Saturday, March 28, 2009

Speaking Out for Teaching...

In my current job I travel the state and talk to people about teaching. My official title is "Teacher Ambassador." Occasionally, I have to arrive at my point of presentation the night before, usually because it's too far away for driving in the morning and then speaking to a group and pretending I have any brain cells firing. Such was the case this week when I drove toward a college campus three hours from my house. Knowing I had to be there at 8 AM, and knowing I didn't want to get up at 4 AM to do it, I drove there the afternoon before and had the pleasure of eating in a local restaurant near the campus.

Well, I guess I could call it pleasurable. I always feel a little odd, eating alone. On this night, I felt the need to tell the hostess, "Table for one. I'm traveling." Lord knows, she didn't give one hoot. But I felt I had to explain lest she consider me a loser. This particular restaurant was one of the Southern down home cooking variety, and I ordered beef stew, mashed potatoes, fried okra, and biscuits. By the time my sweet tea and biscuits came, I didn't give one hoot that I was sitting alone either. I settled in for the feast.

And then it happened. Just as I pierced the first hot, just-fried piece of okra with my fork, I witnessed this exchange between two women sitting at tables across the restaurant from each other:

"Hey, Louise! How ya doin'? How's Bobbie Lou?"

"Hey, Edna! I'm good! Bobbie Lou's a sophomore in college now. She's going into teaching. I tried to talk her out of it, but she feels drawn to it."

I don't know what happened just then, but when I came to my senses that piece of okra was on the floor two tables up the aisle. The lady at the table beside me looked at me like I was crazy, but all I had to offer was "oops."

Okay, so here I am, a Teacher of the Year for a state that has almost 100,000 teachers, and I feel that it's my responsibility to set Louise straight. I must stand up and make a speech, I thought. At the very least I need to pull up a chair, sidle up beside her, and explain THINGS.

But I was frozen. I was playing out the scenario in my head. I would just walk over, say "may we talk a minute?" and then sit down with a complete stranger. That seemed, well, weird. Would I introduce myself? Would I say "I'm the Teacher of the Year in this state" and then she would say, "So what?"

I kept telling myself that these people came out for a nice dinner and probably didn't anticipate sharing it with a complete stranger. But that didn't help. I still felt the urge to go do my teacher-ly duty...I was just about to push my chair back...and then I stopped in my tracks. What stopped me was that I was dressed for traveling, and I was looking pretty grungy. I didn't want to represent my state's teachers that way. I was afraid I'd give her ammunition - "Well, honey, you can't even afford good clothes." Hmmm... So Louise never found out why it's a good thing Bobbie Lou is going to be a teacher. But now she'll know...if only she'll read these words:

Five Reasons Bobbie Lou Will Be Happy As A Teacher

1. Okay, let's talk about the money. I'm pretty sure that was your first line of fire when it came to encouraging Bobbie Lou to pursue another profession. And I get it. Of course, teachers should be paid more. And so should law enforcement officers, and firefighters, and soldiers. And as long as celebrities and professional athletes are being paid obscene salaries, and CEO's are getting bonuses that are more than I'll make in a lifetime, I will argue that our society has things a little mixed up. But the point, Louise, is that Bobbie Lou will be fine. Don't forget in order to even compare a teacher's salary to the rest of the world you need to add two extra months - most salaries you hear about are based on a ten month salary schedule. And there are opportunities for more money in the summer - there's summer school and consultant work available for teachers who may tutor or present workshops. Oh, I do get it, Louise. But I can tell you that I've survived fine on my salary. I even did okay as a single parent for nine years. I don't own a yacht and I don't travel to fancy destinations. But I do okay. And all the money in the world can't give me what I get back (see #2).

2. I know it's cliche to even talk about "making a difference." But are there any other professionals who shape the future of the world like teachers do? Is there any other profession with such a hold on the social inequities and injustices we see in our communities? And besides your parents, who in fact made you who you are today, Louise? I suspect it was a teacher. Wouldn't it be amazing if Bobbie Lou could be that person for someone? Or for many someone's?

