A TEACHER’S THOUGHTS AT 2AM: AN AFFIRMATION OF THE WORK IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS

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Five years ago when I started this blog, I thought, “Hey, this could be a fun little hobby.” Unfortunately, and fortunately, it has turned into so much more. There are times that I absolutely do not want to write another word about how we underfund, under support, and underestimate our public schools. It’s heartbreaking to continually hear the stories of sacrifice that teachers make only to be under cut by self-serving administrators and politicians who just don’t take the time to learn the truth.

The fortunate part is that in creating this blog, a platform in which to share some of the truly beautiful thoughts and experiences of teachers has also been created. If I didn’t believe in magic before, after hearing their words and witnessing their works, its existence has become undeniable.

I share here, with permission, the words of middle school teacher Cori Anderson-Lais. Cori is a long-time family friend and a tremendous teacher. She is also a wife and the mother of two wonderful small children. Those roles often combine to create insomnia. Meaning that one finds themselves awake and unable to sleep at 2AM.

Fortunately for us, Cori used her insomnia in a much more productive manner than this writer. Whereas I would just watch Tin Cup for the 3,456th time, she used her time to produce a beautiful essay that I consider a must-read for all parents. Well, hell, not just parents, but everybody.

Thank you, Cori, for sharing your experiences and reminding us why what we all do is so important. I urge you to have some tissues handy before reading this one.

 

Parents of preschool aged children love to ask me some variation of the the same question as soon as they find out I’m a teacher. “So… tell me about the schools. Are the schools around here any *good*? I looked up the ratings online/ watched some terrible news story, and I’m wondering if we should move before he/she enters school.”

Enter internal monologue after this question is received. Apologies for the cursing, but #realtalk🤷🏼‍♀️: Shit. Shit. Shit. Why did you open your loud-ass mouth and tell this well-meaning person enjoying a lovely day at the park/library/zoo/other-kid-friendly-establishment you were an eff-ing teacher? You could have just said you work at Target. Gawd, I really wish I just worked at Target. It’s so clean and organized. You get a discount. Surely the managers make more than I do. Focus. Or nothing. You could have just said nothing. Why can’t you EVER just say nothing, Cori? Great, I’m about to make this person wish they never talked to me. Oh well, I have enough friends, and I’m too tired for any more. Sorry Anxious Mom, I’m about to wear you out.

*************************************

This post is going to come from a place of admitted emotion, heart and passion about the kids and families to whom I have devoted my entire adult life. It’s lengthy and should probably live on a blog, but you know, time.

Disclaimers: Other than visiting them during trainings, I know almost nothing about Williamson County Schools. The following post’s purpose is not to speak about Williamson County Schools. Metro Nashville Public School System is massive, and I have spent all 11 years of my teaching in the Southwest and Southeast quadrant. I cannot speak on behalf of anything else. I grew up in suburban Minnesota inside of a working-class family that was intertwined with layers of dysfunction. However, the schools I attended looked, operated, and felt much more Williamson County than MNPS. It would be a lie to say that I don’t have any feelings left over about being the kid who felt misplaced in the environment where I grew up.

You want me to tell you about the schools, Anxious Mom? Here we go:

Here’s the reality Anxious Mom,
If you participate in White Flight, you hurt families of color and under-resourced families. “But But But I, volunteer/donate/go on mission trips/do x,y,z noble thing for poor people.” No. Own it. Sit in it. Feel the feelings even if one of them is shame, and say it out loud: If I participate in White Flight inside of the public school system, my actions hurt families of color and under-resourced families. The whole family. Not just the kids. Period. Stop talking about how good of a person you are aside from the whole White Flight thing. We all get to make choices. I can’t make them for you. I didn’t say it was easy, or perfect, or without risk-whether that risk is perceived or factual-I’ll tell you more about that later.

You need to ask yourself some tough questions:

What do I really mean when I say I want “the best” for my kid?

What can “the best” look like?

What do I mean when I say *a good school*? Is there underlying racial or socioeconomic bias in my thoughts about *good schools*?
*************************************
Inside these dreaded conversations, comes more questioning from the Anxious Mom that boils down to, “But won’t MY – smart, high-achieving, already knows her numbers, letters, colors, long division, astrophysics, half of the Japanese logographs, yoga poses, etc. be adversely affected by THOSE – under – resourced poor, low-achieving, misbehaving, Immigrant, EL, EE, Black, Brown, etc.- kids?”

Insert another internal monologue: Cori, remember that parents typically come from a place of love and good intentions. They have not been inside the schools. Your classroom babies are not their babies. They don’t know their stories. They read shit ratings online that paint an ugly, misinformed picture of our schools. I’ll readily admit that the Higher Ups need to get it together, but isn’t that the case in just about every government system in America? Be an educator. Educate this person, don’t judge this person. Quell rage, fix your face, use a kind voice.

