Sunday, November 17, 2013

Snow Days and Snow Don'ts

While inclement weather is rarely predictable in our part of the nation, reactions to it are as sure as the rising sun. After 46 years on the planet and 33 of those spent as either a student or teacher in schools, I can count on human beings to be steadfast in how they respond to Mother Nature’s fury. In fact, I have found that human patterns are so fixed in this area that they now constitute rules:

Rule 1. Thou shalt have snow before all other gods. Teachers and students start dreaming of snow days in August. It’s wrong, but it’s true. We should dream of power outages (we don’t have to make up cancelled days due to power outages), but we don’t.

Rule 2. Thou shalt make no actual progress on school work on a snow day. We all think we’ll use the snow day to “get ahead” or “catch up” on work. If you have children at home, forget it. Thou shalt play in the snow. Thou shalt make cocoa. Thou shalt make piles of cinnamon toast. This is all as it should be. We pay the piper on snow days by shaving days off of other breaks, so it’s a break. Spend it like one.

Rule 3. Thou shalt take one’s school superintendent’s name in vain. In perhaps another example of the trenches mentality among educators that I mentioned last week, citizens tend to think that the road conditions outside their personal window are the only road conditions in play. They don’t realize that some parts of their district received more or less precipitation than they did, that some parts of their district are more or less remote than their parts are, that some parts of their district have been plowed sooner or later than theirs have been. If we close when the malcontent doesn’t want us to close, he or she will wax nostalgic about his or her childhood in Antarctica, where they never closed schools for snow. If we don’t close when the malcontent wants us to close, then the superintendent of schools is a soulless miscreant who hates children and pokes kittens with fire batons. Which people fall into these two categories changes from day to day and, sometimes, hour to hour.

Rule 4. Thou shalt remember the snow day superstitions and keep them holy. If you don’t have lesson plans ready for the next day, you will not get a snow day. If you are showered, dressed, have packed lunches, and have everything ready for class down to the laminated cut-outs of student names for a cooperative learning activity that you’re super excited about, closure will come.

Rule 5. Thou shalt not honor thy neighbor’s job by shutting up about one’s own. When teachers complain openly on social media about having to go back to school after a snow day (or, worse, after several snow days in a row), they show a profound insensitivity to people in jobs where snow days rarely or never happen (i.e., almost every other job). I am always embarrassed by this and wish my colleagues would shut their ungrateful gobs.

Rule 6. Thou shalt become murderous on two-hour delay days. At 5:00 in the morning, a two-hour delay feels right. It feels leisurely. It feels like a break. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. You will come to work distracted and off your game, and students come in angry that they didn’t get the entire day off. If everyone survives the day, pat yourselves on the back.  

Rule 7. Thou shalt psychologically commit to a school closure before its time. Here is the scenario for the perfect school closing: Snow falls Wednesday night. The forecasted levels are so severe that the closing call comes on Wednesday night, allowing one to sleep in on Thursday. The call cancels schools for both days: 4-day weekend! Such a phenomenon actually happens every several years, which has unfortunately set this as the standard for all closure days. School superintendents are expected not only to make these difficult decisions regarding opening and closure under intense public scrutiny but are also expected to have winter weather crystal balls before anything actually happens. I never want to be a school superintendent. They can’t win.

Rule 8. Thou shalt not deal with the reality of make-up days. The school calendar lists the potential snow make-up days for the entire year before the school year even begins. These days usually are highlighted in some undeniably large, graphically illustrated way on the heavily distributed calendar, and yet people still make airline reservations on those days as if they are regular vacation days. College-educated people make airline reservations on those days (and they clearly do not understand that merely by booking a flight on those days that they have guaranteed they will lose those days to snow, even though EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS [see Rule 4]). This phenomenon demonstrates that a college education is no vaccine against stupidity.

Rule 9. Thou shalt covet other county’s snow days. If our county is sunny with temps in the 70s but the neighboring county closes because it has a wintry mix and temps in the teens, our folks in swimsuits and flip-flops will cry foul. I can’t explain this.

Rule 10. Thou shalt bear false witness by helping to spread delay/closure rumors on social media. Typically closure rumors will start a week before any weather event is likely to occur. This is the Curse of the Long-Range Forecast, and it always disappoints. I ignore all long-range forecasts. My wedding day taught me that.

