To Those Who Say We Should Fire Bad Teachers

I recently found a strongly worded article that I wrote in my second year of teaching. I’m now starting my eighth year, and though I am for once not in a public school, I still get fired up thinking about those who make claims like, “We should just fire all of the bad teachers” or “Teachers’ pay or position should depend upon their students’ test scores.” Want to know why I get so fired up? Feel free to read. I stand by those words as much today as I did then.  

To Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert in response to their recent Newsweek article about firing bad teachers,

As a second year teacher, I have no argument with the premise that bad teachers should be let go. Of course, teachers who have made mistakes as grievous as the ones mentioned at the end of your article should not still be teaching. However, I do have a serious problem with proposing that we treat school as a business (implied through many of the arguments and quotes of this article). School is not a business. It is not something you opt into. It is a requirement for every child in the United States, and unlike businesses, public schools do not hire and fire kids for uncompleted work or for failing to perform up to their potential.

I teach with a veteran teacher who is close to retirement. Yesterday, we sat talking about this Newsweek article at lunch, and she rightly chose to give a rebuttal to the comment that, “Once upon a time, American students tested better than any other students in the world. […] the achievement gap between white students and poor and minority students stubbornly persists—and as the population of disadvantaged students grows, overall scores continue to sag.” She pointed out that when she began her teaching career, her only real options were to become a teacher or a nurse. Also, when she began her teaching career, many students who struggled academically or posed behavior issues dropped out at an early age to get a job. The truth is, that “once upon a time” was a time when struggling students were not as well served by our public education system, and the seeming lack of struggling students then probably added to the fact that students tested well. It may be that the teaching skill has not lowered, but instead we better include struggling students in our schools, and their scores now play a role in our “reputation” as an education system.

In this article, it was quoted that “Measuring teacher performance based in part on the test scores of their pupils would be a no brainer.” I STRONGLY disagree. There is much a teacher has control over – how effectively they teach, how much they continue to learn about the craft of teaching, the rules in his or her classroom, etc. We do not, however, have control over a students’ motivation to learn or a students’ steady increase in grades or test scores. There is much we can do to try to motivate and embolden our students, to help them take risks with their learning and TRY to succeed. However, there is no guarantee. These kids are PEOPLE. Granted, they are not grown and fully developed, but they are PEOPLE and people cannot be controlled fully. They are not wholly predictable, and to compound that, each child is different. If you have taught even a year, or if you have several children, you know that every child responds in different ways, and the “teaching” you do whether in your classroom or in your home with your kids must vary in order to be effective. Bottom line: If scores were used to measure teacher performance, I believe we would lose a lot of good teachers in addition to the bad ones. There are far too many factors playing into a student’s success – their home life, their access to resources, their personality, their learned behaviors, their state of mind, etcetera, to base a teacher’s skill set on his or her students’ test performance, even in part.

Daniel Weisberg, general counsel of The New Teacher Project, was quoted in this article saying that, “the Marine Corps never has any problem meeting its enlistment goals […].” That is fine and good for the Marine Corps, but Marines are in charge of themselves – themselves and possibly a unit of soldiers who are motivated to belong. If a soldier gets out of line and doesn’t perform, they have no responsibility to keep him or her in the program. As a teacher, you are in charge of yourself AND (in my case) 80 students. I can work and work and love them and love them and pray and pray that those students will work hard, and many of them will, but what happens when one doesn’t? Do we kick her out? Do we turn our back? No. Our public education system requires that we persist, and unless she becomes a danger to herself or others, she continues to stay in our school, and there is no guarantee that she will come around. Public education is not a business, and it is not the Marine Corps. It is public education – a whole different organization of a different kind.

I do not claim to have all of the answers, but what I do know is that the public education system does need some reformation and “measuring teacher performance based in part on the test scores of their pupils” is not the solution we need. What I truly believe is that it’s about time that policymakers started asking teachers (those good ones you mentioned, because there are many of us) what we propose, and see how that pans out. I have a feeling the public will be impressed with the solutions we come up with if we are given the time and respect to troubleshoot about our own very noble and very challenging profession.