I know, it’s a complicated picture, Anxious Mom, but here’s the thing. Your kid will be fine. More than fine. Like ultra, super-duper fine. There is scads of research that supports that fact. Yes, fact. You want scholarly articles about it? I’ll send them your way. Your kid will. be. fine. Probably better off and kinder. I work with incredible teachers. The families are great. We offer advanced academics-in fact, I teach those courses. We differentiate for all types of learners – that’s our job.

Anxious Mom emits more anxiety: But my calculus solving 4-year-old won’t do well in a disruptive environment. She won’t be able to reach her full potential unless she is around other kids like her. What if my kid doesn’t get enough attention if lower performing students are getting all of it? I’ve also heard there are a lot of immigrant kids around here, and if they can’t speak English, won’t my kid fall behind?

More internal monologue: There’s this thing about working with all types of people. They’re called coping skills, Lady, and it sounds like your kid is going to need to learn some stat if this is the kind of pressure you’re putting her under. Deep breath. Turn your judgment down, Self. Educate.

Again, it is our job to accommodate all learners. That’s why we chose to teach public school. Even if your kid misses out on some part of academics that may more easily be received in a more homogeneous environment, the social, emotional, and life learning that will occur inside our schools will far outweigh any gaps in instruction. In fact, those academic skills can be acquired indefinitely throughout adulthood. Remember how smart you said your kid was? She’ll make it. I promise. And probably be better for being ignored occasionally. And fun fact: Once Immigrant children reach English proficiency-something your *genius* kid could help them do, they actually out perform their English-speaking peers in academics and post-secondary schooling. Your little precious actually might do well to become bffs with the ELL kid because she might learn something about work ethic. And maybe, bonus, another language. 🤷🏼‍♀️

Things I have learned from my students: patience, tolerance, the ability to recognize and actively fight against my own biases, compassion, more about the world and other cultures than I even knew was possible, greetings in other languages, how to take care of others, hospitality, how to think on my feet, the fact that there is more than one “right” way to live, the ability to respect varying cultural and religious viewpoints, and most significantly: way more than I’ve ever taught them.

Anxious Mom, hear me: Your kid can learn from *those* kids, teach/help/BEFRIEND those kids, build a better world WITH those kids. Because as much as you, “Barely have time to process everything about YOUR kids, how in the world am I supposed to have concern about other people’s kids,” you have to know that YOUR kid’s world WILL be affected by those kids, and you might be able to help those effects be positive by being a part of our schools.

I won’t lie to you. In my eleven years, I’ve had classes where I did way more behavior management than I did teaching. But you know what I also did in those classes? I learned. I learned how to help kids manage their emotions. I learned that you can’t teach a kid academic content until they trust you. I learned how to de-escalate potent, anger filled situations. I learned that we all come to the table with layers, and even with those layers, we still deserve a chance. And a kid not performing well on a standardized test doesn’t show you shit about his/her intellect or capabilities. There are lots of kinds of smart. Isn’t that what life is all about?

I’ll leave you with a final anecdote, Anxious Mom. Let me tell you about my friend Max.

The last two years, I’ve taught only advanced academics courses (try not to monitor grammatical errors in this composition-I wrote it on my phone in the midst of insomnia) at the MNPS school closest to the Williamson County line. It’s probably a little more colorful than a WC school, but it’s the most homogeneous group I’ve ever taught.

Last year, another teacher was struggling with Max being in his class. Max’s behavior is pretty intense, and he already had a quite a few vibrant personalities in the room. Max, despite his quirks, scores in the 94th percentile and above on standardized assessments. He’s fricken brilliant and bored out of his ever-loving skull. We moved him into the advanced classes.

The first couple weeks were a mess. He jumped on chairs, interjected every thought that crossed his mind into the room in a screeching voice, bothered his peers, and created a cacophony of chortles throughout the room on a daily basis.

I tried talking to him, positive praise, negative attention, yelling at him, sending him into the hall, calling his mom. All the things. One day, the exchange went something like this, “Out Max! I’ll meet you out there in a second. The rest of you better get busy and not say a word. I’m listening with my Mom Ears. I hear everything.”

– in the hall –

“Max, what. is. happening? This doesn’t work for any of us.”

“I don’t know. *tears start to come* The other kids think I’m funny but they don’t actually want to be my friends. They’re mean, but they’re sneaky, and I get in trouble because I’m loud.”

Inner thoughts abound again – Shit, this kid is perceptive AF. And right. He’s right. I need to do better. I need to teach the other kids to do better.

“Max, I’m sorry. You’re right. They do things they shouldn’t too. Just because they’re quieter doesn’t make it okay. I’m going to pay more attention to that. I do need you to chill out though. Not everyone catches onto concepts as quickly as you do, and they need quiet to think. Want to go in and try again?”

