The Miracle of the 3-Hole Punch

In the copy room this morning, a miracle happened. Someone had come in during the dark of night and lubricated the 3-Hole Punch.

You mean to tell me I can hole punch 20 papers at a time and they lift right out? Without pleading? Without banging it against the table? Hallelujah and Amen because this is the best morning I’ve had in weeks!

As I exited the copy room a colleague remarked, “Wow, Elliott, you look like you are having a good day,” to which I replied, “The 3 Hole punch is lubricated!” to which he replied, “Oh my God, are you serious? How awesome!”

As I watched this grown man leap into the room to check out the glory of a newly lubricated 3-hole punch I smiled. And then I paused.

What the hell am I thinking?

While I applaud any moment of gratitude as I do the value for the little-things-in-life-that-aren’t-so-little, I have to wonder. Pure elation from a newly lubricated 3-hole punch? Doesn’t this really speak to just how difficult this job has become? A kind colleague brought some WD40 from home, gave it a few squirts, and the copy room is now a place of joy? What would the people who relentlessly criticize public school teachers say about this event?  Would they even understand just how bad things are if they could see us high-fiving each other over the miracle of a working hole punch?

Still lamenting on these questions as I passed out papers to my students, I was shaken from my storm cloud when the one of my kids said, “Ms. Elliott, look how nice these handouts are hole punched!”and several others nodded in agreement.

I paused again. The choice was mine: fall deeper into the dungeon of despair at the fact that my students are also so beaten down that even they notice a cleanly hole-punched copy or, instead, delight in the fact that, even though they are beaten down, they noticed a cleanly hole-punched piece of paper.

I chose the latter. Beaten down or not, I love the fact that the little-things-that-aren’t- so-little delight people who share my days. After all, what matters more than them?

(And to Jesse, who I know was the angel in the copy room, thanks for sharing your kindness–and your WD40.)

You Asked for It

I got an email from a retired colleague of mine today that had me doubled over with laughter. It was titled “Why Teachers Drink” and I have to say I could relate on many levels.

If I was technolgically crafty, I’d have the images cut and pasted here for your amusement. Sadly, you’ll just have to trust me. With questions like, “Find x” and the student’s response was to circle the “x” with a written note that said, “Here it is,” this email shined a silly light on the realities of teaching that give me the daily option of laughing or crying.

Take yesterday. My teacher’s aide, done with the work I needed her to do, took out binder paper and pen to write a letter to her boyfriend. In my mind I thought, “Look at that! Letter writing isn’t a lost art after all!” When I told her how sweet I thought it was that she was taking the time to hand write a letter instead of just sending a text, I asked her if they wrote to each other often. She replied with an almost heartbreaking tone of realism, “Ms. Elliott, we have to write each other. He’s in jail.”

Oh. So much for romance. I might have laughed at myself for being naive except for one critical element not yet mentioned: my teacher’s aide is seventeen years old and six months pregnant.

So when we ask our students where the Declaration of Independence was signed and they respond, “at the bottom,” we could cry in our martinis over the declining interest our kids have in their educations or we could look at what might be the real issue: maybe we aren’t asking the right questions.

Further, maybe we aren’t listening for the genius in their answers. When we ask them how Romeo’s character developed over time and they respond, “It didn’t, he was all about self, self, self,” isn’t that really a profound insight?

Weigh in. Are we asking the right questions? Are we listening for the right answers?

Practicing Presence

I attended a funeral mass today for a woman I worked with for the last seven years. Her name was Paula, and she was a delight. Warm, smiley eyes and always a kind word, Paula’s death seems a textbook example of the “good die young” cliché. She was 45 years old and her death leaves behind her parents, her husband, and her four children.

Sitting in mass today I was struck by the love in the room and especially touched by the number of students who were in attendance. Everyone with whom I work knows we have the good fortune of serving very special kids and working with an even more special staff. We are a community of certificated and classified employees gathered for one purpose: to educate our children.

