My Students Have Names

I make no apologies for writing about the many things that are broken within the public school system, most especially the District I work within. Don’t get me wrong, there are rare gems of goodness that reveal themselves from time to time but, unfortunately, the reality is that even when these gems do arise they are quickly consumed by the brokenness – just like my students. It’s a tragic cycle.

My school is not doing well in the areas that matter to the people who make decisions. Let me translate this for you – my school is under performing in their test scores. I will be the first to admit that I don’t care much for these tests. It’s not that I think tests are completely irrelevant, I just think they only speak to one very small piece of the picture. If a school was a 100 piece puzzle, test scores are kind of like two or three random pieces in the middle. You definitely need them to complete the puzzle but they are embedded into a much larger image. Without that larger image, the individual pieces just don’t make any sense and can easily be mistaken for something they are not.

My Principal has been told by those above her that 100% of our students need to make four months of growth on one computer-based reading assessment between January and May. This ultimatum is currently being passed along to the teachers in my building. Those teachers whose students did not show one month of growth from January to February are now being told that their students need to demonstrate two months of growth in March. One small puzzle piece.

If we were sitting down over a cup of coffee, I would be happy to paint the larger picture for you in intricate detail. However, I will refrain from that for this post in order to address the heaviest weight I have been feeling – the consumption of our students.

Students are more than numbers. My students are more than their Independent Reading Level. They are whole people with stories, faces and names. To conclude that all of their growth can be measured in a single test causes them to be seen as nothing more than a commodity. There are many things that grieve me about our schools, but this breaks my heart into a million pieces…and it should.

Each one of my students has made progress this year and I could provide you with a narrative of where my students were in August and where they are now. I assure you they are not the same. I can also tell you about each one of my students – their strengths, their weaknesses, how they learn, what inhibits their learning and what makes them smile. I know these things because I spend hours with them every day and I am intentional in my pursuit of knowing them as individual people. I can look in their eyes and see when they are having a bad day. I know when I need to push them harder and when they need a hug. There are also times when I don’t know how to respond to them or I just can’t hear the message they are trying to communicate. In these moments, I seek help in hearing their voice. I ask others for insights that I may not be able to glean. But, I continually make every effort to listen and respond to their voices that are longing to be heard. These details cannot be measured on a test.

However, this test is the single determining factor that others use to judge whether or not my students are growing and, subsequently, whether or not I am an effective teacher. That’s a heavy weight. Even more, it diminishes my students to nothing more than a number. Within this system, they become a faceless child who exists to manufacture a product. Additionally, the role that I have as their teacher is relegated to what I can produce through them. The relationship I have with them is seen as little more than a means to an end, if it is even considered relevant at all. Everyone becomes a tool – a commodity – and the end result is something more like a factory than a place of growth and learning. This is not the way education should be. This does not at all embrace the importance of the student-teacher relationship and the wholeness of the person. While tragic, the most devastating result of a single track definition of success is the removal of dignity from those within the situation who are the most powerless while those with power continue to demand more while providing less. All the while refusing to hear the voices of those who are crying out for freedom (which sounds eerily similar to Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Israelites).

It is hard not to feel defeated. It is hard to work so hard day in and day out in a place where what you produce matters more than who you are. In my current position, there is little than I can do to change the system. However, I can choose how I live within it. I can choose to see my students. I can choose to hear them. I can choose to affirm their dignity and worth as humans. I can celebrate with them the growth I have seen in their lives. I can choose to embrace a different measure of success – one that rests on faith, hope and the greatest of all – love.

I believe there is another way. I pray that I have the courage to embrace it, live it and advocate for it until what only exists as a dream becomes a reality.

 

Am I a teacher or a prison guard?

