Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Teachers & Loss

This afternoon, I went into my principal's office for a moment to ask a routine question about a student.  We chit-chatted for a couple minutes and then he gave this dramatic sigh like I'd never heard come from him before and handed me a couple of pages stapled together.  I had no idea what was happening, but I took the pages and started reading.

The first was a student ID photo with some basic information -- printed out from our student information system.  While this was not my student, I was aware of him.  We are a very small school with a dozen teachers and one administrator; everyone knows everyone - literally.  At times we have as few as 25 students on campus.  This particular student had recently completed our program and returned to a comprehensive high school, but recently enough that the name and face was still familiar.

The second page was a news article giving some sketchy details of a murder.  I'm sure pretty much everyone can see where this is going.  Our student had been shot and killed.  The manner or method is pretty irrelevant, but suffice it to know that this 16-year old kid spent the last moments of his life bleeding to death in a parking lot.

I looked at my principal & before I could even say anything, he told me he hadn't been able to bring himself to read the article yet.  I've worked for the same administrator for the past 6+ years and this was probably the saddest moment we've ever shared.  I could tell he was trying to put on a good "leader face," but he had been jarringly affected.

The rest of my day has been painfully sad.  I've been thinking about all of the students I have lost over the years.  I've talked about this a bit before, but as a teacher, it's something that is constantly in the forefront.  Everyone is aware of those that have passed away, whether it be expected or unexpected, but there is always something about the loss of a young life that is so painful.

Since I have started teaching, I've always been in high-risk schools, and for some of my students, they take the phrase "high risk" a bit too literally.  From day one, I've had gang members and drug dealers in my classrooms sitting next to the future doctors and lawyers of America.  Generational poverty has driven thousands of my students to things I would never have dreamed of.  It doesn't change the legality of the issue, or make it right, but it's understandable.  Most of them never brought it into the classroom, so we always had some unspoken agreement that "If you behave and learn Shakespeare, I'll pretend I don't know you're a hard core gang member."  Usually it works.  And once in a while, one of them changes their stripes.

One of my very first blog posts (if anyone cares) is about one such student.  He was a white supremacist, and a general bad-ass.  One day, we had a blow out fight that ended in me telling him that I was tired of his crap and he was too smart to be acting like that.  He turned it around in school, or at least stopped being a pain.  But a couple years later, he came back and told me how that was a pivotal moment in his life.

However, just as often, I see news stories about my students -- and they are never good.  I know 5 students that have been murdered, two more have committed suicide, two car accidents, and (I believe) two have died of natural causes. That's 11 deaths in 8 1/2 years of teaching.  While it doesn't seem like a lot, it is.

Of course, that isn't the only way we lose students.  Endless numbers of them are lost due to depression, drug use, and gang activity.  They just stop coming to school.  As teachers, we feel that loss.  It must be like working in a hospice center - knowing so many are not going to make it out to the other side.  I know specifically of a handful that are living on the streets as drug addicts. And I can't even begin to tell you how many are in prison.

Out of curiosity, the principal and I recently checked a few names against the Nevada Department of Corrections rolls and found many current prisoners.  Most of them are under 21 - meaning they probably committed the crimes when they were still teens.  Bobby (another of my first blog posts) served almost 5 years for something he truly didn't do - while he was there, he did not participate, plan, or support the actions of his friends.  Two more were sentenced to 25+ years shortly after they turned 18.  Dozens more are currently serving time, including one 19 year old that made national news for his incredibly complex human trafficking pipeline from Las Vegas/SoCal to North Dakota's oil fields.

I write all of this - as depressing as it is - to show how emotionally wrecking teaching is.  I carry this loss with me every day, knowing any one of the young men and women sitting in front of me, learning to write and analyze, could be next.  I laugh and cry with them, I try to show them a world different from the one they know.  It's like what they say on "Intervention"... "there are a lot people in this room that love you and will fight like hell to get you back"  We are on a never-ending episode of Intervention with all of the crazy you can imagine, and then some.

But we still show up, knowing we are often fighting a losing battle.  We still fight.  As a matter of fact, I literally (at 9pm) just called a parent because this paragraph reminded me that there was a kid I hadn't seen in a while and I was worried (sadly, no answer).

Few people say teaching is easy, but even fewer realize how truly difficult it can be.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

World Teacher Day... everywhere except here

Yesterday (October 5) was world teacher day, in pretty much every country except America.  Technically it existed here, but there was no special pomp and circumstance for those of us teaching America's youth.  I didn't get anything special, though things didn't go particularly badly.  Today a student told me I was going to "burn in hell for my sins," though he didn't specify what.  My husband broke up two fights in his classroom... all in all, not a great day of celebration.

Let me tell you a story... I experienced one World Teacher Day in all its glory while I was teaching in China back... well... a long time ago, however Chinese friends tell me this is still the way it works.

