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There are times when teachers see immediate results of their work.  Times when a student has that elusive lightbulb moment, or when the student implements a taught skill without prompting.  These immediate validations of a teacher’s effort are infrequent at best, and often quite rare.  Teaching is a long term process in which positive impact is regularly delayed until years after when the student and teacher have lost contact.  Teachers rarely have the chance to understand how their work impacts students in the long term.  I recently received an email from a former student that highlighted just how rare it is to hear from a student after they leave my class.  The way she describes her life, and the impact of my class, was extremely unexpected. The excerpt from her email below has been edited for length and to remove most personal identifiers.

She says:

Hey Mr. McCormick! I just wanted to say thank you so much for what you taught me over the years as my AVID teacher. … the things I learned in your class, YES even/especially AP World have really made an impact on me. Since leaving about midway through sophomore year, I went through the worst of the worst, and became a version of me that I never thought I’d ever become. … I went through the pain of mental, physical, and emotional abuse at that time. As expected, I was in the worst health anybody could imagine.
 
I decided to leave Washington and move back into my grandparent’s house…. I’ve been here for about 2 months [after about a year of being out of school – GM] and I’m already back in school. I’m going to college and I’m in the medical assisting program, I’m the youngest in my class by many years, but everyone looks to me for help! My note taking skills have been recognized by my instructor and classmates, and I have AVID to thank. I really do look back at all the mistakes I’ve made and thank God everyday that education was always something that I took interest in, even if I lost myself for a while. My family is very proud of me and supports me 100% of the way, I hope to one day become a [physician’s assistant] after a couple of years working as an [medical assistant], and my graduation date is set for May, 2014. Wish me luck!   Again, thank you so much for putting up with my nonsense those few years! I love my entire AVID class and I wish them the very best at their last year as [High School] students.

When she left my school in the middle of her junior year, I was incredibly concerned for Carmen.  She had been exhibiting unusual behavior and her grades were declining rapidly from an already inconsistent position.  When she left school I felt like a failure.  I hadn’t reached her.  I was unable to get things turned around to help Carmen get back to the student she’d been in earlier years.  Over time I stopped thinking about her.

When I received this letter from her I was forced to take stock of my self perception.  In a certain way it creates a level of paradox.  Most of the time education is an extremely gradual process by which students build on past experiences and integrate new knowledge and skill, thus creating an ever-developing persona.  At the same time, however, there exists the potential to create extremely powerful catalytic moments that initiate radical change and have lifelong impact.

I would like to think that I helped teach Carmen the grit and individual determination that helped her build back from setbacks that could have completely derailed her life.  While we worked on these kinds of non-cognitive skills in class, she already came to my class equipped in many ways.  Carmen’s determination and perseverance are products of a gradual building process in her life.

With Carmen I did not create an appropriate catalytic moment that caused her to take stock of her life.  That moment had to come from beyond the classroom, and took her down an extremely difficult path.  I was able to set something of a time bomb in her head though.  Education acted as a beacon for Carmen.  No matter her declining grades, her difficulties, or her questionable choices, Carmen always maintained an unwavering faith in the power of self-improvement through education.  I do not know if this was a conscious belief while she was in my class, however, she clearly has that belief now and she can link lessons from my class to her ability to realize her academic goals.  As her teacher I was able to support this through my own unwavering belief in her ability to grow and improve.  Education provides her with hope that change will come.  Combined with her willingness to put in hard work Carmen is seeing her belief become reality.  She recently sent me a picture of her quarter grades and the proof is undeniable:

CarmenGrade

Carmen’s story reminds me that all success is not instant.  Most success is not immediate.  We do not all take the same path, nor do we need to.  Carmen helps maintain my faith in the transformative power of education.  She is the American Dream: a child born of immigrant parents who, through hard work and determination, will create for herself a better future.

Stories like hers are why I remain committed to improving our education system at all levels.  The work is slow, and change is incremental, but change is possible and objectively small victories are worthy of celebration because they are subjectively deeply meaningful.  In the greater picture, one student turning a GED, abuse, and addiction into a degree and work in the medical profession is relatively minor.  In the story of Carmen’s family she will be the first to complete any higher education and she will act as an example to her younger siblings and cousins, dramatically impacting their lives.  In her most recent email, Carmen told me that she wants to become a paramedic so that she can save lives and said “thank you for caring I don’t really have anybody who does.”  The impacts of education are rarely immediately visible, but that does not diminish their value.  Maintaining commitment to the educational process requires perseverance, belief, and an appreciation of delayed gratification.

It always comes up: At a dinner party, meeting the neighbors, any time you’re meeting someone new.  “So what do you do for work?”

I teach in the public school system.

“Oh wow.”  And then you get one of a few responses: “You’re a saint”, or “that must be really hard”, “I’d never have the patience”, “oh God, I could never do it”.  They’re all code for the same idea: “well thank God YOU’RE doing it so that I don’t have to.”

