teaching

Nobody

“Nobody’s talking about…”
“Nobody’s considering the needs of…”
“Nobody seems to understand that…”

An empty stool in a corner
Who is listening to me?

I’ve been seeing these all week in social media and comments sections. (FSM help me, I cannot look away from this coronavirus in schools train wreck, even though I am definitely inside the train with most of you.) The statements inevitably conclude with something about the speaker’s position. Teachers complain that nobody is thinking about them. Working parents complain that nobody is thinking about them

I can guarantee you, though, that pretty close to every teacher has thought about the parents of their students. I can’t make the same promises about every parent, but I’m guessing many, probably most, have at least a glimmer of sympathy for the position teachers are being put in. (There are always going to be people who have wild misapprehensions about how much work teaching is and how much skill it requires, and yeah, I’ve seen those posts, too.)

The “nobody” you’re looking for? It’s much of our leadership. It’s the machinery of our society. In some cases it’s been willfully blind to problems, in others the blindness has become baked into the system. 

Here are some truths:

People are going to die. Teachers have already died on the job. (See for example this story about summer school teachers in Arizona.) Eventually, students are going to die, too. It’s a “when,” not an “if.”

Having students on campus is not going to magically return education to normal. There will be an awful lot that teachers won’t be able to do in a socially distant classroom. For younger students, especially, it may be more psychologically challenging than remote learning. (Try to put yourselves in the shoes of an eight year old who goes back to school and has to wear a mask and stay in the same seat and not borrow things from their friends and have limited specials and even recess is probably messed up and different.)

Households are going to splinter. Families are juggling irreconcilable obligations at enormous costs in time, money, and stress. There aren’t signs it’s going to end soon. That stress isn’t just going to vanish into the air. That’s ongoing harm that is going to have consequences sooner and later. 

Remote learning is still going to suck, although it will not be the crisis schooling of last spring. Teachers have had time to reflect and prepare. We’ll do better, but there’s only so much our public education resources allow us to level the technological playing field for students (never mind what’s going on with their families).

The truth that’s roiling our collective guts, of course, is the one that I started with: people are going to die.

The truth that’s roiling our collective guts, of course, is the one that I started with: people are going to die. There’s a reason we use the phrase “it’s a matter of life and death” to mean “this is the most important thing.” It’s literal this time. How many deaths are we willing to accept? What is it going to look like when the first school-based outbreak hits the U.S.? Are we going to respond by shutting everything down again? How much are we willing to sacrifice to push that chance of death down as close to zero as we can get it?

Reduced to absurdity, that line of thinking has all of us who are able living in well-supplied bunkers and never going out. Can’t get into a car wreck that way. Can’t get struck by lightning if you’re underground. Can’t catch a disease you’re never exposed to. 

Equally reductive is this idea that we’re going to wave our flags and show off our best mask-free smiles and just try not to keep asking for time off for funerals while everything is going back to normal. (I’m intentionally ignoring both the “it’s in God’s hands” and “it’s all a hoax” camps. Fight me.)

Most people want something between those. We’re pondering, talking about, often shouting about where we think we should be between those two poles. When somebody’s prioritizing different things, it becomes easy to say “nobody thinks about me.” But it misses the point. 

I know we’ve nearly lost it in digressions, but the real point is this: we’re not set up for a public health crisis that’s also an economic crisis that’s also a political crisis. That “nobody is talking about my side” problem is the confluence of all sorts of things in the discourse (yes, I went there. Grad school never completely wears off) that push us towards binary antagonism. 

We don’t have effective mechanisms for keeping people at home and letting them keep their homes (and food and utilities and jobs). That is true even when everything is morning in America: our social safety net is made of twine and pipe cleaners. (And that bolstered unemployment from the CARES act? It’s about to run out.) Our society is predicated on people exchanging their time and labor for money. Think about how many of us identify by our jobs

Our leadership has failed. Not universally. Not completely. To say that this was all avoidable does not return the spilt milk to its bottle. There has been too much magical thinking. There has been too much concern with how the news affects politics. Too many of us have viewed our leaders through the lenses we’ve built up over the years, positive and negative. 

On the education side, we’re asked to be inventive, original, engaging…and meet our testing targets. Bureaucracy cannot help but move slowly. I love my district. My principal is the best boss I’ve had, and every AP has teachers’ backs while also being deeply concerned with the students. And despite that, we don’t know what things will look like in September. We’re not entirely sure what things are going to look like for our scheduled return in a matter of weeks. And why is that? Because we’re dealing with a combination of vague guidance and strict mandates from the state. Because we’re not sure what the county COVID-19 testing numbers are going to look like next week. I am lucky to be in a district that’s grown so much that the buildings are all pretty new, but is small enough that we’re not having to balance poor campuses against wealthier ones as the central office works out policies. And I’m still anxious about the limits of what our district can do. 

And that brings us to the ultimate point here: The “nobody” that’s talking about the things you care about is the same one that’s coming to save you. Nobody. Nobody is coming to save you. Nobody is coming to save us. Whatever combination of panic, frustration, and fury we’re feeling about reopening schools in our coronavirus world is a symptom, not the disease. If we want to change it, we have to try and push our broken systems into a better shape. That’s a matter of consultation and economics and politics…which I hope we are all better understanding are matters of life and death for an awful lot of us. 

Essential

I am supposed to be back on campus, with students in front of me, on August 11. I don’t think you need me to point out that that is less than a month away. I live in Texas, where the state education agency has mandated that all districts offer a full on-campus program (we are allowed to offer remote learning, but not required to). Texas, where our 7-day average for new cases is about 9200 as of July 12. That’s higher than Arizona (though not per capita) and only about 700 behind headline-hogging Florida. 

About ten days ago, the country collectively thought “hey, remember school? We used to send our kids there. We should send them there again.” The president weighed in, as usual, via Twitter and caps lock and his vice president saying the same things but in complete sentences without caps lock. People have opined in op-eds. Most teachers I know and many parents have posted about it on social media. 

