Sunday, February 2, 2014

Musings on a Snowy Afternoon

When I step back and look, really look, I marvel at how God has made major decisions so easy for me. As I’ve mentioned before, it often takes 3 taps on the head to get my attention, but these big things announce themselves with crystal clarity.

So, the closing of the Kokomo home. So, the move to the lake. And, so the stepping away from teaching at Kokomo High School, my professional home for 39 years. Because of some HR regulations, I am ‘on leave’ this year; retirement filing has a due date
 and I’m already on top of that.  
I will retire from KHS this spring

 It’s time.

I don’t want to be one of those oldsters who decry the good old days. Public Education has changed over the years as has society. I could harp of what I wish ‘they’ still did; I’m sure that some old timers had similar thoughts when I began.

I began as a naïve college grad, knowing very little, including that I knew very little. They handed me some books, a gradebook, a red pencil, (wow!) and classrooms of students. “Go get ‘em,” they said. The school board had established local goals for my classes; I had a list of the goals. It was up to me, all up to me, that I achieve those goals.

Malcolm Gladwell maintains, in Outliers, that it takes about 10,000 hours to learn a craft. That’s about 5 years of teaching time. And as I look back, that’s about how long it took for me to figure out such things as time and class management: how to read the face of the confused, bored, troubled, or bright; how to plan and execute lessons and evaluations; how to manage my personal life with my professional life; and how to raise concerns that needed to be raised and forget those that should be forgotten.

I suppose most jobs have similar skills; mine included relationships with 80 – 150 students each semester. 

I look back on those days, remembering my learning curve which was at 90 degrees all of the time, and am grateful for colleagues who nurtured me, for free. I began at a time when teachers worked without expecting extra compensation: we wrote and rewrote curriculum, tests, book evaluations, and classroom inventory. It was expected. Nobody talked about ‘on the clock.’

I’m not saying that this system was fair or right. It was the system. And everybody followed it. Over the last 10 years, the extra-classroom load has exploded: with it have come demands for compensation. Personally, I would have preferred being released from the load, letting someone else do it and collect the money. But that’s rarely a choice.
Kokomo High School back in the day

This naïve, sheltered, college grad landed in a typical school in a blue collar town. When I started, kids could drop out at 16. And at 16, they could find good-paying jobs in manufacturing. In fact, one fun thing they would do was to  come back to see their teachers, waving their pay stubs.

Sometime in the 80, local manufacturing leaders wanted to impress upon educators that those low skill jobs were disappearing and we needed to sell kids on staying in school and getting more training. Our state guys then changed the law, making 18 the age when kids could drop out of school. Somewhere else in there, attendance and graduation rates became tied to school funding. After that, schools did not want to expel even the most egregious. Schools looked for all sorts of creative ways to keep kids in school and get kids to graduation.

So, the reality was that classrooms were full of kids who a generation ago, could have been out and working. Now we were trying to get them to do algebra and advanced English. Frustrating for everybody.

Threaded through this adventure have been many attempts to craft education to meet the needs of students and society. Take good old English 9.

Since 1973, we’ve had goals, behavioral objectives, measureable benchmarks, measurable objectives, goals (again), course outlines with text page numbers (redone every time we got a new textbook), course standards, state standards, numbered objectives and whatever we have now. I can’t say what we have now as the last year was a bit of a blur for me.

And about that blur: when I started teaching, I had a great principal, a man whose goal was a cohesive staff and a motivated student body. He created a family atmosphere at my first school. I saw how staff interacted with students and knew that I wanted my own children to be a part of this. Alas, by the time my kids were in school, times had changed, not to something bad, just something different.

My first principal BLED the school colors
This first principal would let me storm into his office with my ideas about how school could be so much better; about how this or that was a problem; about what I would do if I was running things. I was too young to realize how inappropriate these audiences were. But he never winced, wiggled, or told me my time was over. He sat patiently, let me blow off steam and then would respond with something that made sense in the moment. I’m betting I amused him but he never smiled or laughed. It was as if I, the genius young teacher, had illuminated him to something new.

And his assistant was a sainted man who toiled in quiet on things like the schedule and the calendar, and who taught what, and so forth. It was also his job to guide/advise staff when they messed up.
One day, this man showed up at my door during my prep period. “Do you have time to talk?” he asked.


