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Something’s not right – this is too easy.

It’s not about the hours in preparing lessons for ten different subjects, crafting new interactive assignments on paper and in my mind. Not about grading piles of papers, or the challenge of appropriately customizing assignments for those that need that. Not about calling parents or attending meetings, dealing with a down WiFi network or stuffy, windowless classroom with too few electrical outlets. That sort of thing would be a given no matter where I’d teach.

What’s not quite right is that these students make me feel like I’m good at this, when really, it’s just that they are extraordinarily non-diverse and conformist, unusually trusting, loved, and supported by their families and community. So all I have to do is be reasonably creative, cheerful, energetic and organized, and things come off pretty much without a hitch. What a good teacher I am. They even give me birthday cards and presents, and a giant teacher appreciation poster at the end of the year. At the close of each class, at least two students say thank you. The principal leaves little treats in our mailboxes and brings muffins and fruit to staff meetings, and parents believe what I tell them about their kids and thank me for all my efforts.

It’s not natural.

After my year at the alternative school (having survived to want to fight on), I was exhausted, but also fired up to get out there and use what I’d learned. I wanted to get out there and make a difference, share the incredible burden teachers take on of trying to meet the educational needs of a diverse, broken culture whose youth are experiencing loss, racism, abuse, the reverberations of childhood trauma, culture shock, mental health issues, and family dysfunction. AN in addition to all that, the worst thing of all, a sense of not being visible or valued. I

All the staff and most of the parents at my school are nice Christian people. Even the guy who I would say isn’t part of that culture must have mentioned God eight times in the graduation speech, because he knew that was how to relate best to these grads and their families. There was also a giant “Jesus” sign behind him only partially hidden by green and gold balloons. A prop of the congregation whose building we rent, but at any other school, it would have been covered up in case anyone complained that one religion was being emphasized in a school event. In this town, it’s covering it up that would cause problems.

Other than three Latino kids, who are adopted, one or two of slight Asian lineage, and a good number of (white, Christian) Russian families, the students are pretty much Dutch Reform Evangelical stock. Two of the female staff do have husbands of color, most likely they got aquainted out of town. Which just goes to show, one can’t make a lot of assumptions about viewpoints, only about demographics and related cultural norms.

I like an easy job as much as the next person, don’t long to be in an uphill battle all the time, but I want to have the wind in my face sometimes, to have someone to stick up for, and against, to feel useful in a bigger way. I gravitate toward the students who struggle, who irritate others, who resist, don’t fit in, need something more.

I told myself, and my family, I’d give it three years. By that time I’ll have set down some good routines and organizational strategies, become more efficient with my time and energy, and accumulated some good lesson and project plans in three levels of math and at least three sciences, as well as teaching experience from elementary up to twelfth grade. Then we’ll see. I’ll probably run out of room for the cute little presents that will come my way all that time. I just hope I haven’t got stuck in my groove, and forgotten why I’m in this profession.

 

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2017 in Education, Places & Experiences

 

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Not quite

I can be very critical of certain views and practices in which I nevertheless see immense value. In hindsight I often realize I have come across as disapproving and judgmental, when I am taking issue with that five to ten percent I see as problematic. I think it’s because that which is closest to the truth needs to be most carefully probed, to identify, if one can, the few imperfections there may be, the ways in which something is not quite truth or reality but only a reflection. It is a bad habit to neglect to accentuate the positive, though–I really do need to work on that, especially when it comes to the people, practices and traditions I value. Sometimes I give the wrong impression to those both inside and outside my way of thinking.

For example, I am apt to be hard on religion and religious people, especially of my own tradition, because I want their authentic beauty and worth to be distinguishable from unexamined traditions, superstitions, oversimplifications, sentimentalism, and idiosyncratic, personality-based preferred styles of expression that attach themselves to religion. I challenge especially those who have “inherited” their religion. I stand as a skeptic, sound like a skeptic, a critic, a scoffer, but inside I feel drawn to the center of the idea and long to find an authentic, unaffected, unselfconscious expression of my own, and draw nearer the divine, become more like what I am meant to be all in that fire dance of love. Which, I realize, is not achieved by hypercritical analysis. Or if it was, I wouldn’t know for sure because that too would be part of my unselfconscious expression. At which I could cry, woe is me, or Eureka!

