when my students’ community is broken

Today my heart shattered into a million pieces of stain-colored glass.

My students, with despondent faces, entered my classroom. The air was heavy.

“What’s up guys?”

Crack quiet.

“What’s going on guys?”

Splinter silence.

“Is everything ok guys?”

Splitting stillness.

One brave student:

“Miss, did you hear about the shootings?”

Oh. Right. The shootings. I mean those shootings. I mean those shootings. I mean, how many more shootings do I have to mean!?

“Miss that happened right by my house. I’m scared to go home.”

“Me too.”

“Yeah, by mine too.”

“Me too.”

Disintegrating destruction.

I step over my fragmented heart, walking like a circus performer across a knife-tight-rope. Except this is no circus. This is war.

“What can I do?”

From the cavern of my heart, a tidal wave of grief pours down my cheeks. I hope it reaches their souls. I hope in its liquid sorrow there is love and peace and light and just one iota of safety.

Because what can I do? I come home to my safe mountain home, filled with joy and security. They go home to a Baltimore in their backyards, a Ferguson in their front, and a Middle East minefield embedded in their minds.

What can I do, against darkness? What can I do, against injustice? What can I do, against fear? What can I do, against the color creeds that crescendo into senseless slaughter?

As I write this, they write too. Some exploration of written protest, words against oppression.

Will the words be enough?

What can I do?

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take your vitamins: boosting school immunity in the treatment against teacher turnover

There is an epidemic eating at the bloodlines of our educational system: teacher turnover. Not only is teacher attrition expensive (wasted expenses), it is also detrimental to student achievement and school culture.

I personally have seen the symptoms of this deadly disease. I have spent my entire teaching career (to date, I’m in my eighth year, which you’ll see by the end of this piece makes me Jurassic) in at-risk schools: urban, poor, underserved, underestimated, at-risk, traumatized, overwhelmed, overtested. And in both schools, the teachers are predominantly young and inexperienced–me included. And if they’re not currently, just wait another year… because sadly the teacher attrition rate in high-need schools is an atrocious and powerful illness.

Nearly 20 percent of teachers at high-poverty schools leave every year, a rate 50 percent higher than at more affluent schools. That’s one of every five teachers, gone by next September.

But far more than research, this sickness is personal to me. I have left friends and have been left by my friends in both schools I have worked. I have been interviewed by people looking for teachers in it for the long haul, and I have sat on the other end of that interview table, hoping for the same thing. The eradication of teacher attrition–teacher sustainability and investment–weighs heavy on my heart… every. single. day. To that avail, I’d like to prescribe some treatments for schools like mine…and schools like yours.

  1. Vitamin C–school Culture: Teachers, students, parents, and administration all want the same thing: community…a place where all stakeholders come together for the sake of a vision which, though inclusive of achievement, is bigger than a number. This requires adults who act like adults, professionals who treat each other as such. This also demands a group of people who want to be together and who spend time together in and out of the workplace. To swallow this vitamin, there must also be a focus on the social-emotional health of ALL members of the culture.
  2. Vitamin D–Dissemination: There is no Vitamin C without open communication and transparency. This means all parties have an open-door policy…from the top to the bottom and back up again. People want to be heard, and this doesn’t stop when they go into their places of business. In order for Vitamin D to permeate the organism, there has to be veins: emails, meetings, hang-outs, collaboration. An essential nutrient to pair with Vitamin D is humble questions. Questions are the antibody to assumptions–and assumptions are toxic. Dissemination of information is also critical for a group of people to be moving forward toward a common goal in unity.
  3. Vitamin A–Autonomy: Teachers will want to stay in a school where their professional judgement is trusted implicitly and explicitly. With this Vitamin, they have the creative license to “make things work” inside of the system–whatever that system may be. Schools who regularly take their Vitamin A hire the best there is, and then provide space and inspiration for those employees to do just that–their best.
  4. Vitamin E–Expectations: In a school fighting teacher turnover, there must be equal and fair accountability. Staff should expect the best from themselves, and those around them. But instead of expecting this in a passive-aggressive way (gossip, slander, playing the mom vs dad game with the students, popularity contests), staff should be held accountable to having courageous conversations with each other, talking to instead of about. The same goes for administration. Especially in at-risk schools, there is no time to waste with mediocrity. Each stakeholder should be putting their best foot forward, and each stakeholder should expect that from themselves and each other. A staff healthy in Vitamin E is committed enough to call each other out on the carpet in a loving way, and humble enough to be called out.
  5. Vitamin S–Synergy: In many articles about teacher turnover, a common cause is teacher isolation and lack of support. The remedy for this is collaboration. Collaboration should be both top-down (delegated by administration) and grassroots (teacher to teacher, organic and informal). It should be across grades, content, and staff role. The more teachers reach out to each other as experts, the more synergy builds inside of a school, and synergy neutralizes teacher attrition’s poison. This synergistic collaboration must also exist between the administration and the teachers. Schools where there is an “us vs them” mindset provide the perfect breeding ground for teacher attrition. Instead, Vitamin S is most effective when coupled with a entire staff of innovative, problem-solvers who want to make progress.
  6. Vitamin G–Growth: Another critical part of the treatment against teacher attrition is creating a place where teachers can grow inside of the building, as opposed to beyond it. There must be more paths to teacher leadership than just pursuing an admin license. Teachers must have a place at the table…whatever that table looks like.