Sincerely troubled by your article,

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God is Gracious

I met a man named John about ten days ago at Lowe’s. My school day had been one of ups and downs, mentally. I had self-metered my brain’s state of clarity at a 75% in the morning, a 50% in the middle of the day, and by the end, I had reached what I thought was 90%. So, I thought, “‘You know what? I’m going to run some errands! I’m feeling pretty good…”

…and about 45 minutes later, I was still wandering around in the same sections of Lowe’s trying to make just three simple decisions. I stood, staring at the trellises (for supporting winding sweet potato vines), and I just kept pacing back and forth, back and forth, looking, puzzling, fighting for my thoughts to be clear, pacing, checking my list again… and I shook my head at myself as my thoughts were interrupted by a man next to me, muttering to himself as he looked for just the right trellis, too.

“I know how you feel!” I found myself saying.

I chuckled and looked his way. “I do that all of the time…”

“Yeah…” he said, “I just need to find a good trellis for my wife. She described it to me, but I’m not sure if I’m getting the right one…”

And the conversation began.

I found out that John, a 5’10″ish black man with graying stubble on his chin, wearing cargo khaki shorts and a grey T-shirt that hugged his somewhat round belly, was a gardening helper. His wife was the gardener, and he was learning from her, giving her all of the credit for a green thumb, and he was just trying to do something to help her out. He laughed as he explained that gardening was relaxing for them. It got them out of their normal routine and “crabbing at each other.” They felt good there, together, in the garden, and though he mentioned multiple times that she was the one who really knew what she was doing, this man John knew quite a lot.

So, we wandered through the section again, back and forth, like ebbing tides, going in and out of this Lowe’s aisle, passing each other and turning to chat every few minutes again, and he began to inquire about my garden. What did I need the trellis for? What else did I grow? How about tomatoes? (Their tomatoes were doing REALLY well! Hence the need for more trellises to support their growing stalks and fruit.)

And that’s where he came of great assistance.

See, my tomato plants have been struggling… and it’s odd, because last year, at least with my Sun Gold tomatoes, I felt like I couldn’t pick them fast enough. The plant grew, the tomatoes burst at the seams, fell ripe on the ground, spoiled on the ground sometimes, twisted vine-y stems over and around and under and through the fenced areas, and I had to hold the thing back; it was that prosperous! We had Sun Golds for days… months… in plenty.

But, this summer, though I thought I really prepared them well, they’ve been struggling. I put them in pots for more protection, I watered them every morning, I had tomato cages in their soil ready to go before they even got big (which they never really did), I put spikes of organic vegetable fertilizer in them, I….

“You what?”

John interrupted me.

“Oh, no, you can’t do that,” he said. “That’s too much for them, in those pots. The fertilizer just sits in there, releasing continuously, and it’s too much. You probably over-watered them too. Were the leaves yellow?” (Yeah… I’d figured that out halfway through the summer and started changing my watering methods.)

“Well, here’s the thing,” he said. “You want to drop in fertilizer as needed. It’s best to just add it little by little. Those fertilizer spikes that just stay in the soil are too powerful. It’s like they make the plant work too hard for too long, and it can’t just do its normal thing.”

I sat, amazed, at this man who said he didn’t know much about gardening.

“You also want to put the pots on soil. Mine are in pots too, but I set the pots on top of the dirt so they’re close to the ground. I don’t know what it is, but they perform better that way. The like to be close to real earth.”

“Okay, so not planted in the ground, but potted and just set on the ground?” (I’m always looking for things to be re-explained to me in different ways.)

“Yeah, actually on the ground in the pots. They just like to be close to the source, you know? They need that. And then they do really well. And, I water mine every day. Every day they can’t get enough water and sun, and they do great. I mean, look, I’m here buying trellises because they’re getting so big! […] I mean, I just learn all this from the gardener herself, right? She teaches me! But, it works every year.”

