Wednesday, January 27, 2010


For a class I am taking, I had to write an essay describing how I fit into my school – my role. I had to consider the school community, and determine my place in it. I described the people who work here – mostly older women who have been teaching for over 10 years. I talked about the bitterness and cattiness that dominate the relationships that people have in school. I described the divide between the older and younger teachers, and the resentment that people feel towards one another’s achievements.

Then I thought about why.

Teaching is unique in many ways. It is harder than almost anything I can imagine. It is physically and emotionally draining nearly every single day. This is not my first job. I have worked as a waitress which is physically draining, in retail, for a Congresswoman, and on National recruitment campaigns for a nonprofit. All of these are uniquely challenging, but there is nothing that I have encountered or heard about that is so completely draining as teaching. This job has sapped my social life dry, leaving me no energy to go out after work, and often making a simple phone call or conversation feel overwhelming.

Last year, my first year, was hard because I didn’t know what I was doing and every day was a surprise. I focused all of my energy on staying alive, not letting any kids die on my watch, and maybe forcing some knowledge into them in my spare time. I was a security guard and a babysitter who was struggling to learn what the word ‘teacher’ even meant. This year I almost never yell. My class doesn’t get out of control. I start a lesson and finish it, and every student hands in the completed work when the period is over. But it is no less draining.

Last year I taught 6 classes. They ranged from 603 to 701. 603 was lovely, and 701 was the devil incarnate. But I would get as angry in 603 as I would in 701. In 701 I would get upset and angry when I realized that no one was listening or doing their work, and that they had no interest in doing it, in listening to me, or in even acknowledging my presence. I would get angry when there were fights, when my classroom was trashed, when they threw things.

In 603 I got mad if one girl passed a note to another girl. These offenses are not equal. Logic would say that I would let the note passing slide in the silent and attentive 603. But I didn’t. My expectations adjusted depending on the class. Perhaps it is a survival mechanism – I couldn’t let the little things get to me in 701 or I would have jumped out the window every day. But in 603, those little things made me deeply disappointed.

This year, things are incomparable to last year. I am a million times better at my job, my kids are learning and working hard and showing me respect. And yet I am still emotionally drained. Now an eye roll will cut me to my core. A student who I expect to get 100% getting a 40% will make me feel like a huge failure. Kids not reading when they are supposed to makes me upset and frustrated, and whispering with a friend while I’m teaching feels like a lot of disrespect.

No matter how good you are at your job – no matter how much easier it gets, you are still spending every day pouring yourself into big groups of kids. And they aren’t empty vessels or even open bottles. They have their lids on tight and million scary things inside of them. Sometimes just the process of emptying them so that there is room for me to put English and math and social studies inside is so daunting and so exhausting that it’s hard to get to the next step. And they are people, who your emotions get wrapped up in, whose success or failure feels personal to you. Their bad decisions feel like a slap in the face, and their mistakes are inevitable and innumerable.

Teachers burn out. Despite summers. Despite spring break. Despite winter break. Despite being able to retire after 25 years. People hit a wall and they can’t keep going. I hear about it and I see it and it seemed strange at first but I am beginning to understand. Teaching is hard.

Which brings me back to the school community. If I teach for 20 more years, I will still be a teacher. I will be making more money, but my title will not change. My responsibilities will not change – at least not drastically. There is no ladder to climb, there is no corporate hierarchy. You only have superiority if you act superior. And after putting many years in, you certainly feel like you deserve some credit.

A teacher who has been here for 10 years is my equal. And yet they are 10 years better than me, 10 years more effective, 10 years more exhausted and more worn out. And so they create lines. The profession doesn’t have any formal separations, and so they create one. And it means that there is a school community that feels strained and stressed and filled with secret rules. But it’s a survival mechanism – you need to feel like you’ve earned something after putting so much into it. You feel entitled to better treatment, and a little more respect.

After 15 years in the corporate world you may have an advanced title, more money, and people who report to you. In a school, you just get the reputation of being over the hill, less energetic, and more embittered and exhausted.


JM is an adorable 13 year-old boy with a huge smile and big brown doe eyes. He is Puerto Rican, with light skin and light brown hair. He is a genius, and he has ADHD. This ADHD borders on insanity. It is an all encompassing condition, that drowns out any rational thoughts he may have, and suffocates all signs of intelligence.

He has been prescribed Concerta, a pill that is designed to calm him down, balance the adrenaline coursing through his veins and possessing him with demonic strength. The standard dose is 18mg, and he is prescribed double that – 38mg. Most of the time, however, he comes to school with a dosage of none.

“What kind of mean trick is your dad playing on us?” we ask him when he arrives at school with his eyes all googly, a devilish grin playing on his lips. He picks up a pencil and throws it across the room, and then looks at us innocently.

