As I continue to teach, something becomes more and more apparent to me. I am seeing that students are more fearful of success than anything else in their lives. In fact, I dare say they are terrified of it. I think some are afraid that it’ll set the bar too high for them the next time, while I think others are more worried that it will take far too much more work to be “excellent” than just “satisfactory”. But whatever they fear, it is painfully obvious that part of that fear comes from never having tasted success to begin with.
Now, I’m not talking about success in getting an A on a spelling test, or success in making sure you read all of your accelerated reading books in time. I’m talking about the success that comes in the form of hard work, like acing a class that is above your grade level, or getting college credit under the age of 18, making a 4.0 on a college prep scale or writing an entire research paper that took 4 weeks to prepare for and came out to 8+ pages with an entire works cited page without a single edit from your teacher. These are forms of success that show consistent, constant dedication to excellence. But I don’t blame my kids entirely for never having success — I blame educators who have led them here, ones who think spoon feeding them answers, holding their hands too long and telling kids they are more “brilliant and rare” than they are, simply sets them up for failure. Those students develop, believing that getting a gold star or an A is as easy as sitting quietly until someone eventually breaks down the answers, coated in heavy hints, into young adults who are college bound, but not college ready. The harsh truth is that those students will walk into English 101 or Biology 110 and realize they have never seen or felt what an A takes, only to succumb to mediocre to failing grades, earned by their previous years of mediocre work and dedication.
Furthermore, these little brains develop some sort of entitlement, that they deserve easy work and praise, simply for showing up to your room. And the moment you push them to push themselves, they’ll bite, kick and scream because it’s uncomfortable and challenging. But little do they know, that’s learning. Until we realize that as educators, it is our jobs to make our kids sweat a little, we will keep setting them up to be imitators, not thinkers. Until we realize it’s our job to make our kids differentiate between what is earned and what is deserved, we will keep giving them the choice to be illiterate because it’s just “easier that way”. But one day, when we’re not there to point to the right answer with a smile, those kids will be adults who realize that life is entirely much easier when you know how to think for yourself.
This is an open letter to my current students, my sophomores, the Class of 2015.
When I started at Southland College Prep in the August of 2010, I was fresh-eyed and excited for teaching, right out of college. I had fantastic exposure to progressive teaching theories that had the intentions of fixing the education system and making it equitable for all students. I was so fortunate to find a school that spoke to my pre-service training; the ideals that you could take your students in any shape they came in, and you would help them achieve things that they never dreamt possible because you would do anything to help them be successful. For literally 180 days straight, it felt like everything I ate, touched, breathed and dreamed was related to Southland College Prep. It was a successful year, our kids felt good, our staff felt good. We were headed in the right direction.
Since then, we’ve grown two fold with adding two more classes to the mix. Our family has grown through its students, teachers and support networks. It has been a blessing to see ourselves expand, but it has also been a challenge. As the ripples we make continue to spread throughout the community, we take in more risk for doubt, criticism and failure. I will never undercut my team, as I believe we all come to work every single day to help make tomorrow better. However, I am not too naive to think that it has been good and gravy along the way. We will continue to face challenges in our planning, preparing and succeeding; and I dare say that our biggest challenge will be ourselves. Southland makes it all too easy to recognize only the negative in life; all of us move under constant stress and pressure to do more, be more and get more. Students and staff alike are always pushing ourselves to the very edge for various reasons. Regardless, we are always moving at the speed of light and onto the next task. With that being said, we lose sight of our purpose at that school. So I must take a moment to remind myself that as a teacher, it is my job to make sure that my students are not confident learners and citizens, I have to make sure they are capable of creating change. I have to create young men and women who can take on future generations and all of the questions they will ask. And as students, my kids have to be ready to drive themselves harder than they ever have in their K-8 years; not only do they have to want to do well, they have to be the best.
I will be the first to admit that I have lost sight of my purpose this last year. At the start of the year, I felt myself becoming tired, more tired than I had ever felt in 2 years at Southland. My response to the exhaustion was to lay on the brakes, I eased up doing more than outside of my curriculum. At times, I even felt my teaching begin to give. There were days I couldn’t find the energy to teach my last classes of the day; there were nights that I came home and did not want to even think about work. All of these months later, I distinctly remember telling a student that I couldn’t bear to talk to him at the moment because I needed a second to collect myself — and all he wanted to do was say hi. Never before was I that person; like I said, there was a time that everything I touched was related to making Southland a better place. As I look back, I see that I wasn’t doing anything to “save myself”; rather, all I had done was set myself up to fail. Southland has been a constant in my life for three years. It has been there for my best days, my worst days, the days I didn’t think I’d make it to the end of, the days that felt like I was going to win the Golden Apple Award, the days that my personal life was going to get the best of me and the days that I just needed my kids to remind me of the good in life. But somewhere along the line, I forgot all of that because I felt tired.
