Channeling my rage

It’s not hard to be angry these days. Look around. There’s plenty to be upset about.
Since watching the news unfold on November 8, I’ve kind of been in a haze. I honestly can’t believe Donald Trump is actually the president. There are just so many bad things happening politically I can’t take it all in. And it’s only been one week since the inauguration.

I feel like I literally can’t process reality. I don’t want to watch or read the news, but I can’t stop watching and reading the news. Seems like we are stuck in some sort of Groundhog Day-style tsunami that just keeps hitting us over and over and over again. I need a break.

It’s been difficult for me to express my feelings accurately because I just get so wound up about it. Right now, I’ve probably got about five different blog posts started but not finished. Once I start writing, my head feels like it’s going to start spinning around and fly off. I keep getting stuck. A sort of mental numbness sets in, and I end up staring at the screen blankly for a while before giving up.

Since public education is a very important issue for me, this new reality has me feeling very nervous and angry about the future of public education. Nervous because it seems Trump wants to destroy public education. And angry because he nominated Betsy DeVos to help him do exactly that as the next Secretary of Education. There is probably no one more unqualified to be SOE than she is. And the outcry against her nomination has been strong and loud, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference to my own Senator, Lamar Alexander. He conveniently ignores all the voices around him telling him he’s wrong about DeVos and lets his voicemail fill up so he can’t be reached. It’s incredibly frustrating.

***

One reason I’ve felt so angry is because I feel hopeless, like I can’t do anything about it. But once you figure out who exactly you’re mad at, then you can start getting stuff done. But it’s hard sometimes to figure that out. Who is to blame?

As a (former) teacher, there’s plenty of frustration. One of the schools where I taught had a paper problem. As in, there was not enough printer paper. Sadly, this is a common problem for teachers. Cuz you know, teachers make a lot of copies. A lot. Anyway, my principal had had enough one day when we wouldn’t stop making copies, so he took all the remaining paper into his office. We had to go see him when we wanted paper. And it wasn’t simple, like I need a ream of paperOf course! Here you go! No. It was an interrogation. I need a ream of paper. For what? How many pieces do you need? Why do you need to make copies of this? And then, he’d grab approximately the amount of paper you need. And if you needed 56 pieces of paper but only received 52 pieces? Oh well. This was beyond frustrating. Many teachers added computer paper to their already lengthy school supply shopping list just to avoid having to explain every little thing to the paper nazi principal. I hated going to see him about paper.

But when I think about it now, I wonder if I was mad at the wrong person. He didn’t control how much paper we were alloted from the school district. He was coming up with a solution – albeit a crappy one – for how to deal with the fact that we didn’t have enough money for paper. And who controlled that, exactly? Because that is where our anger should have been directed.

Anger without action is just complaining. And complaining leads nowhere. Action means that you can channel that rage or anger into an actual solution. But it requires a thorough understanding of the problem. It requires objectivity. And when you’re pissed off at something, being objective can be a real challenge.

If you’re mad as a teacher about budget cuts, who is responsible? Why did those decisions get made? What can be done about it? How? Who do you talk to?

Now go bigger. As a parent, I’m upset that there is so much emphasis on test scores. Who do I talk to? What can be done?

Figuring out who to talk to is complicated sometimes. Is this a problem that stems from the classroom level? Talk to the teacher. Is this a school policy? Talk to the principal. But bigger issues aren’t so simple. Is this a district policy? Talk to the district… but who exactly?

Or is this a state law? Talk to the state lawmakers, starting with your local representative. Is this a national law? Talk to your members of Congress, if you can. Find groups that support and fight for the same cause(s) you do, and join them.

The bigger the problem, the harder it can be to reach someone or to find out exactly how to get done what you’d like to get done. But our voices matter.

This is what makes advocacy and activism so challenging. It’s easy to complain about what is wrong. I can do that for hours on end if given the opportunity. But it’s hard to take the next step and ask So what do we do to fix this? And it’s even harder to follow through with that.

***

Since the new year began, I’ve slowly started to feel inspired about taking action. Like maybe there’s some hope to temper my anger and feelings of hopelessness about everything that’s happening.

I read the Indivisible guide. Then I heard about the Women’s March in Washington and wanted to go but couldn’t make the trip to DC. But Nashville was having a Sister March, so I made plans to go. I was already part of several statewide educational advocacy groups, and we started organizing for the upcoming legislative session here in Tennessee.

Slowly but surely, I was working through my anger and starting to take action. It felt good.