This is a legitimate question I ask myself about once a week. I also frequently pinch myself at work just to remind myself that this is indeed my real life and that I don’t work on the set of a made-for-TV-movie. As it turns out, being a public school teacher is a little bit like being a…

bouncer – “Fighting in class – free pass to the office!”
counselor – “Can you tell me what made you so angry that you felt the need to throw a chair?”
nurse – “Go get a wet paper towel, you’ll feel better. What color band-aid do you want?”
parent – “Let’s get a tissue. Blow.”
friend – “I love your new shoes. Do you think they come in my size?”
confidant – “Can you tell me how you got that bruise on your face?”
referee – “You have five minutes in the ‘thinking chair’ for hitting instead of using your words.”
social worker – “Did you eat dinner last night?”
vending machine – “I used my bonus this year to buy stock in Pepperidge Farm.”
and so much more.

Sometimes there is a need to fulfill all of these roles in the same day; sometimes all at the same time. As one might assume, wearing this many hats can create quite a bit of confusion, a fair amount of drama, and many lingering questions as to what exactly the purpose is of a public education anyway. Now we are getting to the good stuff, the real questions that are worth pursuing.

I am sure you would love to hear that the purpose of public education is to teach children how to read, write, compute and – most of all – inspire them to pursue becoming what educators like to call “life long learners” all while at the same time reinforcing their worth and dignity as unique individuals whose lives have purpose and meaning within the greater collective that we call humanity. It would be glorious to tell you that the purpose of public education is to see children for who they are and allow them space and time to grow at the pace that is appropriate for them. I would relish in sharing with you that public education is a sphere where failure is allowed because it is viewed to be as vital a part of the learning process as success. With all of my heart I wish this were the answer. Sadly, it is not.

As a public school teacher, if I had to sum up the purpose of public education in a single word I would choose the word conformity.

The overarching purpose of public education is to teach children how to conform to a system. The children who are labeled as the most successful are the ones who are “good at school.” The resume for a child like this includes skills such as, completing all of your homework on time, playing a few sports, volunteering, raising your hand, participating in group discussions, obtaining excellent grades and scoring well on tests. How do I know? I was this kid. I was good at school because I am someone who has the ability to learn how to successfully navigate a system, give people what they want, and am reluctant to push back – even when I should. I was loved by teachers, praised with accolades, the recipient of rewards, and a positive image for the media. But, I have plenty of friends who were not nearly as good at school as I was and are equally, if not more, successful than I am. They own houses, have families, and work faithfully. If these are the bars by which you choose to measure success I am pretty average at best.

But, what about the kids who don’t/can’t/won’t conform? We try to make them conform and when we can’t we label them as failures. If you have a school full of non-conforming children we label that school as “failing.” I don’t know about you, but if education is the great savior that most people in this country seem to think it is, I have a hard time swallowing the reality of telling a 6-year-old that they are failing at their life. I mean, their life has only just begun how can they already be so bad at living it. Even more, if this is the message they are hearing at 6, how can we possibly believe that they will be successful at 11, 14, 17, 21 or 30 when we have already given them their scarlet letter. How do you rise from ashes when you were never even given a chance to fly?

I was recently reminded of the movie The Birdman of Alcatraz and a conversation between Stroud, a long-time inmate, and the Warden. It went like this:

Warden: “Not once have you ever shown a sign of rehabilitation.”
Stroud:” Rehabilitation. I wonder if you know what the words means. Do you?”
Warden: “Don’t be insulting.”
Stroud: “The Unabridged Webster’s International Dictionary says it comes form the Latin root habilis. The definition is ‘to invest again with dignity.’ Do you consider that part of your job, Harvey, to give men back the dignity he once had? Your only interest is in how he behaves. You told me that once a long time ago and I’ll never forget it. ‘You’ll conform to our ideas of how you should behave.’ And you haven’t retreated from that stand one inch in thirty-five years. You want your prisoners to dance out the gates like puppets on a string with rubber-stamp values impressed by you. With your sense of conformity. Your sense of behavior. Even your sense of morality. That’s why you’re a failure, Harvey. Because you rob prisoners of the most important thing in their lives – their individuality.”