Teaching is not easy, and it’s true that not everyone is cut out for the job.  You’re tasked with convincing fives classes of thirty to thirty-five conscripted youth (in each class) that they should work extremely hard to learn some things that are not always immediately relevant on a daily basis.  These young people regularly bring in a myriad of issues and concerns that impede the teacher’s ability to work effectively.  The schedule is extremely fixed and teachers regularly work extended hours in order to do a quality job.  Some teachers work in extremely hostile environments that prevent them from working to their maximum potential.  Additionally brand new teachers are required to complete the same tasks as veteran teachers with a very steep learning curve and relatively little support most of the time.

To be a good teacher you need a great deal of tenacity, skill, and patience, but you don’t need to be a saint, and the implied self-sacrifice should not be your goal.  Instead aim to be a superhero.

Superheroes do things that ordinary humans believe to be impossible.  They reject standard logic and attempt the impossible with dedication and idealism.  Superheroes believe that they can make a difference and they put that belief into action no matter what others tell them.  Great teachers do the same.

There are however a myriad of superheroes all with their diverse abilities and missions and worldviews.  Who then should the novice teacher seek to emulate?

 

Let’s begin with the most obvious choices:  Superman and Wonder Woman

Screen Shot 2013-07-28 at 12.41.15 PM

Image from http://www.wecanbeheroes.com A project of DC Entertainment to support Save the Children, IRC and Mercy Corps

These two are not a good choice.  Sure, they’re both full of positive idealism and they push themselves to the limit in pursuit of their goals, but both Superman and Wonder Woman solve most their problems by punching them.  They’re fantastic at getting the job done, but if teachers start trying to solve all their problems by punching we’re going to have issues.  Kal’El and Diana are also, frankly, an impossible standard.  Superman is an alien and Wonder Woman is a clay statue that’s been given immortal life by the gods.  They’re not even human.  Do not try to make yourself like these two.  You’ll just end up disappointing yourself.  (Neither of these two are examples of good work/life balance either.  They both put in insane hours working two jobs and I’m sure they never get enough sleep.  Remember: they’re not human.  You are.)

Ok, so how about Batman then?  He’s a regular human, incredibly intelligent, highly skilled, and extremely successful in a dangerous poverty-impacted urban center.  Slam dunk! (Right?) Not really.

Batman is another impossible standard.  We need to remember that Batman’s origin is as billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne.  He’s the definition of throwing money at the problem.  The Batman teacher would buy his students every possible resources or gadget, and if those didn’t work he’d invent something tailored to the precise need.  Not a viable solution.  Batman is also primarily driven by revenge and personal vendetta.  This is not a sustainable model for successful teaching.  (Batman has some serious mental health issues that would need resolution before he should be interacting with students on a regular basis.  Pretty much everyone who works in Gotham City is out.)

Spiderman?  Not serious enough, terrible classroom management.  Good rapport with students, but low rigor.

Jean Grey?  She’d probably turn into the phoenix and destroy the whole school.  Let’s just avoid major explosions and reconstruction.

Captain America?  Also solves problems with punching, and he’d probably revert back to his 1940’s upbringing and teach solely with direct instruction, silent study hall, and corporeal punishment.

“Ok…. but you said teach like a superhero!  Who do I emulate then?”

You’ll have to check back in part 2.  (What’s a superhero story without a cliffhanger ending?)

I heard a story today and I think it’s worth sharing.  Here’s my attempt at retelling it:

Quick Background before we begin:  The original teller is an accomplished swimmer, works as a lifeguard, and teaches swim lessons at a local pool.  He’s a thoughtful and kind 16 years old.  He can  be a bit distracted at times and he is incredibly curious.  We’ll call him Andy today.

Andy was having a rough day.  He’s been having a few rough days lately, but this one was special.

The other day at the pool there’d been a “fecal incident” with one of the younger kids, so they had to push up the chlorine level in the pool to a ph value somewhere near 13 in order to prevent people from getting sick.  The chemicals made his eyes so red that when he got home his mom accused him of being high.  Add to that his children’s year-old swimming class in which every single student seemed out to get him by complaining, trying to swim away, and generally not listening to him.  (A multi-hour block with six 8-10 year-olds in a swimming pool would probably get to anyone even on a good day.)  Beyond all this work related difficulty Andy has been having some issues in his personal life that are just plain frustrating.

With all of that working in concert against him Andy finished his swimming class frustrated, tired, and generally just feeling down to the point where he just zoned out in the locker room lost in his own head.  In walks Paul.  Paul is a disabled kid (somewhere around 12 years old.  Maybe he’s autistic, maybe he has downs syndrome.  Andy isn’t quite sure) and he’s pretty regularly around the pool.  Andy knows him, but doesn’t usually have much to say to Paul.

“Hi Andy.  Do you like Angry Birds?”

