Mind the Gap
Teachers are asked to bridge the gap
The expanse between achievement
Of at risk populations
Versus their less at risk counterparts
But set apart
For a moment that
The population as a whole
Is increasingly at risk
When a fifteen year old student
Shoots a random pedestrian
And snapchat feeds
Sing their support
For this shooter
Out of ignorance
Or fear of reprisal
We must mind the gap
When the gap is an
invisible ache that
Snakes into the softest parts
So that women’s wombs are
But riot inciters are
Gently brushing away indictments
Like dessert crumbs from the linen tablecloth
We must mind the gap
When Socioeconomic disparity
Means no one home
Means lack of access (internet and human)
We must mind the gap
When the gap between
What I know about this child
What I don’t know I don’t know about this child
Leaves enough room for a whole person to get lost
We must mind the gap
When my carefully designed lesson,
My meticulously prepared instruction,
My Pinterest-inspired classroom
Are torn to shreds by
A trauma-induced outburst
We must mind the gap
Because in the space between “my”
Between teaching and learning
Between compassion for
Living every day with
There is the conjugation of growth
where I grow,
He grows, we grow
So we must mind the gap
Reflections of a Teacher During Covid:
What I miss most about my classroom is the smell:
That new book, dry erase marker stench,
That seventh grade boy after lunch funk,
That “please don’t notice how vulnerable I am” stank,
That clorox wipe, pencil sharpener dust aroma,
That curious mind, open face, eager-to-please fragrance
I miss the odor of unflappable resilience in the face of learning something new
I miss the candied sweetness of “aha” and
Spontaneous “teachable moments” just springing forth
What I miss most about my classroom is the sight
Color splashed onto bulletin boards
Alongside a growing “scrapbook” of photos taken each week
Color splashed onto lessons
Given in real time
In real space
In real connection
Color splashed into voices . . .
What I miss most about my classroom is the sound.
The chaotic chatter of hallways filled with
Teenage buzz, rumors, and cheers;
Clusters in classrooms, by lockers, on sports fields,
Cacophonous laughter erupting
As bells schedule days into
Tidy packages of collaborative learning, questioning,
challenging each other, challenging themselves,
the howling moan of an unleashed heart
the explosive heat of the bursting soul,
the whispered plea of a desperate desire,
The inextinguishable brassy boasting of the
grandstanding champion, newfound
glory in academics, so brilliant. . .
What I miss most about my classroom is the light:
Window blinds Open –
wall-sized panes streaming sunshine
Into open minds and wide eyes
The turned off fluorescents, walls lined
With strung up sparkly icicle lights;
Keeping pace with the faces alight with
The intimacy of middle school friendships;
Lamps standing in corners; spraying glow of daylight bulbs
Blooming and glowing minds growing, hearts knowing,
That here they are safe. Here they are home.
What i miss most about my classroom is breathing the same air
With their despair, with their struggling minds,
With their humor and graceless silliness,
That air is our sustenance.
That air is now deemed toxic
Breathing that air
It’s What I do,
I want to tell my students,
What I miss most is
each of you.
Education in America
Students come in my room
Laughing and gossiping,
tripping over each other’s feet and words
Students come in my room
Worried about grades
About who doesn’t like them
And who does
Students come in my room
More varied than the box of crayons on their back-to-school list
With open minds and hearts
Or hearts and minds they want help opening
They come with a need
For an audience
For unconditional acceptance
They come with a desire
To be heard
To test their voice, their strength, their wits
To be held accountable
To be held to a high standard
To be held in respect
The students bring their needs and desires
In an open lunchbox
They smile into my face and ask me about my morning
Or shout into my chest about the resistance they feel in their heart
They make known their needs
And they come into my room
They come to me
Not because I am someone special
But their requests demand that I become someone special:
Someone they can trust
Someone they can count on for truth, for safety, for encouragement.
These students come to me,
And you ask me to put them in a box
Label their skills
According to terms that can be tabulated into a tidy set of data suitable for political discourse
They come hungry
Distracted by parental prison sentences
And news about guns in other schools
I ask you for help
You write new legislation
I accommodate by creating new curriculum,
Taking additional courses that I pay for myself,
Modifying the lessons and assignments for individual learners.
I ask you for help:
What I need is more social services in the community,
More counseling support in schools,
More training on traumatized children,
More time to just “be” with them
More focus on creating and nurturing a whole child
You train me in standardized testing preparation.
What I need is ways to answer their questions
About algebra and essays
About a president who separates children from their mothers
about 17 dead students in Florida.
You ask me to put a gun in my desk.
I no longer ask you for help.
I turn to the students
To their parents
To my colleagues
Together, we create a community
That can cry today and stand together today
That can commit today to a goal to reach tomorrow
Together, we create a community
That can be productive and have fun
Because we talk together
Create a community of respect together.
We don’t sweat the numbers at the end, but set goals for our own steady improvement.
