Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Lockdown Drills Terrorize Children

The twenty-four children stand silently, motionlessly, pressed together in the small office built  years ago as an observation room within the classroom to monitor troubled students, designed for two or three adults to monitor through the two-way mirror.  My kids are pretty good:  gifted and high achieving 5th graders, the big kids in the school, the smart kids.  One breathes a heavy sigh, but there’s no need for me to shoot her the evil eye.  The other kids do it for me.  If the bad guy sees movement, if the bad guy hears, we’re dead. 

So, we wait.  It’s a large school, with six buildings to be checked by the support staff.  It takes awhile to check every door to ensure it’s locked and that no students are in sight.  Once the drill was called, the rule was to lock out students not in the classroom, those who left to use the restroom or sent on an errand.  I am grateful none of my babies are out of the room at the time. After twenty minutes or so, the announcement comes over the intercom system.  All is clear.  We’ve done a great job!  We return to class, and resume the day’s learning.

Soon after, teachers in the school and in the district start talking.  Others around the nation spread their messages of concern online.  There’s talk of teachers who, caught up in the fervor of the moment, said horrible things to the children.  “Hush!  Do you want to be the reason we all die?!”

A few parents complain about children who wet or soiled themselves during the drill, and some who were simply frightened by the drill.  The response from the schools is that if the choice is between a child having an embarrassing situation or becoming the victim of a crazed shooter, the parents should see sense and be grateful that we’re going the extra mile to protect their little ones.  Sure, it was only a drill, but the point of drills is to be prepared for the real events. 

If there were any reason in that argument, I’d be the first to use it. 

I would happily terrify children, and be only tangentially concerned about the psychological aftermath, if there were any chance that this methodology was likely to save lives.  However, the truth of the matter is that it is much more likely to increase the death toll. 

Like I said, my students are smart.  We can’t simply resume math lessons after an experience like that.  They have questions, obvious ones, like what the point of it all was.  It’s a sensitive conversation, and in soothing tones, I explain that while it’s statistically highly unlikely that we’ll ever have to face an armed killer, school shootings are on the rise.  We want to be prepared. 

When the mass shootings occurred at the hands of a mentally ill gunman in Connecticut, a quick-thinking teacher hid all her students in closets and cabinets, and told the shooter they were at gym class.  The shooter killed her and left, leaving the hidden children undiscovered and unharmed physically.  We remember her as a brave and smart hero, and rightfully so. 

In the aftermath of tragedy, there’s an understandable need to want to do something:  to comfort survivors and mourners, to let them know we feel their pain, and to prepare ourselves so that we are ready should the unthinkable become our personal reality.  Unfortunately, the tendency is often to react rather than to reflect. 

Painfully little logic was employed in determining what we should do.  Objections were met with the insistence that doing something was imperative, whether or not it made any sense or needlessly frightened children, reminding me of the days when we had decided that if the Russians really did drop atomic bombs on us, our best course of action was to hide under desks. 

Immediately following the Connecticut shooting the talk focused on security.  How do we keep the bad guys out?  The four-foot fence surrounding most of my school was intended to keep children from running into traffic during recess, not to thwart marauders with automatic weaponry.  High fences, buzzer systems, and increased police presence cost money. 

Besides, even if we put a dome over every school in the nation, that only addresses outsiders trying to get on to the premises.  Perhaps one of the reasons these discussions weren’t taking place prior to the Sandy Hook massacre despite numerous school shootings over the years is that the vast majority of school shootings were committed at the hands of students. 

What then?  Again, we could react, forcing all students and staff to enter only through one monitored location complete with metal detectors; but it would take costly resources, be an enormous daily time sap, and would only provide the illusion of security while perpetuating the concept that the children and staff should all live in fear.

The decision was therefore made to follow the example of the teacher who hid her children.  It had worked.  Lives were saved.  We could practice this procedure so that we would be ready, with many breathing a bit easier at a returning sense of control for at least having a plan.

It took my little bright bulbs seconds to see the flaw.  Seeing one empty classroom and being told it is empty because the children are elsewhere makes sense.  There are times when a classroom or even several classrooms are empty.   The heroine in CT who saved her students already knew there was a shooter on the school grounds.  It was an impulse decision, a gamble that blissfully paid off; but it could have gone the other way. 

Seeing all the classrooms empty on a school day, with parking lots packed with teacher cars, an eerie silence filling the halls, recess equipment abandoned outdoors, half-eaten lunches littering cafeteria tables, books open to lessons on desks…that’s not deception.  That’s a Twilight Zone episode. 

No matter how stoned or mentally ill the assassin might be, it would take a very short time to determine that, of course, everyone hasn’t abandoned ship:  they’re hiding.  The animalistic instincts that kick in when in fear are fight or flight. Dozens of kids and teachers crammed into closets and bathrooms leaves no chance of either. In fact, since most shooters are students, it creates the perfect scenario for someone wishing to do harm, knowing his or her own school and its policies.

All we are doing is saving the shooter bullets.

They wish to remain unnamed, but many teachers urged me to write this.  Actually, one retiring teacher insisted I write it in her name to avoid my taking heat for it.  It was a sweet gesture, but my words should have my name; if only because, otherwise, everything I’ve ever tried to teach my students about ethics would be hypocritical.  Moreover, I don’t see it as particularly controversial so much as an opinion on a situation of concern to us all.