“They’re gambling with our lives.”

“They’re asking us to be guinea pigs.”

“They only care about the economy.”

I’ll be reporting back to campus in three weeks. 

I am an essential worker. And do you know where I remember hearing the sentiments above? From other essential workers in March and April.

I am an essential worker. And do you know where I remember hearing the sentiments above? From other essential workers in March and April. In retail. In fast food. In health care when PPE was in shortage (as it is becoming again). Society responded with rounds of applause, with cartoons painting nurses and doctors and grocery store workers and delivery drivers as heroes. 

Then we handed them masks (sometimes, in some states), put up some plexiglass (in some places), and got on with things as best we could. 

No matter what I wish, I do not think that teachers will fare any better. 

We teachers have the idea that we belong to the professional class. By education and by cultural capital, we do. Many states require teachers to have master’s degrees within a certain number of years from beginning in the profession. Every state requires continuing education hours. Teachers spend a lot of time learning. (This is to say nothing of the learning that good teachers constantly undertake in their own classrooms.) 

What this crisis is driving home, what has been obvious for years, is that, in economic terms, teachers belong to the working class. (When was the last time you heard about a lawyer needing a part time job to keep bills paid?) We’re harder to replace than retail employees, sure, but if the choice is between stopping society’s economic machine and grinding up public school employees to keep it running? We’re going into the grinder. “Skilled labor” is still labor. 

…if the choice is between stopping society’s economic machine and grinding up public school employees to keep it running? We’re going into the grinder.

None of this is to say that our worries as teachers are meaningless. Nor is this post about encouraging us all to embrace our inner Marxist. I’ve just been struck by how many teachers’ complaints involve comparison to health care workers (and their salaries) and tacit assumptions that we’re somehow worth more (in some sense) than the essential workers who’ve been doing their essential work for the last four months. 

And our work is essential. The problem I’m seeing in a lot of the conversations about schools reopening is that they mistake how much of teachers’ essential work will actually happen on a socially distant campus. Skilled teaching involves tons of interaction. Even teaching high school seniors, I am generally moving around the classroom most of the period, monitoring students and their work, crouching down by desks to check in, and doing all sort of things that can’t be done effectively from six feet away. And many of those things are the ones that make the much-cited contribution to students’ mental health and security. I can’t imagine trying to teach elementary students from inside a six-foot (or even three-foot) bubble. Your groceries can be rung up from the other side of the plexiglass. Can you learn calculus that way? How much more effective is it going to be than just learning via screen? The best thing about having kids back on campus—and though tragic, it’s not a small thing—may well be that more of their parents will be able to pay rent. 

I have more anxiety than answers. There hasn’t been a waking hour in the last week in which I haven’t thought about how schools will reopen and the idiotically political discourse that’s sprung up around it. The risks are different than they are in retail. My naive hope that we’d be able to glean some lessons from schools reopening in Europe has gone out the window as case numbers have shot back up in Texas and around the country. Those reopenings were all undertaken in places where the spread of COVID had been slowed. The way things are going now, it’s a statistical certainty that students and at least some staff will be showing up to campus with the virus in their system. And schools are just being left to make do.

I’ll control what I can. I’ll get some masks with cool patterns, I guess. I will treat getting home like healthcare workers do: in through the garage, clothes into the wash, shower. I’ll do my job the best I can.

I am, after all, essential.

Learning and Risk and Coronavirus

My classroom, already empty for months, an hour or so before I checked out for the year at the end of May.

Just before the district offices shut down for their usual summer break—one that will be less than half the length it usually is this year—they sent out an internal draft of our plan for returning to school in the “fall” (which in this case means the second week of August). I can’t go into the details for a variety of reasons, but the broad contours resemble the plans and bits of plans that have been floating for the last several weeks: options for parents and students; emphasis on masks, distance, and sanitizing for those students who will be on campus at least part of the time; some preliminary suggestions of how teachers’ responsibilities for face to face and virtual learning might be split up. 

As I mentioned, it’s a draft, and a district level draft, which means much of the implementation still needs to get ironed out at the campus level. (I expect that this will be happening right up to the day school starts.) There’s a sprawl of complications: how will students get to school? How do we deal with students wanting to socialize? And ultimately: how do we minimize risk while maintaining as much educational benefit as possible? 

And ultimately: how do we minimize risk while maintaining as much educational benefit as possible?

It’s that concept of minimizing risk that is the hardest. When many parents were suddenly thrust into managing their children and their children’s “distance learning” back in March, there was, if not an outpouring, at least a wave of expression of sympathy for teachers and how complex our jobs are. Now, especially with the American Academy of Pediatrics encouraging as much education as possible to occur in the classroom, minimizing risk in schools has become another flashpoint in our collective navigation of the pandemic.

I think that you would be hard pressed to find a teacher who would argue that remote learning works best for most students. (There are definitely some, especially in the secondary grades, for whom it does, but they’re a minority.) When we are in the classroom with our students, we are able to read those students and quickly adapt to their needs. You can’t do that with pre-recorded lessons, nor can you do it effectively in an online discussion in which you only see students’ faces. By training and by practice, effective teachers are intensely interactive with their students, even when that interaction means giving them space to figure things out on their own for a bit. 

Assuming that education works best in person, how do we do that? How do we minimize risks? My campus is slated to be over capacity this year while we wait for a new building to open. Managing transition between classes is a crazy problem on its own, never mind what happens inside classrooms. Even if a significant number of students opt for remote lessons, if I am teaching in person sections I can expect to see at least 100 different students every day, possibly up to last year’s 150. (And my load is on the lighter side for a core subject teacher because my AP classes tend to run small.) That brings me into contact not only with those students, but with everybody they have been in contact with: their families, their friends, their coworkers, their customers…to teach in a classroom is to jump back into the deep end of the pool of social contact. How can we even think about risk management in that situation?

