I Found My Purpose

42678886_10217646777023389_6852434799655649280_nI recently had dinner with a group of former students and a teaching colleague. It was incredibly rewarding to see how well the young ladies who were once my pupils have done. One of them, Jennifer, is a teacher who recently earned an advanced degree in educational leadership. Another, Christine, works in the development department of the KIPP Charter Schools and she was recently rewarded with a promotion. The third, Joana, is working on a post graduate degree in Social Work. All three are articulate, hard working and filled with compassion. They have literally become more like peers than pupils. Our gathering was like a reunion of old friends and it was quite exciting to hear their stories of life and work.

While its tempting to take some credit for how well they have turned out, I know that they are fully responsible for their amazing accomplishments that came only with extraordinary dedication and much sacrifice. Talking with them tells me that they continue to work toward exciting goals and that they have fully become exemplary adults of whom I am so very proud.

I also learned at this meeting that my friend, Ann, is still working to educate high school students. She’s a phenomenal educator whose expertise has helped to launch the careers of a host of exceptional people. It’s reassuring to know that someone like her is still out there making a difference in people’s lives. That’s perhaps the most important aspect of being an educator and she is among the best.

There are times when I forget the real rewards of being a teacher. We rarely get paid as much as we should, and our retirement programs are far from being sufficient. I would have done far better financially if I’d had a pathway in business or even if I’d worked for the federal government which offers some of the best pension plans that there are. If I’d held office in Congress for even one term I’d be set for life. With all that said, when I talk with the individuals that I once taught and realize how remarkable they are, I know in my heart that I was actually blessed by being a teacher. There are very few professions that provide such satisfaction.

The frustrations of teachers are legend, but in the cacophony of complaining we sometimes forget to boast of the wonders of being an educator. Much like being a parent we can get caught up in the day to day routines and problems that sometime blind us from seeing the pure joys. It takes a bit of stepping back to gain the perspective that reveals our sense of purpose and meaning.

I know that I did not reach every heart and mind that I attempted to touch. There are probably even those who disliked me for one reason or another. As with anything I have fans and I have detractors, but on the whole I believe that I made some kind of difference in making this world of ours a bit better place to be. The value of that is priceless to me, and I would not be willing to give up even one day of my many years as a teacher for monetary profit.

Each kind of job and each person has value for our society. We really do need everyone and to rank the importance of work would be silly, but an argument might be made that teachers make it possible for the remarkable diversity of skills and talents that bring progress and innovation into our lives. We build the foundations from which all else springs. It is a breathtaking responsibility to consider.

I worry that we are somehow diminishing the importance of teaching these days. All too often I hear people arguing that they would never encourage a bright young individual to participate in such a terrible profession. I hear parents shudder when one of their children expresses an interest in being an educator. They worry that talents will be wasted in a job that lacks respect and a salary commensurate with intellect. They attempt to steer their sons and daughters into more prosperous and promising professions.

It saddens me that I so often find myself defending the occupation to which I devoted so much of my life. I am questioned as to why I didn’t pursue more stimulating and lucrative fields. I sense that some see my choice as a kind of failure to use my talents to their fullest.

Then I go out to dinner with a colleague and three phenomenal young women whom I once taught and I remember again how glorious it felt to go to work each and every day. I know in my heart that mine was a true vocation and that those of us lucky enough to find our true reason for  existence have something that no amount of money or even regard will ever buy. I am and always will be a teacher. I bear that designation proudly and without regret. 

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A Wallet, A Thief, A Story

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Many years ago I was working at a school in southeast Houston that served a community populated by a number of gangs. Many of my students were known members of such groups, but for the most part they confined their onerous activities to after school hours when they were off campus. Nonetheless there was often an air of tension between the members of the various affiliations, and the faculty was well aware that we needed to be watchful lest some sort of violence erupt.

For whatever reason the real toughs actually like me. I used a bit of reverse psychology with them by referring to them with salutations like “Mr. Soto.” I told them that they were my prep school students and that we would treat one another with polite regard. I remember one day when the young men all showed up wearing dress shirts and ties because they wanted to look like boys from an exclusive school. I suppose the key to my success was that I valued them as much as I did the young men that I had taught in a private school that really was a renowned college preparatory institution.

