What it Feels Like to Be a Teacher These Days

I’ve tried to write this piece five times in the past three days, but words keep failing me. Emotions rise up, my fingers tremble and I find myself thinking, “What’s the point of even saying anything?” And I delete everything. Then I try again.

This time I’m not going to think too hard. I’m going to just let it flow. I may need to apologize to some people, so I’ll do that right up front. I’m a teacher; we tend to be polite.

I’m retired now, but I was a teacher for three decades. My daughter is a public school teachers. I count many educators among my closest friends.

In my teaching career, I’ve heard that teachers are lazy. I’ve had many people write or say that teachers have the job so they can work those short days and have lots of vacation time.

In those same years, I’ve arrived at work in the dark so I could meet with a parent who had an early morning job. I’ve stayed at work until well past dark, eating a sandwich at my desk, so I could be available to parents who worked late. I’ve stayed at school so my class could perform a play for their families, show off projects they’d created, share books they had written.

All meaning that I wasn’t with my own kids at the time.

I’ve known colleagues who spent 2 full days of school “vacation” working in their classrooms. I’ve seen veteran teachers enrolling in extra classes so they could learn about new techniques for behavior management. I had a colleague who spent a weekend learning about deafness when she was informed that she’d have a hearing impaired student in her class.

During years of contract negotiations, I’ve had members of the public tell me that teachers are “greedy” because we wanted a 3% raise. I’ve been told that educators are overpaid because they only work 182 days a year. I once had a local man tell me that it was “ridiculous” to expect a salary increase when “the job is the same every year.” This guy lived in a house that I could only dream of, drove a car that cost more than the house I do live in, and vacationed in Europe with his family every year.

I’ve known teachers who bought soccer shoes for kids who couldn’t otherwise play. When I retired and started packing up my stuff, I realized for the first time just how much money I’d spent on supplies, furniture, books, toys, decorations and appliances for my class. Almost every teacher I know has had a stash of snacks for kids who don’t have one.

I recently saw a social media comment saying that “Unions are for teachers and school committees are for students.” As if TEACHERS are not there for STUDENTS. I’ve been told that teachers should learn to “put the kids first.”

I’ve known teachers who have gotten children medical help when parents were unwilling. I’ve known teachers who have gone in early every day for months so that a kid with school phobia could get to the classroom and get settled before the other kids. I can name teachers who have missed lunch twice a week for a year in order to give extra support to a child who needed it. And teachers who have pushed and pushed and pushed until their students were given the mental health and educational support that they needed. I’ve gotten myself in trouble with my administrators for working with kids outside of the school day.

And with all of our wonderful “Education Reform”, teachers have been told to stick strictly to the curriculum, because if we don’t, our kids won’t do well enough on the tests. Our grade level won’t see enough test score improvement. Our school won’t look good. Don’t deviate from the curriculum! No extra lesson on music, just because you’re an expert! No!

At the same time, everybody on the face of the earth tells us that “schools should teach banking skills and social skills and sex education and gardening and nutrition and the pledge of allegiance and health and anti-bullying strategies and anti-racism and why aren’t there more service projects? Why don’t teachers focus on teaching technology skills? And let’s not forget handwriting!

But do. not. deviate. from. the. national. curriculum.

I’ve been at parties where someone hears that I’m a teacher. If I had a nickel for every time someone responds with some variation of “You know what kids today need?”, I’d be able to supply a fifth grade classroom for a decade.

I once had an acquaintance tell me “If those kids had two days with me in charge you wouldn’t see any discipline problems!” This came from someone whose kids I know. Suffice it to say, he was full of crap. He wouldn’t have lasted twenty minutes in my classroom of 25 kids.

Find me a teacher who hasn’t heard someone say, “A swift kick in the butt would fix these kids.” Then let that teacher explain how many hours he spent working up a behavior plan to support the kid who keeps acting out, knowing that the kid’s parents were in the middle of a bitter divorce. Or his grandpa just died. Or his cousin overdosed. Or he was trying to figure out this reading stuff, but it wasn’t working for him.