3. Being a teacher means working in buildings full of laughter. Not only is the soundtrack of a teacher's life full of childlike laughter but also includes the sounds of chorus concerts and football game cheers...all the things you loved in school yourself, Louise. Bobbie Lou will be able to participate in the real-life version of High School Musical and The Cat in the Hat. She'll witness first love and first heartbreak and children trying to determine who they are and who they will be. Her life will be full of stories that will entertain her entire family, including you, for generations to come.

4. Bobbie Lou will work side by side with friends for life. Being elbow to elbow in the trenches with committed educators who feel the same way about kids is a job satisfaction that many can never experience. If you're skeptical, just go visit a faculty meeting in a school. You'll feel the air of "we did it - we made it through one more day together for these kids." You'll want to be a part of it yourself. I always tell teachers that one of the best parts of teaching is working with our best friends. Something about planning lessons together, hanging out around a copy machine and working through the stresses of teaching together, and listening to each other's teacher stories makes a group bond. You'll be glad Bobbie Lou has such a strong support system at work.

5. And last, Bobbie Lou will pull from many areas of expertise to teach her students. But she also will pull from the lessons that she learned from her first teacher - you. She will model all of the morals and values that you taught her, from kindness to empathy to love for other human beings. In a way, Louise, that makes you a teacher, too.

Louise, I hope you'll reconsider and support Bobbie Lou's decision to be a teacher. There is, of course, no finer profession.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Age is Just a Number...

My daughter is 28 today. This is exciting because she's in the prime of her life, working hard on her doctorate while interning at a local hospital with kids who have cancer. On a brighter note, she's a dancer for an NFL football team, and she works at a dance studio with little girls who would like to dance professionally someday, too. She just returned from a cruise to the Bahamas and lives happily in a metropolitan city with her nervous dog, Chance, and crazy cat, Lil Mama. She lives a charmed life.


Lil Mama looks cute here, but she's a WILDcat!

But our discussion yesterday about her upcoming birthday led me to some troubling thoughts - Am I actually old enough to have a 28 year old child? How did this happen? I can't be much older than 25 myself. And goodness knows, she was just born. I've just caught up on my sleep after the all-nighters I had to pull with that child! And I'm still worn out from the dance rehearsals and recitals - all those auditoriums where I sat and graded papers, while she danced in her little tutus, are fresh in my memory. My daughter's high school graduation, and college one, for that matter, were mere days ago. So celebrating her 28th birthday seems anachronistic, out of order in our usual chronological life.

But it's okay because I'm certainly not old enough to have an adult child. Numerous times recently, while out shopping with my three-year-old granddaughter (my stepdaughter's beautiful child), someone will say something like "Tell Mommy to buy you this candy" or "You must look like your daddy with your blonde hair and blue eyes because you don't look like Mommy." Sometimes I correct them - "I am Nana" - and sometimes I don't. Maybe it's okay that they think I'm in my twenties.

As a teacher, it's routine for my students to think I'm much older than I am. I remember thinking all of my elementary school teachers were in their 60's. And when I had the opportunity to be reunited with my first grade teacher Mrs. Warnecke after 45 years, my first thought when I saw her was "she's my age now." She had only been 23 years old when she taught me. So the years have squeezed together a little, and we're closer to the same age now than we were then.

The ultimate compliment came yesterday, though. I was working at my school, which I do every two weeks while I'm out of the classroom serving as a Teacher Ambassador for my state. Every time I'm there, it's difficult to get down the hall because of seventh and eighth graders hugging me, yelling my name, and trying to quickly catch me up on their lives. The sixth graders don't really know me, though. I've tried to talk to them as much as I can on my brief visits, but the truth is that I'm a stranger to them. And that hurts.

