The Truth About Being a Teacher Affected by Reform, Part 2

13 Signs It’s Time to Take a Leave of Absence

 I’m a list person. I make lists for everything: lists of things we need to do around the house, lists of things I want to do around the house but don’t think we’ll ever be able to afford, lists for the store (1 per store), lists of things I want to talk about if I ever get another girls’ night out, and on and on. So, it’s no wonder that when I started seriously considering taking a leave of absence a year ago that I made a list of pros and cons. I fit the cons of leaving the profession on a Post-It: namely, I think I’m still making a difference. The reasons to leave my classroom filled pages.

As the deadline to file the request for my leave of absence approached, I used my lists to help me make my decision. There was, “I think I’m still making a difference” vs. 927 reasons to leave. Okay, maybe I exaggerated a little. But it was not about the numbers. Making a difference was a huge reason to stay. The problem was with the word “think.” Remember, I’m the English teacher, so words matter. A lot. And when I looked at that Post-It and saw that I made it a point to write “think” when considering one of the most important decisions of my life, it told me a great deal more than the 927 pros.

But, I wanted to be thorough. So, I highlighted the cons that stood out the most to me. Some of them made me cry. Some of them made me ashamed. Some of them shocked me. I was an effective teacher: both by the numbers the administrators like to see in the data reports and, more important to me, by the students who thanked me and smiled at me and worked harder for me than they ever had in their academic lives prior to walking into my classroom.

I promised to post these reasons to walk away from my teaching career again. So, here it is, the second of my very first blog postings that I was told to remove or I could be fired “on the spot.” In the name of transparency, I am posting them nearly identically to the way they appeared the first time around, lest I be accused of “cleaning them up” for my online image or because I’m afraid of testing my Right to Freedom of Speech.

When I published this earlier, it struck a wrong cord with some people. I believe that’s why sarcasm and humor are subjects in my English classes. This is not meant to be taken literally, and all opinions expressed are solely due to my own warped sense of teacher humor when dealing with the very real issues of educational reform, over-testing, under-funding, growing class size, curriculum changes, new standards, new graduation requirements, and increased poverty levels in our district… I’ve often said that if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry. And, to all of you teachers out there – be honest with yourselves while you’re reading. There is a good chance you’ve experienced these feelings, including #2, at some point, whether you have the guts to admit it or not.

After eleven years in public education, I’ve decided to take an unpaid leave of absence for the next school year. Mind you, I’m solely responsible for my family’s health insurance and I’m already feeling anxiety and panicking at every turn, but I’ve been approved by our school board, so I’m really doing this crazy, out-of-character thing and trying my hand at freelance writing for a year. The signs have been there all along; no, this is not a pitch for The Sixth Sense. But, I know it’s time.

1. It took weeks to whittle this list down to just 13 publishable signs

I’m not that jaded, overly obnoxious teacher that everybody likes to complain about because I make too much money and don’t work hard enough. Nope, that overpaid-underworked teacher bashing doesn’t fit this girl. Being an English teacher during a time when students are reading less and less and relying on technology more and more has not exactly been a walk in the park. In fact, I have observed students choose to stare at the ceiling during free time, rather than pick up a book. It’s like they think books are radioactive or something. I challenge anyone who still believes teachers are overpaid and underworked to come and spend one day, no – one hour, in my shoes. And, I don’t even have it the worst in my building; I feel for the resource room teachers more than anyone else. Let’s just say that things are much worse after year eleven than they were after year one.

Face it. Anyone who doesn’t believe me is more than welcome to get a teaching degree. It only takes four years, mandatory highly-qualified testing and security clearances (that you have to pay for out of pocket prior to being hired), mandatory credits in a five-year period after earning your degree, patience, thick skin, armor, empathy, flexibility, the ability to hold your tongue… well, you get the point. If you think you’re qualified and don’t mind the fact that your students’ assessment scores will determine your eligibility to then keep your job and perhaps earn raises, go for it. In my experience, though, it’s a lot easier for these critics and bashers to use their mouths than their brains and sit back in their own lives instead of getting that golden teaching degree and taking a turn at the life they think is so simple.