On one occasion I was going to travel to Austin for a conference right after the school day ended. My suitcase was in my classroom and I had visited an ATM machine that morning to get money for the trip. Just before the group’s departure after the students had left for the day a fellow teacher called me to her classroom for some advice. I was only gone from my own room for a few minutes, but when I returned I decided to go to the faculty lounge to purchase some snacks for the drive. When I reached into my purse for some change, I realized that my wallet was missing. Since my handbag had been locked in a cabinet all day long save for the short time that I left my classroom unattended I knew that it must have been taken very quickly.

It was sickening to think that one of the students had probably stolen my wallet. Aside from the inconvenience of having no money and no credit cards when I was on my way out of town, it saddened me to think that perhaps one of my pupils had done this. The whole time that I was at the conference I thought only of who might have been audacious or desperate enough to steal from me. When I returned I was determined to find the thief.

The school was like a small community so both teachers and students were buzzing about potential candidates. The talk in the hallways had begun to focus on one particular young girl who had previously been caught taking small items here and there. Before long the sound of her accusers had risen to a loud roar. So many claimed to have seen her lurking near my room that the principal even called her to his office and invited me to attend the questioning.

The young lady protested her innocence, very quietly at first and then more and more indignantly as it became apparent to her that the principal believed that she was guilty. She insisted that she had been outside waiting to board the bus that would take her to her apartment project several miles down the road, and that she would not have had a way home if she had lingered inside long enough to sneak into my classroom. She was adamant that while she may have lied and even engaged in thievery in the past, this time she was innocent.

The principal dismissed the student and asked me what I wanted to do. He was willing to punish her because so many had indicated that they thought that the girl was guilty. I decided to err on the side of finding proof beyond a reasonable doubt and asked the principal to let the student go free. He felt that I was making a mistake, but he agreed to back off pending the emergence of more evidence.

The furor over the presumption of the young lady’s guilt grew so loud that I had to talk with each of my classes. I told my students that I was not willing to convict the girl based only on her prior reputation and hearsay. In truth nobody had actually seen her inside my classroom rummaging through my things, nor was anyone able to say with certainty that they had even seen her nearby. All of the stories had been peppered with words like “I’m pretty sure” or “I think I saw her.”

Before long everyone forgot about the incident. I eventually left the school, and my only regret about the whole thing was that it had been so inconvenient to get new identification. Also the wallet had been custom made in Estes Park, Colorado and it was one of my favorite possessions.

Maybe six or seven years later I received a call from the City of South Houston informing me that one of the workers had found my wallet inside the drainage system. When I retrieved it the leather was damp and moldy from sitting in years of runoff and sewage, but every item including my driver’s license and my credit cards were still inside. There were even photos of my children that were spotted with mildew. Only the money was gone.

I asked where exactly the wallet was found. I was told that it was in a drain about ten blocks away. When I told them the story of the theft, the city officials conjectured that one of the kids who lived in the neighborhood must have taken it and then ditched the evidence after pocketing the money. I agreed with that assessment but also swelled with a sense of righteousness when I thought of the young girl who had been accused of being the thief. At that moment I had the proof that she could not have been the one, because she would have been on a bus heading many miles away in a very different direction from the place where the wallet was dumped. She had been telling the truth and the other theories had been only emotional innuendo.

I’ve often remembered that incident even when serving on juries and I have tried to have the same kind of detachment in my search for the truth on those occasions. Each of us deserves the benefit of doubt, otherwise our fates will be determined by thoughts and beliefs rather than facts. I figure that if I am wrong in being that way, the final reckoning will set things right.

We Get What We Pay For

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Time magazine recently featured a cover with the image of a teacher declaring that she has to work three jobs and donate plasma to make it with her salary as a teacher. It’s being posted on Facebook by many of my fellow educators and is causing a bit of a firestorm among those who choose to comment. The question of how much to pay teachers has been a hot topic for as long as I can recall, and it centers around the fact that public school teachers’ salaries are paid by taxes, which sometimes means that higher pay only comes with higher taxes. Aside from the trutth that the education of our children is important to virtually all of us, the fact that we all must pay for the men and women who teach them makes our interest in what those numbers will be even more intense than with most other professions. The discussions that generally ensue invariably devolve into arguments over how much time teachers actually spend working and the relative worth of their talents and skills. The arguments take on an almost mythical aspect with emotions running high on both sides. It’s difficult to form reasoned conclusions in such highly charged environments.