I stood, puzzled. It’s that easy? That’s all I had to do? Put the pots on the soil… Geez, I’m thankful for the advice, but I was feeling a little dense! 🙂

So, John and I finished our conversations as I had savored those moments of seemingly clear communication, and he called his wife for clarification on that trellis, and then I wandered down the aisles again, unable to make my choices. Finally, I checked out, having passed John again in the aisles once or twice, and then I went to my car and ran into John one more time in the parking lot. We shook hands, and I very genuinely told him that it was a pleasure to meet him and that I hoped to see him again around the area.

And, I drove home, only to realize in despair once I had unpacked and started to look around for my other items, that I had left two things at the checkout line. It took me a few minutes, and as ridiculous as it sounds, I called Brian to see if he’d pick them up. I was overwhelmed. Despite my life-giving chat with John, all the sudden things felt so heavy. I couldn’t believe that I’d exhausted myself all day at school only to do what should have been a 15 minute errand that turned into an hour and a half after which I left items at the store. Was $10 really that important? We decided yes, and I mustered up the feigned energy to go back, grab the items from the checkout girl who had them ready and waiting, and drove back home.  The funny thing was that that errand and its success made me feel like a prize-fighting champion. I did one thing with focus and success that day, it seemed. One thing.

It wasn’t until the next day that my mind started to clear even further, and I realized a few things. And then I realized a few things a few days later. The clarity kept coming.

1) I was still dealing with the symptoms of whatever was happening in my brain. Utter exhaustion + pushing myself to work more + lack of nutrients/water (?) + spiritually battling + trying to do everything and care for everyone = a foggy, indecisive, crippled brain. That topsy-turvy day was absolutely a day in the midst of the most difficult two weeks mentally that I’ve ever had. Though I thought that I had weathered the storm and it was all sunny from there, I had jumped the gun. I wasn’t healed yet.

2) I finally sort of understood what women had described to me before: being so exhausted or consumed with anxiety or even depression that it was a success just to be able to make their kids’ lunches in the morning before school. Life felt that hard that even doing one small thing, like getting their leftover items from the Lowe’s checkout, felt like something to praise God over.

3) John’s name means “God is gracious.” And John, though black, reminded me a lot in stature and demeanor, of my father, whose name is also John.

So, I’ve been taking John’s advice, because God is gracious, indeed. I quickly put my pots on soil that day, and I’ve been watering them every morning. They’re not flourishing yet, but they’re getting stronger and greener each day, and the tomatoes are ripening more quickly than they have been this past summer.

And, I’ve been watering myself each morning, close to the source. I’ve been getting up early to read my Bible and pray, to walk around the grassy yard a little with my dog, Brooklyn, to sit and stare up into the sky, close my eyes, breathe in, breathe out, and prepare myself for the oncoming day.

I’m not flourishing yet, but I’m getting stronger and clearer each day. My legs are able to carry me farther. My mind is able to accomplish more, more efficiently. My days are long and feel like big mountains ahead of me sometimes, but I’m being carried through them. Over them.

And I’m wondering where the rest will be. That’s something I keep asking God. Where will the rest be? Is this just a season, or this what I should get used to? Is this what you’re training me to endure? Am I to find you every morning in quiet moments, and then the rest of my day is going to be like an arduous leg of a marathon, every day, over and over? When will I feel that soul-quenching, body-relaxing, full washing-over-me REST that I so long for? When, God?

And he’s not answering me, yet.

But, I’m staying close to the source… and oh my, my dear friends and family… God is gracious. So, incredibly gracious. Each morning. Each day. Each hour. He is gracious. I’m living in that grace, today and every day, and I’m looking for the glimpse over these mountains.