I looped with those kids this year meaning I have them all again, including Max. If you came into our class, you’d probably see Max standing on the table at the back of the room. Go ahead, clutch your pearls, yes, standing on the table. Max now has a box of puzzles and sensory toys for when he finishes his work early. He uses a white board to write things down that he wants to blurt out. Sometimes, he still blurts out. Sometimes, I still lose my patience with him. We got him into the Day of Discovery program with Vanderbilt, and on Tuesdays he gets to go do super cool things like examine bugs outside.

Anxious Mom – But is that fair? Won’t all the kids start standing on their desks? Why does he get toys and they don’t?

Friend, fair is not always equal. Another great lesson for kids to learn. No, the other kids don’t stand on their desks because they don’t *need* to stand on their desks. They also need more time to do their work. They also recognize that it’s socially inappropriate to stand on a desk, and they don’t want to stand out by having extra toys. In reality, we could all learn something from Max about giving no 🤐. And most significantly, they have figured out how to work with Max and how bright he is. They are kinder to him. Stand up for him sometimes.

Even More Anxious Mom – So, you’re going to send your girls to school here? Even the big, scary high school? I heard such and such happened there.

Well, it probably did, and I’m sure if you knew the full story it wouldn’t shock you nearly as much as it did when someone hyperbolized it. Yes, my kids will go to these schools. I’m excited for them to attend these schools. Remember the high school I mentioned that I attended? Kids there had the time and money to do all the things you’re afraid your kid is going to be influenced to do. *Those* kid’s-at the *scary* schools – they’re mostly working and helping to take care of their families.

Those kids are MY kids. Just as much my kids as Jovie and Eira. They were my first babies. They invited me to their family parties and their family sporting events, brought me incredible food, threw me a baby shower, visited me in the hospital after I had my babies, babysat my children and refused to take payment, they hug me when they see me in public, and are currently achieving fantastic things. One more fun fact: their parents never emailed me things that made my eyes roll. They respected my profession. SO, if you’re going to try to talk to me about how your kid deserves more or better than my kids, you’re going to hear about my feelings. I’m sorry the smiley-faced Nordic-looking girl in the MN Twins hat didn’t affirm your internalized bias, but I hope you’ll consider staying in our neighborhood. You won’t regret it. ✌🏼

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5 comments on “A TEACHER’S THOUGHTS AT 2AM: AN AFFIRMATION OF THE WORK IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS

  1. RT says:

    I love this more than I can say. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Nashville_bound says:

    I admire you passion for teaching. My mother-in-law is a recent retired MNPS teacher. She taught for 3 decades in SW Nashville, West Nashville, and close-in school districts. The funny thing one learns from talking with her is the number of teacher’s kids who were sent to private schools and/or magnet schools. MNPS has real systemic issues that are not and have not been addressed for decades. Yes, the School Board, Director, and administrators have to shoulder much of the blame, but so do many teachers who ‘show and go’ and perform their jobs poorly. There is a culture of unaccountability in MNPS and from the parents to the teachers to the administration …and the kids suffer…all the kids. So do not preach to me that is it my job to place my children in a subpar and even dangerous environment. My responsibility is to my children first and the community second or even third. Now you can believe that makes me racist, uncaring, mean, but it makes me a good parent. You should ask yourself why MNPS is losing students while Nashville is booming. The answer is simple. The kids are not learning…it is not working….

    I wish you the best in your battles.

  3. Mrs_O'Shea says:

    Wow!! This teacher boldly speaks her truth!! Thanks so much for sharing.

    P.S. Anxious Moms,
    All moms are anxious. Your children will be fine even if they do not attend a magnet school.

  4. Joy Guss says:

    LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this! Love the honesty, the self reflection, and the truth. Even those of us who “get it” sometimes get caught up in the hyperbole. I work in a zoned school in MNPS. I’ve also worked in a magnet. My family moved from the West side to Donelson this fall and my teenage daughter I love more than life itself transferred from Hillsboro to McGavock. My friends were horrified. ”What are you doing?””You can’t do that” “You just need to say no” Did I mention my friends are teachers? I am embarrassed to admit I had some doubts. I consider myself a passionate advocate for equity and diversity. I believe every word your friend wrote, and have had similar experiences with students and their families. I had to do some real soul-searching to feel out my doubts. When it is your own child, that’s where the rubber hits the road. We took a tour, bit the bullet, and transferred. Riley is THRIVING. She was thriving at Hillsboro. Moving to McGavock did not affect her ability to thrive and I am glad we made the move. ALL of the things your friend wrote are true – there is no such thing as perfect anywhere, and there are many important lessons in life to learn. Bravo and thanks for sharing!

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