We don’t threaten with weapons
And are learning to be more aware of the weapons of our words.
We work together.
And I defy any legislature that tries to stand in our way.
Perhaps our approach will help us reach your goals.
Perhaps it won’t.
Either way, I’ll know that I’m part of the village creating a better generation.
And, yes, perhaps one day
I will fail
We will fail
And one of our students will be as lost as that young woman in Nashville,
Or that boy in Florida
Or in Sandy Hook
But odds are our community will be better “armed” to face them
With empty desk drawers and full hearts.
How to Be a Middle School Teacher
(for those of you crazy enough to want to try)
Wear comfortable shoes
Offer more praise than critique
Don’t be mean
When you are mean, or wrong, or being unreasonable
Reward daring to make mistakes
Don’t grade everything
Don’t take it personally –
That goes for failures and successes.
Hand sanitizer takes Sharpie off of anything
Be there before school
Be there after school
Go to their games and recitals
Perform on stage with them
Once in a while shock them by being as silly as they are
Always look for ways to learn from them
Remember that you will never truly understand what their lives look like from 3pm to 7am.
Try to understand what their lives look like from 3pm to 7am
Know at least one verse of a rap song
Make a “secret handshake” to greet them at the door
Greet them at the door
Make learning meaningful.
Remember that part of your job is to help them learn how to be people.
Look them in the eye
Don’t discipline; coach behavior.
If you think that sounds too soft, you will fail.
Know they will be miserable sometimes
Know that it isn’t always about you
Know that sometimes it will be about you, but keep your affection for them anyway.
Take a personal inventory: is there any other job you could be happy doing?
Yes? Do it.
No? Read on.
Befriend the secretary, custodian, and cafeteria workers; they can make or break you.
Ditto with the IT guy
You will want to work through lunch.
Don’t work through lunch.
Don’t grade everything.
Terrible accents work great to get their attention.
So does putting things in song.
Integrate art – even in math class.
Know the “one time educational use” copyright law and
Modify. Be flexible. Teach the student, not the test, and the test scores will come.
Talk to your colleagues
Talk about stuff other than school.
Make lists to remind you of the important parts of your job.
A-Frame Bench: a love poem
Picture, if you will, a wooden structure nestled among the trees of an old forest where planks are arranged like a capital A to provide a bench for sitting. Picture the reader of this poem sitting cross-legged here as she speaks:
I will hold you.
Here in the lap of this triangle,
Rest your head and nestle in.
There is much to hear
Feel the air rushing through.
Let it whip back your hair
If it will
Embrace the soft caress if it gently comes.
Keep your cheeks
alive in anticipation
When the air is still.
Notice. With synergy,
Even the small grow strong;
Even the small grow strong
Each acute angle
Braces these walls.
This trinity of refuge
Of teacher, student, and all that is sacred.
In this shelter
Where you rise above the wet.
Where you hover between earth and sky
Know the rain cannot drench you
But you can still soak it all in.
Soak it all in.
Breathe in the sweet damp and the
Smell of soil enriched by
Generations of aged snags
Hear the stories, the
Dead and decomposing history
Soaking into young roots;
Learn the memories of
Your original Mother
See all ages woven into
All that you breathe in;
Join the Young saplings rising up
All around us.
Own your space in this world.
Part of nature, yet woman-made
In this space so small you feel your largeness.
Take up space.
Let me shelter you.
For a moment
In this capital A
Where the roof points to heavens you cannot see.
But continue to hope.
Rest here in the triangle
between heart and lap
At home in this
Between place called
The Teacher’s Lament
Toss out the textbook
Reach the children where they are
They don’t care what you know until they know that you care
Let each child learn at her own pace
In his own way
Revise your plans when you learn what they know
Let some kids move on while others get retaught
Don’t let them get overwhelmed
Don’t let them get bored
Keep up to date with your grading
Keep up to date with state standards, common core
Keep up to date with professional development
With flu shots
Keep a student centered classroom
Let them take the lead
But don’t forget the IEPs
You must meet every need
And though they may resist or chat or gossip, bully, or rumble
Keep your spirits high, your temper in check, they will hear every mumble
So those choice words that may come to mind have no place in your class
Contact the parents if there’s a problem
Contact the parents when there’s not.
Give freedom to learn in the manner best suited to each of the 27 students before you.
Do it all in 41 minutes, then begin again with another group whose needs are, of course, unique
Every child is a snowflake
Teach bell to bell
Shuffle in a couple dozen more
41 minutes ding
Desks and chairs scrape on the floor
Why aren’t you out at hall duty?
Why is your room a mess?
Why don’t you take better care of yourself. Looks like you could use a rest
Maintain classroom discipline
Let them pick the rules
Be consistent with consequences but treat each as individuals
Keep your classroom stocked with kleenex
Pencils and band aids.
For this you will be paid well.
Well, you will be paid.
It can be quite overwhelming
You might lose sight of why
You took this job while waitressing
Or writing curriculum in july.