Urban schools – like the one I teach in – have gotten a rap for being what they call a “school to prison pipeline.” Makes sense to me. If we’ve never allowed a person to express their individuality and never embraced their dignity in the first place how we can ever expect them to gain it back. It is a challenging task indeed to gain back that which we never believed we possessed in the first place. Stroud was able to be free, even while imprisoned,  because he remained connected to his inherent identity. The Warden, on the other hand, was imprisoned even though he was free in all other regards.

As I read these words I no longer wonder why I ask myself if I am a prison guard each week? I am. Most of my students will carry the label of failure around for the rest of their lives because they were never meant to conform to a system. They were meant to shine. They were meant to be free. They were meant to display the glory of God in the unique ways that only they are able to. But, the system doesn’t allow for that. The system only accepts those students who are best at performing conforming to it and displaying the desired behavior. What is equally sad is that the adults who have embraced the calling to teach are deemed as failures by association for their inability to reign in these nonconformists. As I prepare for my 111th day of school this year I can only recall a single conversation this year with one of my fellow teachers who made the statement “I love my job.” How could they? Nobody in our school signed up to be prison guards.

So, if this is my reality, and the reality of so many other teachers and students, then the question that follows is:

How do we live as people who are free?

 

 

Home Again

We shall not cease from exploration,
and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
~T.S. Eliot

Today marks the one-year anniversary of my return to my hometown of St. Louis, MO. Ten years away from a place is a long time. As I reflect upon this past year, there has been great pain – mostly in the form of dashed hopes and misplaced expectations – as well as great joy – found mostly in experiencing God’s unrelenting faithfulness. This year has been hard and it has been good. Never once have I doubted that returning to St. Louis was the right decision and I have discovered a particular kind of rest here that can only be experienced when one is home. When one is dwelling in the land to which one belongs.

Over the course of this past year, I have learned many valuable lessons so it seems like it would be good to write them down, not only for those who may read this, but for my future self who is far from finished with her explorations.

First of all, transition is hard. Don’t let anyone tell you that it isn’t and certainly don’t let anyone diminish the toll that transition can take on your life. Many of us may like the idea of something new, but the process of change is altogether disorienting and awkward. Establishing a new home, discovering your role in a new job, cultivating new relationships…these are things that brave people do, people who are willing to risk what is familiar and comfortable for the chance of experiencing something greater. Embracing transition and change – in any form – is an act of courage.

Moving to any new neighborhood, city, state or country is unsettling. There is a new culture to be learned –a new way of doing life. Some aspects of this new culture may prove to be enjoyable but other aspects may wear you down everyday. Moving back to the place where you were raised is a particularly unique experience. As a St. Louis native I understand this land, these people – this is my land, my people. I may not like how everything is done, but I know why it is done the way that it is. Life simply makes sense to me here. However, I am not the same person I was when I left and many of the people whom I knew as a child have been changed by time and life. I have learned that it is better to return without assumptions as to what your life may look like or whom you will befriend. What once was may not longer be and, perhaps, there is something new to be birthed. This has certainly been my experience. Aside from my family and a few friends, there is very little in St. Louis that I have returned to that is connected to my former days. Those were not bad days, but I am simply no longer the person I was then.

Make relationships a priority. Loneliness can birth a host of unwelcome behaviors so it is good to make every effort to start building new friendships as soon as possible. After spending much of my life in communal settings (college, ministry, etc.) where a network of friends was essentially provided for me, I found moving back to St. Louis as an adult made the path to genuine community something less than instantaneous when compared to my previous experiences. I struggled with what I call “relational depression.” Thankfully, I have my family, awesome co-worker friends, some of the best neighbors in the world, and an amazing church filled with people who desire to know and be known. This is a gift and it is one that I will never, ever take for granted again.

Speaking of relationships, distance can make or break them. However, if at all possible, it is important to maintain these relationships, especially through transition. Though my closest friends are farther from me physically than they have ever been, the distance has only deepened our intimacy. Yes, these relationships have had to morph but they are no less important to me than when we lived in close proximity to one another. The fact that these relationships have been sustained through such great distance only speaks to me of the special place that each of these dear friends hold in my heart – a place that can only be held by each one of them and them alone.