I was listening to some folks talk about supernatural or paranormal experiences a while back, accounts which I considered credible enough, though not necessarily empirically verifiable. Reminded me of other accounts I have heard of kids speaking of past lives, sightings of and communications with bodiless spirits and so on. I think things like these are most reliably communicated one to another, not through book agents to ghost writers to publishers and then news networks and viral tweets. Even if some of the stories told this way are true, who can tell that it wasn’t all just for money or fame or entertainment, those three great idols of our age? But while I listen, it’s like I’m standing behind myself and a little off to the side, observing, and the observer says, hmm, Toes–you are usually so skeptical, yet you’re accepting these paranormal possibilities pretty much at face value, or at least not feeling concerned about whether they are true in the usual sense of the world. Seemingly more credulous in the realm of the incredible. And more so outside my culture as well, believing that the trances of the ancient Togolese woman in that village were a sign of demonic bondage, but those on the televangelist channel were faked to increase viewership or donations.

One woman described a conflict with a Native woman who accused her of stealing her name. She sketched an outline of ceremonial and supernatural occurrences that followed as part of the process to claim the right to the name. No reason to doubt her–her manner showed her to be reluctant to bare it all in case someone discounted what she had experienced.

The other woman described the way she had been given a kind of dream-like view into what she believed were the past lives of others, and also her own. She saw this as a door by which she could enter and assist folks in healing and understanding themselves and their relationships. And while I’m open to that possibility, still seems like there’s a real possibility of going astray, to just follow and believe everything that comes along in the realm of what I’d call the subconscious, including where it intersects with the spirit world. Some disembodied spirits, I believe, like some embodied ones, deceive others for their own ends. There are lies and deceptions in the realm of the supernatural, and why wouldn’t there be?

And truth matters, right? I mean, it’s not enough to say, well, if people want to believe something and it comforts them, so be it, and let’s just hope for the best that the purveyors of those comforting fictions won’t be exposed , bringing hurtful disillusionment. At least not before they sign up for automatic credit card payments. Illusion, comforting illusion, say those atheists who kindly tolerate the faith of the faithful, is a kind of pragmatism for those who can’t face the godless universe. Speaking of things like Heaven is Real and such like. Though just because the little boy’s accounts have been denounced as fakes doesn’t mean we should automatically believe they are fake, because the denouncers also increased viewership and got a line on a series of well-paying journal articles.

And another thing: why would supernatural or uncanny or apparently miraculous (not for profit) events be exempt from shades of quality or worth, any more than the empirically verifiable or commonly accepted “facts” that surround us? That car has four wheels. That creature visible only to the eyes of the medium wears a blue robe. By which shall I order my life and which mine for deep truth? Why not take paranormal experiences with a grain of salt as well as normal ones, rather than having an all or none response? My tradition teaches that we ought to test the spirits–they don’t all tell the truth. the ones that don’t aren’t necessarily evil,  they may be misguided or mistaken, or just nothing special.

It’s about trying to separate false from true, while realizing one can’t often do so decisively. And it sure doesn’t help people really looking for the truth( so they can apply it, rather than sell it) to discover the people they trusted glossed over contradictions and gray areas, not even intimating they were doing so “for all practical purposes,” like we do in science.

On the other hand, it does turn out to be very useful to believe “I before E except after C” until one is capable of grasping the amendment, “except in words like “eight” and “neighbor.” I suppose it’s the same in theology and other more abstract areas of knowledge and belief.

And then there’s the belief that truth is relative–something against which evangelical Christians and especially fundamentalists of every stripe continually warn their flocks. Personally, I know it’s one hundred percent true that some truths are pretty close to one hundred percent true, but not very many, and some are true depending on the circumstances, the people and personalities involved, and the way other truths must be balanced. So, Omar, I guess you were right after all, though I would have liked to have seen you declare that you believed something, besides Don’t step on anyone’s philosophical toes. Even those in the back rooms of the most conservative seminaries, not to forget conservative political think tanks, admit this much to each other, in whispers: what the masses don’t know could hurt their faith in the priesthood.