My first protest sign

Then, on January 20, after I listened to Trump’s speech and was disgusted, I made my protest sign to take to the Women’s March in Nashville the next day. I’d never participated in an event like this, but I knew I had to be a part of it.

With at least 15,000 other people in Nashville, I marched with friends and allies. For the first time in months, I felt hope. Inspiration. Joy, even. To be honest, I felt proud to be an American as I marched. I looked around and saw people coming together because they love this country and want to see us united around American ideals of equality, justice, and freedom. It was beautiful.

And yet there are those who still don’t understand why millions around the world marched that day. Here’s a beautifully-written explanation (thanks to a Facebook post crediting Rabbi Toba Schaller):

To those who are confused or surprised about why millions of people showed up to protest. . .

Women are marching because our children deserve a secretary of education that cares about education.

Women are marching because our family and friends deserve healthcare. Did you know that before the ACA, newborns in the NICU would hit their lifetime caps on health insurance coverage? That’s right, babies who had never felt the sun on their skin could no longer get health insurance.

Women are marching because domestic violence crisis centers and after school programs deserve funding.

Women are marching because we deserve clean air, clean water, and national parks.

Women are marching because we believe the children protected by the DREAM act deserve to be here and they deserve to live with their parents, not in orphanages and foster homes.

And most of all, women are marching because we have the right to. The right to protest and speak out against our government is the first amendment. That’s right, #1! It is one of our most fundamental American rights.

Saying that we’re whining, throwing temper tantrums, or that we’re immature, or that we need to get over it will not stop us. It will not stop us from fighting for you. And we are fighting for you because you deserve these rights too.

We’re not marching because Trump won.

We’re marching because he wants to take all of the things that we hold dear away. All of the things that we’ve been fighting for for generations.

And we’re not giving up easily.

Anyone who thinks we’re marching because we lost just simply isn’t listening. We’re fighting because we refuse to lose more.

– Rabbi Toba Schaller

Then, yesterday, at Senator Lamar Alexander’s office in Nashville, hundreds of people showed up in the cold to protest the DeVos nomination (see here, here, and here as well). Again, I felt the same hope and inspiration I had at the Women’s March.

Just tonight, my neighbor invited me over so we could write out our postcards to our very own Tennessee Senators. We had no problem expressing our frustration to them.

I’m not alone in my anger and frustration and fear. There are millions of people who feel the same way. And the further we get into a Trump presidency, the more visible the path for resistance becomes.

That anger will get turned into action and will fuel us for the next four years.

Americans are rising up. We are standing up against alternative facts, hatred, intolerance, and injustice. We are determined not to let evil win. We will resist. We will overcome.

Onward.

Of promise and pain

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2016 was rough.

It was a year of paradoxes. I felt great promise but also great pain. There was hope but also deep despair. There was goodness but also tremendous sadness and even evil.

Maybe most years are like that, but this year felt different in many ways, both personally and in general. I found myself feeling a lot like this picture of Sadness, from the movie Inside Out.

Personally, the year started off with great promise, as every year does. But then my last remaining aunt died in January. While this was to be expected, it doesn’t make things any better. I should be grateful I had this long with each of my family members who aren’t living anymore, especially since I was born when my parents were 44 (Mom) and 46 (Dad). I was a great surprise to my parents, a “I-didn’t-realize-you-could-still-get-pregnant!” baby. And my parents were both the youngest in their families, so everyone was always a lot older than I was. So I am grateful for the years I got to spend with my aging relatives, but I still miss them. I’m glad my mom is still around, and I hope she is for many years to come.

In the bigger picture, there was a lot of loss this year. I’m certain the number of celebrities who died this year was about average, but there was nothing average about who we lost. We lost legends, people who inspired us, and it was painful in a way I hadn’t experienced before. David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Princess Leia, Alan Rickman, and on and on and on. Even though I didn’t know any of them personally, they all touched me in some way.

But in spite of these losses, several of my good friends had babies this year. They experienced great joy and excitement (and sleep deprivation!). There is such promise with each new life brought into the world. So for them, maybe 2016 wasn’t so rough. In fact, when I look at my own pictures from 2016, I had a lot of really great memories that were made, too.

***

There was the hope of Bernie Sanders for the presidency, and I felt that hope and optimism for a large part of the year, until the Democratic National Convention. Then, not so much.