So what are the objective truths about being a teacher? That is a loaded question that varies with each person’s experiences in classrooms, but there are general characteristics. First, there are distinct levels of teaching, each of which has unique value for society. Someone entering the field specializes in either early childhood, elementary, middle or high school. While the public has a tendency to view high school teachers as the elite, the truth is that working with the youngest of our children requires special talents and knowledge that many of us simply do not have. In my own case, I quickly learned that I did not have the patience needed to spend a lifetime inside an elementary classroom. Nor did I want to expend the countless extra hours planning lessons for six different subjects and constantly grading mountains of papers and sorting them to be sent home to parents. In all honesty I worked far harder when I was in charge of a fourth grade classroom than when I taught a particular level of mathematics over and over again all day long as a middle or high school teacher. Yet in the eyes of the public I realized that I carried far more prestige as someone who taught Algebra than I had when I was juggling the countless responsibilities of an elementary teacher. Nonetheless, the foundational skills that I was teaching my fourth graders would be critical for their academic development, and it bothers me when I hear comments that elementary teachers are no doubt doing little more than teaching children to color inside the lines. The bottom line is that each teaching position is critically important to the successful outcome of every child who matriculates through the system. 

Teachers officially work about 180 days each school year. The key word is “officially.” While there are many who give no more and no less than that number of days in the classroom, the majority of educators rarely spend only the required number of hours in conjunction with their jobs. Teachers have lessons to plan, papers to grade, conferences with parents to attend, training sessions to enhance qualifications, school events to manage, and a host of other duties that spill into their so called off the clock hours. I estimate that the average teacher arrives at school around 7:30 in the morning and does not leave before 4:00 or 4:30 on most days. They spend an additional three or four hours (sometimes more) each evening attending to the various duties described above. It is not unusual for them to devote entire days of the weekend to their jobs on weekends as well. English teachers may need even more time to grade essays that must be read with great care. Coaches and sponsors of clubs seem to almost live at schools in certain seasons, often with the school year beginning for them in the middle of the summer. Little of this extra time is ever considered when determining just how much teachers make per hour. If it ever were the results would be shocking, and in many cases revealing that some teachers actually make less than minimum wage when every hour is factored into the equation.

The beginning salary of a teacher varies from state to state and even district to district. In general it is about midway between fifty and sixty thousand dollars which may sound somewhat generous, but the reality is that it remains somewhat stagnant over time. Annual raises tend to be minimal when they occur at all. Even earning an advanced degree makes little or no difference in pay. Most teachers actually begin to lose ground in terms of income the longer that they teach. Benefits also tend to be minimal and health insurance policies are often more costly and less generous than those of workers in other fields. Some states have excellent pensions, but others provide minimal coverage for retirees. Those who are devoted to a vocation in education do so knowing that they will never be rich. In fact, a lifetime career in teaching works best if it is supplemented with a spouse’s salary.

Public school teachers are dependent upon the largesse of the government and in particular the tax payers. This is the main reason that many argue that educators need to provide more bang for the buck to earn higher salaries. There is also an ongoing argument that other public sector employees often do not make as much as teachers even when their contributions to society may be more dangerous or more valuable. In response to such contentions I would argue that the very foundation of our social, political and economic society is built upon the education of our children. If we are to progress we must invest in our schools. Creating financial difficulties for our teachers creates a crisis that we need not endure. Right now most parents wince if their children even hint that they may want to enter the teaching profession There is something terribly wrong when what should be the noblest of careers is held in such low esteem. Providing teachers with a fair wage that allows them to live a respectable life would do wonders to change such perceptions.

I was an educator for the entirety of my adult life. I retired with a sense of pride and accomplishment. I never made a great deal of money and my pension is nothing to brag about when compared to other professions. I can’t afford the terrible healthcare supplement offered by the state for teacher retirees, but I’ve found a suitable replacement from AARP. I live comfortably mostly because of the income that my husband has brought into the picture during his working years. I had the luxury of enjoying my work every single day because I was not solely dependent on the salaries that would never have allowed me to live without fear. There is something very wrong about the idea that our nations’ teachers are so undervalued that most of them cannot survive without infusions of additional income. We all need to be concerned. If we don’t adequately address this issue we may soon find ourselves squandering the talents our most precious resource, our children. They depend on us to keep our schools running smoothly. It’s time we faced the reality that we get what we pay for. Our teachers should not have to be more altruistic than their well educated working peers.