A lot of us would like to see this plan revisited as an ineffective approach that at best causes children undue stress, and at worst could cost them their lives.  None of us want to lose our jobs.  Teaching children is a passion and delight.  We all want to protect the children, with the sticking point being how to accomplish that. 

It’s not always the case, based on stories I hear from colleagues, but I genuinely respect and admire my administrators.  This has nothing to do with them.  Like the teachers, they’re following directives.  Even more unlikely, I am a fan of my district’s superintendent.  He seems like a good guy who, like the rest of us, has the children’s best interests at heart.  It’s not as though all the school districts in the land had superintendents with the same brainstorm.  One person put it out there as a suggestion and everyone jumped on it wanting to have that something to do to that was perceived as regaining control.  Answering the question of what we should be doing instead is trickier, but not impossible.

Some of my students got a kick out of the idea of me playing Dirty Harry, having my own gun and saving lives.  Frankly, to me, that goes to the underlying problem that we have too many guns in this country, can access them too easily, and think solving gun problems with guns rather than removing guns or severely restricting access to them is a logical solution. 

On a personal level, being an American, I tend to get a bit of a shameful rush out of the fantasy of protecting my students with a gun of my own.  “Hurt MY babies?!  I don’t THINK so!  Take THAT, ya filthy animal!”
However, knowing myself, it’s much more likely that I’d freeze in a catatonic state of shock and accomplish nothing more than adding to the gunman’s arsenal.  Or, a child would find the gun in an incident unrelated to an outsider shooting, and kill or injure self or others with it, either accidentally or on purpose; or that I wouldn’t be able to access or load it in time. 

In any case, the vengeance/hero fantasy illustrates our national ethos that has us cheering at the end of movies when the bad guy who outrageously used weaponry to kill people gets his due--by being killed by weaponry.  We don’t go to action movies hoping that in the end the sociopath will receive the proper mental health and medications necessary for rehabilitation.  We’re looking for explosions, body counts, revenge…not peaceful resolution. 

The gun argument has been done ad nauseam, with those opposed to gun ownership having no realistic way of stopping it; and gun owners insisting like the owners of pet tigers that, sure, tigers are inherently dangerous, but that they are in a special category of responsible tiger owners who respect their ways, dismissing it as an anomaly when the tigers try to bite them and close down their Vegas acts.

But, it did surprise me that there wasn’t a greater outcry when Congress voted down legislation that the overwhelming majority of Americans, including gun owners, supported.  Sane people who interpret the Second Amendment to the Constitution as granting them the personal right to bear arms promote background checks to see if people wanting them are unstable or criminally dangerous, not wanting to be lumped in with their likes.  Congress keeping in step with special interests and not passing legislation that at least made a token gesture towards wanting to keep guns out of the wrong hands is more chilling than individuals using guns inappropriately ever could be.   So, we focus on the aftermath rather than causes of shootings.

We want to dismiss the shooters as inherently evil, not take the time and resources to address the truly frightening reality that we are aware of the conditions that lead to mental illness and ease of access to firearms, yet do absolutely nothing about it.  

We have students who give us the strong sense that something is desperately wrong, that they could be dangerous.  Everyone on death row went to school somewhere, and at some point along the way, their teachers tried to alert authorities of their fears.  It’s seen as dangerous territory for teachers.  We’re not trained in mental health, and have no basis for making diagnoses.  Even suggesting that a child might be dangerous--because he draws pictures of his teacher lying dead with the smiling stick-figure self-depiction of the child standing over her with a knife dripping blood--is dangerous career-wise for the teacher. 

Some of those kids have parents who vehemently refuse to believe their child could be the next shooter.  Others are aware, and terrified in only the way parents of a troubled child can relate to, but lack resources to know what to do to prevent that chilling possibility in their own babies.  There’s little sympathy for the parents whose child turns the gun on himself after killing others, which must be an unimaginable hell in and of itself.

When suspicions of children having serious mental health issues are supported by schools, the response is usually punitive, as though suspending a child for a few days will send the strong message that threats or pictures of killing are “inappropriate.”   Expulsion is even worse.  At least if we have an eye on the troubled child, there’s a chance, however small, of being able to reach and help the child. 

Given our current directives and strict disciplinary matrices, there’s not much that we can do, even when all parties agree that what is necessary is intensive mental health treatment.  Getting those services becomes a quagmire of bureaucracy and paperwork, eventually leading at most to an overworked psychologist split between numerous schools seeing the child once a week for half an hour or so.  There used to be schools designed to handle the needs of children with serious behavioral problems, but budget cuts shut them down.  If we want to be able to say we’re taking these issues seriously, it can’t just be lip service.  

These are big problems requiring significant paradigms and investments in society, not reactions to surprise attacks after the fact.

That gets us back to what we should do at the moment that a shooter begins terrorizing a school, that need for control, for that serenity of denial that we’re doing all we can in the midst of chaos.  When we resigned ourselves to living in fear  rather than trying to improve relations with our enemies, hiding under the desk was still a laughably bad plan.  Similarly, If we’re not going to accept as obvious the need for improved mental health treatment and only nonviolent and sane people being able to easily access guns, hiding from shooters in closets and bathrooms is no improvement over those days of cold war bomb drills.  

True, most kids who did go through those bomb drills of squatting under desks went on to lead relatively normal lives.  Some may have had lingering memories of fear for years after, but most probably look back on it as so much silliness, laughing along with comedians mocking the then perceived impervious nature of pressboard and the wisdom of spending one’s last moments on Earth in an uncomfortable and undignified position.  The big difference there is that in all my years as a student, no one ever did drop a bomb on or near a school in the United States.  The latest generations of our students see school shootings on the news.  They live in fear.