Only our “children” are in high school. For whatever reason many of them still love us like children half their ages love their teachers; I think they do because we love them like our own.

Paula, however, wasn’t their teacher. She was the financial technician at our school, the lady students knew as the one who sold tickets at ball games and prom tickets from the Student Body Office. At most schools the faculty wouldn’t even know this person, let alone the students. We’re not most schools, however, and Paula wasn’t most financial techs. The church today was filled with loved ones: family by blood, family by marriage, and family by school.

Two rows in front of me sat three colleagues who also happen to be brand new mothers with babies ranging from six weeks to four months old. These moms left their babies home, timing the jaunt to this service in between breast feedings so they could pay tribute to Paula with the rest of us. After the service I got to hug them and congratulate them and ask them all about their babies. With that bewildered, exhausted, elated look common to all new parents, they each talked about what it felt like to hold their babies and how, even though it was the hardest job in the world, it was still by far the best.

I thought about Paula and the things that were said about her just moments before and smiled thinking, I bet she felt the same about her babies. Just like I did. Just like anyone feels who has been blessed with a child. I then I thought about my own boys, now five and eight, and how years earlier I was the new mom talking about how much I loved their warm, squishy bodies and their soft little heads.

In lightning speed came the next thought, “Where did that time go?”

I’ve always been driven, ambitious by nature with a work ethic to match. Like every other part of my life my boys were planned, fitting their births into a window of time that would work around my school schedule. They complied, albeit each of them eight days late.  We read every book there was written on childbirth and breast feeding and dealing with the tantrums of toddlers. I remember my grandma said, “Your generation reads too much” and I laughed at her thinking, “Oh, Gram, you just don’t get what it takes to raise children today.” The last laugh is certainly hers as I sit here close to nine years after his birth remembering what I did to prepare for him better than the sweet, beautiful baby that was my first-born son.

If I think really hard I can make out his big round head and blue eyes to match and I can remember how he felt in my arms at different stages of his growth. Only I can’t remember his laugh. I know he had one—a big baby belly laugh—but for the life of me I can’t remember the sound. So many things I don’t remember, so many moments gone that I fear I’ll never get back.

I was so busy. I was teaching full time, washing clothes and keeping a house (reasonably) clean; I was teaching him his colors and reading to him and baby proofing the house for when he learned to crawl. I cleared out clothes as soon as they got tight to make way for the next size and I taught him how to use a tough guy voice to deal with mean kids in day care. We were always doing something, the two of us, and I wonder what would have been different had we simply spent some time doing nothing more than being together.

I’m sure sometimes we did. Much of this might be just a nervous look back at things I might not have done, a very normal experience after attending a funeral for someone who died so young. But the fact that I really can’t remember what laughter of my baby boys sounded like, that I really have to struggle to remember the details of their little baby faces–that’s not ok. I should be able to pull those memories up with a moment’s recall, but I can’t. I can’t because I was so busy preparing, teaching doing…just so damned busy.

How much time have we lost to this disrespectful use of time? How many people who have lost their loved ones to an untimely death would give anything to have just a little more time together? Granted this miracle they would spend the time intentionally attentive to the details that matter and they would do so because they know the tragic sting of real loss. I don’t want to have to know that sting intimately before I learn the lesson. The time for wasting is gone and the time for living is now.

I think rather than lament the point further, I will shut off my computer. I will imprint the sounds and sites of the day on my brain and in my heart and I will vow to never be too busy to give thanks for the life that is ours to live together.

Copyright 2011 • • All Rights Reserved

Fixing Schools from the Ground Up

 I am a part-time high school teacher who should be going home right now to pick my own kids from school; trouble is, the school where I work is on lockdown because of a potentially violent police chase in the neighborhood. Given this fact, I have an unusual chunk of time to reflect on my morning, my communities, and my vocation. What strikes me instantly is the recent surge of interest about public education—most of it centered on the idea that to fix education in this country we need to fire bad teachers. I wonder, though, how can even a school full of exceptional teachers be the sole solution to a problem that starts way before the bell, and continues long afterward?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes to mind: at the base, the two fundamental set of needs are the physiological ones (shelter, food, water) and the needs of security–particularly, “The basic need for…a family and a society that protects against hunger and violence.” As I sit here on lockdown with police sirens screaming around me, I wonder, could I ever really be enough to keep my students from this community—a community, by the way, where I myself was raised–focused on learning in school?