We could, as a society, throw resources at it: more buildings, creating outdoor teaching spaces where they are viable, more people employed in education. (This would be a real emergency for “emergency certification.”) That would make more socially distanced classrooms practical, but it gets expensive very, very quickly. It can be disgustingly difficult to get funding for American public education in times of plenty. How are we supposed to throw money at it when the economy is running off the rails and state and local governments are facing major budget shortfalls? Barring a sudden and unexpected groundswell of public agitation for it, I don’t expect we’ll solve this problem with real estate and rapid hiring.

It’s got to be solved somehow, though. Much of the function of our society is predicated on parents being able to put their children in public schools during the day. That’s how we expect people to have jobs and children at the same time. The harder it is for students to be on campus, in classrooms, the harder it is for parents to work. Whom do we make choose between paying rent and educating their child? The families most affected by the quasi-shutdowns of the spring (which were, remember, three quarters of the way through the year and thus “reasonable” to shift toward review and consolidation for the online components) were low income families where the choice had to be paying rent. 

So we try to minimize risk. That puts teachers in the middle of things. We’re being asked to assume risk. I think it’s reasonable to push, as a profession, for that risk to be managed and considered with the best information available. I think it’s reasonable to be scared; COVID-19 is potentially deadly and we’re seeing more and more that not all recoveries are complete. I think we have to keep paying attention to the research, watching our peers in other countries who have already gone back to school, and adjust what we’re doing as necessary.

But we have to do. We can’t eliminate risk.

But we have to do. We can’t eliminate risk. I have a job to do, and I want do it well. I care. That means being in the classroom for the students. Do I dread the first time I have a student in my largely conservative community throw a fit about keeping their mask on? Yes. Absolutely. (The politicization of elementary public health measures has been, despite stiff competition, the most maddening thing for me about 2020.) Do I worry that I might end up with scarred lungs and a lifetime of reduced lung capacity at a time when one party is still trying to allow insurance companies to refuse to cover pre-existing conditions? Yeah. For sure. I also worry about somebody running a red light at one of the bad intersections on my commute and killing us both. There is more to life (and more to risk) than the novel coronavirus.

We had our high school graduation at the beginning of June, at the football stadium with a limited audience in blocked off sections of the stands and all the seats for the graduates six feet apart on the field. The moment the mortarboards went up in the air, all that vanished. The students were all hugs and high fives and treating social distance in ways that would get you kicked out of a middle school dance. Managing risks when your brain is still developing capacity for rational thought is hard.  

I took care of myself that night: I was good about keeping my mask on, and though I hated it, I skipped my usual slow rotation through the crowds to wish my students personal farewells. I went straight out to my car after the ceremony and then home, where I washed my hands for twenty seconds. It had been a good ceremony. There were fireworks, and both the valedictorian’s speech and my principal’s speech were models of taking strong positions without demonizing or excluding people who might disagree. 

The ceremony was worth having. Those speeches were worth hearing. Those mortarboards, so help me, were worth throwing into the air. There are so many ways in which signing up to be a teacher is already signing up to be on the front lines of public health. We’re mandatory reporters for child abuse and neglect. We watch our students wrestle with mental health. Do you need to ask what a bad flu season looks like from the classroom? I’m worried (and none of this has even touched on my worries as a parent)…but the rewards of my job are worth the work to minimize the risk rather than sacrificing even more of our children’s education in an attempt to eliminate it. 

Uncertainty

A few weeks ago, when the world’s crazy was on the horizon but only if you were looking, I had to decide what I wanted to do with Hamlet. I added it to my AP Literature syllabus last year, swapping it in for The Tempest. I make our Shakespeare the last major work we do before the exam. It’s the oldest strata of language the students are responsible for, and it’s good to have that in their “ears” as they get ready for their cold reads. Hamlet, in addition to its place near the heart of the English-language canon, is a really versatile play that works for a variety of potential “Question 3” topics on the exam. (That’s the one question that asks students to deal with a work they read before the exam.)

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Anyway. Last year, I got through the nuts and bolts of the play, focusing on language and performance issues without really building a whole unit around it. (Spring break and high school ultimate season kept a lot of potential elaboration away.) This year, I wanted to give the play its proper due and put it at the center of something substantive. So—and again, this was at a point where even the reports coming out of China were just starting—I decided on “uncertainty.”

Sometimes life can be a little too on-the-nose, yeah?

My district has now officially added two weeks to our scheduled spring break, putting us off campus at least until early April. Like most of you, I’ve been wrestling with what to do, with fears of what may come, with the “pale cast of thought” that “sicklie[s] o’er the native hue of resolution.” So did Hamlet.

That doesn’t mean we’re suddenly all Hamlet—at least no more than we already were troubled Danish princes. The more I think about Hamlet’s uncertainty, the clearer it becomes that he’s phenomenally self-centered, probably the most self-centered protagonist in Shakespeare. Hamlet’s driving questions are all about himself: what should he do, what’s right for him, what’s his place in the universe. Even when he has seemingly committed himself to vengeance and the guidance of the “divinity that shapes our ends,” he’s still thinking about how it affects him.

He does, sometimes, reach for abstract principles of justice and duty, but only intermittently and not always productively. The Act 4 soliloquy he delivers as Fortinbras’ army marches by is generally read as inspired, but it has never quite clicked that way for me. If you haven’t read the play or don’t remember it (buried as it is in a transitional bit where Hamlet’s headed for the ship to England), the gist of it is that all the soldiers marching by, as well as the Poles they’re going to fight, do not hesitate when honor is at stake. They are ready to die for a piece of land that is too small for them to all fight on at the same time. This quickness to violence in defense of honor is what inspires Hamlet to give all his thoughts o’er to vengeance.

It’s a selfish and self-centered uncertainty, Hamlet’s, even when there’s method to his madness.

That’s part of the reason why the play is praised, of course. Hamlet’s easy to read as the “modern” individual, struggling to navigate an unjust world without the pole star of moral certainty. He trusts only Horatio, and Horatio only as a kind of metaphysical sidekick and sounding board for his digressions. Hamlet’s so smart that he doesn’t know what to do. (He’s also pretty consistently a jerk to people over the course of the play.) The questions he wrestles with, as I told my class, are questions we all wrestle with.