When schools are shot up by madmen, teachers are expected to jump in front of those bullets with no questions asked. And most of us would. We’ve been told to carry guns, but that we can’t have coffee pots in our classrooms because they’re too dangerous. We’ve learned to comfort scared kids in lockdown drills. We’re left to explain to them that if they are in the hall when the lockdown call comes over the speaker, they need to go to the closest classroom. We are charged with guarding their lives, their emotional well-being, their sense of safety.

And now here we are in the middle of the worst pandemic to hit the earth in 100 years. Every single part of this globe has been hit. Everything has changed. Everything.

Teachers were told that schools were closing down, and a week later that they had to start teaching remotely. Teachers and administrators were told to get the kids in the air and build the plane while flying. All while trying to keep their own families safe.

And that brings me to right now, in the once admirable state of Massachusetts.

A state whose education commissioner has decided that ALL schools need to be completely open and running to ALL kids by April 1.

An insanely stupid and dangerous idea which once again puts teachers in the position of having to suddenly change the crazy, stressful, overwhelming routine that they’ve been using all year to teach kids remotely or in a hybrid model. No more social distancing if 24 kids are in one room. No more. Just masks (except for lunch!) and fingers crossed.

And teachers like my daughter are just going to have to suck it up and cope. As usual. They’ll have to figure out a way to merge two completely separate groups of kids who don’t know each other into one cohesive learning unit, a task that usually takes about a month at the beginning of a school year. They’ll have to put themselves at twice the risk of getting infected and bringing the deadly disease home to their spouses, their kids, and maybe the parents who are helping with childcare during this madness. They’ll have to just deal with is.

As usual.

And I’m sure that there are thousands of people out there who haven’t stepped foot in a classroom since 1980, but who are more than ready to tell them what they’re doing wrong and how selfish they are to want to stay alive and how it’s time for the unions and the teachers to start thinking of the kids for once.

Yes. I am enraged.

And really, really sad.

Thinking of Teachers Tonight

I’m thinking about America’s teachers this evening. I was a teacher for more than 30 years, so I know what our teachers are doing tonight.

They’re planning, organizing, writing out lessons for tomorrow and the days after. They’re thinking about certain kids right now, wondering how last night went for them, or worrying about the best way to teach them that tricky math concept.

I know how hard teachers work.

Twelve years ago tonight, I was at my dining room table, working on lessons for the next day. I remember grouping my students to make a fun cooperative science lesson. Like thousands of other teachers, I was headed into the upcoming week thinking about behavior plans, IEP meetings and the holidays on the horizon.

Tonight my heart is reaching out to all of the teachers across the country.

Twelve years ago tomorrow was a normal school day for me. December 14, 2012 was sunny and not too cold in my part of the world. I arrived in my classroom like normal, greeted my kids and went through a typical school morning. We had morning meeting, we did our math lessons, we laughed and worked and counted the days until vacation.

Then my students went off to lunch, and I finished up with my regular classroom chores. I think I went to the office to copy some worksheets, then grabbed my inter-office mail. I remember that I was sitting at my desk, with a half eaten sandwich in my hand. I checked my phone and saw a text from my husband.

“Did you hear the news this morning? There was a shooting at a school. It’s awful. Are you OK?”

My heart sank, of course, but I thought that maybe one person had shot another at a high school or college. Terrible, but not that unusual. I opened my computer and checked the news.

How can I describe the feeling that swept over me as I read about the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School? How can I even begin to process the horror that came with reading about twenty tiny bodies slaughtered in cold blood and torn to bits in their kindergarten classroom? I remember being numb. I remember going to the window of my classroom, a room that was probably almost identical to the one where some of my colleagues were murdered just hours ago. I looked out onto the playground. I wanted to find “my” kids and bring them inside. I was more afraid at that moment than I can ever remember being. I wanted to get my kids back into our room, lock the door, pull down the shades and keep them safe.

My principal came, making sure that every teacher had heard the news, offering support and explaining what had happened. He convinced me that my students were OK, and to let them finish their recess.

I stood at the window, repeatedly counting their heads in the recess crowd. I was shaking when they came back inside.

I know how teachers feel when something threatens their students. I do. I knew it before that day, but I know it more deeply now.