“What?  Oh, hi Paul.  Umm… I guess so…”  Andy pretty deep in his own head and tried to ignore Paul, but Paul wouldn’t have it.

They talked about Angry Birds for a bit.  Maybe a minute or two, but no more than five minutes.  Paul was clearly pretty excited about the game and happy to have someone to talk to.  Andy was kind of half talking and half still in his own head.

Andy interrupted with, “Hey Paul? … Are you happy?”  Now Andy meant: is Paul happy in general.  Is he a happy person?  Andy wasn’t quite sure if Paul understood the nuance, or if Paul thought Andy was asking if he was happy in that moment.

Regardless of Paul’s interpretation he immediately and emphatically answered: “of course!  You’re awesome Andy!” and then Paul left as inexplicably as he’d entered.

I asked Andy what he thought about the interaction and he broke into a huge grin.  He said that Paul’s affirmation of Andy’s awesomeness turned his day around and he started to feel better.  He was happy that he didn’t just blow Paul off, which would have been pretty easy to do.

I then asked him if he thought he had any impact on Paul.  He didn’t really think so.  He’d just talked about Angry Birds for a second.  It’s not like he’d gone out of his way.

That’s when I told him the story of Renata, and how a simple note I’d written had a larger impact on her life than I’d expected.  Andy didn’t think much of it at first, but Paul really meant it when he told Andy he was awesome.  Having worked with many people with a range of developmental disabilities, I can tell you that most of the time people don’t take a moment and talk about Angry Birds.  I would conjecture that most of the time, people hear Paul say something unexpected and either ignore him, blow him off, or (hopefully not, but I try to be realistic) tease him for it.

Andy did a very simple thing.  He treated Paul like a regular human being and took his question at face value.  Two minutes talking about Angry Birds was all the effort required.  That’s all it took to brighten the days of two people.  It made me think of how I treat the more socially awkward students I have.  The students who, at the wrong time, say unexpected things.

Do I blow them off when they say these things, or do I take the time to honor their ideas and treat them like a human being?  I’d like to think that I honor them more often than I blow them off, I don’t have any evidence.  Moving forward I will be more mindful and I will choose to honor them more frequently.

The next time someone asks you if like Angry Birds take a moment and have that conversation.  You have the time.  Even if it’s awkward and uncomfortable at first, someone might think you’re awesome for doing it.

In late January 2011 a student of mine brought a loaded handgun into my sophomore world history class.  I’m thankful every single day that he kept the weapon in his backpack and had no intention of using it at school.  By all accounts the student was difficult.  He had limited English skills, had trouble reading, and generally appeared uninterested in school.  School was not a comfortable place for him, and he was actively looking to join a local gang.

When I heard about the tragedy at Newtown, CT I simply broke down with emotional overload.  Any tragic incident at a school naturally makes me think about my students.  I thought about what things would have looked like if my student had decided to open fire in class on that day two years ago.  I thought of all the things that could have set him off, and the potential for tragedy.  I thought about how I had no idea the student was carrying and how every day a student could have a weapon in my classroom.  Since what a student brings to school is out of my control, I also thought about what aspects of the situation are in my power.

I can control how I treat the young people that enter my classroom on a daily basis.  An enormously high percentage of these incidents of mass shooting (and there are a shockingly high number in recent years) are linked by issues of mental illness, and young men who feel desperate and isolated.

At the most basic level it is in my power to non-judgmentally treat my students like human beings regardless of their circumstance.  It is extremely easy to forget issues that do not directly impact our daily lives.  Those of us who do not feel isolated can quickly overlook how deeply troubling feelings of isolation are.  Sometimes all it takes is saying “hello, it’s good to see you today” to the awkward student in my class.  The one that I know has very few, if any friends.  Saying hello to the student sitting by themselves at lunch matters.

My student was isolated and looking for a place where he could belong.  A local gang was willing to fill that need, when no one else would.  He struggled in school.  He was from a low-income family.  He did not have many friends at school.  He’d recently moved from out of state.  His choice to bring a gun to school was a symptom of his feelings of desperation, and his extreme desire for somewhere to belong.

At a teacher I can help fill those holes.  I take great care to treat every student that enters my classroom as a human being.  Even when they make bad decisions, are having a bad day, and when life gets in the way of their academics.  I know that there are times when I am the only person who asks a student how they are doing, or tells them I’m happy to see them.  It’s such a simple thing, and goes a long way to ease feelings of alienation and isolation.

I have a strong position on the gun control side of the equation.  I enjoyed the one time I went to a firing range and I support hunting.  I also think personal ownership of assault weapons and handguns is ludicrous.  I am completely willing to hold both thoughts in my head at once.  I am not personally capable of controlling that issue.  I can, however, make sure that I treat everyone with respect so that when they are near me they feel safe. People make desperate acts when they’ve run out of options.  By creating a safe environment I can reduce feelings of desperation and help more people make positive choices instead of negative ones.

Calle 13:  La Bala