JM gets 100% on every single thing that he learns. If he is medicated when we teach it, he learns it immediately, and retains it forever. If he is medicated everyday, he’d be the highest functioning child in the school. He’s great at football, loves the Yankees, and is starting to have girlfriends. He’s a sweet kid who is curious and interested in the world around him. At the beginning of the year I saw Mark Teixeira when I got tickets to the Letterman show. I showed him pictures and he asked to look at them 4 more times that day.

He has a brother in the 6th grade, a sister in the 7th, and he’s in the eighth. All of them are being raised by their father, a man who works near the school and spends most of his time in the school, checking up on his kids or hanging out in the PTA office. His mother died two years ago of a heroine overdose, and his uncle was killed last year. His sister gets in an increasing amount of trouble and leaves the room in tears anytime the word mom is said. With the predominance of ‘Yo Mama’ jokes, she spends a lot of time in the hall.

When he isn’t medicated, JM makes touchdowns after school and makes all of his friends laugh. He throws things across the room, talks incessantly, and threatens to poison his teachers. When asked to be quiet by my co-teacher, he went on a quiet rant.

“F*** out of here, you shop at Target. You fat B****. You go to Payless to pay less. Get a life. I was talking to Ms. K not you so go shop at Payless. You even buy your shoes at Target. Shut Up, Mind Your Business.”

Last month he was mad at me and told people he had put rat poison in my coffee. He told his dad not to buy me a Christmas present. He stole things out of my purse and he told the Assistant Principal that I was trying to sabotage him.

Then he looks at you with his big eyes and his tiny frame, and you see that he has no control over himself and can’t be held accountable.

When he takes his medication, he is a zombie, quiet and without affect. He is studious and concentrated, and absolutely silent. He doesn’t talk, he doesn’t run triumphantly around the room and out the door, he doesn’t yell “Hurricane Katrina!” when there is a gust of wind that blows the window open. He sits silent and somber at his desk, and listens and learns. But he is not here.
We curse the father for sending him to school unmedicated. He can’t learn, we can’t teach, he’s out of his mind and getting in trouble. How can a father not give his son the medicine that he is prescribed? He claims that JM hides the pill in his mouth and spits it out. We ask JM, why don’t you take your pill? You know you are hurting yourself. He says it takes away his appetite so he can’t eat, and that it makes him feel lazy all day.

“How do you feel right now? Do you feel crazy?” we ask him, after he has vaulted over desks to smack someone and then done a victory lap around the room.
“I feel normal.” He says. We tell him to take half the pill, and he comes to school toned down but still not learning.

It’s a difficult situation – to be successful he must suppress himself. And as much as we wish he did it every day, if he did we wouldn’t know him. Wouldn’t know about the incredible energy that he has, or how hard he can make people laugh, or how he glows when he gets attention. As a parent, it would be hard to give your child a pill that would make them disappear – even if it was the only way for them to learn.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


They talk about teacher magic as though it is a tangible – as though all teachers bring some magic to their classroom, some element that makes kids spark. When they talk about systemic reform that would make education more uniform across classrooms, schools, and states – they hurry to assert that they have no intention of interfering with ‘teacher magic’. They want to have uniform standards and curriculums and calendars, but allow the goals to be reached on a daily basis by whatever means the individual teacher prefers.

I came into teaching not really understanding what teacher magic is. I thought that if you could learn to manage a class, and you could learn to teach the kids in a way that is fun and engaging, than you have learned to teach. Last year, I viewed successful teachers as those who were scary, who the kids listened to. I saw kids sitting silently in some classrooms, shaking in fear, and dreamed about the day when I would be scary.

That day never came. No kid shakes when they see me. Not a single child is afraid of what I might do. “Out-crazy them!” was the most frequent advice given to me last year, as I struggled to find ways to make my class respect me. “They have to believe that you are nuts, that you could fly off the handle and hit them at any minute. Be crazier than they are – surprise them – throw things – be unpredictable!” Needless to say, that goal also never materialized for me. But things changed, nonetheless.

This year, management isn’t much of a problem. My class never really gets out of control, and when I start to teach a lesson I always finish it. The students finish their projects, they hand in their homework, they study for quizzes. I teach them History by making it interactive, allowing them to work together and do projects. I teach English by giving them some freedom, encouraging them to read anything and write what they are interested in. These are good things – smart ways to teach, I am told. And yet, there is no magic to what I do.

This year I can see that the ‘magic’ doesn’t come from being scary – though many teachers are that. Having your class under control is something you can learn. Making lessons successful is also something you can learn. What you can’t learn is how to make students want to listen to you – make them hang on every word that you say.

My co-teacher is a wonderful teacher. She’s been doing it for much longer than I, and I have learned an incredible amount from sharing a classroom with her this year. We both plan lessons, come up with solutions for problems, help kids, manage the class, call parents, grade papers, and teach 3 subjects. We may not look incredibly different. But she’s got that magic. She can make any group of kids sit and listen to her – she can make them learn just because they want to hear what she’s going to say next. She’s not crazy or scary or mean – she just captures their interest – grabs their attention. It’s almost accidental, it just comes so naturally to her.