If the majority of my students do not have their physiological needs and/or their needs for security met by their families, how can I be held responsible for whether they fail or succeed in school? Fancy psychological theories aside, who repairs a second story window when the first floor has no windows at all? Who strengthens the framing and the roof when the foundation is literally crumbling under their feet? It’s an attempt in futility and no matter the time or energy or money you pour into it, one good storm and the whole house comes tumbling down.

Do I think bad teachers should be fired? Absolutely. Teachers should be present and engaged and active and above all put their students’ needs as their priority in the classroom; any one who doesn’t do that should be gone. I don’t take it personally when people think that part of the problem in schools are teachers who have been allowed to stay in their jobs even though they are completely ineffective; in fact I would wholeheartedly agree that it is just that: part of the problem.

We exist in a system and a society that values teachers below every half-way decent CEO in this country; we live in a state where, to pass the budget, funding for education was cut—the very state that has the 8th strongest economy in the entire world is now 49th in the nation for per pupil spending. You want good teachers? Then you have to rely on more than their compassion and desire to do right by the students to attract them.

This doesn’t just mean pay them better; it means set them up for success. Give them the tools they need to function, staff the classrooms to a reasonable student-teacher ratio; give them administrators and school boards who understand education because they’ve been teachers themselves, not just because they have a K-12 (or even K-26) education. Let me tell you this, if we treated our teachers like Apple treats its employees, you might even be able to pay them less and still they’d perform like superstars.

And if they don’t? Fire them. Not because of test scores (because if that was the barometer, who would teach Special Education students and English language learners?), but fire them because they are not doing everything in their power to help students learn. Create a fair and just system to do so, and then hold everyone accountable—not just teachers, everyone: the principals, the district officials, and the school boards. All of us.

But wait, is that all of us? Are the members of the educational system the only ones responsible for educating children? Are the members of the educational system the one and only indication of which schools, and therefore which students, will succeed?

The answer, remarkable to some I know, is absolutely not.

If my child has trouble with his homework, that’s my job to help him. If my child is struggling with another student in his class, that’s my job to give him the skills to deal with it and then to follow up to make sure his teacher knows and supports him accordingly. I do not expect to call my son’s teacher at 9pm to have her help him with his math nor do I expect my son’s teacher to know at every moment what is happening in the minds and hearts of the 30 students—wait, that’s 36 students—in her room. I am my child’s mother. The buck stops with his father and me, not his teacher.

There is not one parent at my sons’ school who feels differently than I do. There is more parental involvement there than I have ever seen anywhere in my life. Teachers at his school couldn’t be less than great because, if they were, every one would know about it. Many families have only one parent working outside the home, but even the families that do not, or the families with single parents, or the families headed by grandmothers, we all see ourselves as one community working toward the common goal of excellence for our children. You know the other thing? My sons’ school has the among the highest test scores in the state. This is no coincidence.

How come some of the charter schools, even ones in desperately poor areas who serve the most at-risk youth in our nation, work so well? Not because there isn’t a teacher’s union, but because the parent(s) or guardian(s) have to sign a contract that they will be involved; they will volunteer at the school, they will help with the homework, they will not allow the TV to be used on school nights—in effect, they have to PARENT their children. Couple that with the innovation and excitement that goes along with a high quality school of any kind and you have yourself one fantastic education for your child.

We cannot in good conscience (nor in good science) blame what’s happening on the second floor and ignore what’s happening with the foundation. A high quality school is a complete team effort by all stakeholders; it is not a place where, if we just get rid of “bad” teachers, all glory will be restored to American education.