It is logical to live in fear.  There are numerous serious considerations affecting all of us.  The problem is that fear has real physical and psychological effects that are counterproductive to finding solutions.  When we had colored warnings after 9/11 that escalated from yellow to orange based on information government officials could not make us privy to nor give us any direction on what we should do based on  them, the message was solely, “Live in fear.  Be even more afraid today than you were yesterday.  All is lost.  And now, let’s take a look at sports!”

In the movie The American President, an advisor tells the president that the important thing is not to make it look like we’re panicking.  Michael Douglas, playing the president, retorts, “See, and I think the important thing is actually not to BE panicking.”  That’s my take on things. 

If we are to accept that we are powerless over the big changes we would need to enact to reduce school shootings, at the very least we can recognize in this instance that we don’t have a real answer to what we should do when they occur.  Creating a ghost town with children corralled for the shooter’s ease isn’t it. 

A few teachers hiding their children just may be the best course of action, at least until the coast is clear.  Obviously, we’re not going to institute a lottery to determine who lives or dies.  I mean that the decision should be one the teacher has made at the moment under the specific circumstances he or she is facing.  That’s the answer to what we should do if our students are in real peril, evaluate the best course of action based on the situation.

It’s hard to know how we each of us will respond if the unthinkable occurs at our schools, and each case is different.  Fight or flight is real.  Some school staff might try to fight.  Telling children to run and hide far away goes against every parental and teacher instinct, but might be the best of unbearable choices, with finding young terrified children hidden under cars a joyous relief compared with the prospect of them being killed.  Getting away from danger is a primal instinct.  It just makes for an impossible practice drill. 

If there were a bomb threat, we would want to move everyone in an orderly fashion to a designated area away from the school.  The understanding is that the threat is contained to the physical location of the school, making bomb drills to practice logistics reasonable, even if the message of fearing the unlikely is still being promoted unnecessarily.  People who just want attention or want to get out of an exam make bomb threats, at least until they find out how sourly the FBI frowns upon that sort of thing.     People who want real bombs to go off don’t usually give notice.  Still, at least it makes sense to want to get the children away from the danger, and practicing that does help with the sense of order and control.

If we were to have drills for shooters on campus that similarly involved getting kids off school grounds, having them moved to the same concentrated location presents the same problem putting them in closets does.  The teachers and staff would have to move the kids to myriad locations away from the school.  It’s not practical for most of us.

If our choices are to live in fear or not live in fear, I choose the latter.  The simple truth is that we really don’t know how exactly we’ll all act in a moment of crisis until the moment comes.  If we have the grace to think rationally at all, what we’ll do will be based on the circumstances as they arise.

Until then, I’d rather not go through the farce of pretending we have a handle on things.  I will.  There will be another drill.  I will command the children to silent stillness once more, locking out any unfortunate enough to be out of the room at the time the drill is called.  I really do love teaching children and don’t want to lose my job.  I just really wish someone with common sense would come along and realize that this isn’t the way to go.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Teacher Who Hates Summer

All jobs/careers have their pros and cons, but I always feel like my perception of what those are in teaching are the opposite of what everyone else seems to think they are.  Maybe I’ll need some sort of educator protection program for saying so, but I really hate summers. 

Just once, I’d like to hear someone go up to a construction worker, or someone in a field where extended periods of not working are common to the profession, and declare with envy how lucky those people are to be able to sleep late and spend their days any way they wish.   Then, when the guy explains that he’d really rather be working because his family has grown accustomed to eating, and that after a while it’s actually depressing to have no job to go to week after week, he can be berated for knowing what he was getting himself into when he entered into that line of work. 

I’m actually lucky on that count, as my district offers year-round-pay, meaning large chunks of money are held from my paychecks throughout the school year so that it can be returned to me during the summer.  With interest rates what they are today, it’s smarter than attempting to bank it myself, knowing Murphy’s Law would kick in to cause some calamity that required the use of those funds. 

To be fair, there are teachers I know who do get to enjoy their summers because their financial situations are better than mine, travelling the world, making home improvements, playing with the kids or grandkids.  However, I know an awful lot of teachers in my boat too, including many who teach summer school or get part-time jobs to supplement their income.  This summer, I’ve been listing as many new products on Teacherspayteachers as humanly possible, with moderate success that I hope will build over the years.  Still, it’s not just about the money.

Before anyone rushes in with the inevitable response that I need to get a life, picturing some miserable creature unable to get out of bed, lonely for company or in desperate need of a hobby, it’s not like that at all.  There was some sadness this summer, finding our much beloved dog had passed away in his sleep one night, just months after my mother-in-law left us; but there were many joys too.  My daughter graduated, earning a high school diploma and Associates degree simultaneously thanks to an accelerated program.  There was a party to celebrate, and another for my partner’s 50th birthday, complete with a fun murder mystery theme.  There were many gatherings of friends and family, swimming in the pool, glorious sunsets, and even a quick vacation to a nearby but luxurious locale.   Drawers were cleaned, cabinets organized, and minor household repairs triumphantly accomplished.  The lesson plans for next year are written in their entirety, the drama club script is half-done, and I added over 70 new items to Teacherspayteachers.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy life, but that teaching is my favorite thing to do.   To be clear, I don’t think every teacher should feel that way.   My entire decade-long teaching career has been different from most teachers in that I have always had select positions.  I’ve been the math, writing, and science specials, entertaining kids in thirty-minute intervals as they learned through play and engaging lessons and activities.  Even now that I’m a “regular” classroom teacher, I have the honor of teaching gifted and high achieving kids. 

