Saturday, August 17, 2019

Mrs. J Goes Rogue

In sixth grade,  my classmates and I were caught in the middle of a bit of a hubaloo in my rural elementary school.  It was 1983, and the idea of gifted education was just beginning to sprout from, well, nonexistent roots.

All fifth and sixth grade teachers were asked to identify gifted students from their classes.  Once a week, those students would go to the cafeteria for "gifted class," taught by an "enrichment expert" they'd brought over from the junior high school.  Only those teacher-identified kids, though:  All the others would stay in their regular classrooms.  To be ungifted, presumably.

Most teachers did as asked, and letters were sent to parents.  Your child's teacher has indicated that your child exhibits learning and behaviors of a gifted child.  Every Monday afternoon, your child will receive special instruction... or something like that. Classroom teachers distributed the letters, concealed in long white envelopes: "To the parents of..."

At the time, I didn't know any of this was happening.  Because I was a student in Mrs. J's class.

Mrs. J. instinctively and immediately recoiled against the whole thing.  She quietly ignored her principal's mandate, refusing to bear the responsibility of such a subjective and arbitrary gifted identification process.

So on the first Monday, when the principal's voice boomed from the P.A., asking for all gifted students to come to the cafeteria, Mrs. J. stopped us, right in the middle of our study of the solar system.  Pack up your Trapper Keepers and follow me," she said.  Innocents, all, we did.  The principal's eyes widened as we walked in, all 27 of us, single file, led by the marchy-marchy Mrs. J.

He sputtered.  "What is this?"

"Gifted students," she said.

"But... you were to identify them.  A small number of them.  Five, or six, at the most."

"All my students are gifted," she said, firmly and fiercely and full of fight.

I don't know what happened next.  I can't remember a single thing beyond the set jaw of Mrs. J. and the stunned expression on the principal's face.  Never before, or perhaps since, have I seen, in person, someone so unafraid of her position, of the why and where and how she stood.  It was a marvel, being defended in that way.  I mean, she stuck up for us.  All of us.  "All my students are gifted," she'd said.  All my students are gifted. 

I don't know if she got in trouble, or if the gifted class continued, or if the principal took a step back and rallied the gifted identification process toward fairness and transparency.  Didn't matter, really, because Mrs. J.'s 27 students had learned more that afternoon than any gifted class could begin to teach.

Not long ago, in a Facebook exchange with Mrs. J., another of my classmates recalled this moment.  "You were such a badass, Mrs. J.," the student said.  Mrs. J.—mid-seventies, perhaps, or maybe older by now—simply left a winky, smily emoji in response.  Right in character.

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Pull to Apologize

I received an email from the editor of a teacher blog.  She asked if I would write a couple articles as a guest author.  I angsted about how to reply, finally landing on this.  “I’m not a teacher,” I responded.  “Is that okay?”

I recognized my question was an apology of sorts.  Not because I’m actually sorry.  I just suspect I shouldbe sorry, or, more accurately, I feel like the teacher readers would wantme to be sorry, because I am, admittedly and indisputably, no longer a teacher.  Indeed, it’s been 13 years since I taught in a traditional classroom.

“Oh, C’Mon.  You teach,” said one of my loyal friends.  She was referring to my work as a graduate instructor.  That doesn't count, I told her.  My graduate teaching doesn’t require a tenth of the paperwork and requirements of teachers in a traditional K-12 classroom.  Nor does it require dealing with—oh, you know. Small children.  Teenagers.  Or, most of all, parents.  “It’s not realteaching,” I lamented.  

I’m a principal now, a principal with an urge to apologize because I’ve left the teaching club.   

There are a lot of clubs, of course.  Many many many many clubs.  The parenting club. The athlete club.  The church club.  The aging-parents club.  The overweight club.  The wine club.  The scarred-childhood club.  The disability club.  The dog club. The cat club.  The minivan club.  The big house club.

And of course for every club, there is a counter-club.  The not-parent club.  The I-was-never-an-athlete club.  The cat club. The I’ll-never-ever-ever-drive-a-minivan-club.  And so on.

Being in a club feels good. Everyone wants a tribe, and we love finding and surrounding ourselves with others who share club membership with things we are, the things we do, the things we care about.  Defecting, though, is difficult and disconcerting.  It gives us that urge to apologize.  

I grew up on a farm surrounded by Amish and Mennonite families.  The neighbor girls, sisters, Rosanne and Christy, were my closest friends; we ran between our two farms, often atop horses or Schwinns.  But there was this shadow, this thing—a worry, heavy and weighty, almost visible—and they carried it all the time, whispered of it, like an inevitable, impending disaster:  Excommunication from the church.  It lived in them as a low-grade anxiety, watching for them to do any number of unforgivable things.  They couldn’t, for example, remove their bonnets or let their hair out of a bun. Wear pants, or shoes with color, or a dress with fabric that wasn’t on an approved texture palette.  Shout or sweat on a Sunday.  Or, for that matter, do anything on Sunday.  Once, Christy had a legit panic attack because she thought she saw her bishop drive by and spot her not wearing her bonnet.  

“I don’t understand how they can just kick you out,” I’d ask, confused, uncertain, then, of how you could just lose your membership to something that defined you.  

“They can,” they’d fret. 

“But it’s who you are.”

Shrug.  “It’s who we are now,” they said.   “But you never know….” 
Whenever we leave a club, by choice or force, we feel badly, like we have betrayed someone—other members of the club, certainly, but worse, ourselves.  No wonder there is an urge to apologize. No wonder we miss it when it's gone. Virtually all my principal friends look a little longingly in the rear-view mirror at their teaching days, sad and sorry they are no longer teaching. 

I think I’ll l always be a little sorry I’m no longer an English teacher.  It’s been many years, but I still think of it a little wistfully, especially this time of year, when I wish I were still in that club. 

But we shouldn’t apologize.  Leaving clubs is a form of change, of following a calling or an opportunity.  I'm starting my fourteenth year as an administrator.  This is my club now, and I'm just super-lucky my club crosses paths with my previous club. 

Teaching, Time, and Water in a Sieve

"Time flies."  The nurse shook her head and locked eyes with the infant I held in my arms.  She was finalizing paperwork to discha...