The Final Entry

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I regularly watch the first thirty minutes of Sunday Morning on CBS while I prepare for church each week. It’s generally an informative and upbeat program  with interesting human interest stories that make me think or laugh or even cry. This past Sunday featured a segment on a young girl named Alexandra who had committed suicide by throwing herself off of an overpass bridge. After her body was found her parents also became aware of journals that she had kept that were filled with vivid descriptions of the angst that drove her to kill herself.

Up until the moment of the gruesome discovery of Alexandra and her diaries nobody, not even her parents or her closest friends, had any idea that she was so troubled. She appeared to be a happy successful high school junior with a sweet smile and a joyful laugh that filled her parent’s world with a feeling of being especially blessed. She was an A student who was so well liked by her classmates that they had elected her to one of the class offices. She wanted to major in engineering in college and to that end she belonged to the school robotics team that had only recently qualified for the international finals. She was a favorite of her teachers, one of whom indicated that she was possibly the number one or number two student that he had ever taught in his twenty years in the classroom. What nobody seemed to know was how desperate and worthless Alexandra actually felt.

She had a checklist of things she needed to accomplish to get in M.I.T., her dream school. She was striving to be the valedictorian of her class and to score high on entrance exams. In her journals she confessed that she felt as though she was a failure, valueless, unmotivated and unhappy. She hid her worries and her depression from her parents even though she spent time lots with them and talked openly with them about her life and her aspirations and her feelings, only what she told them was far different from what she recorded on paper. Everyone saw her as one of those extraordinary teenagers that every parent and educator hopes to have, while she saw herself  as a hopeless loser.

Alexandra’s English teacher, like her parents, was stunned by her death. He still wonders what signs he might have missed that would have allowed him to help his beloved student. So also was the school counselor who had never sensed the depths of Alexandra’s desperation. Her best friends were also left wondering how their pal had managed to hide her feelings from everyone. She was a golden girl in everyone’s eyes the lines in the notebooks described how overwhelmed she actually was.

I have spent the majority of my life advocating for care for those afflicted with mental illness and for the students that I have taught.  I have often uncovered problems with my pupils before they escalated to a point from which there might have been no return. I used my observational skills to ascertain that one of my students was self harming herself. I saw another student’s outbursts not as disregard for authority, but a cry for help. I was particularly good at ferreting out the truth behind student behaviors of all sorts, but there were still moments when I missed all of the signs. Those times were particularly difficult because I truly cared for all of kids, even those who gave me grief. They were like my children and I wanted to be a person of understanding and compassion for them, but sometimes my they were hiding the truth of their feelings from me and everyone else. They put on Academy Award level performances designed to hide the pain that they were feeling.

I suppose that the key to really knowing a person comes in keeping the lines of communication wide open. Teens and young adults need to know without reservation that it is safe to ask for help, admit mistakes, discuss worries. Adults need to ask themselves if even the students who appear to be handling challenges are pushing themselves too much. As parents and teachers we must continually have discussions regarding how much work/life balance our youngsters have. As a team we can indeed work to alleviate some of the pressures and fears that plague their journeys to becoming adults. We can start with very frank discussions and a willingness to really listen between the lines to what our kids are telling us. They need to know that we do not expect perfection and that erring is not failure but an opportunity to learn, We must be certain that we are not making them feel trapped in a whirlwind of unreasonably high expectations.

Years ago Rice University, sometimes known as the Harvard of the south, was the suicide capitol of universities. The numbers of students killing themselves was so dramatically high as to cause the board of directors to ask what the reasons might be. They found that the university in general focused almost exclusively on competition and grades with little or no regard for social skills and psychological health. Brilliant students were continually made to feel inadequate as they were quantified and ranked and pushed beyond their endurance. It was only after dramatic efforts were made to help students to achieve a realistic balance of work and pleasure that the rate of self inflicted deaths began to drop. Not long ago the university was even named as one of the happiest  campuses in the country, an honor that spoke to the hard work of truly concerned educators who had worked together to find ways of developing the whole individual.

Alexandra’s parents have made their daughter’s writing public. They lecture at high schools  and parent meetings. Their advice is that we must be watchful of every young person for signs that our systems are devouring them. They believe that if their daughter’s tragic story saves even one more life her words will not have been in vain.