2. I can’t be nice to the stinky, smelly kid for much longer.

There’s always one. The kid who I feel really bad for at the beginning of the school year, who wears the same clothes day after day and who has no model of personal hygiene at home. I report him to the nurse and the Student Assistance team, but we can’t follow him home and wash his clothes and force him into the shower. I get a reprieve when it becomes freeze-your-snot cold and I forget how much he smells. Then, the April heat wave hits. And I don’t know where the best seat for him is. Should I put him by the window, hoping that the smell goes out, or should I keep him away from the window so that the breeze doesn’t blow his stink across the room? Should I put him by the door, so that his odor cloud stays near the exit? And, which kids are kind enough to put near him when I redo the seating chart? And, most of all, how can I stand beside him and help him complete assignments and conference about his writing? Dear God, where’s the Febreze?

3. I say this too many times in one day: I know what you’re going to ask, and my answer is that you may not go to the bathroom, and yes, I really mean it.

Teachers have an uncanny way of knowing when kids are shitting them about having to go to the bathroom. Really. And the fact that I know that you were just in the bathroom last period because you gave a kid in my room the finger while you walked by REALLY makes me less inclined to sign your pass to go to the bathroom during my class. Oh, and the fact that you never raise your hand to answer a question or ask a question, other than to ask whether you can go to the bathroom or occasionally the nurse really makes me not want to let you leave my room. It’s funny, but if you would actually DO something during the fifty minutes you’re in my room, I might allow you to go. Otherwise, you may not go because I’m afraid that you might get inspired to pick up that pencil or flip that book to the correct page while you’re not in the classroom. So, good luck on that assessment that determines my family’s financial stability. You won’t pass the test in the bathroom, that’s for sure.

4. I cry uncontrollably every night for the final two weeks   four weeks  two-thirds of my summer vacation.

At first, I thought that it was because I was nervous about teaching a new curriculum and then in a new district and then in a new building. Or, I thought that it was because our fixer-upper was never going to be done before the wedding and move-in date. For awhile, I thought it was because I didn’t want to leave that precious little person who had my nose and whom nobody would be able to take care of as well as I could; then, I thought it was because I didn’t want to leave that second precious little person who looked even more like me than the first.

Then, I finally admitted that I was a basket case in August because I could not face another year with kids who hated my guts just because I was lucky enough to have them in class and wanted them to understand how much better their lives would be, if they just cracked open a book and picked up a pencil. I wouldn’t turn the calendar to August until the day school started – usually around the 25th. I would refuse to look at the rows of corn in the fields because I could judge how close the beginning of school was, just by the height of those damn green plants. I would search the classifieds and Google my degrees and qualifications, just in case there was a job I could apply for, before I had to walk into that institution of learning one more time. I would beg my husband to look at his books one more time and see if we could afford for me to take a year off after each baby. Not even the copious amounts of back-to-school supplies (about which I get ridiculously excited, even though I hate their purpose) in the bags that I lugged to my second-floor classroom eased the pain and anxiety. I just knew when I couldn’t do this job one more year. One more month. One more week. One more day. One more second.

5. I watch the weather reports religiously and have developed a “snow dance” for two-hour delays and early dismissals from October to April.

I became known in each of my buildings as the “Snow Queen.” I had multiple weather sites bookmarked and considered meteorologists close personal friends. I could track low-pressure systems and pockets of moisture with the best of them. Students would start asking me to make predictions because I had darn good stats. I wouldn’t sleep at night because I would keep checking the radar and waiting for the text announcing a delay or a cancellation. Any break from that place was welcome, even if it were only two hours for a delay. And nobody took more pleasure in those breaks than I did. Other teachers lamented the loss of time and the rewritten and crossed-out lesson plans; I danced a little jig the whole way into school.

6. I can type, take attendance, answer the phone, hand out four pencils, and write a pass to the nurse all at the exact same time, but I can’t remember the last time that all of my students were in class on time or had their own pencils.

At some point, I realized that I was working harder than the students. I was providing pencils and encouragement and extra copies to kids who looked at me like I was the dirt on the bottom of their shoes. I kept track of kids who needed extra help with poetry, literature, nonfiction, writing, and speaking and brought them into my room before school, after school, and during special periods during the day, just to have them not show up on the day of the retests.

Hell, I was working harder than half the people on my floor. Nothing pissed me off more than knowing that I spent hours raking over student data, planning lessons, choosing reading and writing assignments, writing my own student assessments, and knowing that at the end of the year, I would get the same satisfactory rating as the teachers who didn’t even get to their classrooms until after the student tardy bell and whose homeroom students had been standing in the hallway for fifteen minutes or the teachers the kids fight over because they “never do anything and give grades just because they like you.” True story.