In the end, teachers have a job that gives us the occasional, unexpected day off. Enjoy it when it happens, folks, and when it doesn’t--for the love of God--let it go. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

This Means War

On this Veterans Day, I am as grateful as ever for the people who serve their nation in its most awful hours and in its ugliest conflicts. In this post, I call on educators to see themselves in the same light in which we view servicemen and servicewomen, and I reference Watergate, my childhood, Tony Orlando and Dawn, and Dwight David Eisenhower to do it. Happy Veterans Day!

The Pennsylvania Monument, Gettysburg Battlefield

I grew up in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. Born in Arlington, VA, I moved with my family (like many others in the 1960s and 1970s) further and further from the city limits over the years, each move increasing the size of the house in tandem with the accrual of children and larger parental paychecks. The commuting heads of these households still worked primarily in town, even though “town” came to include not only DC proper but later Rosslyn, Bethesda, and the other burgeoning satellites of home base. When one grows up in Washington, one is surrounded by the government, by the military, by the US of A in every way. For me, hailing from Washington has always been a point of pride, despite what people who have little experience with that area think about the government, about bureaucrats, and about what it means to be “inside the beltway.”

I remember my Washingtonian childhood differently than that more common negative image of DC, a childhood where government workers were as passionately patriotic as any small-town dweller in the heartland. I remember my parents’ disgust at the Watergate scandal (traumatic for 8-year-old me at the time because the President’s resignation preempted the Tony Orlando and Dawn Show that night—Nixon couldn’t leave town quickly enough, as far as I was concerned). I remember my very Republican father taking his very Democratic 13-year-old daughter around to all of the presidential campaign headquarters during the primary season of 1980 so that I could have bumper stickers and campaign buttons for everybody, just in case. (John Anderson was my favorite at the time—10 points if you know who he was.)

I remember my father telling us about the parade outside his office window at the US Commerce Department during the celebration of the return of the Iranian hostages and bringing us home the yellow ribbons that everyone wore in the city (ribbons I then affixed to my Bermuda bag—another 10 points if you know that reference). I remember my mother being amused by and proud of the “ERA Yes!” button (you get another 10 points for that one, too) that 12-year-old me wore with my “The best man for the job is a woman” t-shirt. No matter how much traffic I must endure there to see my parents, I love that city. It is a part of me.

My family has military connections. My maternal grandfather was a World War II hero, a Bronze Star recipient who drove a jeep with no brakes behind enemy lines to transport his wounded buddies to safety. All of Grandpa’s siblings likewise served in that war, nobly and selflessly, as either soldier or nurse.

My paternal grandfather was born with a disability that left him unable to serve. His umbilical cord had wrapped around his tiny developing arm in utero, thus inhibiting its growth below the elbow. His son (my father) lost his hearing in one ear as a child and has terrible eyesight, thus preventing him from military service as well. Even though they could not serve, you will never know more patriotic men than those two. I have always thought that not serving in the military must have been a tremendous disappointment to my father, who (as family lore has it) once attempted to make a break for town as a toddler during the war so that he could “go kill Germans.”

Instead, my father spent nearly every year of his career working for the federal government (the last significant portion of his work life with the Department of the Navy), and our ultimate household destination placed us very near to the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia. Many men around town had crewcuts. High school friends marrying those bald-ish boys soon after graduation was not uncommon. Military life (although not my own life) was local, normal, and ubiquitous.

I toyed briefly with the idea of military service in middle school. I was unusually politically aware and active even in elementary school (to give you an idea of how intense I was, one of the childhood taunts I endured from my siblings was “Miss Poli-TICIAN!”), and I knew that I had a toughness that made me (as my seventh-grade friend, Mike, said), “the kind of girl I would trust with a gun.” Ultimately, I followed the call of teaching, and that was the right decision. The more time I spend in this profession, though, the more my militaristic inner child comes out, usually in the form of war metaphors.

On a daily basis, I use military language and compare elements of what we do in education to war. Sometimes I do this for comical effect, but often, it’s because the comparison fits. In a besieged public education system, we’ve got them all: friendly fire, trenches mentalities, underdeveloped exit strategies, comrades screwing the pooch. There’s an intensity to what we do, a fierceness in our loyalty to it, a level of risk in dealing with the future of a child’s life that all make these metaphors less hyperbolic than one might think. This is a war on the homefront, and it’s important to remember who one’s enemies are.

It’s easy in a crisis (a battle, an emergency, a bad professional development session) to see enemies where they do not exist or to identify the wrong enemy. In education, our enemies are, to my mind, clear: poverty, child abuse, and unequal opportunity. I have never encountered a student in danger of dropping out, ending up in prison, or doing permanent harm to the world who did not have these issues as the problem’s root in one form or another. This triumvirate, I posit, also constitutes three of the greatest threats to our democracy. They’re linked, you see: the things that crush our nation's children are the things that crush our nation.