But it was in the weeks that followed Sandy Hook and the horrific slaughter of innocents when my sorrow came to a head. That was when I came to realize that our society considers the lives of teachers to be expendable.

Yes, I know.

That sounds like hyperbole.

But I was there in the classroom after the Newtown massacre. I heard all the discussions about arming teachers. I heard people talking casually about the fact that laws limiting guns would be wrong, but leaving kids and teachers as targets would be just fine.

When I expressed the fact that as a teacher I was trained to nurture and protect, but not to kill, I was called a coward. I was told that if I wasn’t willing to take a life to protect my students, I shouldn’t have my job. I was told this more than once.

I was told that I should have a plan for attacking and resisting a shooter. I reorganized my room so I’d have a tall bookshelf to push over on someone if I had to.

It was the most demoralizing, heartbreaking period of my long teaching career.

My country and its leaders showed me in those dark days and weeks that the rights of angry men to carry weapons of war was more important than my right to teach in safety. Even worse, those so-called “gun rights” were more important than the right of every innocent child to live through a day in public school.


I guess having lived through the Newtown horror and the complete lack of any reaction from American leaders, I should not be at all surprised to see teachers working every single day in the face of the worst pandemic in a century.

Every day I read in the news that I should not visit my children over Christmas. I should absolutely not share a meal with them, or with my mother or my siblings. I am told by the best experts in the country that I should absolutely not eat indoors in a restaurant. It’s not safe, I’m told, to travel to visit family this year. Danger, danger, danger, they say. You must stay safe. No spending a day with your grandchildren!

But teachers must be in their classrooms. In spite of the crumbling conditions of thousands of school building, teachers must be in classrooms with kids. Although kids are eating in their classrooms (for safety), teachers shouldn’t stop at a restaurant for dinner. Everyone, we have been told since last March, everyone must stay at least 6 feet apart! In the grocery store we stand on circles to keep us apart. We “social distance” when stopping for gas.

But in classrooms? Three feet apart is fine, for reasons that defy logic. Teachers can’t be within 6 feet of their adult offspring, but its fine to be 3 feet from their students.

I shouldn’t be surprised to see that the United States is more than willing to sacrifice its kids and its teachers so that moms and dads can be free to work and keep the wheels of capitalism turning. I shouldn’t be surprised.

But I should be royally pissed off.

In fact, I’ve been royally pissed off since December 14, 2012.

Read Aloud

Every day, no matter what else has gone on, I read aloud to my class.

They are fifth graders, growing tall, beginning to mature, just entering the terrible miracle of puberty.

You would think that they’d be too old to have an adult reading them stories, wouldn’t you?

They aren’t.

They love “Read Aloud”.  I love it even more.  In a time when so much of education is focused on gathering data, on scoring rubrics, on force feeding those Common Core State Standards, it is both a relief and a joy to settle into my chair after lunch, a good book in my hands, the children draped on the rug at my feet.

I love to watch them as I read to them; I love to see them as they react to the action.

Sometimes, when the book is familiar, I can glance at the text and then look out at the kids, knowing the words that are coming next.  I can really look at them in those moments, because they do not see me looking.  They are seeing the characters in the book, watching the action unfold.  They are unaware of the classroom around them, or the teacher who is looking at them tenderly as she reads.

I love to read the words, “She narrowed her eyes”, because I see those beautiful children trying it out, narrowing their own bright eyes.  I love to read, “He shook his head”, because so many of them shake theirs.

After lunch on a bright spring day, I love to read aloud to my class.  I see the unconscious smiles on the lips of the girls, watching as they twirl a bit of their hair around a finger.  I love to read aloud as those quickly growing boys sit, so uncharacteristically quiet, their gleaming eyes unseeing, the sweat in their hair drying, a smudge of dirt on their cheeks. I love to come to a moment of action, hearing their indrawn breath, catching the glances they throw at each other.

Most of all, I love to come to the end of a chapter, hearing them groan and complain as I place my bookmark in the pages that I am closing.

I love “Read Aloud”.

I hope that it is never subjected to a rubric, or lost to a misguided desire to teach them to read “at their own level.”


A Day in the Life


It’s pretty hard to be a public school teacher in the US right now.