7. I am texting and checking Facebook on my iPhone more than the students are during class.

That isn’t necessarily true. I wasn’t on Facebook during class, and I only texted in necessary situations (e.g. text to my husband: “Get rum. Lots of rum.”) during class. But, during my prep period and lunch period and extra time before and after school when those kids didn’t show up for the extra practice that I had spent two hours on, I was on my phone. Those HuffPost stories and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert videos were my escape and my salvation. I had turned into those students who would rather zap their brains with bright images on the screen than pick up any of the books surrounding me in my classroom. I just needed a break. All the time.

8. I swear in class and try to convince myself it’s to get the kids’ attention, but I know it’s because I’m secretly hoping to just get fired.

I always wanted to be the upstanding, professional woman that I emulated when I was in high school. She never raised her voice. She never swore. She could knock down an entitled, cocky athlete with one lash of her tongue. Yet, I have been swearing more and more in class. Nothing X-rated, and certainly nothing R-rated, but cursing nonetheless. Sometimes, it works when expressing attitudes about a text that the kids are struggling to describe without the dreaded curse word. Other times, it adds emphasis. And sometimes, you just hope the wrong kid will hear it and tell his parent and you’ll get suspended. Or terminated. And some days, that doesn’t sound like such a terrible thing.

9. I count down the days until Christmas break after the first week of school and I count the days until the last day of school as soon as we’re back from Christmas break.

I used to complain about the teachers who had the countdowns on their chalkboards (and then white boards) when there were still eons stretching before us. Now, I secretly have a countdown on my calendar. And when things get to that I’m-going-to-tear-out-my-hair-if-you-don’t-just-do-what-I-ask-you-to-do-today stage, I count days between sick days and personal days to see if I can make it to the next weekend or if I need a break. NOW. I used to fret about missing school and being really sick and saving days for when our sons were sick; since, it has turned into counting how many more days I can make it without a break, and let’s plan a sick day for THIS day.

10. I lie to my older son every night when he asks how my day at school went. I want him to love school and not be scared by my horror stories.

Every night at bedtime, my older son and I talk about our day. The good parts, the bad parts, the fun parts, the silly parts, all of it. He is a very sensitive kid, so he can tell when I’ve had a bad day, and he’s been known to offer to come and “kick their butts” when I tell him the kids were especially “bad” that day. He’s also been known to tell me to have the principal call their moms and make them take them home, which is pretty astute for a four year old because the principals have trouble figuring that out at times. Anyway, I realized that he may start thinking that school is a “bad” place or that he doesn’t want to be around those “bad” kids, so I started lying to him. I told him that we celebrated because everyone remembered their pencils; I told him that the kids who started to be disrespectful apologized right away and were kind for the rest of class; I told him that I loved school that day and couldn’t wait to go back tomorrow. He smiled each time and said that he’s glad things were going so well and that he is happy the kids are being good. And, the entire time we are talking, I am trying to decide what I am going to do when it is time to send him to high school. Things drastically must change before I will subject him to this place. That’s all there is to it.

11. I am ready to take a baseball bat to the copier. And beat it to a pulp. And then dance on the pitiful electronic remains.

Right or wrong, I emailed documents to my mom so she could copy them for me at any one of the three elementary schools in which she teaches. Our copiers haven’t worked – neither well, nor at all – since the second week of school, and that’s not an exaggeration. Atypical for me, I know. Whether it’s because of the teacher who runs thousands of copies a week because he doesn’t teach, he “packets” kids to death, or because of the teachers who run copies without giving the machine a break, is beyond me. I just know that the copies that I need truly are necessary for class; I am attempting to teach my aliterate students (see Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide) to annotate texts and interact with words, and the only way to do that is to give them copies they may actually write on and mark up with abandon. Nothing can ruin a day, a lesson, a teacher’s very level of effectiveness faster than a lack of resources. I’m not asking for an ELMO or an iPad for every student; I simply am asking for copies so that my students can read and I can teach and we can all be prepared for that damn standardized test. Ugh! There goes another quarter in the swear jar. I think I may be a thousandaire now!