I’m not healed fully yet, but I’m really looking forward to that day. And I hope that I can meet John again one day, Lord willing, and tell him what his tomato advice meant to me. I wonder if he has any idea…

And then I Hit a Wall…

This is the part that they don’t describe in fairy tales. You know, after the “happily ever after” and the one year party for your business, and after the lights dim and the cameras stop rolling, and all of the sudden you feel completely exhausted and overwhelmed, and you find yourself sinking onto the kitchen floor with your back against a cabinet crying to your husband on the phone because you can’t think straight…

Not like I’m using a personal example or anything.

Don’t feel sorry for me. I mean, do, but don’t. We’ve all been there. You have really difficult things going on in your life too. It’s not just me… It’s just one of those nights. The deep breaths and the hour nap I took and the just-pushing-through-it didn’t work, and so here I am, feeling drained and scattered and like my synapses are firing so fast that I can’t keep up.

I have so much to do that I’m completely halted. It’s like my brain is in fog, and I can’t reach out to see what’s in front of me. I can’t organize anything. I start doing something, and I stop short because I can’t even remember what I was wanting to do 10 seconds ago. “What was it again? Wait… that thing, no that thing… no, I don’t think it was…” and finally 30 seconds later, I’ve realized what it was, but then I’m thinking of 10 more things.

I’m tired. My brain is tired. And here I am, not checking things off of my list right now, but writing. Because something about writing calms me. It helps me to … breathe… in, out, in, out… write, reread, edit, reflect, revise… in, out, in, out…

Crying helps too. When I was a little girl (because I’ve always worked myself into a frenzy and burned the candle at both ends), I used to cry and cry and work myself into a sweaty mess in my parents’ arms, and then they said that I’d just pass out. In college, I would cry and cry and then run laps around the Stankowski track, and that’s saying something, because I HATE running. Sweaty mess again… But something about exhausting yourself is helpful. And restarting in the morning is helpful. Making your brain focus on ONE thing and one thing only and quieting the voices that keep telling you that life is too much… it helps.  Thank goodness for sleep and new mornings.

But for now, I’m just coping with a to-do list. And, I don’t expect you to call me or email me. That might actually stress me out more because then I feel like I need to call or email back, and I’ll guilt-trip myself more about what I haven’t been doing enough of. But, if you’re a praying person, that helps.

I read an excerpt from Jesus Calling just a bit ago, and today’s message said basically, “Hey, I’m here. I can heal you. All you have to do is ask.”

And I felt like, “Duh…” and also, “THANK YOU!” and I sent out a quick, “Help me, help me, heal me” prayer. And I feel a little better.

I have a lot to do, and I’m sure at some point I’ll have more eloquent things to say about this feeling and about how fairy tales are incredible and can really happen, but that the fairy isn’t a fairy, He’s God, and he doesn’t just give you bliss and then leave you there in blissfulness unending (at least until heaven). We’ve got work to do and lessons to learn and people to encourage, and there’s real evil in the world. But for now, I’ll just leave it at this…

I am living a fairy tale, because I know whose I am, and I’m given abundant blessings, but this fairy tale isn’t for the perfect person. It’s for the faint of heart, for the downtrodden, for the achiever and the hopeless and the one who can’t do it right. It’s for me, the overworking “I wish I could do everything” and well-intentioned person who just keeps hitting her head against the wall sometimes. My fairy tale includes brokenness and healing, and it’s supposed to be that way, this side of heaven, but some nights are really hard. And some nights are really exhausting.

So, that’s that. And now, I need to go get a heck of a lot of work done, and finish eating my now-cold noodle soup, because I needed some comfort food tonight, and I didn’t feel like I had the energy to cut up vegetables. (Don’t judge me. I know it’s hot in St. Louis.)

I hope that you’re experiencing some refreshing and blessing tonight. And if you don’t feel like you are, at least take comfort in the fact that it’s not just you. And that all you have to do is remember that God’s there, and He can heal you, and all that you have to do is ask.

Amen. Good night.