Someone (actually a SOMEBODY someone) had overheard me complaining about a student who had cheated on a test. I’m 99.99% sure that even then, I did not name the student. However, SOMEBODY was offended and wanted me to be reprimanded. And here came my boss to talk it over.

The entire interview took only a few minutes so it was quite a while later that I reflected on our conference.

He drew two student desks side by side, sat at one and signaled me to sit at the other. We talked. He made his point. But he had orchestrated a situation that could have been HE YELLS FROM HIS DESK while teacher cowers in corner. (I’ve had supervisors who preferred that method)

When he was done, we went back to what we had to do; no bruised feelings but points were made. What a gracious, confident man he was.

BTW, this same man showed up at my classroom door several years later, hand delivering a phone message from my babysitter. He handed it to me and I opened it. “Your daughter has a 117 degree temperature.” Before I could even react, he said, “Lynne, I’m sure this is wrong. But, why don’t you go home and make sure. I’ll cover your class until you return. And if you can’t come back today, don’t worry about it. Now, go ahead.”

His examples in these incidents, plus his work ethic and his genuine love of people…..I believe he helped make me the teacher I am today. 

I guess teaching can just be a job….and if that’s the case, it doesn’t pay all that well. But for most of the people I know, it’s more: it’s life. It’s that kid whose eyes light up, finally, when he gets it. It’s that girl who needs an extra ounce of care during a hard time. It’s the guy, the big guy, who seeks just one adult he can talk to. Sure, it’s curriculum and the art and craft of teaching, but it’s so much more.
Every teacher I know has worked through personal difficulties....I did. There’s something about the structure and schedule at school that lends a sense of control when circumstances defy control. And so there are times, within the family, some teachers stand along side that one who needs.

I may give off the aura of competence, however everybody at KHS knew of my husband’s illness. Certainly, everybody knew that the last school year was difficult. My husband was now dying. I was spread pretty thin.

My students were, typically, the best. I would make a mistake recording a grade. Someone would come to my desk with the mistake. I would apologize and fix it. So often, the student would say, “That’s ok, Mrs. B.” And I would acknowledge but tell him that I needed to do a good job for him. Then, because such things are never private, I would remind my students to keep me to the task. I will always remember with affection the many students I’ve grown to know.

But, now that last year’s fog has cleared, one thing about last year remains troubling. Our school, probably all schools, are trying to respond to new demands for accountability. I get it. Tax payers want to see what they are getting. And schools want them to be satisfied.

Multiple administrators presented information, held meetings, sent explanatory emails….explaining THIS THING each teacher was to do. Several friends who were about to retire announced that they weren’t going to do it. I believe there were some threats about withholding separation funds.
I know that several colleges held group sessions during multiple weekends to get it completed. Even if I had wanted to, that was not an option for me at this time.

I was a bit foggy anyway and these instructions were heavy in educational jargon. I would take notes, try to formulate questions and then seek answers. The fog never lifted.

THIS THING was a trial run, some sort of practice document, to teach us all how the real thing would be done. I believe the instructions changed but I’m not sure. What I AM sure of….Mike ill, teaching my classes…..that was all I could handle. THIS THING pushed me over the edge.
And still, I tried, I really tried, to complete THIS THING. I completed it as best as I could. I was told it was not good enough. So be it.

But on this snowy afternoon, I still remember my frustration at my failure in this area. And I knew that every supervisor knew that my husband was fading. Someone, anyone, all of them, might have stepped up and told me I could skip it. It would have made no difference except there would be one box not checked.

And I can’t help but compare how I was nurtured early in my career and reflect on the last semester. That compassionate touch was missing. And, I think that’s sad, not just for me but for those learning how to teach and how to support each other.

I’m sure, because I’ve seen it, that education continues to evolve. I also see clearly, that I am no longer the kind of teacher that the new school requires. All good. God has gifted me. He’ll show me the next chapter.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful, heartfelt "eulogy" on your long, dedicated career. Congratulations on your retirement! I experienced similar feelings (though not as personal) when I left Ford after 31 years; it was an entirely different company in 2002 than the family feeling experienced in 1971.

    Please don't retire from blogging, though. It has been so encouraging and inspiring. Thank you for sharing.