Everyone has her niche, but I’m still in awe of teachers in traditional classrooms, and especially in positions working with children who struggle to learn.  Imagine scooping up those two or three kids from each classroom who learn rapidly, are eager to learn, and think school is a happy wonderland, and forming a new class from those students.  It’s heavenly.  It’s invigorating.  There are still usually one or two kids in my class who have behavioral issues or real concerns, but even those still tend to respond well over time, making jumping out of bed each morning to go to school a true delight.  Not having to wake up early is a luxury, but when it drags on for months, feels more like unemployment to me than a break. 

We have science on the fact that even the smart teacher-pleasing kids lose an awful lot over the long breaks, but not as much on what it does to teachers who’ve gotten out of the routine for so long.  It’s especially daunting for those who have had to change schools, classrooms, grade levels—and for all of us every time some “new” way of teaching is instituted, whether it’s pedagogy, technology, or a text series.   

Restarting the school year annually is like a scene from a zombie movie, with staff dragging through the hallways trying to reacclimate to our routines.  It can take months to get all systems running smoothly again.  Rooms need to be organized and decorated all over again after having packed up for the summer, primarily to make floors shiny with wax that takes herculean effort and months to accomplish, but just days to return to a scuffed state.

Then, there are the dreams.  Enough teachers report on these for me to know that it’s not solely a personal phenomenon.  The theme is almost universal:  we are not prepared.  It’s not a realistic assessment, but nightmares based on fear.  In mine, I live in my classroom, and in my robe have the realization of children outside my door waiting to enter, with me completely unaware that it’s the first day of school.  Or, try as I might, obstacles prevent me from getting to school.

So, as the long summer is winding down, I am appreciative of having been able to attend to myriad personal issues, but am counting down the days until the children return.  They’re cute.  They’re little.  All of my tired old jokes are new to them.  The concepts that made last year’s class gasp in amazement will have the same effect again.  We will form a new family, and I will race to shove as much information into their brains as humanly possible knowing that the year will race by.  Only ten more days now.  I can hold out.  Just ten more days.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Gay Agenda

My principal volunteered me to speak at the kickoff ceremony for GLASEN (Gay Lesbian Ally School Employee Network), a recently formed group in my district geared towards creating a safe environment for teachers, and ultimately our students. 

 When I first arrived, nervous despite knowing the audience was supportive, there were six of us.  It was understandable.  People are afraid of being out at school.  Oh well, I figured, they tried.  I keep thinking this sort of thing is long, long past due--that it's absurd we should even still need to be addressing these issues--but perhaps it must remain a dream for the future.  What a pity, I thought, with all the lovely decorations on the tables of the hosting elementary school, food provided for up to sixty people, and a real chance at making the world a better place unrealized...

An hour later, it was standing room only.  My principal had injured herself that day and could not be there to lend support or to see how well her efforts had been received; but my young adult daughter and her boyfriend were in attendance, along with the superintendent of our district (sixth largest in the nation), the hosting school's town mayor, liaisons from organizations representing sexual minorities, several school board members, and school personnel from paraprofessionals to principals.  Estimates put the crowd at over 140.

 Thrilled to be part of this effort, I had written a speech, but was asked last minute to trim it down considerably due to time constraints.  Since I was one of the last speakers, editing was made simple, as earlier speakers voiced much of what I had to say.  One school board member moved me and many others by saying that she worked very closely with many religious leaders, and was there to offer an apology.  To paraphrase, she said that religion was supposed to be in the love and comfort business, and was coming to recognize that sexual minorities had been failed on that count.

After the ceremonies, a fellow teacher best summed up my sentiments in saying he didn't realize how much he had needed to hear those words until he did.  It gave me pause to reflect that true equality and respect for all cannot be a divisive issue of us vs. them, whether the anger is directed at sexual minorities or the groups sexual minorities have come to see as the enemy, such as the religious and political right; but through communication and understanding.

Several people asked me to post what I had written in its entirety here, and I'm happy to oblige:

The Gay Agenda

For those of you who did not receive a copy of the gay agenda, it reads as follows:

7 p.m.:  Total global domination.

8 p.m.:  Celebratory vegan potluck supper.

We do have an agenda in public schools, of a different sort.  I found the school board’s mission statement online.  I won’t read all of it, but it includes being committed to ensuring that all students receive a quality education, within a safe and secure learning environment, all students being treated with respect and dignity, basing all decisions on what is best for student needs, and the promotion of diversity so that isolation of specific groups is avoided and the full benefits of integration are achieved.  It goes on to require equitable resources, and teacher training to develop interpersonal skills to work with diverse backgrounds.

At some point, we realized that whatever group we’re discussing, it is vitally important to actively promote that the minority is not only not bad, but good.  We figured out that genuine representations of diverse groups of people have real and lasting effects on both the minority and majority that can help overcome oppression and inequities. 

I took online ESOL courses that challenged me to learn about cultural differences, and to be sensitive to the need for inclusivity so that all of our students have their social needs met in an effort to form a solid foundation to build upon to address their academic needs. 