I know this is late, in fact, it’s almost a year late, but I’m sorry, Sophomores. I’m sorry I got tired on you, on us and on Southland. But if you want to work with me, I promise you that I’ll keep at it until the end of the year, and you have my word that next year, we’ll make it up to you. Southland is attempting to venture into unchartered waters; there is no other school in the state that is trying to take open enrollment and deliver its kids to college. Southland is trying to break tradition, expectations and stereotypes, proving that anyone and everyone can learn. Southland is hoping to do what everyone else won’t do because it takes a lot of hard work, dedication and commitment. I promise to you that I will give to Southland what it has always given me; it’s always been secure, it’s always been consistent, it’s always been there to make me a part of the family.
“Adversity will cause some men to break, and some men to break records.”
School is really important: Reading, writing, arithmetic. But what they tend to do is teach you reading, writing, arithmetic…then teach you reading, writing, arithmetic again. Then again, then again, just making it harder and harder just to keep you busy. And that’s where I think they messed up. There should be a class on drugs. There should be a class on sex education. No, REAL sex education class, not just pictures and illogical terms…There should be a class on scams, there should be a class on religious cults, there should be a class on police brutality, there should be a class on apartheid, there should be a class on racism in America, there should be a class on why people are hungry, but there not, their class is on…gym….Their class is like Algebra. we have yet to go a store and said, “Can I have X Y + 2 and give me my Y change back, thank you.” You know?…Like foreign languages. I think that they are important, but I don’t think it should be required. Actually, they should be teaching you English, and then teach you how to understand double talk, politician’s double talk. Not teaching you how to understand French and Spanish and GERMAN. When am I going to Germany? I can’t afford to pay my rent in America! How am I going to Germany?
—Tupac, Age 17 On the Topic of Education, 1988.
I feel this.
One highlight of my Winter Break has been watching awful television, as I rarely get to do this during the year. Today I’ve indulged in Wife Swap, which if you’re unfamiliar with it the show transplants two mothers from radically different lifestyles. I’ve seen my share of episodes in the past, most of which end well with each of the families learn something new about being a more cohesive family and nuclear unit. There are your definite nay-sayers who will call this trashy television, and to a degree, it is. But oddly enough, this is one show that actually portrays what diversity and acceptance can do for a person, couple, family, etc.
For example, in today’s episode a woman in a male-dominated home, who was the typical housewife, swapped with a feminist from a self-proclaimed “hippie family”. Both ladies struggled with their temporary families, but in the recap both families had some new found appreciation for their actual families! The hippie-mama and her husband went to seek guidance to lead them to financial stability, and the other mother now is on the receiving end of dinner, as opposed to being the cook and waitress every night.
And it suddenly hit me. In a media world where truly trashy shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and The Amish Mafia are popular and valued for their strangeness, a perfectly underrated show like Wife Swap projects some social commentary and value for us all to grow from. How charming.
It goes without an exaggeration that I’ve been in “survival mode” the last few weeks at work. And when that happens, we should all take a moment to think about why we do what we do, every day.
Hm. All 6 have to do with my students. I guess there’s really just one reason I love my job then.
1. Typically, it’s no longer hot as Hades.
2. Hunting for deals on school supplies at fantastic prices.
3. Unpacking all the things that I shoved away in June to find notes the kids wrote me, memos I thought would be important and a plethora of pencils with good erasers.
4. The Target “back to school” commercials with awesome jingles.
5. Setting up a new lesson plan book, and marking all the important days like conferences, PD days and 3-day weekends.
6. The thought of pumpkin spice lattes just 2 months away…
7. Re-reading articles from my pre-service that remind me of why education must be progressive.
8. My kids are a lot more chatty on Twitter with me.
9. Collecting stickers, trinkets and stamps to throw at aloof high school kids who are too cool for positive reinforcement.
10. Riding the summer wave of quiet into the rumble of a new school year to make for productivity and excitement.