But there are limits to what we do as individuals. A melancholy cliffside castle might seem attractive right now (or the Italian countryside of Boccaccio’s Decameron), but that’s not how we live, nor was it how people lived in Elizabethan England. Our uncertainty right now is individual, but it is also painfully collective. We don’t know what is going to happen to us—to our family and friends, to our society, to our economy, to our governments. 2020 was already going to be a messy year. Now there’s a fog thickening over the mess.

Collective uncertainty is easier and harder to deal with. Easier, now, because we have so many ways to communicate that don’t rely on physical proximity. Harder because we don’t have experience. We have experts; hopefully people are paying attention to them. But we haven’t done this before. It’s not influenza in 1918. It’s not SARS or Swine Flu. We are all of us making this up as we go along.

Last Friday, my students wanted answers I couldn’t give them. They’re high school seniors. Their worlds can be as narrow as Hamlet’s, but also as big and sweeping as any of the Romantic or Enlightenment dreamers. They’re already engaging with their communities and the world, but most of them still want to keep a few lifelines to authority. They want to know about prom and graduation and AP exams. They want their rites of passage. A lot of them want to know that, if push comes to shove, the olds will have some answers for them. None of us do. The best I could manage was to remind them that Twitter’s not the best place to get your information, to explain to them the necessity of flattening the curve no matter how cheap plane tickets might be. To remind a room full of 17 and 18-year olds that it’s not necessarily about them, but rather about us.

We’re in this counterintuitive position right now of needing to lean on one another by staying apart. So many things have been cancelled, but people are putting ingenuity and empathy to work to support one another. Virtual concerts and collective education aren’t going to put more masks and ventilators in the hospital, but they can remind us what we’re saving people for. They help us remember that even if we’re stuck in our homes as individuals, we’re all in this together.

(And hopefully none of us, individually, are planning to pass the time with poisoned swords or poisoned wine.)

Thinking Cap Swap

capsforsale

(Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina)

The parallel universe in which I hold graduate degrees in English isn’t that far from this one. For some reason, it never occurred to me to not go to graduate school. (I’m not entirely sure why this was, but it’s probably related to the time when somebody called a family reunion asking for Dr. _____________ and it could have been any one of seven people.) The only real question for me was whether I’d do English or music. I’d backed my way into my music major. (Instrumental lesson waivers are a gateway drug.) English seemed like a natural fit. I’d always been good with words. Why didn’t I dance with the one what brung me?

The short answer? I was sick of close reading. It felt less like a particular kind of thinking cap and more like a straitjacket.

I was never quite a traditional English major. My department allowed me to carve out a plan that balanced literature classes and creative writing classes. This allowed me sufficient training in literary theory and good writing that I started hating some of the genre fiction I’d so loved in high school. It never made me fall in love with “literary” writing, though, because so much of the stuff took itself so very, very seriously. It felt pretentious and the way we read it felt even more so. I wanted to read books without having to pick them apart.

I had a student this year who complained bitterly about Jane Eyre. It will be her Tess of the d’Urbervilles—a novel that I read and hated in high school and am still somewhat bitter about. I don’t feel bad about assigning Jane. There are much worse nineteenth-century novels out there in terms of length or difficulty or things to discuss. I also have a responsibility to get students ready for the exam the College Board writes. That exam include plenty of pre-twentieth century works. Jane Eyre had ample pedagogical merit, even if some students hated it.

The student’s seething made me think about that time at the end of my undergrad when I decided that I couldn’t put myself through who knew how many years of picking apart novels. It felt like killing them. Going for an MFA seemed useless, too, because I’d found my creative writing classes almost as bad as the literary ones for pretentiousness. (To be fair, it came mostly from the students. The professors I worked with at Mac, including the fantastic Wang Ping, were great.) I just didn’t want to hate what I read or wrote.

I’ve done a lot of writing since then, and a lot of reading. Some of it I’ve hated even as I was doing it. (Yay! Grad school!) There’s no doubt I’ve done at least my share of pretentious things, probably more. You don’t make a comparative studies omelette without breaking a few common sense eggs, and I still cringe at some of the things I forced into my master’s thesis. (Mikhail Bakhtin and mature Harry Partch go together better in theory than in practice.) I can’t get away from analysis. I tried! I was going to “just” do composition, but I added music history because I missed writing papers.

What I couldn’t understand—couldn’t have understood, really—when I was developing close reading skills as an undergrad (or, as it felt sometimes, having them inflicted upon me) is that it gets better. Getting better at close reading has meant I can pick up important pieces as I go along without having to let the close reading devour the attention that could be aimed at all the other good stuff in the writing.

Small digression: My college roommate was increasingly obsessed with traditional Irish music. He played it in our dorm room as he worked on learning tunes from recordings. At first, I could tell the tunes apart. Then they all started sounding the same to me, because there are a lot of similar patterns across the various jigs and reels. He insisted that when you listened enough, they started sounding different again.

Close reading is kind of like that. When you’re learning it, it can be miserable because every text becomes this series of discrete semiotic fragments—just a bunch of disassembled jigsaw pieces. Combine that with a 170-year-old text, and I’m sympathetic to the student I mentioned earlier literally burning her copy of Jane Eyre when we were done with it. When you have more practice with close reading, you can spot the shapes of the puzzle pieces without losing sight of the image.

…which doesn’t necessarily stop you from having plenty of pretentious things to say about it.

I have a long “want to write” list this summer, and a lot of related chores: reading up on 1848, revisions on existing pieces, blog posts, essays about some of the great novels I’ve read in the last year. Some of those things require my close reading cap. Other things require the “say something clever” cap. Others—most of them, really—require the “shut up and write” cap. The juggling of such hats isn’t easy. It wasn’t something I could do when I was sixteen and busy hating Tess. It wasn’t something I wanted to do when I was picking graduate programs. Now, it’s something I do out of habit as I bounce between the different paths of my wordwork.