I was asked to respond to essay prompts on practical considerations that would achieve those goals.  Based on the information provided in the courses, the answers were clear.  We need texts that are representative of diversity in our classrooms, bulletin board displays, posters, multicultural fairs, language and practices that affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all of our students…

Unfortunately, we really dropped the ball when it comes to sexual minorities.  Somehow, that has always been seen as “different.”  Over the years, the conversation has been about whether or not it is reasonable for adults to impose their values on impressionable young children, a convenient diversionary tactic to draw attention away from the fact that “those people” who want inclusion and representation of sexual minorities were ourselves once children in schools, and that we continue to send the message to our students, especially our younger students, that their identities are so repulsive, they cannot even be mentioned. 

Many high schools offer gay/straight alliances, but by then, the damage has already been done.  We do not wait until high school to celebrate diversity on any other score.  That bothers some families, because prejudices still abound, but we do it anyway because we know scientifically and historically that there are real effects to sins of omission that reinforce the notion of a desirable majority and undesirable minority. 

There are parents who actively teach against many of the messages of diversity we send to our students.  When we are confronted by demands to perpetuate their bigotry in our schools by parents who only want their views on race, religion, color, ethnicity or gender represented, we stand strong and respond that we do not cater to prejudice here.  

Yet, despite the fact that there are teachers and families representing sexual minorities in our schools, and children in our classrooms who are themselves sexual minorities, here we cower and tacitly lend credence that this is different.  That’s the argument that is always used to justify prejudices: that prejudices of the past that we now reflect upon shamefully were obviously wrong in retrospect, but that this time it’s different because these people are different in a way that really is unacceptable. 

Religion has always been used as a weapon: to defend slavery, to defend the mistreatment and oppression of women…until, with the passage of time, outrage against minorities seeking equality turns to shame that the beauty in religions was ever so misinterpreted and twisted to have been used to cast aspersions and allow second-class treatment of our fellow human beings.

So, we don’t have textbooks, or bulletin boards, or book bins in elementary school containing books that are inclusive of sexual minorities, out of fear that families will object.  There are still teachers who either intentionally or unwittingly promote heterosexuality as the desired state of being.  Our human sexuality training itself specifically prohibits mention of sexual minorities. 

As a result, I--and many of us here today--went our entire lives only ever having received the message that our existences were too vile to be mentioned in school.  In more recent times, my two children never once saw their family represented in our schools. 

What we do not say speaks volumes, to where even gay teachers think it too dangerous to be openly gay role models, again reinforcing the message that sexual minorities have no place in our schools. 

I am openly gay, and it usually comes up fairly early in the school year, generally when I introduce the concept of ethnocentricity to my class as a precursor to our social studies curriculum.   I read the children an age-appropriate version of Professor Linton’s satirical description of Americans, written to make even mundane norms sound unusual, to make the point that anything can seem odd depending on our perspectives.  

I tell them that what we know to be true of all people is that they are all people, and that people do not like being considered less than equal human beings, specifically mentioning many different types of people.    For the most part, they respectfully nod in agreement; but there are always a few who exchange surprised glances or snicker at the mention of gay people, at which point I state plainly that I’m gay, and that respect for all people is a classroom rule. 

For every raised eyebrow from children for whom that message seems a bit of a stretch, there is always a child who sits up a little straighter, eyes wide with joy, either because I have just stood up for a loved one, or for that child.

To those in the majority, it may come as a surprise to know that it is other gay teachers who usually object to this approach most vociferously.  The most common response is, “Are you crazy?”  I've been asked that a lot, starting over thirty years ago at my insistence that one day gays would marry, have families, serve openly in the military, and achieve equality under the law.  My colleagues acknowledge that my reasoning is sound, that my approach is necessary to instill an acceptance of self and others, and that gay teachers being openly gay to even our youngest students is no different than straight teachers mentioning spouses; but there is still great fear. 

I understand that fear.  I’m afraid right now.  I don’t want to put my career in jeopardy.  I don’t want to put my family or myself in physical danger.  I don’t want irate parents screaming at me.  I don’t want to leave here to find “dyke” spray painted on my vehicle. 

These are real fears that we face.  How we deal with them is a very personal matter.  I only know that if we are to find real acceptance for our students, for our children, the number one deciding factor in how minorities are viewed is how well people are educated on people they consider different from themselves and the attitudes we attach to what we teach.  I personally cannot teach children acceptance of themselves and others if I do not treat my own sexuality as a casual matter of course.

What we teach goes to the heart of our problem.  We teach even very young children about the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but they do not know who Harvey Milk was.  We teach children that Sally Ride was the first American woman in space, but not that she was a lesbian.   We think it’s important that children know that George Washington was married to Martha; but not that Maurice Sendak, who wrote the classic children’s tale, “Where the Wild Things Are,” was gay. 

We teach that there IS no opposing viewpoint to the oppression of minorities—unless we’re discussing sexual minorities, where we have sacrificed children to cater to and reinforce prejudice.   I’m sick of hearing that people are sick of the gay agenda, when that agenda is equality.  I’m sick of our children being discarded by their own families, and shunned by their schools.  I’m sick of statistics on suicide, children living on the streets who become part of the sex trade, kids turning to drugs and alcohol—and those facts being attributed not to systematic abuses that we have allowed society to perpetuate against them, but further evidence of them being inherently inferior.

Enough already.  We need to make the changes, in our schools, in our classrooms, in our minds--unapologetically.