At least it did until yesterday. I was standing in the hallway talking to some teachers and my principal. We were laughing and sharing stories when my principal said something really funny. The three of us teachers were laughing until we were crying as we noticed Ms. Walton's class coming down the hall on their way back from lunch. I looked at her and said, "Our principal is stupid!" and continued laughing. Of course I meant "stupid" in only an endearing and figurative way. We wiped our tears and went on about our business.

Well, tonight my friend Ms. Walton called me to tell me what transpired after that chance meeting in the hallway. She said that after the class walked into the room and got settled, a student raised his hand and said to her, "Ms. Walton, that eighth grader is going to get in trouble for calling the principal stupid."

Eighth grader. I'm an eighth grader! Yee Haw!

Now it's clear. It's impossible for me to have a 28-year-old child.

Thank you, sixth grader. I hope I teach you next year when I return to my school. You will definitely be my favorite student.

And happy birthday to my impossibly grown-up daughter. It's been an amazing, albeit too quick, 28 years!

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Numbers Game

I was a good math student when I was in elementary school. I had no problem with addition and subtraction, and I made straight A's in multiplication; old Mrs. Kelly who kept losing her glasses (we were too scared to tell her they were on top of her head) made us memorize the times tables. It wasn't until I got to junior high that math became a problem.

In seventh grade, Mrs. Sigmon could never say my name correctly so I slid down in my seat, trying to be invisible, so she wouldn't call on me. In eighth grade I had an algebra teacher who was married to a member of a local motorcycle gang. Mrs. Lawson came to school bruised and bleeding on many days; there were rumors about her husband's abusive behavior. And although she was sweet and really tried to help me, I could only concentrate on the bruises on her hands when she'd point to my paper.

Before long sporting events and boys received more of my attention than math, and I found myself slipping in that subject area. Luckily, I was an avid reader and writer so I didn't give up on school altogether. I just gave up on anything related to numbers. As an adult, I struggle still. I can't remember a phone number from the phone book to the phone unless I repeat it...555-1234, 555-1234, 555-1234...

That's why I'm having a hard time wrapping myself around the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed into law by President Obama last month. Every article I read sounds like this to me: "a gazillion million dollars will go to this, but of that gazillion million, a trillion billion must be set aside for that, and two dollars will be charged to every homeowner who has a dog with a spotted tongue, but homeowners with cats that have more than eight whiskers will be paid a stipend of one dollar per whisker over the allotted eight."

Seriously. I wake up in the morning, and it's on the news - numbers, numbers, numbers. Every email I open continues the counting. Here's what I read this morning:

Already $2 billion in the red, the state faces a $3 billion shortfall next fiscal year.

And this afternoon:

The Governor may finally be thinking about raising new revenue to address next year's $4 billion shortfall.

Wait. How did the "shortfall" gain a billion dollars from this morning until this afternoon? Did we spend a billion dollars during the day today? Or is it only one billion? I mean do we take the $3 billion mentioned first and add the "already $2 billion?" But doesn't that make $5 billion and not $4 billion? I'm so confused.

Here's what I'm not confused about: we are in the middle of a critical economic crisis, and of course it's affecting our schools. I'm saddened to hear stories about after-school programs ending and teacher assistants losing their jobs. But I do know this: teachers will rise above any budget shortfalls, economic downturns, or billion dollar deficits thrown at them and continue to educate our nation's children every single day until the "recovery" is here.

I sincerely believe that I can take my students outside and teach them using a blade of grass if I have to...and that's free. I've heard it over and over the past few months - "with crisis comes opportunity." I believe teachers will grasp the opportunity to educate children with the same sense of urgency we've always had. Teachers are innovative and creative, and it's going to take more than a shortfall of a gazillion million dollars to knock us down.

Why? Because the alternative is not an option. We cannot refuse to educate the children of America while the adults of this country try to straighten things out. Also, it's those very children who will grow up and be the adults who make sure this doesn't happen again. And because of that, we must work to teach them what they need to know to be able to grow up and do their jobs effectively.

Most likely our students are going to need a great deal of instruction on numbers.

Maybe I can sit in on a class...