Hopefully the monkeys stay away.

Favorites

My first year of teaching, I somehow ended up emceeing eighth grade graduation. I made a rookie mistake when introducing the class valedictorian: I admitted that she was one of my favorites. I knew that teachers aren’t supposed to have favorite students any more than parents are supposed to have favorite children. We do have favorite students, though. We’re human beings, and can’t help it.

What a lot of students don’t get, though, is that there’s not always much correlation between the students who are good at school and the students who are teachers’ favorites. It is definitely easier to get along with students who behave in your class, who get all their work turned in, who are respectful when they have questions. That stuff does matter, but personality matters, too. I’ve been pretty fond of students who think I dislike them. (They think I dislike them because they’re frequently on the wrong side of 70 in my class.) One of my favorites from this year actually ended up completing English IV in credit recovery.

(Please don’t ask me about credit recovery. There will be ranting.)

Graduation was last week. It was my third at this high school. (Almost) all the seniors I had this year for English IV and AP Lit crossed the stage. So did students that I’d had for English intervention, including the student who called me Mister Doctor Coach and a student who, as a sophomore, wrote me a thank you note and said that I was her favorite teacher. In that note, one I think she had to write for JV basketball, she explained that my class was the first time she had had a favorite teacher. Early this year, this student and a friend would swing by my class at the end of the day and hang out with my really small ninth period class.

Crossing the stage at graduation, she cried. She was supposed to smile with the school board member handing her the diploma folder, but she couldn’t quite manage it. I don’t know if she managed the “happy just got my diploma” picture that the venue took of every graduate to sell later. (The diploma folders are empty, by the way. Students have to come get their diplomas from the school the next day.) I do know that, when I finally tracked her down in the happy chaos outside the venue, she was smiling, and I was the choked up one when I told her I still had that card.

I do get choked up. Not for everybody, but for students like this one. Students like the one who faced incredible mental and physical health challenges all year, the one for whom I worried more about survival than graduation. Students like our valedictorian, who is one of the smartest and most humble students I’ve ever taught—and one of those exceptional individuals who has overcome the socioeconomic odds. He’s off to Yale in the fall. And some students I get choked up for for no specific reason at all.

I get choked up because I care. And it’s because I care that it matters so much when students tell me that I’m their favorite teacher or that my class was their favorite or the first time they enjoyed English.

It’s not an ego thing—not exactly. I’m not in competition with my fellow teachers. We don’t collect the nice things students say about us and go down to the lounge and have a competition about who is most loved…no more than we have competitions about who’s said the meanest things to us this year. I’d be happiest if my students liked all of their teachers.

The thing I dig most about hearing I’m somebody’s favorite teacher is that it means I’ve gotten through to them. Whether it was with a stray comment or checking in with them after they’d been out sick or, heaven forbid, some actual bit of class content, I’ve gotten through to the students who say I’m their favorite. There’s a connection there. I made them care, at least a little, about learning something, about dealing with the adults they’re becoming, about responsibility or humor or some part of being human. It also means, most of the time, that the student’s made a connection with me.

Successful teaching is about making those connections. It’s not just about content, which is where administrators and legislators so often go astray as they pine for the fjords of the quantifiable. When a student says I’m a favorite, it means I’ve done my job, no matter what the numbers show. Really, when those connections happen, the numbers get better anyway.

It’s one of the most satisfying things about the end of the year: the students stopping by (in some cases sneaking back in) to say thank you and goodbye and have a good summer. I love it when it happens for me, and I love seeing it when it happens to my colleagues. It’s one of the reasons teaching matters, and one of the reasons I’m happy to go back and do it again next year.

You Take It With You

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.
       —Heraclitus (via Plato)

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Four years ago (give or take), I was somewhere on I-35, south of the Twin Cities and north of Austin. We had carefully timed our departure to eke another month of benefits from the job my spouse was leaving. We had, rather less carefully, packed up the apartment we spent seven years living in. It’s cliché, but you never know how much stuff you have to take with you until you’re trying to squash it into shipping containers. You also forget just how much work goes into getting an apartment move-out ready until about 1 a.m. the night before you go.

My wife and I left that North Minneapolis apartment with two more kids than we’d moved into it with. We had more books, but fewer papers; my decision to leave academia was a good excuse to get rid of folder after folder of notes and printed articles. We had more furniture, too, having upgraded from Goodwill to IKEA and therefore having some furniture that was actually worth moving.

I can’t say that I was particularly reflective my last night in the apartment. On an air mattress. In the last room we hadn’t scrubbed down. Surrounded by the few items that were going into our cars rather than the pods. The thoughts that went beyond ‘I’m tired’ aimed at the road ahead, about how we’d keep the kids occupied, where we might stop, how it was all going to come together at the other end. I swam in a sea of change, taking care of whichever wave was coming at me next.

Now, I live in Texas. I doubt that it will ever be where I’m from…but my daughter has spent half her life here. I’ve made a new career as an educator here. I still hate the summers and love the availability of avocados. I still miss winter and the quality of the air that you only experience on clear days with subzero temperatures. I occasionally fantasize about moving to Duluth…but I have regular spots here, places I go not just because they belong to the right category (e.g., “coffee shop”), but because of the specific spot (e.g., Star Coffee downtown, which has decent coffee and good food and a few tables tucked into out of the way corners).

The neighborhood in which I wrote swathes of my dissertation—the area around Target Field in Minneapolis—has mostly completed the transition from dilapidated warehouses and small commercial businesses to posh condos and hip eateries. Going back would not, exactly, be going back.

That doesn’t necessarily matter. Until my memory goes, I’ll still have the late-night walks home, cutting across icy parking lots and over dingy barriers of plowed snow. I’ll still have the spring afternoons with my cohort, drinking a Friday beer outside when it was still actually too cold to enjoy sitting outside, but we did anyway because you can never hold back spring. I’ll still have summer afternoons running around the wading pool in the park with my kids (even if they were too young to remember it). I’ll still have burying my son in leaves, listening to his happy cackling and then having to dig out the Tigger he’d left in the pile.