And there are back rooms. Where the guys in charge (occasionally it’s women, such as in feminist back rooms, but usually not) say, we can’t tell them all that, even if it is true–it will conflict with this; there are nuances, and they might get confused and disillusioned, and not cooperate. It’s expedient that they believe the basic package, and anyway, they want to believe it–it makes them feel better, and they like things simple.

Amazing how people will believe the package even though contradictions are out in plain sight. Like the one about the Bible being 100% true and authoritative, yet most of it we wouldn’t think of using as a lifestyle guide. Wives, submit to your husbands. Stone your children if they are disobedient. Then there’s “bear your own burdens” and “Bear one another’s burdens.” Contradiction? Nuances. My southern Baptist theology professor at least had the integrity to say the Bible is “authoritative in what it teaches and affirms.” And to encourage students willing to grapple with the text. Maybe that’s why he ended up at a school north of the border–simple faith wasn’t good enough for him.

At the funeral the preacher (well-schooled in that simple faith tradition, by all appearances) who never really knew the deceased or much of the family because they were not church goers, scraped together the not-likely-to-be contradicted story of how this ailing woman essentially, in her last days, saw the light, repented, gave her life to Christ. And how kind and wonderful she was, always a smile and encouragement for everyone, which made it seem that her kindness was a result of this conversion, when really it was her essential character all along, despite all the wine bottles showing in the slide show of her life prior to that moment. What a comfort that she is not in hell after all, don’t we agree? Then he says it: “Friends, if anyone here has not yet given their life to the Lord, in your heart I invite you to say that prayer…” Seventy-nine percent of the congregation shifts in their seats, thinking, you self-satisfied, condescending simpleton, don’t call me ‘friend’,” thirty-five cough or sigh that this guy is embarrassing them in front of their liberal friends, and five smile with satisfaction that the gospel is being preached to all these heathen, because when would they get a chance to hear it otherwise? So the believers can wash their hands of that blood. Friends?The gospel has been preached!

Even in my younger days, when we weren’t yet in the era of deconstructible truth—it may have happened faster in your neighborhood than in mine—I never responded to that kind of message, and couldn’t believe anyone would (except on televangelist broadcasts, and I only ever saw those by mistake). Shows how naive I am. I know now that there were, and still are, souls going around hungry to believe something, especially if it sounds different enough from what they grew up with, even if it comes out of a screen or from a stranger at a funeral or a rally, and especially if there’s a starter kit for sale and a network of trained outreach workers with 1-800 numbers. No need for corroborating evidence, apologetics, rational discourse, just try it out. And I’m trying not to judge, because as a biology person, I know it takes all kinds, “all” being the ones that are around right now, to make a world.

 

 

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Middle school, the reality: this is a test

The middle school bell rings, and students start coming the classroom. Most sit down, but three or four continue roaming around, and mess around a little. You ask everyone to settle down; you are about to start, and two of the remaining sit, but one keeps throwing and re-throwing crumpled paper toward, and missing, the garbage can. You approach, and, a bit more insistently, tell the student to sit down, please! You don’t know names yet, and the seating chart isn’t much use. A good number of seated students are watching with interest, and some of those who had sort of settled down are now starting to get restless, and even get up to move around, sharpening pencils, trying to borrow erasers, and so on. Others have seen there’s a distraction and have taken out their smart phones or started new conversations among themselves.

It’s test day, and this time the test is for you. You are not automatically in charge, and without some fast and creative thinking, it could get out of hand so that it’s tough to get on the track of helping students learn.

I’ve felt that distress and frustration, that sense of personal offense. Why won’t they behave? What is one to do? At that point, you’ve probably stopped using the most creative and intelligent part of your brain, so the options you can think of are limited: yell, threaten, whine, shame, make an example of someone, call for assistance.

But we teachers talk about test taking strategies, and during a test, you’re on your own. All the questions are flooding at you at once, and you have to keep you footing and your head above the water. It’s a rush.

Here are some of the questions on this test, in the voice of the students:

  1. Are you confident in your right to be in authority over us?
  2. What’s your style of authority? Are you chill, strict, somewhere in between, or inconsistent?
  3. How do you handle stress?
  4. Do you have a sense of humor?
  5. Do you respect me and my classmates?
  6. Do you let me help you?
  7. Do you have emotional self control?
  8. Do you know what I need?
  9. Do you like me?
  10. Are you worthy of my respect and support?
  11. Can I learn something worthwhile from you?
  12. What are the boundaries here, and are they reasonable?