The Benefit of Learning

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An investment in knowledge pays the best interest. —-Benjamin Franklin

I’ve always believed that education is the most powerful way to combat poverty. I used to tell my students that knowledge is power, and that it is a great gift to each of us that the first twelve years of it is free from the government. Sometimes they pushed back on my enthusiasm interpreting mandatory attendance at school as an onerous thing. Many spoke eagerly of reaching the age at which they would be able to drop out and get on with living the way they so desired. I usually confronted them with arguments designed to convince them that learning is a great privilege that is often denied by authoritarian governments.

In my own lifetime I have heard of grievous examples of governments that persecuted and even executed teachers, leaving entire generations of children without even the most basic educations. This was done, of course, to eradicate thinking and the ability to discover truths. Dictators want to be in charge of the dispensing of information so that it benefits their causes. Sometimes when I explained such things I would challenge my students to never ever allow anyone to take away their rights to schooling. When I put it that way, many of them suddenly became far more eager to partake in the lessons that I and my fellow teachers presented to them.

Unfortunately there always seemed to be a few who were not the least bit interested in pursuing knowledge under any circumstances. Instead they wanted to get out of the need to attend school as soon as possible. They had big plans that did not include what they considered to be a waste of their time. Some also had to deal with poverty. Their parents wanted them to get to work as soon as possible. Extended schooling did not appear to be an option for them. Sadly by following this pathway they generally only managed to keep the grinding cycle of economic disadvantage continuing for one more generation.

I truly enjoyed being part of the KIPP Charter schools because above all were the ideas that there could be no excuses for not taking full advantage of all educational opportunities, and each day at school was focused on hard work. Our promise as teachers was that we would support our students in their journey to and eventually through college. The attitude that we all believed was that together we would be to provide our KIPPsters the necessary tools and attitudes for living better lives.

I have happily witnessed extraordinary results among so many of my former students. I have watched them earning multiple degrees and landing extraordinary jobs. I see photos of them standing in front of the beautiful homes that they have purchased and vicariously enjoyed their travels all over the world. Most of them have broken the crushing routines of grinding poverty that had sometimes stalked their families. Not only are their own lives more prosperous, but they have also been able to help their parents, It is so gratifying to see them using the skills, knowledge, and values that they learned first from all of us who are known as Big KIPPsters and later from their professors at universities and their mentors at work.

I recently became involved in a situation that brought home the sadness that I have always felt when I see young folks eschewing the marvelous opportunities that education provides. I was helping a very sweet woman move from one place to another. As we worked side by side for days I realized how bright she was, but also how her lack of resources had made her life so incredibly difficult. She had no savings, but rather had to rely on one paycheck to another just to provide the most basic standard of living. This meant that she was unable to scrape together enough money for the kind of deposits and down payments that are so often required in today’s real estate market. Unfortunately nobody in her family was able to help her either. In fact, she was quite distraught that so help was forthcoming from either her brothers or her adult children. She was on her own, and realizing that she had no way out my husband and I helped her.

Once we gave her the funds to secure a place to rent she realized that she was also alone in having to move her belongings and those of her elderly mother who lived with her. My husband and I spent a very long nine hours loading furniture and other items into and out of a moving van that we rented for her. While we worked side by side she reflected on her life and admitted that if she had been more attuned to becoming better educated, then perhaps her children might also have been inspired to stay in school and even earn degrees. Everyone’s lives might have been better in the long run instead of being so difficult.

I felt quite saddened by the woman’s situation because I know that her circumstances are repeated many times over in our country. Not all schools take the time or expend the effort to help young people and their parents understand the true value of education. They do not provide the unwavering support that is necessary to help those with few resources to navigate the treacherous waters of being admitted to college and then being able to earn a diploma. It takes money and relationships with people who care to help our poorest citizens to better themselves. 

The key to so many of the social problems faced by our society is to teach our young the importance of a lifetime of learning. Knowledge earns interest indeed. The more we all invest in it, the less we will have to spend on welfare programs in the future. Our bipartisan goal should be to insure that the greatest possible numbers of today’s children embrace and appreciate the value of schooling. When they learn, they earn, and we all benefit.

Show Them How Tough You Are

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One of my educator friends posted an article about a more and more prevalent kind of enabler known as a Lawnmower Parent. In general this is not just one who constantly watches over children, but also goes out of the way to pave the way for them, make things smoother sailing. In the example presented in the article a father calls a teacher out of the classroom to ask her to deliver a water bottle to his child. The teacher is stunned that the father has gone to such lengths to accommodate the student, and proceeds to provide additional examples of a worrisome trend that she sees all too often.