When parents complain that they don’t want their children being sent the message that it’s good to be something other than heterosexual, the message we must send to them is that we do not cater to prejudice, that our mission is to eradicate prejudice, and that we are doing what is just to promote acceptance of diversity. 

It is not enough to promote tolerance—there is no other minority group for whom we could call for tolerance without it sounding as though we find them objectionable but are stuck with them.    

Similarly, while I personally believe there is a genetic component that determines orientation, we need to steer away from the patronizing argument that we need to be more accepting of people because they were born that way.  People of minority religions could convert to the majority religion; but that doesn’t mean they should be marginalized or discriminated against.   The concept that minorities are to be pitied because we cannot change only reinforces the notion of there being a superior and an inferior status, when that ideology is where change needs to take place.

People always object to change.  That’s why it’s foolish to solicit feedback from the majority on minority issues.  Our mission is to protect all of our students and promote diversity; and for that, we do not need to seek permission.   We do not need to defend.  We need only respond to objections dispassionately, with the reminder that we do indeed have an agenda: that all of our students know that they have inherent worth and dignity, and that we do not cater to prejudice here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Evaluating Teachers Is Impossible

I don't mean it is a daunting task.  I mean it is not possible.  Parents, lawmakers, and the public at large want to know how we can determine where teachers rank in terms of quality.  Much as most people bristle at “teaching to the test” and the amount of time and effort that goes into it, the general consensus, even among teachers, seems to be that we do need some form of assessment.  Few in the teaching profession, but many who are not, think that pay should be at least in part tied to performance, with “performance” being measured to some degree to correlate with student test data. 

On paper, it all looks perfectly reasonable.  In reality, it’s simply not possible.  Fervently wanting it to be possible does not negate the fact that it is not possible.  It’s not because there are inherently problems in our testing methods, although there are.  It’s because teaching is an art form, and we can’t measure art.   We can try, but it will only ever be akin to the superficial means we use to try to reduce other intangible qualities to data, and will therefore always be subjective.

Deluding ourselves into believing we can quantify and qualify which peach cobbler deserves the blue ribbon at the fair to impose some sense of equity and absence of bias is one thing; but when the stakes are as high as student learning and teacher careers, we must recognize that these art forms are even more complex than most.  The closest analogy to teaching that comes to mind is parenting.  Foster parenting, actually, with no control over the circumstances from which the children enter our care.

No, this is NOT a rant about how teachers must contend with some difficult parents.  I’m a parent.   I like to think I’m a decent enough parent; but I’m not nearly as magnificent a parent as I was prior to having children.  Back then, I could have been a parenting expert, quick with a knowledgeable solution to any parenting dilemma.  Once I did have children, all bets were off.  Teaching was like that too. 

So, this is not a sarcastic jab, but a serious question to illustrate the absurdities teachers face:  how would we create numerical ratings for parents?  What criteria could we agree upon other than those that qualify as extreme forms of abuse and neglect?   Who would be qualified to determine the criteria, the assessments, and the formulas for calculating rankings?  Would a parent with stellar children be marked down for the one who turned to drugs and crime despite best efforts?   Would a parent’s score vary wildly depending upon whether evaluated by one’s own child, the ex, the mother-in-law, or a complete stranger?

Like parenting, teaching is one of those jobs where the results may not be seen for years.  Even then, the myriad factors that go into how human beings turn out are often beyond our control.  Teachers and parents have good days and bad, because we’re human too.  We each have our strengths and weaknesses, and personal opinions on what determines each.  There is no uniform consensus on what learning or teaching mean, and no number that can be realistically assigned given that fact.  It’s just not possible, no matter how much anyone might wish it to be.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Lost My Words

On Friday, everything started out normally. I was reading a book to the children in the morning. That's when I started losing the words. I don't know how else to describe it.  They thought it was funny at first. Sometimes we all read words incorrectly. This was different.

I'd see the word "Sometimes" in the last sentence, and read, "Eventually." I knew it was a mistake, but couldn't figure it out. I knew it was the word "sometimes," but my brain fought it.

I whipped the children next door to computer lab, thinking I could rest my brain. I must have been reading for too long, must be tired. The children were starting to become concerned,
and so was I.  I had never so much as heard of anything like this.

A child asked for assistance with his computer, only he no longer had a name. I opened my own computer to the attendance page, and all my students' names had been replaced with the names of strangers. Some still had the correct first name, but not the last, or vice versa.

I called a girl over to help me figure out why they had changed all my students' names. She is a good and sweet girl, who was then terrified by my behaviors, insisting that these names were correct. It was like being in a science fiction story. The name of the school had been written on the whiteboard. I identified it as such, but couldn't believe it was spelled that way.

I asked the children to put their computers away and called the front office. Someone I knew and liked very much answered and when I told her all the words were incorrect, she slammed the phone down and raced to me. So did the principal, AP, guidance counselor, an interpreter, reading
coach, teacher who works next to me, ambulance, and assorted paramedics. Some of them I did not know. Of those I did, some had lost their names, but some had first or last names
still. I started crying, because I couldn't get some of the names.

There was no pain, and I wasn't really dizzy at all. I just knew I was losing my mind. A thin black sheet came down over my right peripheral vision. I tried to explain to the paramedics that it was not an ocular affect, but the combination of right and left input not fusing accurately in the mind. Each eye was working accurately independently,but the data processing was flawed when they combined to
work together.

I don't know how that came out to their ears. I know at one point I said I wanted to rest my head back, but first said leg, then back, fighting to find "head." I had to fight to find every word.