The enemy is not the government or the President (yes, I said that when George W. Bush was president, too). The enemy is not the US Department of Education or one's state department of education. The enemy is not the local school system or parents. The enemy is not our school administrators or each other, and the enemy is not the kids. To help all students (and I mean all), we must focus on the real enemies: poverty, child abuse, and unequal opportunity. Falsely labeling the others above distracts us from the real problems, problems we can solve. Falsely labeling the others directs energy elsewhere that should be directed to the real battles. Thus, falsely labeling the others makes us part of the problem. The enemy, then, becomes us.

Last week, I made a pilgrimage to Gettysburg, PA. My dad took us to what felt like every single Civil War battlefield when we were kids, but I had never made it to Gettysburg. I spent that day walking around by myself, thinking, taking pictures. I took the courtesy shuttle to the nearby farm of Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower, their only real permanent address after a marital lifetime of living in military installations. I walked around by myself there, too, thinking, taking pictures. I don’t consider Eisenhower to have been a great president; that’s not a stinging criticism—by his own account, it wasn’t a role he really wanted or that suited him. I think he was certainly a great general and a great leader (he led the people who saved the world, for crying out loud). When I’m down or feel besieged myself, his quotes are the ones that I tape to my computer:

The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.

Here in America we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionaries and rebels–men and women who dared to dissent from accepted doctrine. As their heirs, may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.
And, perhaps most appropriately,

Do not needlessly endanger your lives…until I give you the signal.
To serve our nation in public education, we must be as focused, tough, and decisive as any soldier in battle. We, too, save lives. We, too, preserve a way of life. We, too, liberate the innocent and crush their oppressors (poverty, child abuse, and unequal opportunity).

           The view from Eisenhower's farm, Gettysburg, PA

War metaphors work in education because of the enormity of what we do. It’s easy to lose focus under that kind of pressure, but we cannot. Issues will continually crop up that try to distract us from the real problems, and we then construe them to be the enemy (distractions such as policy changes, public perception, teacher evaluation, or who took the clementines out of your lunchbag in the faculty frig). Those problems may be legitimate concerns for others, and we may need to address them in some way, but we can never let our primary attention drift from the realm of what is genuinely, immediately threatening us and the students we serve. We must carry out the mission. We must face the enemy (once more, with feeling: poverty, child abuse, and unequal opportunity). Our country is counting on us, and we are equal to the task.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Things That Never Disappoint: Teacher Edition, Part I

I love TEDTalks. I use them as warm-ups, as extension activities, as brain breaks, whatever. One of my favorites is by Neil Pasricha, author of the book/blog, 1000 Awesome Things. He and I are philosophically similar, and students typically have plenty to say about his perspective and its relevance to their own lives. I've written before about my feelings concerning taking responsibility for one's own attitude on Jim Knight's blog, Radical Learners, and it's a philosophy that definitely causes folks either to embrace me or to shun me. Regardless, like Popeye, I am what I am, and I try to look for the good in every day, in every interaction, and in every situation. I don't always have success in this regard, but for me, that approach is the only way to live. So in the spirit of Neil Pasricha, here's a short list of some teacher things that I find awesome, and I don't think I'm alone.

10 Awesome Teacher Things
1.      The Zen-like sensation of lamination
2.      The disengaged kid who engages once he finds out you know who [Black Sabbath/Tupac Shakur/George Jones/Nirvana] is
3.      Unexpected candy and/or apples in teacher mailboxes
4.      When you run into a former student years later and call him or her by his or her name, and he or she says, “You remember me?” and you say, “Of course—you were a big deal, sweetie”
5.      Having grades entered and complete (this is a fleeting feeling and typically the closest that active duty teachers ever get to true inner peace)
6.      The school Internet server unexpectedly goes down on Friday night and does not come back online until Monday morning--OMG heaven!
7.      The quiet kid in the nutty class who always nods his head because he wants you to know that The Sane and The Stable are with you
8.      When there's a special Teacher Appreciation lunch, and you forget that it's that day, but then you get to school, and it's there! You get pizza instead of yogurt! And you must eat it because otherwise you're an ungrateful loser! Yes!
9.      Having all of your copying done for the next school day (collation and stapling, too = bonus)

10.  The moment when you meet the parents of a rascally student, and they introduce themselves by saying, “Hi, we’re ____________’s parents. And we’re sorry.” 

Keep on the sunny side of life, my friends. Better beats bitter every time.

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