In the last year or so, as I settle in to secondary teaching as a profession, I’ve caught myself thinking more and more about what has already happened. Partly, that’s middle age around the corner (I can hear it there, sounding like spilled soup and a mop.) I am a long way out of high school. When I taught freshmen last year, I had some who were born after I graduated from college. Time keeps on ticking, you know? Lived experience builds up.

The other, related part of thinking back through time is this: I am not in school anymore. I’m not training for what comes next. Years of graduate school kept me oriented toward an imagined future that was always one semester, one successful application away. Hope was perpetually deferred. These days, I have projects, from novels to school stuff to working through the home improvement to-do list. “What comes next” is smaller now. Sometimes that is a welcome release from anxiety. Sometimes it’s a tacit excuse to slide into mere preoccupation: mindless games, social media, reading comment sections.

Stability takes getting used to. Years in the same house, the same job—and teaching the same classes. This year I have no new preps, so I’m tweaking lesson plans and syllabi rather than creating new ones. Drop a work here, insert a project there. Remember which things my students hated and either adjust them or double down on the teacher-side enthusiasm. The small changes add up, just as they do in revising a work. The years are never as much the same as you might expect.

This is because of, and in spite of, memory. You take it with you. Memories aren’t exact, they aren’t permanent. They bleed together. They distort to match the stories we tell ourselves (or are told about) what happened. Even the things we remember as being the same were not necessarily the same; stability is more about the relative equilibrium of competing forces than it is about stasis. Memory is our throughline, but it wavers. We’re constantly re-writing the past in small ways to fit our present, just as we’re constantly adjusting to incoming waves of change.

The waves I’m swimming in August of 2017 are smaller than the ones I swam in August of 2013. The only things I’m packing up are the few items that need to go from my house back to my classroom at the end of the week. (I have plenty of boxes to unpack there, though.) As much as I might pine for Minneapolis on a rainy morning, I’ve still got the version I’ve taken with me. And the furniture that survived the pods. And the books. And things that I have added here in Texas…memories included. Men, rivers, und so weiter.

Mister Doctor Coach

I’ve never felt like “Plocher” is a particularly challenging surname to wrap one’s mouth around. As I tell my students, “it rhymes with joker.” (I don’t give the students a hard time about the other pieces of my name or my ridiculously long work e-mail address. Some day, I’ll write about changing my name when I got married, and all the misadventures that come with having two middle names.) Some of my students never quite get it—I hear lots of “Plucker” and “Plotcher” and “Ploh-tcher” deep into the semester.

One student, though, after inadvertently addressing me as “Miss” and mangling my name several times, just called me “Mister Doctor Coach.” It started as fumbling for the right title, but it caught on with him. That’s all he ever called me afterward. He still calls me that when he sees me in the hallway.

I have written a lot about the emotional challenges of leaving the academy, about expectations, about failure. You can find those on my #postac page, or a longer, more reflective single piece in the “works” page. Most of the conversations I’ve had lately with other PhD holders and graduate students, though, have been about the “professional journey.” That’s not something I’ve written about all that much, and certainly not from my current perspective, four years out from my leave-taking.

“Mister Doctor Coach” isn’t a bad summary of where my journey has taken me. These days, I am definitely #withaphd rather than #postac. I am not, technically speaking, “in my field;” my doctorate is musicology (with a minor in comparative studies) rather than English (in which I hold an undergraduate degree). I do what I do because I figured out (after sorting through the narrative wreckage) that my field was teaching all along.

My professional journey has been shaped by the needs of my family. I was lucky enough to get through graduate school without accumulating significant debt because my spouse had a good job with excellent insurance and we still basically lived like grad students. I juggled my work as a gradjunct with being a stay-at-home dad, including taking my son to the numerous therapy appointments that followed his autism diagnosis. (I mentioned that we had really good health insurance, right?) With two kids, one of whom needs more supports than many, the idea of either a) sticking around in the Twin Cities and ramping up my adjunct workload or b) chasing VAPs that would require frequent relocation became…implausible. I decided, when the first round of musicology openings closed, that I wasn’t going to keep, as I put it, “paying Interfolio for lottery tickets.”

Shortly thereafter, my family moved from Minnesota to Texas. My spouse’s family lives mostly in the Austin area, so we had some nuts-and-bolts support. We were also, though, broke. It took my spouse longer than expected to find a job. I interviewed for a few entry-level positions outside academia, and applied for many, many more.

None of those panned out. The interviews I had seemed to be decided in the first few minutes when I failed to convince potential employers that my doctorate didn’t make me a flight risk. Several straight out asked if I would be going back to the higher ed world, and seemed skeptical when I demurred. These were entry-level positions, mind, mostly in writing-related fields.

Sending out applications doesn’t pay the rent, and rent in the Austin area is…high. I needed something that I could do, even part-time, that would generate some income while I looked for my imagined perfect job. Requirements for substitute teaching? Some college education? I had lots of college education. I spent a half-day at orientation, had my fingerprints taken and background checked, then started finding my way around Austin ISD one school at a time.

For months, I’d sub three to five days a week and spend the other days filling out applications. I wasn’t happy, but I’d also helped get the household to a point where we didn’t have to take on credit card debt to meet basic living expenses. By the spring, I was getting long-term substitute jobs that paid better (marginally, but it mattered) and gave me the opportunity to do actual teaching. (Short sub jobs were pretty much always some combination of babysitting and riot control.) I remembered that teaching was a big part of why I had gone to graduate school in the first place.

Texas, for better or worse, has a robust alternative certification path into the teaching profession. I took it. The classes were the expected mix of useful and redundant. My year spent as a substitute gave me more than enough classroom time to get my probationary certification. Which brought me back to…interviews.