John Legend calls education “…the civil rights issue of our time,” and I agree it is. Trouble is, the success of the civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s wasn’t based on scapegoating and removing one group of people and expecting the rest to fall into place. It was about the community coming together to address the whole scope of complex issues in a meaningful way.

I applaud the start of a very difficult conversation just as I applaud the efforts to confront a system that is in desperate need of repair. Unless we plan to abandon the lure of “easy” answers and really tackle the complexity of the situation, however, we’re doomed to have one gorgeous second floor that inevitably will come crashing down around us.

This is a community problem that requires community intervention. If we don’t do it, we have to hold ourselves just as accountable as every one else.

Copyright 2011 • • All Rights Reserved

The Ethic of Care

 “Is it a law that I can’t hit my brother?” my son asks.

“No, of course not,” I answered, “but in our family we take care of each other, we don’t hurt each other.”

“But, I won’t go to jail, right? I’ll just go on time out?” he prods.

“No, you won’t go to jail. But hitting your brother just isn’t right. If you want people to be kind to you, to take care of you, you have to be kind and take care of them,” I argue.

So goes most any ethical debate. Is it legal? Yes. Is it ethical? No. It seems everywhere in this country that debate is being waged. In some cases the recession has brought people to a whole new ethic of care. Compassion, empathy, kindness, all glorious things that have come out of what could be viewed as tragic. Someone loses a job and the village around her rallies to her emotional and physical aide. Down goes another, and the village shifts accordingly. We’re working together and caring for one another in truly beautiful ways. Are we mandated by law to this ethic of care? No. Is it the right thing to do? Without question.

And yet, the recession has turned others into little more than survivalists. Deal brokering and backstabbing, terse communication and intolerant acts of passive aggression, people who once were friends and colleagues, once joined together in a community of work that most considered more vocation than labor, are all now seething in desperation. Educators, people who in theory and in practice know better and for all the years we’ve been under fire have done better, now can’t seem to get out of their own way. A district office once renowned for its support of teachers and what is best for kids is now making decisions that have not even a hue of that former commitment. It’s more than just being stressed out and therefore a little nasty, it swings between thoughtless and visionless to sometimes just plain mean. It isn’t against the law, but it surely isn’t right.

And then last fall the California Supreme Court, reputed to be among the most liberal and activist in the country, denied the opportunity to overturn our state’s ban on same-sex marriage. The 6-1 majority opinion said it didn’t reflect their “personal beliefs” of what was right nor did they even say that the ban didn’t fly in the face of equal protection; what it did say was that the vote and ensuing strip of fundamental freedoms was, under California law, legal. Legal? Yes. Right? Absolutely not.

In one of the articles I read a prop 8 supporter, emboldened by today’s decision said, “I’m a Christian, I just don’t think gays should marry because I believe in the bible.” This is as outrageous a claim as the Klan’s claim that they are Christians, so they don’t think any other race should exist because they believe in the bible. If you know your history you know that Gay Americans are now subject to the same ignorance about segregation and inferior citizenship as African Americans once were. It’s almost funny, really, that if you take a quote from a segregationist in the 50’s and replace the word nigger (or Negro, for those who had manners) with fag (or homosexual, for those who have manners) the justifications are identical.

When we work to take the rights of others away, be it the right to a workplace that is free from hostility, the right for all kids–regardless of their neighborhood–to get a good education, or the right to fundamental freedoms as guaranteed by the United States Constitution, we are hurting all of us. How can promoting the hurt of others ever be ok? It may be legal but it’s morally reprehensible. The connectedness among living things binds us to one another; hurting another does little more than hurt all of us. Actively dismantling the ethic of care, the moral and emotional and spiritual “right thing to do” as we care for others as we would ourselves, is as inexcusable in the present as it is for our future.

For my own experience, I can only pray that those with the ethic of care will stand up and say, “Enough.” I am a Christian who believes in the bible, and I am an educator who believes in public schools. To both those worlds today I shout it from the roof-tops:


Copyright 2010 • • All Rights Reserved