At the time, I taught 12 or 14 classes.  I don't remember.  It was a lot.  It sounds insane, but I only saw each class once a week for 45 minutes, so I didn't actually teach that many classes.  One day, everyone I see starts wishing me "happy teacher day!"  I'm thinking "oh, that's weird.  I've never heard of teacher day before.  It must be a Chinese thing.  I'll go with it." Because, let's be honest.  There were a lot of things that I simply accepted as "Chinese things" and never gave a second thought to.

I assumed "Teacher Day" was one of those things.

As the day progressed, I found that "Teacher Day" was not a Chinese thing.  It was an Everywhere-in-the-world-exept-America thing.  And it was a HUGE deal.  All day long, I got cards and small gifts, and students went out of their way to greet me.  Later in the evening, there was a banquet for all of the teachers.  BANQUET.

But nothing prepared me for what I found when I got back to my apartment.

Next to the door of my apartment was a huge stack of boxes.  I did not understand.  I hadn't ordered anything.  This was before Amazon or even decent internet shopping.  I didn't think my mom had sent me anything.  Clearly, this was a mistake.  Nope.  The boxes had my name on them.  (Actually, many of them said "American lady", but that was still me)

What did I have, you wonder?  Fruit.  Cases and cases of fruit.  All of the classes had pooled money and chosen a fruit to give to their teachers.  Except most teachers saw their students multiple times per week and had only 5 or 6 classes.  Remember, I had 14.  Which means, 14 cases of fruit.  4 kinds of apples, some oranges, peaches, weird stuff I'd never seen before, some melons, you name it, I had it.  I was like my own personal fruit Costco.  And there was just one of me with a fridge the size of a gym locker.

So I ate a lot of fruit - no scurvy here- and then realized I could never eat it all before it went bad.  No one at my school wanted it because they had their own fruit.  I couldn't give it to students, because that would be disrespectful.  None of my friends teaching at other schools wanted it, because they too had their own fruit.  So I did what any normal person with too much fruit does -- every time I left my apartment, I put a bunch in my backpack and handed it out to homeless people, like some sort of one-man mission trip.  I couldn't speak any Chinese at the time, so I just gave them fruit and ran away.  People thought I was crazy, but they probably assumed it was just a "white lady thing".

I told you that story, so I could say this:

Teachers in America do not get fruit on World Teacher Day.  Teachers in America seldom get fruit at all.  Or a day.  Or anything else.

This year, my fellow teachers and I in Las Vegas got our 4th salary freeze in 7 years, and since we have to increase our pension contributions, we technically all got a pay cut.  Our health insurance has been mismanaged and many of us are losing the care of doctors we have seen for our entire careers, some of us are losing the care of doctors that offer desperately needed treatment for long-term illnesses.  We are working without contracts in underfunded and under serviced areas with kiddos that desperately need education.   Every year, we are asked to give more of ourselves for less & when we ask for compensation, we get blowback from a community that calls us "greedy" and "selfish".  After nearly 10 years teaching, with 2 Masters degrees, I am barely making what most would consider a "professional" salary & only a few dollars more than a police officers and firemen their first day on the job.

While some argue that police and fire departments are more dangerous places to work, that isn't necessarily true.  The number of teachers that are injured or killed by students is staggering.  National statistics estimate between 7-15% of teachers are physically harmed by students in a given school year, not to mention the handful that are killed during incidents of school violence.  Even at 7%, that means over 250,000 teachers are violently attacked every year at work.    I have been a victim of violence (in some form) every single year of my teaching career.  I have been hit by students, I have been pushed, and I have had countless object thrown at me (a desk, a chair, etc).  I've also been bullied and sexually  harassed by students.  Of course, many still think of teaching as an "easy" job.

While I am fortunate enough to work for a caring administrator that does everything he can to make sure teachers have what they need, most are not so lucky.  Many of my fellow teachers have to spend money out of their own pockets for classroom supplies -- basic stuff like pencils and paper -- to make sure they can teach their students.  They do not get reimbursed for these expenditures.  Even when the Nevada Legislature approved a bill that would allow classroom spending, the amount was whittled down to virtually nothing.  By the time the money actually got to schools, most teachers receive less than $100 to spend on necessary classroom supplies -- or about $2.50 per student for elementary teachers, $0.50 per student for secondary teachers.

Every year, I write grant after grant in hopes that some will come through so I can supply my students with things they need.  I ask friends and social groups to donate hygiene supplies to students in need.  This is in addition to lesson planning, unit planning, mentoring both students and new teachers, parent conferences, grading, endless reams of paperwork to show that I'm meeting state and national standards as an educator, finding new ways to "connect" with my students on their terms (Instagram!), and actually teaching lessons.  And I certainly don't do this for glory or recognition, because there really isn't any.  I do this because it's what my students need.

We've all seen the cute signs that say: "If you can read this, thank a teacher."  Perhaps next time you see one, you should -- because it's probably been a long time since anyone thanked them for anything they did.