These questions are not just in the minds (at least subconsciously) of the main testers, but also in the minds of the rest. Though the latter may not have the desire, creativity, or confidence to “act out,” they can still take advantage of the opportunity to learn about you. The overall question here is, “Who are you, and can I work with you? Can you work with us–all of us?”

Even when I was failing these tests many days as a first year teacher and beyond, I felt there was a legitimacy in this kind of testing. Yes, I would take things personally, get riled, get frustrated, and exhaust myself because of my lack of experience, but I could never really blame the “testy” students for being hard on me. Even the sympathy of more experienced teachers and their willingness to make me feel less responsible didn’t really work, though it was well intended. I still see this process as a necessary part of establishing students’ relationship with the teacher, especially a new one. Although I’m not averse to students giving me automatic respect and complying with my plan, I know that’s not realistic, or even best in the long run for either party. Or maybe because I’m not the kind of person who automatically accepts authority (in my heart), I get it.

Fortunately–you could look at it as fortunate–if you fail the test, you get a re-test. And another, and another, and another. If you fail part of the test and pass another part, you get a retest. And you get frequent reviews to keep up your skills. It will happen so many times, eventually you’ll learn not to take it personally, and how to both respond to and sometimes even preempt the test questions, in your own way.

A boy I met a few months ago keeps coming to mind. He’s boisterous, physically active, highly participatory, and, so I heard prior to the start of class, troublesome–it was in my sub notes, and I was also told by a teacher next door. In that he doesn’t sit down, he speaks out of turn, he does things to entertain and distract his classmates, and sometimes, apparently, he loses his temper and has to be removed from the classroom.

He’s also full of fun, and since after all these years I’ve become better at taking a joke, even one on me, it worked out okay between him and me. He got used to me after the first few days I subbed there, and as long as I could do that strange dance, things went well. The other students helped make it work, and the boy himself consented to the dance steps. Yes, he’s out of his seat, talking out, interrupting, but we keep doing our thing and don’t stop for the show. When I can, I have him do the demos, hand out the papers, even demo some of the math, once I find that he’s capable of it.

Why is there a show anyway? Why does he want to strut around, call attention to himself, do anything but sit down and try to do math? He’s a class clown, a born entertainer, possessed of charisma and confidence. And he’s one of the kinds of people we need in this world. Can you picture him grown up? He’s the life of the party! He meets the shy newcomers at the door and makes them laugh in the first thirty seconds. He moves around the room and figures out what’s going on in the big picture. He’s the MC. Yeah, in the course of his years at school, he’ll have to learn to let others have some peace and quiet, to listen and not just talk, and to keep calm when people disagree with him or he doesn’t get his way. But meanwhile, we’re the mature ones, and we as teachers need to nurture nature, not create assembly line workers, molding and cutting cookies, grading samples and sending the culls down a different hatch for quality control.

The way teachers and authority figures deal with these full-of-it kids can really sour them in the long run. I’ve met some alternative high schoolers who probably had a similar way of being in their fifth grade classrooms, and they’re all grown up. Still loud, still walking and talking, still engaging with anyone and anything around them. But also tense, angry, and carrying around a cumulative file full of disciplinary infractions, records of interventions, and numbers that just don’t qualify as ready for college and career ready. You have to wonder if they’ll survive, what they become. Some are positively creepy.

So can we ask ourselves: how do we save the life of the party, instead of creating a monster? Yes, it’s environment, family, circumstances, but what do we do with these students while they are with us—testing, testing—for one hundred and eighty days per year for years?

Intervention should not just be an event. It should be subtle, every day, in the context of community. So you nip all the criticism in the bud that reinforces the “troublemaker” self image (see this post, and instead call it a different name: Lively. Unique. Enthusiastic. No nonsense. High social intelligence. Curious. Be preventative and pro-active (see this post). Solicit help from more mature fellow students–to set an example, ignore attention-getting behaviors, show patience. Catch them doing something right (broadly interpreted). And, as I used to tell my kids when they’d be unkind to one another, keep your heart soft, and be patient. These things take time.

 

 
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Posted by on September 29, 2015 in Education, Places & Experiences

 

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