This time around, I was interviewing for jobs with a certification in hand, a full year of subbing (including those precious long term assignments) and years of teaching in college. The first question was still “you have a doctorate, why on Earth do you want to teach middle schoolers?” Because of the certification timelines, I was interviewing during the late summer rush. (Teachers have until mid-summer to opt out of their contracts without penalty. This means that when administrators come back from July vacations, they have only a few weeks to fill newly-vacant positions.) Some of the interviews were really rushed. In the worst, the principal announced that we had 10 minutes for the interview, mispronounced my name, didn’t even try to apologize, and seemed most interested in how much of a disciplinarian I could be. The interview only made it about six of the allotted 10 minutes, and my “thanks for the interview” note included a polite refusal to be further considered.

I eventually landed a job at a charter school in East Austin three weeks after the school year started. Most of my meetings with the principal included admonitions that teaching middle school was not like teaching college. It isn’t, and I knew that, and my lessons were planned for the eighth graders I was teaching. I was a first year teacher, and neither the lesson plans nor my putting them into practice were perfect, but I left most meetings with my principal furious at the repeated idea that I couldn’t tell the difference between a thirteen-year-old and a 20-year-old. I did have great co-workers and assistant principals from whom I learned enormous amounts. They weren’t quite enough to keep me there.

I felt bad about leaving that job because it felt like I was abandoning kids who’d already been abandoned or neglected by too many people. The commute was costing me, though—two hours a day spent sitting in Austin traffic, barely moving. The hours and the stress made it harder for me to do my job and harder to do the right things at home. It was not sustainable. I let the school know that I wouldn’t be returning and went through another summer of applications and interviews.

With more distance from graduate school and proof that I could last at least a year in a secondary school gig, most of the interviews went better. I still had to deal with some degree skepticism, but it mostly had to do with why I was teaching English when my graduate work was in music. (I got pretty good at explaining that, as much as I’d been a band nerd and sung in choirs, I’d never had any interest in being a band or choir director.) Importantly, I was also better able to explain how the variety of teaching I’d done, including teaching at the college level, contributed to the success of my students.

By the end of the summer, I had landed a job at my current school, where I’ve taken over the AP literature class in addition to teaching various on-level and intervention courses. I coach the ultimate frisbee team. Most of the AP students call me “Dr. Plocher.” In the on-level and intervention classes, I get a lot more “mister” (with or without the Plocher). Some of my ultimate players call me “coach” in class. I’m usually not picky about it. (Teachers, like everybody else who works with other people, choose their battles.)   

My higher education experience improves my teaching in a few obvious ways: especially with high school seniors (and most especially with the AP students), I can set realistic expectations for college. I try to teach my students that professors care in direct proportion to the amount that their students care. Many of my students will be first-generation college students. I do my damnedest to help them advocate for themselves, to get them used to the idea of asking for help when they need it.

From a practical standpoint, the skills I picked up in graduate school are invaluable for nuts-and-bolts teaching. I’ve always been a fast reader; graduate school forced me to refine my analytical chops to keep pace. I can do background research quickly. After having to teach syllabi that were handed to me three days before I started an adjunct job, I do okay with shifting administrative priorities and requirements. (I confess I still complain loudly about them, though.)

There are moments—not many—that I look around and wonder “what am I doing here with my musicology PhD”? The money’s not great, but it is much more than I made as an adjunct. I also know where I’m working from semester to semester, which is something you can really only appreciate if you’ve been in situations where you don’t. I get to collaborate (and hang out with!) some great colleagues without having to compete with them for funding.

I’m doing work that is necessary and important. Sometimes it’s thankless, but not always. The gratification is mostly deferred—another thing graduate school taught me to deal with. Teaching is a different job every day; frequently it’s a different job from period to period, even with the same lesson plan. It will wear you out and lift you up and you will feel your students’ departure at the end of the day…the end of the year…graduation just as keenly as they do, although for different reasons.

This, all of this, is why I secretly like the ridiculousness of “Mister Doctor Coach.” All of those titles are part of how I got to where I am. It’s almost August, and my dreams (as they seem to do at this time of year) are filled with the classroom again. The school year is just around the corner, and I’m looking forward to it…which isn’t something I could say four years ago.

Reflections on a Third Teaching Year

Forty-eight hours ago, I turned in my keys and signed out of my school for the summer. That doesn’t mean there’s no work to do: I have some projects to plan, some bureaucracy to manage, some trainings to attend…but by and large, the next two and a half months are mine for other things. Including (finally!) getting back to Walking Ledges.

My thoughts after my first year of teaching full time were long enough to require three separate posts. Last year, I apparently didn’t feel that anything beyond signing my contract renewal was noteworthy.

This year has been different in that it has been largely the same as the previous one. Signing that second contract was a big deal; working a second year in the same place was less about the moments and more about the way the work shaped other moments.

Teaching advanced placement and intervention simultaneously kept me on my toes. I joked that I had “only the skinny parts of the bell curve.” That’s not entirely true; some students end up in intervention classes who don’t belong there, and the same is true of AP classes. They all require different strategies (differentiation!). They all require attention. They all require—have a right to—the best teaching the school can provide. We  teach the students who walk through our door.

That’s one of the things that hasn’t changed from that first set of reflections: students are the best thing about the job any time they aren’t the worst thing about the job. (Most of the time, the worst part of the job is bureaucracy.) What did change? Well…

Improvisation and Iteration

My class assignments changed back in August, and I had to hit the ground running with my AP Literature course. Mid-August up through November was a bit of a blur. I knew only a few of the texts I taught. One or two were a matter of staying ahead of my students. One of the perks of having done this for a while, though, is that you’re better able to leverage the authority you get just for being the one at the front of the room. I’ve always worked from broad outlines and sketches, filling them in as I go. That’s become my general mode of lesson planning…at least until I’m wrangling challenging material or challenging students. At those times, I damn well better bang out specific, timed lesson plans. Most of the time, though, teaching AP allowed me to improvise and bounce ideas around with my awesome students.