Fortunately, there's a hospital next door to my school, and my partner works across the street. Everyone helped to get me medical attention, love, and support. An expert neurologist happened to be on hand. I was given a CAT scan.

Very happily, when I came out of the CAT scan, the thin black veil had lifted from blocking my vision. I glanced around, and saw instantly that I had my words back! I explained when I was wheeled into the ER that I was all better, and could return to school. Whew!

This was met with rolled eyes and laughter. I wasn't going anywhere. First there would be many, many more tests. All came back fine, wonderfully.

My little episode was deemed a transient ischemic attack (TIA), like a teeny tiny mini stroke, unlikely to occur again, but to be taken as a serious wake-up call to change my ways from
extremely poor health habits. I am trying hard to heed the call.

The hardest for me to change is being a type A personality.  How you stop being who you are so you can continue being I don't know. Frankly, I hold most of humanity in contempt for only accomplishing a small fraction of what I do each day. It seems like everyone else is a slacker, completely wasting their lives. Now I have to be one of them, wastingmine to have it. My head can't get behind doing nothing as "relaxing" rather than being useless.

It took only 27 hours from the time I was wheeled in to the hospital until I was discharged, and it seemed an eternity, begging at the end for them to please let me go, like a prison sentence that had been fulfilled while the warden dragged his feet filling out the paperwork.

Still, I recognize that I'll be more useless for much longer if I have aserious stroke requiring others to care for me. So, if you have any flowers for me to smell, I'll be taking time to stop and do just that. 

If you're like so many of us teachers who think you too will simply have to slow down one day, perhaps my cautionary tale will help convince you that today's the day.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

I'm One of the Worst Teachers in My State

I didn’t think I’d like teaching, but instantly loved it when I gave it a shot; and was immediately acclaimed as having a natural affinity for it.  I love the children, learning, and seeing them learn and grow.  I work tirelessly to give them engaging experiences that bring learning to life. 

In the past decade, I have been greatly moved and honored to win numerous awards and been nominated for more still.  My curriculum night presentations are always standing room only, because I’m the funny teacher who is going to make that half hour come to life with hands-on science, leaving them running to administration to sing my praises. 

I initiated and continue to run the chess and drama clubs with no remuneration.  I do get a small stipend for being the academic games coordinator, running the Mathletes team and spelling bee for the school, along with keeping the staff and students informed of enrichment opportunities like academic competitions.  I organize the field trips for my grade level and a trip for 4th and 5th graders to spend three days at an oceanographic institute in the Florida Keys.

My own 5th grade gifted students will end this year with a full understanding of three Shakespearean plays, as class sets of these and other texts were secured through my Donors Choose requests.  Saturday, I’ll be the designated representative picking up free materials for my school.  I write the full year’s lesson plans over the summer (then tweaking as I go).

All of this is highly pleasurable to me, as my efforts pay off in children happily learning at high levels.  Like so many of us here, I’m a doer, always thinking what more I can bring to my school and my students.  Two years ago, I was lauded for my students receiving extremely high state test scores. 

So, I hope you will excuse me if I’m a little grumpy that my name will be printed in newspapers and posted online as an inferior teacher in need of serious improvement. 

Last year, many of my students had had the highest scores on the state tests possible the year prior—a 5 out of 5.  That’s how they get in to my class of gifted and high achieving students.   Except, last year, they raised the bar so that the same 5th graders who scored 5s in 4th grade were much less likely to earn 5s in math and reading in 5th grade.  Some still DID score 5s in math AND reading, yet were still deemed not to have made sufficient progress because they did not score as high within the 5 category as they had the year before. 

It’s like expecting the members of an Olympic pole vaulting team to all individually earn gold medals every time the Olympics come around, regardless of any other factors affecting their lives, with the bar raised another five inches each go around.  In a state where 40% of students pass the 5th grade science test, 100% of my students passed; but no one (at the state level) cares about science scores. 

Therefore, I suck.  A media outlet filed a lawsuit to have the right to publish the names and scores of teachers, because the people have the right to know which teachers are excellent and which teachers suck.  Now they know.  They won’t understand.  I don’t understand.  None of it makes any sense.  But, they’ll know, as my name will be associated with teachers who just can’t deliver, with no regard for actual learning, for instilling the love of learning, for high scores on observations…  None of it matters.

A teacher in California committed suicide a few years back after his name was published in the papers for the same reasons.  I don’t take it nearly that seriously; but it’s still an affront, and just one of many reasons so many of us throw in the towel rather than take the nonsensical abuses that come with teaching.  I keep hoping common sense will kick in and start reversing the negative trends in education.  For the children, their families, and for the teachers—who are actual people, usually with our own families and serious concerns about education.

I keep hoping…

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

There are Gay Children in Your Classroom

That's not meant as a harbinger of doom, but as a simple statement of fact I think is often overlooked in discussions on gay issues in school.  The objections to mentioning anything related to being gay, especially in the earliest grades, always make it sound as though some militant group has an agenda to promote that would impose its will on innocent young children over parental objections, completely ignoring the fact that some of those children are themselves gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, intersexed...we really need a catchall phrase for reference purposes, or some catchy acronym.  I'm using "gay" here as an all-inclusive term for brevity's sake, with the full understanding of the differences and importance each has in its own right.

Yes, the gay children are there even in preschool and kindergarten.  We gay folk don't hatch fully grown.  Others have parents or close loved ones who are gay.  Yet, there persists a mentality that gayness has no place in elementary school.  Whatever your stance on the issue, it's there whether you like it or not.  There are gay children in your classroom.