As I give this past year one last look, I can say that there is no other place I would rather be than where I am right now. This year has been hard, it has been good, and God has been faithful. I don’t anticipate staying in St. Louis for the rest of my life, but I do know that I love this City, I love these people, and this season – however long it may be – is a sweet gift to my life. As Dorothy says, there is no place like home.

Why You Should Read More Children’s Books in 2015

Check out my last post of 2014 for Theocult!

TheoCult Collective

I always find the week between Christmas and New Year’s to be a strange time of transition. The wonder and magic of Christmas quickly fades into lists of resolutions, promises, wishes, and goals for the upcoming year. To be honest, I don’t care much for the Christmas season as a whole. However, the thing I most anticipate about this season is that it serves as the one time each year adults give themselves permission to return to their childlike wonder of days gone by. Time is taken to gaze at twinkling lights, dozens of cookies are eaten by even the most devoted dieters, and songs are hummed while walking down office corridors. For one brief moment, Christmas invites adults to become like children again and the invitation is readily accepted.

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Pain Doesn’t Take A Holiday: An Invitation to Listen

While I have not been regularly contributing to my own blog, I am currently blogging over at Theocult.

TheoCult Collective

Due to the fact that I am submitting this post on Thanksgiving I struggled with feeling obligated to offer some words about gratitude, a Biblical perspective on feasting, or something that might make those of you reading this feel warm on the inside. That is not what this post is going to be about today.

I also happen to live in St. Louis and as much as I didn’t want to write about what is happening in our City due to the recent events in Ferguson it is simply too important to remain silent about. However, I can assure you that I won’t be sharing my opinion about the grand jury decision, systemic injustice, or quoting enlightening phrases about love.

Rather, I want to remind you this morning of the one experience we all share in our humanity – pain. It may be possible for a person to live…

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Dwelling In The Land OR How My Black Neighbor Is Teaching Me What It Means To Be White

In case you missed the memo…I am writing for another season over at Theology & Culture Collective! Check it out!

TheoCult Collective

GL___SourceI reside in one of my favorite cities – St. Louis. St. Louis also happens to be the place I was born and raised. There are many wonderful aspects of St. Louis like free museums, a giant arch, a great highway system (you appreciate things like that after living on the East Coast), beautiful parks, and – of course – the St. Louis Cardinals. This year marks St. Louis’ 250th Anniversary and all throughout the City you can find cakes (like the one pictured from my neighborhood) celebrating the beauty, diversity and legacy of St. Louis’ story and people. If you have never been to St. Louis, you should visit. I would be happy to be your personal tour guide and may even offer you my guest room for the night.

However, this is not what you are hearing in the news these days about St. Louis. Most of…

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The Conclusion=Day 30

To read the background on this 30 day project, click here.

Today concludes my 30 day project of cultivating beauty and gratitude in my life.

As I reflect this morning over the past month, it is amazing the breadth of experiences and emotions that we are able to have in such a brief amount of time. In a matter of a week (last week to be exact), I reached my lowest point since returning to St. Louis and subsequently experienced the greatest joy since my return as well. Life is funny like that.

The other key point I learned about myself is that while I am faithful, doing the exact same thing everyday in a row is a challenge for me. Apparently, I really do need variety in my life!

Even though I may not have actually posted something everyday for 30 days, I consider this project to be a success because it caused me to be intentional about seeing beauty and choosing gratitude in the midst of all of the circumstances I found myself in this past month. For those of you who joined me on this journey, I hope that you have also been taken by the beauty that surrounds you everyday and have discovered that despite all the pain, there is much to be thankful for in this life.

As I conclude this post so I can finish drinking my coffee and get ready for my first day of school, I leave you with a quote and a picture of one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen (the French Alps).

“We do not want merely to see beauty… we want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” ~C.S. Lewis

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