We are in the middle of administering the annual state tests here in Massachusetts.  You know, the ones that are supposed to assess a fifth grader’s ability to read, but really assess his ability to read ninth grade level materials and then write a pithy, on point analysis in one sitting.

Yep.  Those awesome tests.

The ones that are beginning to count more and more toward our teacher evaluations. The ones that help to decide which schools are successful and which aren’t.

The tests that use words like “spectrometry” and “minutiae” and “chirring cicadas”.   For ten year olds to decipher.

I don’t feel very good about myself during these tests.   You know why?

Because I have to make kids sit still for 5 hours in a row.

Because I have to tell them that I can’t explain what the word means.

Because I have to hope that they will remember to “include evidence from the text” when they compare the article on scientific discoveries in a far distant part of the world to a poem about nature.

I don’t feel good about myself on test days.

This year, I don’t feel particularly good about myself as a teacher at all.  I am aware of my age.  I am acutely aware of my obsolescence.   My outdated pedagogy.   I feel a little bit useless.

I am sad.

At the end of these long, tiring days, when my back aches and my legs feel weak, I walk slowly to my car, wondering if I have done a decent job today.  I think about the kids, so young and fresh, so eager for the energy and life of youth.  I worry.  Am I failing them because I am too old to connect with their lives?  Am I failing them because I don’t know the latest research on reading comprehension?  Am I too cranky? Too worn down?  Is the constant struggle to meet the standards taking away the soul of my classroom?  Do they wake up in the early mornings wishing that they could stay home and avoid me and my lessons?

I don’t know.

I am sad.

Then I get to my classroom, in the early morning light.  I turn on the Smartboard, move the trash barrels into place. I gather yesterday’s worksheets from the “hand in” bin.  I boot up my computer, make a morning message that pokes fun at the testing. “MCAS”, I write. “Mango Chocolate Awesome Sauce”.  I put out the morning work, file corrected work, turn the compost.

I’m still sad.

This isn’t why I became a teacher.  To make children fill in bubble sheets.  To make them “restate the prompt” and “find evidence from the text.”   I am not here because I love data or because I think its a good idea to measure each child’s ability to copy the writing style of a so called “educational expert”.

Still.  I am a professional.  I do what is expected of me.  I greet the kids, make sure that each has a freshly sharpened number 2 pencil.  I remind them to bring in snack, to have a book on hand.  I chat with the nervous ones, hug the tearful ones.  Two are clearly sick; I hand them tissues, remind them that they can get water when they need it.  I run a short, quiet “morning meeting”, then get them all into their seats.  I remind them that I believe in them.  I remind them that we will have some “math fun” when all of this is over.

I hand out the answer booklets.  And the test booklets.  And the erasers and highlighters.  I read the directions. “Cheating in any form is forbidden.  You may not use dictionaries.  Or cell phones.”  I take a breath.  I remind them to “Make a dark mark” and to “erase completely any mark that you wish you change”.

I am sad.

As the kids settle in to take the test, lollipops or Jolly Ranchers arranged in neat rows on their desks, I click on my email.

And I read this, coming from a colleague whose son was in my class a couple of years ago:

Hi there,
I tried to find you this morning to let you know that you will be reviewed by the MCAS scorers this summer.
The 7th grade long comp prompt was:
write about a teacher/coach who has made an impact on your life…..my son wrote about you:)
He was bragging that he wrote 10 paragraphs…..
Thought this would make your day.
This didn’t make my day, my friend. This made my week. My month.
This made me stand up taller as I walked around my classroom.
This reminded me that sometimes it is enough to love the kids and love my job. That sometimes I am doing a really good job just because I am able to make a connection to a struggling learner who isn’t sure that he has what it takes.
I am no longer sad.
I am so incredibly happy that this wonderful young man remembers me as someone who helped him to grow.
This is why I teach.
Thank you, my friend! You’ve given me the courage to keep it up for a little bit longer!


The Mt. Washington Auto Road.

The Mt. Washington Auto Road.

First thought: this photo has nothing to do with this post.

Which is pretty much the point. I’m sort of out of gas.

It happens to me every summer!  Every summer.

I don’t know why I’m still surprised, but what can I say? I apparently don’t learn from the past.