12. I wonder how I could be in a horrible accident, without really getting hurt, but still not be permitted to go to school. I think it’s called insurance fraud. And that option sounds better to me with each passing day.

Don’t call the authorities, my husband, my mother, or my doctor. I’m not depressed (not any more than the teachers who actually are on medication – I am not… yet) and I don’t have a death wish or a suicide plan. Well, unless you consider my walking into a building where I am disrespected, despised, and taken advantage of every day a suicide mission. Then, I definitely have a problem! But, I do wish there were a way that I could get out of this place and still support my family. I’d be thrilled to write curriculum, lead teacher trainings, or rule the district for awhile. I think it’s the classroom I need out of. STAT!

13. I cannot tell kids the importance of ALL of the assessments they take because I don’t agree with them. At all.

At the end of the day, none of these things are totally new. There always have been assholes in my classroom. There always have been apathetic, ineffective administrators and principals. There always has been a lack of curriculum, direction, and discipline. What TRULY have changed are the assessment-obsessed government leaders and teacher-bashing politicians and evaluation-based-on-student-assessment practices. All in eleven years. All of the viral resignation letters that have touted assessment as the number one reason teachers have left the profession are true. Kids are assessed more than they are taught. Our own superintendent admitted this fact at a school board meeting and then in the next breath said that we can’t teach if we don’t know where students are. Well, we can’t teach when we have to give a dozen assessments per marking period that tell us where students are. Doctors don’t give test after test after test to diagnose a problem once they already know the answer – they get the information they need and then they act. Teachers should be given the same leeway with their instincts, knowledge, and training.

Some assessments are in order, and some standardized assessments are, I suppose, necessary. But the kids don’t see the value in or the need for those assessments. These kids can’t even pass their driving permit tests the first (or sometimes third or fourth) time, and they actually study for those and WANT that permit. At least this year’s freshmen need to pass the tests to graduate, so they may see some value in their assessment results, but I still see freshmen every day who don’t bring pencils to class, who don’t open their books, who don’t take notes, who don’t stay awake. Teens are unable to grasp the gravity of the assessment situation. They are not wired to understand that at fourteen years old they are charged with passing a test that will determine their graduation status in four years. They can’t even understand why they shouldn’t take provocative pictures of themselves and post them online.

So, after eleven years I’m taking a year off. It’s important to note that the next-to-the-last school day is upon us, and I’ve been asked to sign a few yearbooks and even told I’m the “perfect” teacher. I wish I could find more of these bright spots in the abyss of the school days when I’ve had three kids tell me off, two parents question everything I am doing to their cherubs, and at least one colleague comment on how “tough” I am on the kids. Maybe a year to reflect on those times will reenergize me and help me to refocus for the 2015-2016 school year. We can all f&*#ing dream. There’s another quarter. Damn!

Don’t feel sorry for me. Don’t get mad that I’m being painfully honest in a time when teachers need to be careful about everything they broadcast to the world of education reform. And please don’t send me hate mail. I don’t have time to read it, anyway.

But, DO think about this: If a teacher who is a leader among her peers and is helping her students achieve more academic growth in one year than they were predicted to can feel this way over the course of a year, what does that say about the state of education in this country? I am not the best teacher who ever taught; but, I was damn good at what I did AND I felt this way at some point during the school year. Things need to change before all of the good teachers are gone.

On the Issue of Those Pesky First Amendment Rights for Teachers

Teachers are people, too! I’ll never forget going to the grocery store with my mom, who is a teacher with 36 years in the classroom under her belt, and realizing they not everyone views us that way. By the way, she will tell you that it hasn’t been 36 full years, because she was hired part-time and didn’t achieve full-time status for awhile. I say the woman has been in a classroom or elementary library since 1978, and that’s 36 years.

Anyway, we were grocery shopping, and a little boy looked at her with eyes as big as saucers and ran to his mother. He was pointing at my mom and mumbling something. I thought my mom must have reprimanded him at some point in the library to have traumatized him so, but the poor kid actually was so shocked to see her outside of the library that he thought she was looking for him to get back a lost book.

As the daughter, granddaughter, niece, great-niece, and great-great-niece of educators, I didn’t know that kids thought their teachers lived in schools. I just thought it was weird that other kids said their parents were going to work, and my mom said she was going to school. But, apparently, kids think their teachers live, eat, and sleep at school; thus, they don’t realize that teachers are real people.

