Category Archives: True Confessions

Some candid reflections about my own experiences in the classroom

Why the ‘Great Teacher’ Myth Doesn’t Help Kids

“Here’s the problem with the whole ‘great teacher’ idea,” Roxanna Elden tells me.  We’re about halfway through a free-wheeling conversation that has covered everything from TFA to teacher evaluations.  I became a groupie after reading her book, See Me After Class, which she explains is “not Chicken Soup for the Teacher’s Soul” but more like “Hard Liquor for the Teacher’s Soul” because that’s what she believes new teachers need: a shot of real-world, practical advice that’s grounded in common sense and years of classroom experience.

Roxanna serves her advice for brand-new teachers straight up, for example: “After a long, unrewarding day of teaching, suggestions like “Let them know you care’ or ‘Try making it fun’ from people who’ve never taught will make you want to rip off your head—or theirs—and roll it down the street like a bowling ball” or my favorite observation, “I am still waiting to see an ‘inspiring teacher’ movie in which the teacher grades papers.” Continue reading Why the ‘Great Teacher’ Myth Doesn’t Help Kids

Are You a Bad Teacher?

I once had a student who was on crack.  It was a nightmare.  Before he’d spun out into addiction, Jorge had been one of the most talented students I’d ever had in my Drama class, with the inspired, all-out brilliance and timing of a comedic pro.  But crack turned him nasty and out of control.  He’d bounce into my class hopped up, sweaty, eyes glinting with rage; we, his teachers, sent each other frantic emails about him.  We did an intervention.  We called in his weeping, desperate mother, who begged him to get help.  Nothing worked.  Jorge, a kid who’d once loved my class so much that on facebook during winter break he’d counted down the days till Drama class, now stared me down every day with simmering, unsettling animosity.  He took to harassing other students and one day, after calling me a bitch, he lobbed the n-bomb at one of the girls

I lost it.  I actually only dimly recall what happened next.  I’m sure I didn’t actually drag him by the collar into the hall, but that’s what I remember.  All I know for sure is that a friend of mine who taught several doors down said that she could hear me yelling at him even with her door shut.  When finished, I was shaking.  He wouldn’t make eye contact and walked out of school, disappearing for the rest of the day.

All I could think was: I am a terrible teacher.  Continue reading Are You a Bad Teacher?

When You Live In A Book Desert

He was beefy and laconic, rumored to be gang-affliated.  Kids whispered that he stood outside of school in the early mornings selling weed, though we could never catch him at it.

He was also brilliant.  If you define “intellectual” as a person who takes delight in the process of abstract thinking, Xavier* was one of the most purely intellectual people I’ve ever met.  Faced with a complex question that would leave other kids stumped or bored, Xavier would stare at the ceiling, a slow grin moving over his face as he contemplated the various possible answers he could give.  Watching Xavier think was like watching him listen to music only he could hear.

Despite his brilliance, he did homework only sporadically, was absent a great deal of the time and was barely passing his classes.  I met Xavier my first year teaching in South L.A. and like many new teachers, was determined that I would be the one to reach him.  The day he approached me after class to ask for a reading list, my heart leapt.  He wanted to read more, but he had no books in his home.   His parents, who had had to start working as children and did not have much education, worked 12-hour shifts at factory jobs.  But Xavier wanted a different life; he wanted to be a doctor.  He wanted to write about his experiences.  What should he read? Continue reading When You Live In A Book Desert

What’s Effective Teaching?

I demand an effective teacher in every classroom!  Don’t you?  Earlier this year in Los Angeles, students in the Vergara v. California case testified in court about horrible, uncaring, sometimes verbally abusive or demeaning teachers who truly damaged them.  Those teachers should leave.

They need to be replaced by effective teachers.

But wait…

What do I even mean by an “effective teacher?”

Right now in this country, we are all about “effective” teachers.  The Vergara v. California lawsuit hinges on students’ constitutional right to an effective teacher.  The students’ stories on the stand were genuinely heartbreaking and horrifying.  Scientists, meanwhile, testified to the enormous virtues of an effective teacher and how much better students fare when they have one.  They whipped out charts demonstrating the truth of this statement.

Here’s what they didn’t do: define what they meant by “effective teachers.” Continue reading What’s Effective Teaching?

