A lot has changed for me in the last year. I moved to North Carolina, got married, gained a bonus 8-year-old, bought a house, started at a new school, and got back into the swing of teaching English 9 again, after a three-year foray into teaching middle school Humanities.
I walked back into the classroom this year excited to do some good for my students. I was incredibly fortunate to be chosen as an Apple Distinguished Educator this summer, and the Institute was one of the most profoundly moving and inspiring professional development experiences I’ve ever had.
I also came back with some other exciting professional experiences. I got to be involved with John Green’s new book Turtles All the Way Down. Like, my name is literally in the book. With a friend from Malaysia, I created the art that is stamped onto the hardcover of the book. We also have a shirt for sale through DFTBA Records featuring the same logo. It represents a community that had a role in influencing the content of actual book as well, and I’ve had the great pleasure of working closely with and meeting John as well. It’s one of the things I can’t really even believe happened to me.
That seems to be a theme this year.
The energy that carried me through this crazy summer of moving and change, and then ADE Institute, and then the creation and launch of Turtles All the Way Down hasn’t been enough to sustain me in my classroom. All of those beautiful things didn’t change the fact that I am vastly underprepared to do the job I’m showing up every day to do.
Because I have spent the last fourteen years of my life believing that I am in control of my classroom. That my job is shoving as much learning into their heads as I can, and that I am the one who motivates them to do that. That my skill and personality and charisma are what make me a good teacher.
And as it turns out, all of those things are bullshit.
Starting with control. I hear people talk about power and control in the context of classroom management all the time. It’s a regular thing to hear teachers talk about how someone “doesn’t have control of their classroom” or how a student is getting in “power-battles” with them over various and sundry things. Hell, I’ve said those things before.
But finish that analogy for a minute. It’s not a room you’re trying to control. They are human beings.
On one hand, we talk about inspiring and influencing and mentoring and caring for students. And then we turn right around and talk about how to wield power and techniques for silencing, managing, and controlling.
We think that if a student isn’t doing well, it must be because they don’t want it enough. That if they are failing, it’s because they just aren’t living up to their potential. That if they would just TRY A LITTLE HARDER, they would be fine.
That’s like waving a dollar at a drowning man and offering it to him, so long as he can somehow stop himself from drowning.
Every time a teacher tells a kid, “Did you READ the instructions? How do you not know how to do it?” picture a dollar waved above the head of someone slipping below the surf for the last time. See that same thing every time you say “Well, they’d be fine if they just sat down, shut up, and tried for a change” or “I can’t make them want to do the work” or “I don’t understand what’s so hard about getting it done.”
Now imagine hearing that a dozen times a day, every day, for nine years.
Imagine how you’d feel about your own ability level. How you’d feel about school. How you’d feel about your teachers. Imagine what you might say or do.
If you read those sentences without truly feeling it, please stop and really put yourself in that place for a minute.
That’s the place I’ve lived for the past three months. I had to live there in order to teach here, because to reach a student, you have to put yourself in their position. And once I saw it from their position, it was really hard to go back to talking about classroom management in the same terms again.
The truth is that kids do well if they can. If they aren’t doing well, it’s because they can’t. Not because they won’t.
If a kid can’t read or has a reading disability, we don’t use punishments and rewards to try to get them to read better. We teach them how to read better. As educators, we finally understand that reading is not just something everyone can do - it’s a complex process that can easily go awry and requires specialised instruction in order to build phonemic awareness, fluency, and comprehension. And treating a reading problem as a problem of motivation is absolutely ludicrous to most people - as it should be.
So why do we look at behaviour differently? If it’s true that kids do well if they can, then why would we use rewards and punishments for students who don’t know how to behave? Or for students who have difficulty with impulse control? Or for students who have difficulty with anger? Or for students who have difficulty with flexibility or frustration tolerance?
If you see those as a different kind of developmental delay, then our use of “classroom control” language, as well as our liberal use of referrals, removals, detentions, and suspensions for students who have difficulty in the classroom, becomes as offensive as giving a detention to a dyslexic kid who can’t read.
I wish I had been the one to work this all out for myself, and I wish that it hadn’t taken me fourteen years to do it. I spent a lot of years frustrated that I couldn’t make students behave and do the work. I punished students who were already doing their best but just couldn’t meet my expectations. I rewarded students who came to me already capable of meeting my expectations.
I wish I had read Lost at School sooner. Though I’m sure the full impact of its truth hit me like a speeding truck because of how much difficulty I’ve had this year.
Since implementing Collaborative and Proactive Solutions in my classroom (and my home), my job went from “Is this even survivable?” to “I can probably make it to the end of today in tact” to “I can do this. And so can they.”
So I’m resurrecting this blog to chronicle the trip I’ve taken from teaching in the richest county in California to one of the poorest schools in North Carolina, and how CPS has made me a better teacher than I’ve ever been.
I want to tell you how you can help students who are failing everything else, and have for YEARS, who have hundreds of referrals and suspensions, who don’t even believe they’re capable of learning, and help them see themselves are capable human beings.
Who just happen to be getting an A in English.
Who are learning how to problem-solve.
Who are learning what to do when they need help.
Who are learning how to deal with frustration.
Who believe me when I tell them that we’re in this together.