Unfortunately, it seems as though many of those misguided children grow up to be lawmakers, lobbyists, judges, and Campbell Brown. These people don’t realize that teachers are, in fact, people who are capable of having thoughts and opinions. Worse, they don’t think teachers have the same right to express those thoughts and opinions publicly. First Amendment, be damned!

I have first-hand experience with this. When I started this very blog in June, the initial two posts were about how I knew it was time to take a leave of absence from teaching, even though I was in the prime of my career. I may have been a little harsh in my language and brutal with my honesty; however, to the best of my knowledge, I broke no levels of confidentiality, I used no names (in fact, most of the anecdotes contain characters who are blends of students and colleagues and administrators I’ve encountered in eleven years in the trenches), and I ran the posts past some of my union leaders prior to publishing them online. I was received with mostly positive responses and more encouragement than I had expected. In fact, friends of mine who teach in other districts in a couple of states shared it with their colleagues and union leaders; they actually asked for permission to share my posts at their end-of-the-year festivities because they were so entertained, yet moved by my story. Nearly every teacher who read those first posts said it was as though I had been inside his classroom or inside her mind while writing. And, most of the educators who read those posts encouraged me to keep telling the true story of what it’s like inside public education today.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I received a phone call advising me to take down the blog. I was told that I could be terminated “on the spot.” In my mind, I simply was exercising my First Amendment right; in their minds, I had overstepped some sort of boundary that forces teachers to keep everything under our hats. In the end, I complied because I didn’t know where this new freelance adventure was going to take my family’s finances, and I could very easily need to return to the classroom. It was a very difficult decision and I was beyond livid, but I realized that I had to follow the advice, at least for the time being, for my family.

I then changed the direction of the blog to family and parenting and observations of life under my ponytail, all the while wondering how my audience would have grown if I had left the posts as they were. I also wondered how many other teachers would have responded positively about someone finally being able to tell it like it is.

Then, I saw the Campbell Brown interview with Stephen Colbert. I couldn’t keep quiet about that. I was angry and insulted and disgusted by her insinuations, her spin, and her less-than-half truths. I sat down and penned the open letter thinking that I would feel better once I got it all out. I walked away from it and tried to go back to the writing job that is paying the bills. But the thought of leaving the letter off the blog, too – of not being able to share my opinions and thoughts and feelings as a professional in the education field AGAIN – was too much. I closed my eyes, hit “Publish,” and went to bed.

The response has been overwhelming for someone whose blog was getting between 50-100 hits a day (other than those initial education posts that were getting more hits than expected for a blog that had been up and running merely for two days). When it hit 1,000 views, I was thrilled. When it hit 5,000, I was in tears. When it hit 10,000, I was stunned and shaking. It’s still going. And, the responses to the letter are equally as overwhelming.

Teachers are sharing stories with me that are breaking my heart. They have lost their unions, their pensions, their classrooms, their autonomy, and for most, their dignity, as politicians, corporations, parents, and people like Campbell Brown come after them day after day after day. People are asking me to share their stories, and I can’t do that in good conscience when I’m afraid to share mine. The repercussions are far too great. I’m still researching cases in which judges are ruling against teachers’ First Amendment rights. Facebook statuses are getting teachers fired, even when they aren’t breaking any confidentiality, laws, or contract obligations. Yes, teachers always have been held to a higher moral code, and some teachers push the envelope with their language and overabundance of personal information and other things that in all honesty should be actionable. This is not why unions exist, and this is not why tenure exists, and teachers need to be smart about what they share.

But, teachers are people, too. They should have equal protection under the First Amendment when they want to add their voice to “education reform.” They should have a voice when governors slash education budgets by millions of dollars year after year after year (don’t forget, I live in PA, with arguably one of the worst governors in relation to education in the entire country). They should have a voice when administrators bow to parents because they are afraid of losing kids to charter schools and cyber schools that are draining desperately-needed resources from the majority of kids in public schools. And, they should have a voice when they decide to leave their profession for a year because they know they need a break.

I WILL be publishing those initial blog posts in the next couple of days, with a few tweaks. I am a person, too. And I have First Amendment rights, just like everyone else. We will see whether I actually do or not. In the meantime, I’m going to try to do some more research about it, so if anyone else has links to those recent cases, from anywhere in the U.S., please send them my way.