Before I conclude, I want to draw attention to what’s not on the list: student demographics, funding, amount of testing, teacher evaluations, etc. Though overwhelming, these are not the issues; they are the system. Urban schools are always going to be challenging places to work. But what’s important is how a group of people comes together, inside the broken system, to make it better, to make it sustainable, to make it a place all parties want to be.

And stay.

when it all falls apart: on senioritis and mindfulness

I write often on this blog space about teaching…and a lot of it is a perky portrait of balloons and bubbles.

Not today. Today those balloons and bubbles popped.

After yet another constipated conversation of reluctant, low-level thinking from my AP Lit seniors, I drew the discussion to an end, dismantled the circle, and asked students to go to their desks and reflect. As a driven teacher, I refuse to waste class time. As a caring teacher, I refuse to not look behind and beyond the surface actions into why. Why are you so quiet? Why has the quality of your thinking decreased? What’s on your mind?

I am worried about the medical tests I am taking. Will I be ok? What is wrong with me? Is the medicine working? My health worries me.

Every year around this time, a sinewy disease crawls into the classroom, weaving discord among the tables and chairs and minds: senioritis. Seniors, who are so consumed with the after, lose sight of the now. And always, we their teachers, gather together and suffer through anxiety, carrying our excessive care for them to a mental place where we can lay down our burdens–their burdens–and swap them for solutions. We know life after high school will be better for them, even if they currently can’t find assurance in that.

Miss, I’m tired. I’m up all night taking care of my younger siblings while my parents work. And this is after sports. And this is after school. I want to do my homework…but when?

I read through their reflections. Heavy. Tired. Buried. Insecure. Brokenhearted. Have I let my coaching responsibilities distract me from good teaching? Have I been too busy performing as the sage on the stage to authentically assess how my students are declining, a slow atrophy? Do I care more about how my classroom appears to the politician’s ever-critical-eye than the students in it? In playing the game, have I lost the game?

There’s a lot going on at home. We are in our third house in as many months. I don’t think we’ll be here long either. It’s hard to pay the bills even though we’re all working.

As I read their reflections, I hear a recurrent echo of not being present due to future worries, other worries, worries not here and now, in this room of learning and loving through the lens of literature. College. Scholarships. Other classes. Work. Home. Relationships. Poverty. Health. Violence. Trauma. Abuse. The list degrades and blurs into elements beyond their control, undeserved and overwhelming.

I am mentally unstable.

Suddenly, senioritis–perhaps something I can influence–seems but a shadow of the oppression that has suffocated their entire lives. And what can I, little old me, this powerless teacher, do to bring down their Goliaths? What stone can I throw? What slingshot do I own? And how do I see the target when I am looking into the hot glare of the sun? And I am afraid, realizing that so many of them self-destruct under the frightful weight of leaving high school, a place that has been consistent in a life of chaos.

My parents do not want me to go to college. I am meant to stay home and support them, to be another mother or another breadwinner.

But they must leave, they must graduate; they are worthy.

And so I research. I print paper. I gather stones: articles upon articles about mindfulness, meditation, being present. Tomorrow, we will have an academic circle about nothing related to the AP Lit exam, but everything related to the test of life. Tomorrow, we will sit in a circle and be human in a data-driven world that insists they are little more than numbers. Tomorrow, I will give them keys to doors they are afraid to open. I cannot take the stress of their senior year away. I cannot do the work for them. I cannot drag insightful thoughts out of them. I cannot feed their families, heal their bodies, redeem their pasts, pay for their housing, or cure their hidden heartbreaks. But this I can do. I can educate them. I can empower them with tools.

I can love them. And I do. And I will.

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