presented material in exciting ways.  I challenged them to do more than memorize a list of answers – I actually wanted them to think about what they were learning. 

Now, two days before their midterm, I am realizing that when my test scores are compared to those of my counterpart, we’re not really comparing the same amount of effort.  We’re comparing his students’ ability to memorize a set of answers with my students’ ability to think.  And it pisses me off.

During 3rd core, one of my students brought all of this to my attention.  “He gave us a study guide, and let us buy candy, and then he let us play games.”

“Good for him,” I thought.  And as I busted up another pair of students who were cheating, I realized that sometimes it’s not the kids who are to blame for such poor habits.

When I got home that evening I shared my frustrations with my husband and my dog.  We agreed that this incident is an example of cheating, that it’s not fair to my students or to me, but that my options for action are limited.  I am entrenched in an environment of numbers, and it has been made clear to me more than any other year of my short teaching career that we are all accountable to someone else for our students’ test scores.  With all of this information weighing on my mind, I still had no solution at 3:45 AM.

As I made my way down what now seemed like the darkest hallway in America this morning, I put my things in my classroom and stepped into the neighboring math teacher’s room.  She is a true veteran – nearly 30 years of classroom experience, and she returned to school a week after having a stroke while teaching in November.  I wrote about her in this post

“I need to tell you about something, because you’ll know what to do,” I began.

“Spit it out girl.  Whatever it is, get it out of your system.”

I explained the situation.  She shook her head and smiled, knowingly.  Here’s what she told me:

“You need to conduct yourself so that you can go home every day and still be able to look yourself in the mirror.  If you have to take shortcuts like that in the classroom, then you haven’t done your job as a teacher.  I tell my students every day when they come in here that I can lead ’em to the water, but I can’t make ’em drink the water.  We do everything in our power to help these kids, but we can only work with what they give us.  Hell, even Jesus had two loaves to work with, I’ve got nothin’ when they walk through my door.  God made man from dirt – at least he had dirt.  You hold your head up and keep doing what you’re doing.  It’s not fair because it makes you look bad when the scores come out.  If you feel like you should tell someone, then go tell, but there aren’t many people here who will care.  You’re at the beginning of your career, and this is where you start to get your feet wet.”

You have no idea how encouraging it was to hear someone tell me, “you’re right, they’re wrong.”  I hardly even cared what came after that.  She was right about everything – no one at that school will care, I do excellent things in my classroom, and none of it is fair. 

As I left this afternoon, I passed my administrator.  She was on her way into a meeting, but stopped long enough to offer these words:

“Are we gonna score big tomorrow on that midterm?”