In Search of Lost Time

No, I haven’t just eaten a madeleine.  I’m talking about the idea of time, passing even as you read this–time, unstoppable, incessant, inextricably equated in our minds with money. “Every minute matters,” warns teaching guru Doug Lemov in his seminal teacher effectiveness text Teach Like a Champion.  “Time is water in the desert, a teacher’s most precious resource: to be husbanded, guarded and conserved.”  He exhorts teachers not to waste a single instant of class time, extolling the virtues of teachers who pepper their students with questions as they stand in line to enter class.  “A walk to the bathroom is the perfect time for a vocabulary review,” he says, though I cannot imagine there are many who share this sentiment, certainly not anyone who’s been swilling from a Big Gulp cup of iced coffee for the last two periods.

Not wasting time is at the heart of the current canonical view of effective teaching.  Time is the central unit of value, a commodity from which a maximum of measurable, testable instruction must be wrung.  To spend the last minute or so of class relaxing and chatting with your students is to “leave value on the table,” the moral equivalent of walking away from a deal without reaming your opponent for every last nickel.  Continue reading In Search of Lost Time

Four Years Later–Part II

They drove me nuts.  Smart, chatty, gregarious, popular, Gerardo and Katia talked incessantly to the people around them in class, a river of disengaged, casual gossip that stopped flowing only when I stood next to them glaring with all my powers, and even then sometimes they wouldn’t stop.

They did no work.

Gerardo and Katia, for all their considerable charm, did not do work no matter how much you begged, called home, commiserated or threatened.  They did no work in spite of the fact that they were extremely intelligent—Gerardo was one of the highest-testing kids in the school–and extremely courageous; they were the first students to come out at our school, starting a gay-straight alliance and supporting their younger LGBT classmates.   Though if asked, Gerardo and Katia would say that they did no work because they were lazy, in fact their refusal to do work was more like Bartleby’s existential “I would prefer not to,” a renunciation of all that we begged them to believe about themselves and about the world. Continue reading Four Years Later–Part II

Four Years Later–What Stays With You From High School?

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I sent my children to private school, something I did for reasons that in part were rational–when my oldest went to kindgergarten, the local school was truly terrible and there were no charters at the time–but also in large part irrational: I was driven by the vague conviction that they would get a good education at a private school, though I could not have said exactly what I meant by a “good education,” only that I felt on an instinctual level that whatever it meant, it was what I owed my children, something that literally kept me up at night with worry.

Several years later, as I’ve also mentioned repeatedly, I became a teacher at a charter school in South Los Angeles for similar reasons: to be part of providing a “good education” for children in the community, a drive that again I could not have entirely explained but that also frequently kept me up at night with worry.

But what exactly was I worrying about?  Continue reading Four Years Later–What Stays With You From High School?

We Don’t Have Enough Security

As I visit schools this year on my search to understand education, certain images haunt me.  One is of the metal fence surrounding a large LAUSD high school in South Central that I faced one morning as I was trying to leave.  Though my car was in the parking lot only a few feet away, the gate, marked “Emergency Exit,” was held shut with a massive iron padlocked chain.  Beyond the fence, I could see kids running around the football field for P.E. (where, incidentally, classes were so overcrowded that teachers often faced classes as large as 70).

I rattled the gate, thinking that since this was an emergency exit, the padlock might not actually be latched, but in fact, I was locked in.  Because classes were in session, almost no one was around to help me; finally, at the back of the cement courtyard, I found a security guard, a diminutive middle-aged woman with a giant, friendly smile.  Cheerfully, she walked me back to the gate, explaining that she had to keep it locked while classes were in session. Continue reading We Don’t Have Enough Security

Why I’m Learning Spanish and Not Math

Remember how excited I was about the Khan Academy math program?  Even though I’d always hated math, their practice tests full of hints made it fun for me to learn.  Yes, fun!  I said that about math!

Brimming with enthusiasm, I vowed right in these here pages to keep doing math until I hit a wall.

Can I be honest?  After that optimistic proclamation, I only did one more hour or so of math practice tests.  And then I stopped.

Here’s what’s interesting: I wasn’t bored of the practice tests. They were kind of fun.  But we live in a world in which fun is very easy to come by.  If all I wanted was to have fun, I’d spend the rest of my life binge-watching Girls or learn how to play Call of Duty or do real-life fun stuff like snorkel or surf or bungee jump.

The thing is, for me, but also I suspect for many people, fun is not enough. I say this because a lot of educational programs sell themselves on the premise that they’re fun and accessible and that therefore, kids will use them.  For me, that wasn’t enough to get me through a whole course, nor was the vague notion that I really ought to know the subject. Continue reading Why I’m Learning Spanish and Not Math