Choosing the Light

This year has been disappointing.  Not in an “I give up” sort of way.  I am too darn stubborn for that.  It is more of a “Wow!  I didn’t see that coming” sort of way.  You would think that, after 20 years in the classroom, few things would shock me.  Yet I am shocked. Saddened.  Occasionally disheartened.  Will I overcome this?  Absolutely!  That is what good teachers do.  Yet to overcome, one must acknowledge the obstacles and then bounce back.  I am happy to say that this weekend was one of solution seeking instead of despair wallowing.  I have been wallowing for a while, so it feels nice to leave it behind.  Maybe that is the purpose of this post tonight…to acknowledge it, but also to demonstrate the tenacity of the teacher, the refusal to give into negativity, which can easily take you out if you let it.

So what has made me so distraught this year?  And what are some of my solutions?  Here is a recap of this years struggles, but more importantly, the things I do to keep myself from going to the dark side:

1.  Chronic Absenteeism: Chronic absenteeism really took a toll on me the first couple of months this year.  I am shocked at the number of parents who allow it.  It saddens me.  While it is not technically abuse, I definitely consider it neglect in this day and age.  To allow your child to miss the very education that could transform his or her future is phenomenally short sighted if not cruel.  I did a little research after calling so many parents this year.  Did you know that a student who misses 18 days of school is considered chronically absent?  That is two days a month.  I have students who have nearly racked up 18 absences already, and it is only November.  I have called parents, checked on students, sent e-mails urging parents to be sure their child come to school when they aren’t throwing up or have temperatures, but to no avail.  This is sad.

So how did I overcome?  I started focusing on the students who showed up every day.  I still call those who miss, and some students have actually changed their habits.  I celebrate that habit change every chance I get with them.  This is the biggest thing they can do to be successful, I tell them.  I focus on the students who come everyday.  I encourage students who have missed to come to tutoring every chance I can.  That is where I can spend more time to catch them up.  And I don’t give up. I pray nightly for those that miss hoping something will change.

2.  Kids who can’t read:  I have more emerging readers than ever, and the forecast next year suggests the same trend.  In the past I have had a handful who couldn’t read or were three to four grade levels below, but now I have a class.  I walked around for the first month of school dazed and confused; I simply couldn’t wrap my head around the numbers.  I didn’t have a tool for this, an easy fix.

My readers workshop wasn’t working many because they simply couldn’t read any books in my library, many of which are written at a 4th grade level.  I needed 1st and 2nd grade books.   So, after my paralysis wore off, I took myself to Goodwill, found books that I thought might interest those students at least a bit, and suggested they try to read some of those.  In short, that didn’t work.  They are too savvy for that.  They knew these were “little kid” books.

What may work was the come to Jesus talk I had last week with that class.  Last Monday, many weren’t even remotely close to the 12 page weekly reading goals they had set for themselves.  I asked how many were reading at home.  A smattering of hands (which, by the way, were the very students I have seen improving) flew into the air.  I paused to ponder where to take this conversation next.

After a moment, I asked how many students intended on graduating high school.  All but two hands went up.  I asked them how many thought their reading was good enough.  Again all but a few hands flew into the air.  I took a chance. I told them the truth.  I told them that, of all those hands in the air, there was probably one or two who were on target and had a chance. I told them that, unless they actually decided to buckle down and do the hard word necessary to learn how to read, they wouldn’t make it.

A lot of experts suggests that it hurts 7th graders’ self esteem if you tell them they are low readers.  I disagree.  I would rather they have their feeling hurt in my classroom instead of at age 18 when they are trying to get a job.  I can rebuild them in the seventh grade and instill skills that will give them more confidence.

Credit to my students.  After they took a moment to process my honesty, after the wide eyed shock wore off, they really tried that day. They pointed to the text as they followed along to the story we were working with. I didn’t have to prod them. They asked me how to pronounce words they couldn’t when some willingly picked up a book.

They have all chosen to rededicate themselves to their weekly reading goals.  Do I think they will all follow through? Of course not.  I am not that naive.  What I do think is I actually got through to one, maybe two. If so, they won’t become a dropout statistic.  I am happy about that.  For those who don’t follow through, I have a plan.  Those students will start doing timed readings, or small groups to focus on some skills they need which might actually help them enough to one day try to read a book.  Maybe they will like a boy or a girl in the future who reads, and they will want to read to impress him or her.  I would love all of them to choose to work hard to learn to read, but if I can reach some, I will have made a difference.

3.  New state requirements:  I recognize the need for data to reflect trends.  What I am not keen on is the overkill now being required.  I am equally, if not more dismayed, by our state’s decision to base 23% of our school’s effectiveness on the program reviews.  These reviews, which require Kentucky schools to evaluate themselves on how well they integrate writing, arts and humanities, and practical living (health, consumerism, career and college readiness) into all content areas.  The amount of time it takes to document how I incorporate these areas into language arts significantly eats into the 24 hours I am given each day. I think this time would be better spent helping my students to read and to write.

The new evaluation system is good in theory, yet the time it requires also keeps me from the things that called me to the teaching profession in the first place.  It feels like, as a great friend of mine put it, we must now prove to the state that we are good at what we do.  What happened to trusting my principal?  My superintendent?

I thought last year’s test scores might prove I was a decent teacher, yet because of the program reviews I talked about in the previous paragraph, our school appears as if we didn’t improve. Interestingly enough, our kids scored higher than they ever have on the state tests.  Something tells me placing a 23% value on program reviews may not truly reflect how well our students are learning.  Just sayin’

So how have I prevented myself from staying in the negative regarding the state trends?  Luckily, I have experienced this several times over the last twenty years.  Every ten years or so, education encounters a major shift.  The thought behind the latest is that we can weed out bad teachers.  It will. Yet it also tires out great teachers…and for the wrong reasons.  I want to come home from work,  tired because I made a difference in a kid’s life, not because I filled out state required paperwork that “proves” I am an effective teacher.  I know when I am effective, and I know when I am not.  My kids tell me. You see, they are as honest with me as I am with them.  I know when I have delivered great instruction, and when I haven’t. Data doesn’t always tell the whole story.  Often, it doesn’t tell you anything about what teachers really do.

So how have I kept myself from becoming disenchanted?  I talk to God a lot.  I ask him what really matters.  Then I focus on that.  How do I know when I am successful if I don’t look at data?  I know I have been successful when a student walks up to me thanks me, when they sincerely apologize when they know I am disappointed, they do a fist pump because they passed a retest, or they burst into my room on Monday mornings and say things like “This book is actually good!  I am already on page twelve!”  That is how I measure my teacher effectiveness.

I have resolved to do the best I can with the state requirements.  I am too much of a rule follower not to.  But there is no person, no agency, no certificate or award given on this earth that really matters more than the approval of my students or the occasional student who sends me a message on Facebook that says “Thanks for believing in me and not giving up.” That is and always will be the way I measure success.

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