Then you’ll get a facebook message,
An email or a call
Or you’ll run into an old student at the
Library or mall
And they’ll tell you how you mattered
That your words and actions past
Had a meaningful impact
A positive influence that lasts
And if your heart soars in that moment, hearing all he overcame
If you take delight in her success
That changes this ballgame
(Even if you can’t remember him or her by face or name…)
Your memory may be tired,
but now your teaching spirit is not,
so you sharpen up those pencils
and return with all you’ve got.
What do you value about being an educator?
I never planned to be an educator.
My father was a teacher.
My aunt was a teacher.
My uncles were teachers.
I knew they were not paid much, and they did not hold the place of respect and prestige I had imagined for myself.
I wanted to be a doctor. Actually, I wanted to be a famous actor of stage and screen, but decided I would go to medical school so that I would have “something to fall back on.”
Yet here I am.
Like so many other educators, being a teacher was not so much a career choice, but a personality trait, something about me that I could not escape. Whether as a swim instructor, camp counselor, babysitter, substitute teacher, tutor, or acting coach, I was somehow continually drawn to helping others learn. Even while living the life of a struggling actor in New York City, I found myself not waiting tables, as the cliché would dictate, but doing in-school theatre residencies to make ends meet.
So I guess it makes sense that during senior year at Mount Holyoke, as graduation was fast approaching, I threw my hat in the ring with the then-new Teach for America program. (Actually, a friend nudged me, “You’d be so good at this!” and since I hadn’t found another job yet, I figured, “What the heck?”)
That was thirty-two years ago..
And now, just last week, someone asked me: what do I value about being an educator?
Education is said to be a great equalizer. Give a man a fish . . . you know how it goes.
When I was recruited by Teach for America in 1991, our motto, indeed our mission, was that “Every Child Can Learn.” This seemingly simple truth is more challenging to turn to reality when one considers the vast inequalities inherent in the educational system.
Just as I was beginning my career as an educator, Jonathan Kozol published his groundbreaking study, Savage Inequalities, revealing and enumerating the vast imbalances in, among other things, school districts. It appalled me to learn that more was spent per head annually in the Bronx Juvenile Detention Center than was spent to educate that same student before being incarcerated. It disgusted me to realize that there was a marked disparity in how schools were funded in Manhattan versus Brooklyn versus the Hamptons.
How could education be a great equalizer if not everyone was receiving the same education?
Then I entered the Houston Independent School District. Twenty-one years old. Wide-eyed. Naïve. Brimming with optimism. I would change everything.
After being shuffled around as the one-year-old TFA program found placements for my corps, I finally landed at a middle school in inner city Houston teaching seventh graders who had been with subs for six weeks. My 20’X20’ classroom was beige: beige walls, beige floors, beige ceiling, and no windows even to cast a shadow. The fluorescent overhead lighting highlighted the carved-into desktops and jaded disposition of my students. They were justifiably suspicious of my optimism and took full advantage of my inexperience. Of course.
I did not change them, but they changed me.
I came back my second year, facing my new assignment as a sixth grade teacher. I was not there to save them. I was there to see how I could help. How I could show them something new, maybe, while learning a little myself.
I shifted gears and restructured my curriculum to be taught entirely through a reading and writing workshop, so that students had ownership of what they read and wrote. I did my best to honor their individuality and they rewarded me by sharing of themselves, eventually writing honestly about challenges at home, on the street, in the darker and brighter corners of their hearts.
I learned that a big part of teaching is listening.
I learned that some students need a witness to their lives.
What I value about education is that I have the opportunity to witness growth. I have the privilege of seeing students fall in love with their first book. I get to be there when they have that “aha” moment.
I value those moments when they truly trust me. When they come to me to help them figure out something in their relationship with another person, with themselves, with the world. In those moments, I treasure the trust they put in me.
I value the fact that I will never be perfect; I will not be right all the time. I value that just when I think, “I’ve got this,” it is time to change gears for the next influx of new personalities, new learning styles. Or, alternately, new mandates from the district, state, or federal powers-that-be.
I value those little moments when current students make me a birthday book. (“Since you love books, you deserve more than just a birthday card.”) When a student asks to have lunch with me then tells me about his parents abandoning him, when a student comes to my classroom early just to hang out and wants to clean my board or write the day’s agenda.
I value the relationship that withstands time, which goes beyond learning together in the classroom: those moments when a former student tags me on Facebook as the person who helped her find the first book she loved. When former students become the jazz band at my wedding. When a former student writes me a recommendation letter for an award.
I value the fact that no matter who is in the White House, when I close my classroom door, I can form a relationship with each student that can make a difference.
More than anything, I love that being an educator means I’m always learning. Each year is a fresh start. A new opportunity to give students a voice, give them an ear, give them an opportunity, give them a chance to see in themselves the possibilities that I see for them. Each year, I am moved by the tapestry of personalities that offer me the opportunity to work with them and be a part of their growth.