Your attitudes towards gay people will shape your students' lives, both in how straight children view gays and how the gay children come to see themselves.  We have a plethora of research on the effects of marginalizing any minority group in schools.  That's why we go out of our way to promote various minority groups, to instill the understanding in both the minorities and the majority that being part of a minority group is not only not bad, but good.

Still the objections come, but they never make any sense.

"I don't think ANY mention of sexuality has a place in elementary school."

That's a lie.

If you introduce yourself as "Mrs.", you are in effect announcing to the world--to impressionable young innocent minds--that what you want people to know about you even before your own name, what you consider the most important aspect of your identity, is that you have a life partner, one with whom you presumably have intimate relations.

The same is true of wearing a wedding ring, casually mentioning a spouse, announcing an engagement or pregnancy, or having pictures of your spouse and/or children.  It's always startling to hear the ironic accusation that gay people have to make everything about being gay when from our perspective, that's what straight people do all day every day.

Some people do none of the above and are very private people, but most of what I mentioned is pretty commonplace.  Even the most private teacher likely does expose the children to heterosexuality in numerous ways without ever reflecting upon the families shown in stories or comments that come with a knowing smile that indicate that one day the little boy won't still think girls icky and the little girl won't still think boys are gross.  They just might. 

A gay teacher following suit, or a straight teacher reading a story in which characters happen to be gay, is seen as doing something vastly different.  No one has ever been able to explain the difference to me.  I'm not sure what the reticence is to openly discussing sex in the first place.  Our culture's attitudes towards the subject has resulted in mixed messages, where it's a dirty act giggled over while simultaneously ever-present all around us.  Leaving that aside though, in neither case are overt sexual acts being discussed.

"My religion informs me that being gay is wrong.  You don't have the right to teach my children that which contradicts my religious beliefs."

Yes, I do.  It's not my right, it's my obligation.  I had to sign a paper promising to only teach evolution and never mention creationism.  Teachers are supposed to keep our personal opinions out of our teaching, but the undertone of discussions on slavery and civil rights usually result in the interpretation that people not having equal rights, or being owned outright, were wrongs that have been righted.  We celebrate MLK, not James Earl Ray. 

I'm also charged with keeping all of my students safe.  We all are.  We can't do that if they think we find them repugnant.  The straight and gay kids pick up on the absence of mention intuitively.  That's why we celebrate MLK, yet while every kindergarten child has at least some reference point to MLK, most have never heard of Harvey Milk.

Besides, people pick and choose which beliefs their religions include as though it's a philosophical buffet.   It's weak to argue that no, of course, nowadays we recognize it's wrong to engage in slavery, encourage genocide, smash our enemies' infants on rocks in revenge, or do any number of things that our religions technically advocate, but that believing being gay is bad is still something important to being a good believer.

At some point, righteous people put forth the notion that each of the teachings they could no longer abide by were not essential to being devout, and that it was more in keeping with their religion that they eschew antiquated edicts that did nothing but subjugate and harm their fellow human beings.  When that thinking is not extended to gays, it only means you're really uncomfortable with gays, or perhaps change.  Both are understandable, but neither will permit you to do your job of protecting your students and instilling in them that sense that they are good people.

"I'm one of the good guys.  I teach my children tolerance.    People should be respectful and tolerant of everyone.  There's no need to specifically list the groups of people."

There really is.  We learned from the past that it's not enough to provide blanket statements.  That's why it's important to at least learn our students' names.  Learning is personal.  We want to be seen and accepted for who we are as individuals, and to have our identities validated.  When we point out the accomplishments of black people, Hispanic children feel excluded unless it is specifically emphasized that they too have rich cultural backgrounds with many positives to help frame their identities, that yes, they count too as good people.  It has to be stated.

Also, there's a problem with the language itself.  I don't get warm fuzzies from the idea that I'm being tolerated.  Could you imagine a colleague telling you that she's learned to tolerate you?  We're not supposed to send our students the negative message that even though it's perfectly understandable that we're not comfortable with certain groups of people, it's important that we put up with them. 

That goes hand-in-hand with the dubious claims that gay people were born that way and should therefore be tolerated.   Whether or not the science on it being a genetic trait is valid doesn't matter.  Black people can't help the fact that they're born that way, but the phrasing alone makes it sound as though they should be forgiven for an inherent flaw they cannot control; as though the default position is that obviously everyone would rather be white if given the choice, with no comprehension of the fact that the real problem is that perception.  It's insulting and shows a lack of understanding.

Teachers are important influences on their students' lives.  We ought not become their friends, but it is imperative that they see us on being on their side, wanting the best for them, believing in them, seeing them as good people regardless of the adjectives associated with what they are, focusing on who they are.  We've gotten better at it over the years, dealing with internal prejudices, facing new ones as they arise with newer waves of immigrants and changing social mores.   

We try to be more careful to recognize that not all children come from the same types of family compositions, that some live in foster homes, that there really are different religious considerations, and parenting styles.  It's long past time that we acknowledge the fact that we teach gay children.  We always have. 

Some of us have grown weary of hearing that change takes time.  It doesn't.  Change takes change.  We make the commitment to change, or have it thrust upon us, and we adapt.  There have always been gay children in our classrooms.  The only change being asked of teachers is that we stop ignoring them and start validating them, which technically is what we were supposed to be doing all along.