Teaching intervention was, most days, at the opposite end of the spectrum. I’d taught the course a full year. With it being a one-semester course, I’d already taught it twice by the time the 16-17 school year started. That meant that I had plenty of material sitting around waiting to be re-used. Or modified. Or shifted to a different context. Or thrown out all together. The pleasure of teaching a course I’d been through before is much like the pleasure of editing and revising. The iteration helps you smooth things out, improve the good things, eliminate the ones that aren’t working, and try new things in small doses.

Of course, you get new students. Tests change. Administrative requirements change. Lessons that were awesome for one class can fall flat the very next period. So even when you’re fine-tuning, you frequently have to improvise a new melody.

Collegiality

I’ve said it before, and I meant it: I like teachers. Not all teachers are awesome people, but it seems like most of them are. (No self-congratulation intended!) In a year when there was so much craziness going on in the world, I appreciated having colleagues who could help keep me grounded and focused on the things I could control. My fantastic department head won district teacher of the year, and deserved every bit of it. My fellow AP/pre-AP teachers are doing cool stuff with curriculum. My next door neighbor is the loudest guy in the building, a raconteur who holds down the head of the teacher’s lounge lunch table. It’s good to have work friends again.

Plus, my colleagues get (most) of my jokes. Even when they’re not funny jokes.

On Finding my Niche

I started teaching full-time at a charter in East Austin, commuting too many miles and too many minutes. I spent my days with eighth graders who, mostly, were not good at being in school (no matter how smart they were). I’d done most of my substitute teaching in middle schools. It seemed like a good idea. Looking back, it’s hard to sort out which challenges were first-year-teacher things, which were specific to the school, which to the commute, which to the grade level… Being a first year teacher is hard!

This year, teaching AP, things felt…right. Teaching advanced placement seniors is about as close to teaching college as you can get without actually doing it. There are advantages, though: I get to spend so much more time with my students. I see them every day, learn so much more about who they are and what they hope to do. I would have gotten some of that with professor-ing full time, with the mythical tenure-track job. I was absolutely not getting it as an adjunct. The AP kids, usually, remember to call me by the correct title.

I still love teaching writing. I got faster, over the year, at grading the exam-specific stuff. I’m working on more and better ways to build writing into the curriculum. I love showing students how a text can do multiple things at the same time, how no matter what a multiple-choice exam might require you to ‘understand,’ literature and life are messier. When I do my job well, when it is at its most satisfying, its the students who get that, who find the meaning in the glorious mess, who explain it as best they can (which is sometimes brilliantly).

Next year, barring another last minute change, I’ll only be teaching seniors—AP and “on-level.” As excited as I am about spending the summer writing, about my summer to-do list, I’m already excited about what’s coming up when August rolls around.

Welcome to Wonderland

This is, more or less, the speech I gave to my Advanced Placement Literature and Composition students on the first day of school.

Today I want to tell you a story about moments, moments the world looks wonderful and strange and different.

I was lucky enough to go to school in Wales for two years. Over those two years, I had roommates from England, South Korea, Kenya, Italy, and Germany. I had the chance to travel—choir tour through France and Switzerland, and a five-week epic after I graduated. The trip I want to tell you about, though, was just a day trip, only as far as the Welsh border with England.

There’s a little town there called Hay-on-Wye. It’s a very English town name—Hay, on the Wye River, so Hay-on-Wye to distinguish it from the other towns called ‘Hay.’ It’s a small English town: grey and green except on those rare sunny days, at which time it is a lighter grey and a brighter green. There’s not much to recommend Hay-on-Wye…except for one thing. Hay-on-Wye is a mecca for books.

Aside from the plane ticket, I had two big expenses getting home from school in Wales. One was the bag that I left for five weeks at Heathrow. The other was shipping my used books home. There was one used bookstore in Llantwit (near school), and I haunted several others in Cardiff (which was a bus ride away), but Hay-on-Wye had more. It was probably for the best that I only went there once.

The streets were dotted with shelves for the book fairs. And the bookstores…there were all sorts of used bookstores there: the kind that are only open for a few hours a few days each week, with bars on the windows and rare books inside; the kind that are nearly a garage sale with boxes of unsorted books; and the many in between—more or less organized, more or less ready for exploration. Those were the ones I spent most of my day with—after a walk to see the mansion and the castle.

There was one store in particular that I went into in the afternoon. It was two stories, and narrow—like a hallway. Shelves stretched to the ceiling, some with boxes on top of them. It was cluttered enough that I couldn’t see all the way to the back. I went upstairs and out stepped a man. He was short, with graying, curly hair and a van dyck. He said to me, with absolute seriousness, “Welcome to Wonderland.”

And for a moment, just a sliver of a sliver of a second, I wondered whether there was a back to the bookstore, whether it went on and on to some other place. It was a superbly Neil Gaiman moment, even though I’d never even heard of Neil Gaiman at the time. I was one of those kids who was always trying to figure out which door would open to Narnia, whether there was a secret knock or some other trick that would whisk me away to somewhere more interesting. For that moment, I was there again.

Alas, the bookstore did in fact end. The short man was just a short man, not a leprechaun. I didn’t find any magic there more than the usual magic of books. That’s not the point.

The point is that, in that moment, my world shifted. In the blink of a mind, I saw possibilities that were hidden. Anything could happen. I had to see.

We don’t get those moments often. I can’t promise that you’ll have those moments in my class. Honestly, I don’t think I ever had one in class. What I want to do, though, is to give you the tools to find those moments yourselves. There are times when you’re reading, times when you’re studying a text, when the world opens up like that. You can’t force those moments, but the more you know, the more you can be ready for them when they come…

…And that’s the story of how I took a trip to Hay-on-Wye. That’s the way the story goes and it’s truth if you don’t believe and a lie if it makes you happy and it’s a story if it blew from a far off place and you felt it.

Okay. I stole that last sentence from my poem, The Storyteller, which I still like even after all these years.