Alexandra’s final entry was addressed to her parents. She insisted that they not blame themselves. Of course as loving parents they do, as is also true of everyone who loved this precious girl.

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Learning Is A Beautiful Thing

img_0026A young woman that I know rightly noted that learning is a beautiful thing, and in the same breath wondered why our methods for conveying it garner such anxiety. We have somehow managed to take one of the loveliest aspects of being human and turned it into what is often an onerous competitive blood sport. In today’s world education is all too often a numbers game in which young people who are still developing are ranked and classified in life changing rituals that sometimes have the effect of changing the course of their destinies. It is a process that affects not only our students but also our teachers and our society. The attempts to quantify the learning process has ignored the more subtle aspects of people, and instead stamped them with life changing numbers that have the power of affecting where they will eventually work and how they will live.

The idea of joyful learning has become secondary to test scores and grades, often wringing the joy of schooling out of the equation. The message that we send our young is that education is a numbers game overseen by mega testing corporations and the College Board. The test is the thing, and those who learn in ways contrary to mastery of often trivial and subjective standardized questions need not apply. All too often the difference between an opportunity to follow a dream and condemnation to a lifetime of frustration is found in a rigid reliance on numbers, even as we somehow know that such things are incapable of truly determining the worth of someone’s talents.

As a small girl I was repulsed by situations that ranked me and my fellow students. The teacher who created a bulletin board with rockets bearing our names to identify those who were soaring to the moon versus those who crashed and burned at takeoff became loathsome in my mind. I understood that I knew how to please her, but that others also had great but different gifts to offer. I suppose that living with my brothers had taught me about the ways in which we grow and develop, not at a constant and linear rate, but in a kind of spiral with stops and starts. One of my brothers had a brilliant mathematical mind that was far advanced over the rest of us. He knew what he wanted to do with his life from the time that he was five. My other brother and I drifted here and there. As a people pleaser I was able to convince my teachers that I was indeed quite intelligent, but only by towing the line that they required of me. My little brother was more rebellious and thus often considered less likely to be successful. The truth was that he had a complex and creative mind that would eventually prove to be exactly what an entrepreneur needs.

Today the pressure to conform to the numbers game is more intense than ever. Students are ranked from the first day of high school. They are told that class standing and scores on entrance exams will determine whether or not they are allowed to enter the most prestigious universities and majors. They battle for the top spots by adding premium points to their GPAs with countless advanced placement classes. They worry about every little test, every rise or dip in their grades. They take courses to learn how to be better test takers. They eschew subjects that sound interesting or fun because they might cause them to fall in the ranks. Often they lose the joyfulness of learning in the process of pursuing their goals. School becomes an odious task that must be endured so that the future will be bright.

Even when they reach the hallowed halls of a favored university they may find themselves once again being sorted into the stars and the also rans. Competitions for internships and jobs are based more on grades than personalities and the kinds of traits that cannot possibly be measured with numbers. A single point difference shuts doors and opportunities. It is only after entering the real world of work that things like effort and creativity become marketable skills. An ability to work with a team is often more important than making the highest score on a test but such things are rarely considered in the world of academia.

People often ask me about my experience as an educator. In that capacity I literally taught people of all ages. My initial foray into the life of a teacher began with four year olds. By the time I retired I had worked with virtually every age group including adults. The one constant that I observed is that we each learn and progress at a different pace. Those who are the quickest to master a topic are not necessarily the ones who will ultimately do the best with it. My eldest daughter was fifteen months old before she walked, but on the day that she took her first steps she literally ran and then became a beautiful and graceful dancer. The fact that she took so long to walk upright had zero effect on the rest of her life. Thus it is with each of us. Learning is very personal and should be cause for joy, not anxiety.

One of the finest teachers that I have ever known devised a grading system that allowed for differences in the learning curve. If a student initially failed to master a skill he offered additional tutoring and then retested the individual and eliminated the failing grade, replacing it with the mark that celebrated success. His students adored him and often reported that they not only walked away from his class filled with knowledge, but they also felt more confident and willing to take new risks. They learned how to be resilient from him, and they found great joy in learning about topics that might have earlier terrified them. This is the way education is supposed to be but all too rarely is.

The young woman that I know is so right. Learning is a beautiful thing. Let’s hope that one day we will find a way to universally bring the joy to those who embark on the journey of becoming educated.

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. 

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.