About the same time that I read about Lawnmower Parents I listened to the moving eulogy of Meghan McCain for her father John. There was much to talk about in her words, but one of the ideas that really struck me was her description of an incident in which she was fearful and ready to give up. Her dad encouraged her by urging her to “Show them how tough you are.”

In my own childhood, my mom often reiterated stories of hard times when she was just a girl when her father insisted that she hold her head high and ignore the taunts of those who attempted to deter her from feeling confident. He even held weekly family meetings in which he insisted that each of his children had much of which to be proud even though they were often viewed as different, poor, immigrants. He wanted no excuses, no bad behavior, and to his credit they all turned out to be exceptionally hard working and honest adults who passed down the notion of self reliance to their children and grandchildren.

Luckily I have seen very little Lawnmower Parent behavior in my own dealings with the education of students. I suppose that there have always been well meaning adults who over pampered their kids, but on the whole it has not really been a trend in my circles. I was once offered a bribe from a wealthy father if I would change his son’s final average in mathematics. Of course I adamantly declined the offer and then explained to the man why I believed that aiding his son in that manner was an horrific idea. By the end of the conversation the parent had realized that softening the blow of a subpar performance by his son would be the worst possible way of dealing with the disappointment. I had made it very clear that the student would learn far more from the experience if the full responsibility were placed at his feet rather than those of the adults. It was time to demonstrate that life is about hard work and self reflection, changing bad habits rather than covering them up.

All of us have been faced with situations that nearly broke our spirits. There will also be moments that are so difficult to face that our inclinations will be to run away. Still there are situations in which the only honorable thing to do is to show the world how tough we are. We have to work through the pain, the sorrow, the humiliation and keep moving forward.

The people that I most admire are imperfect beings, many of whom failed horribly at something. Rather than giving up or relying on someone else to fight for them, they picked themselves up and kept trying again and again until they ultimately succeeded. They overcame great problems at great prices. They were unwilling to be defeated. They showed all of us who were rooting for them just how tough they were.

I was quite excited about a post from a young woman who had attended one of the schools where I worked. She had become pregnant in her senior year and it seemed that she would not be able to fulfill her dreams with her new responsibility of raising a child. She remained undaunted and worked sometimes to the point of exhaustion while she held down a job, took care of her child, and studied at one of the local universities. She literally took one step at a time day by day, and ultimately earned a college degree. Knowing that her earning capacity would be improved with an advanced degree she continued her regimen of working, mothering and learning until she had also earned a Masters degree. She found a wonderful job, married the father of her child, and before long bought a beautiful custom built home. She showed us how tough she was, and we all celebrated her as an inspiration, a model of determination and grit.

I also know about certain instances when parents are compelled to stand up for their children. They are not being overly protective in such situations, but rather making certain that justice prevails. I have seen many occasions in which teachers were unmoving, even rude when students requested consideration for extenuating circumstances. They were so hard nosed that parents had to intervene. I’ve had such encounters with unfair teaching practices with my own two daughters. I felt compelled to speak out, particularly after my children had been ignored.

As educators we certainly hope that parents will not constantly make excuses for their youngsters, but at the same time we have to ask ourselves if we are somehow being unreasonable. Sometimes our hard and fast rules simply do not work for specific situations. We must be willing to demonstrate flexibility and a willingness to listen to our students’ pleas. When we don’t, it should not be too surprising if parents intervene.

Teaching is quite demanding, but so is being a student. Kids today seem to have virtually every hour of every day filled with tasks they must perform. We ask much of them, and sometimes forget that we are not the only ones piling assignments on them. We would do well to hear what they have to say before exhorting them to “deal with it.” We all reach a point after which we simply can do no more.

I’ve had to be tough throughout my life, but there have indeed been times when I knew that I was about to break. I often allowed myself the luxury of a bit of self pity, a mental health holiday, a pile of unfinished duties. It was how I built up the strength that I needed to keep moving forward, and because I understood how easily such a state of mind can appear I tried to be understanding with my students, my teachers, and the parents. Perhaps instead of pointing fingers at one another with insulting labels we just need to take the time to find out what is really going on. It is then that we will begin helping our young to learn how to show how tough they are.