In June, there is nothing on earth more enticing to me than the idea of a whole day at home by myself.  In August, I’m getting a little bored with only me for company.

In June, the smell of the charcoal grill is like a siren song, calling me to days and nights of warmth and comfort. I love the lingering smell of hickory smoked chicken in my hair as I go to bed late, late on an early summer night.

In August, I yearn for the smell of baking apples and the warmth of the oven on a cool evening.  That rich charcoal smell now makes me think of forest fires and charred hot dogs.  I’m all done.

Ah, and in June, in June, in the lengthening days of June, this teacher craves a week without a single essay to correct, or lunch line to organize, or best friend conflict to mediate.  In June, the idea of a world empty of children’s voices sounds like the very definition of peace.

But come August, this aging teacher begins to dream of children past.  Their bright eyes and bubbling laughs fill me with longing.  This old teacher, mother of all grown up children, starts to gravitate toward the groups of kids on the beach, hoping to be invited in to look at the tide pool.

I can tell that summer is winding down. There are so many unmistakable signs.  The days grow just a little bit shorter.  The nights are almost crisp.  The leaves are beginning to curl, and turn brown or red.  The goldenrod is sprouting in every open field.

I can tell that summer, for all its glory and its gifts, is drifting toward its close.  My house is so clean that I barely recognize it.  The windows sparkle, the basement has been swept. The siding was washed of all of its algae and today I found myself taking apart window fans so that I could scrub them clean before putting them back together.

I know for sure that summer is past its prime, because I am really eager to see the names on next year’s class list. I have started to organize my “Week One” files, and I am making little maps to reorganize my classroom.

Thank you so much, Summer of 2014~ you have been a joy and a pleasure. I intend to thoroughly enjoy every day you have left.

But bring on the kids pretty soon, OK?  Its getting a little boring out here.

Why do I bother?

Sometimes I get really tired of my job.  I mean, I love teaching, but sometimes I am just so incredibly tired of making copies, alphabetizing worksheets, dealing with friendship dramas, keeping track of permission slips, worrying about art projects……

Sometimes I just feel depleted, and I start to wonder, “Why do I bother?”

Then I have a day that reminds me of exactly why I do bother.    A day like today.

I have a student who is a whirling dervish of charm and energy and need and nerves and joy. She makes my head spin.  She is literally incapable of walking; she flits and she zooms and she scampers.  No matter what I say, she simply cannot walk.  Sometimes that makes me scream.  But sometimes it makes me chuckle.  Today I was feeling weary and worn, as I gave my class some directions.  My little roadrunner immediately jumped up and tried to sprint to the door.  But as she flew across the room, she suddenly crashed right into me.  We both staggered, and I drew in a breath to reprimand her.  Before I could find the words, though, she threw both arms around me, sent out a delighted peal of laughter, and shouted, “I KNEW you needed a hug!”

She is why I bother.

Another one of my students is sad, withdrawn, often quiet to the point of silence.  I have to work hard every day just to get him to raise his hand, even though I know how smart and thoughtful he is.

Today we had a mid-year conference, and he showed me his student portfolio. He talked about his work, and then, completely out of the blue, he began to talk about last April 15th, when he went to see the Red Sox play at Fenway Park.  He told me how he walked out of the ballpark with his mother and sister, hoping to find a place to eat.  Instead, they found themselves running with the crowd of terrified people, away from the site of the Boston Marathon bombing that had just happened  just a few blocks away.  My little student spoke quickly and quietly, with an intense maturity that belied his tender age.  He told me that his family was at first confused, then afraid. His Mom speaks little English, so the responsibility of finding a safe route home fell onto his fragile shoulders. He spoke softly, describing his desire to keep his family safe, trying to find a way out of the city, trying to find a place to be safe.

He talked to me about the dreams that he has had since that day, wondering “What would happen to me if I was there, if I was closer.”  I told him that I was sorry for what he had been through.  I told him that he was one of the bravest people I know.  I didn’t mention the country that he left behind to come here, or the struggles that he and his family have faced since then.  But I held his hand, and I told him that he was strong, and brave and a person to be admired.  He didn’t smile.  But his dark eyes held onto mine, and his hand responded to my grasp.  He nodded, looking so much older than he is. “Yes,” he said,  “I am very brave.”