Mr. M is in his 3rd year of teaching, and he too seems to have this magic. His students want to make him laugh, want to hear his opinions, and will gather around to listen when he tells a story. He has a good relationship with them – yes – but it’s more than that. This is something that he could do with any group of kids.

In many ways, you can really learn to teach. There are a million skills that can be practiced and mastered and applied every day to make students successful. But, it is foolish to think that teacher magic doesn’t exist or isn’t important. Indeed it is what makes great teachers stand out from those who are competent. And I’d like to think that it can be learned – that I could eventually embody the demeanor that makes kids cling to my every word, but the truth is that it just comes naturally to a lucky few. After all, many days it does feel like it takes miracles and magic and the supernatural all working together to make my students learn. To bring that magic with you into a classroom, makes it feel less like work, and more like home.


If you have a learning disability, you get an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). If you suffer from mental retardation, you get an IEP. If you have developmental disorders, you get an IEP. If you have socio-emotional disturbances, you get an IEP.

An IEP is required for a student to be put into special education. As is the case throughout the country, students need to be in special education for a wide variety of reasons. This wide array of problems is funneled into a catch-all cure called an IEP. . Any problem that prevents a child from being successful in general education settings is treated with an IEP.

An IEP has many parts. It describes the grade level that the student is working at, and it has anecdotes of their performance that are provided by their teachers. It describes their academic abilities, their social abilities, and talks about the various solutions that have been tried. After this exposition section, the team of people writing the IEP begins to prescribe solutions. Generally they will say that a student needs intervention services, and that they need to have modified promotion requirements. This means that they will be put into a more restrictive setting (smaller student-teacher ratio, less movement between classes, etc.) or will receive services (speech, counseling, etc.). Often this is a good thing, and it allows students to achieve a measure of success that they wouldn’t have been able to in a large General Education class. The more restrictive setting provides students with more stability.

The modified promotion requirements, however, do not necessarily lead to success. These generally say that the student has to master only 20-40% of the content for the grade in order to be promoted to the next grade level. In the cases of Mental Retardation, learning disabilities, and in some cases, physical impairments, this may be necessary. However, in situations where the problem the student is experiencing is socio-emotional, this is a counter-intuitive solution. These students often operate on the same grade level as their peers, and are fully capable of doing the work. Modified requirements say that they don’t have to.

Often students with these problems have difficult home lives, and come to school angry and hurt and confused. This overflow of emotion prevents them from completing the necessary work in class, and from behaving in a way that is acceptable. This is a problem, and should certainly be addressed – however, it is a very distinct problem. These disturbances are mot similar to mental or physical handicaps, and they should therefore not be treated in the same way that those handicaps are treated. Lowering academic standards only exacerbates the problems that these kids are having, as now they are able to get older and move up the grade levels without ever having to learn anything. They find themselves 3 years later, still operating on a 5th grade level while their peers have grown to a 9th grade level. This doesn’t make them happy, generally – in fact – it often makes them more angry, and less likely to succeed in school. The farther behind you get, the harder it is to catch up, and the special education system in low-income schools does these kids a great disservice.

Socio-emotional disturbances are probably more common in low-income schools than in high-income schools by virtue of the problems that are associated with poverty which these kids face every day. And yet, in high income schools, if a child is depressed or angry or upset, they receive counseling and guidance, and other services which may help them.

Depression is an affliction of the wealthy – in poor communities there is no benefit to diagnosing or treating depression. Many health insurance plans don’t cover mental health services – and certainly for the uninsured families that attend this school, mental health is not a priority. There was an article in the New York Times last week that drove this point home, entitled "Children on Medicaid Found More Likely to be Prescribed Anti-psychotics." It talked about doctors with little time prescribing antipsychotics, harsh, severe medications, to address the problems children from poor-communities have. With more time and more money, they may be diagnosed with a learning disability, depression, or another affliction which would allow for less severe medications with less serious side-effects. But in these communities, the resources required to make an accurate diagnosis are not always readily available.

The time, money, and long-term commitment that are required to address mental-health issues are not resources that are readily available in poor communities. It is far easier to slap band -aid on the problem than to search for a real cure. Their problems are as real as anyone else’s, and yet in these communities it is far too inconvenient to address them properly. We forget what a luxury it is to have real solutions for our problems, to have doctors and parents and teachers who have the time and resources to treat us as individuals. Too often, the problems that these children come to school with are prescribed a one-size-fits-all IEP, which misses all of the real points of their difficulties. And the depression and anger and sadness that is in their lives is taken in stride, expected to disappear if the children can just learn to behave themselves.

Bandaids are cheap, a whole box for $5. They aren’t preventative, and they aren’t cures – they just keep out the dirt and germs, hopefully allow a wound to heal on its own. But for those problems that don’t cure themselves – those cuts that seem not to scab – they just provide a cover, to hide the problem from ourselves and the world, though it still hurts beneath the bandage.