He is exactly why I bother.


A Year Ago

SONY DSCAs I go to bed tonight, my thoughts are all focused on a year ago.

A year ago tonight, I was still innocent.  I was still safe.

A year ago tonight, I went to sleep in a world where first graders gathered in the meeting area to listen to a story, not to die in a blaze of gunfire.

A year ago, I hadn’t yet checked my email while my students were outside at recess. I hadn’t yet read the news from Newtown, learning that a madman had massacred an entire classroom of little ones.  I hadn’t yet recoiled in horror and disbelief, then rushed outside to check on the safety of MY kids.

A year ago, I hadn’t been forced to spend an afternoon with my ten year old charges, pretending that everything was OK.  I hadn’t had to run to the copy room so that I could silently wipe my tears, trying to be strong for the children. I hadn’t yet had to wrestle with what I could possibly say to them to explain the madness.

A year ago, one short year ago, I hadn’t yet hugged my colleagues as we cried and grieved knowing that our last child was safely loaded onto the bus and sent home.

One year ago, I hadn’t yet stopped at the bank, where I failed to remember any of the information for the deposit slip.  I hadn’t yet turned to the woman waiting impatiently behind me t0 try to explain my confusion. “I’m sorry”, I hadn’t yet said, “I’m a teacher…..this was a very hard day.”  A year ago, I hadn’t yet had that stranger embrace me, putting her tear stained cheek on my shoulder. I hadn’t had the bank teller reach out to take my hand. Hadn’t had the man beside me at the counter hug me and say, “I’m so sorry.”

A year ago, I hadn’t yet gotten angry, and hadn’t yet declared that I would fight with every breath to make this country safer for little children.  I hadn’t yet vowed that I would work to bring some sensible, logical gun laws into this insane society. I hadn’t yet promised that I would do whatever I could to take a stand against the NRA.

A year ago tonight, I was still just a teacher in a classroom.

A year ago, one eternally long year ago, 20 mothers hadn’t yet kissed their babies goodnight, never dreaming for one minute that it would be for the very last time.

Heading upstream.

I just finished reading an article in today’s Boston Globe Magazine.  It made me so angry and so frustrated that I am just about in tears.

It was an article on school safety.  Here is the link: “Safekeeping”  You should read it.

Then you should take a moment to reflect on this little story that my husband heard way back in graduate school.

A man was walking in a new country.  It was a lovely place. There was a river, and it came rushing down from the mountainside.  As the man approached the riverbank, he saw many people, working frantically to pull babies out of the rushing waters. Each time one of the townspeople pulled out a little baby, saving its life, another baby came by, swept along by the river’s current.  “What are you doing?”, asked the stranger. “We are all working together,” answered one of the townspeople, sweeping a baby out of the current and into the waiting arms of the rescuers, “We are saving the babies!”

The man stood and watched for a moment, then he began to walk briskly upstream. “Where are you going?”, asked the townspeople, “Aren’t you going to help us?”  The man shook his head and kept walking.  “I am going upstream.”, he said. “I am going to find out who is throwing the babies into the river.”

The article in the Globe talked about how schools are working very hard to keep children safe in the age of the Newtown massacre and Columbine.  It talked about locked doors, and shelter-in-place drills and armed guards.  It mentioned that many schools are using social conflict programs such as Open Circle and the Responsive Classroom to teach children how to cooperate and to get along. The article reported the recommended words to use with frightened children, the best way to respond to their questions and concerns, the approved approach to keeping everyone calm.

Schools all over this country are spending money on keypad locks and security cameras.  Money that could have been spent on new books, more teachers, better science materials or a boatload of art supplies.

Teachers all over this country are being trained in the best ways to distract shooters and  the best approach to locking the doors quickly.  Windows are being covered by a “film” that minimizes the impact of bullets.   In some places, teachers are being encouraged to carry concealed weapons.

Everyone is pulling babies out of the flood.

No one is walking upstream to find out where the babies are coming from.  No one, anywhere, is suggesting that maybe we need to get rid of the damn guns so we can prevent the problem in the first place.