There was the painful election of Donald Trump as our next president. I still don’t have words to adequately describe the mix of agony/anxiety/anger/frustration/disgust I have over the election results. I still have trouble accepting the reality of his ascension to the presidency. As I watch or listen or read the news now, it is with despair, dread, and with a strange sort of detachment, wishing it were fiction. His presidency will never feel normal.

There are so many things that trouble me about his transition to the biggest, most important job on the planet, but one that really hits home is his choice for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Sometimes in the fight for public education, it seems we are making progress, that things are going to be better for public education. But other times, like now, it seems hopeless. Like we are being trampled over every time we get up. I can’t shake the feeling that things are definitely going to get worse. Much worse.

With a few weeks before Trump’s inauguration, there are already several helpful and important pieces of advice out there for fighting back. Bernie Sanders has a plan for the future of the Democratic Party. Former congressional staffers wrote an entire guide about it. A Yale history professor wrote a 20-point guide. Robert Reich has a 100-day plan for resistance. And the Badass Teachers Association (BATs) have a similar, education-focused plan.

Update: Here’s a good article about cultivating hope when it’s hard to have hope. 

So maybe after despair, there’s some hope after all.

***

There was, for me personally, the end of a career. I took a fair amount of time grieving the loss of my career as a teacher. I felt a hole in my heart when the new school year began, but I knew it was over.

But in spite of that personal loss, I started my new career with joy and a sense of new purpose. There is also that tinge of sadness about what could have been had I remained a teacher. But I am getting more and more excited about what’s in store for me in my new venture.

There was also the great joy of watching my 8-year-old daughter grow this year, both physically and mentally. She is a wonder, and I imagine all parents share that sentiment when we watch our offspring developing into more mature and capable mini humans. Watching the way her mind works brings me to tears at times.

But thinking about the kind of world we live in outside her little bubble makes me cry. What kind of a world are we leaving for our children? One filled with agony? Or hope?

***

I find that I have been in desperate need of good experiences to take my mind off reality. Recently, we went to see the movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It did not disappoint. I’ll admit that I am easily pleased, and it is sometimes hard for me to offer criticism. I hate being asked the question What do you like better, A or B? My answer is usually both! Why do I have to choose? My husband sometimes calls me the Paula Abdul of critics, referring to her time on American Idol where she didn’t offer much in the way of criticism, but did have a lot of praise. Like her, I have a tough time finding fault with things that are produced with love. And so, as I watched Rogue One, I confess that I ate it up completely. I smiled and felt pure unadulterated joy during the whole movie, and at times wanted to cry happy tears because it felt so good to watch it. I loved it so much.

rogue-one

One thing I loved most about the movie was the drive of the characters. They have to complete their mission. The fate of the entire Rebellion depends on it. They cannot be stopped. They have hope. And they carry it through, victorious until the bittersweet end. The line that struck me most from the film was “Rebellions are built on hope.”

I felt inspired, even if only for a couple hours.

And then a few days later the news came that Princess Leia died. And then her mom, in a beautifully sad gesture of wanting to be with her daughter.

There’s a scene in the movie Inside Out that makes me cry every time I watch it. For an animated movie, it sure does an excellent job of portraying how humans deal with complex emotions. The scene that gets me is when Sadness explains how you can’t have Joy without Sadness, that the two are intertwined. The same can be said for hope and despair, I think. You can’t know what it is to have hope unless you have truly felt despair. And if you don’t give up, as many people do, then you feel hope that things will get better.

There is a lot of uncertainty in the air, both right now and to come. I am trying to be positive, to have the same feeling of promise each time a new year begins. But this is different. It’s harder to be optimistic about 2017 than with any previous years I have lived. If I’m being completely honest, I’m scared.

But I’m not giving up.

The charter moratorium that wasn’t

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Recently, at the December 13, 2016, board meeting of Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), there was a pretty big deal on the agenda: a moratorium on new charter schools.

Because I believe that we don’t need any more charter schools in Nashville, I signed up to speak at the meeting during the time for public comment. Here is the speech I gave at that board meeting:

Good evening,

My name is Mary Holden, and I am a parent of a student in MNPS and a former teacher.

I’m here tonight to speak in support of our neighborhood schools, our zoned schools.

Dr. Joseph, when you came to Metro, I welcomed you at your first board meeting and asked you to be a champion for our children, for our schools. The question remains whether you are going to be that champion – a humble servant who is here to serve the needs of all our children, teachers, and community while fighting for equity in our public schools – or not. I hope you choose the former, because magic happens in our public schools every day. Despite bad leadership in some cases, lack of resources and support, or the crushing emphasis on data and test scores. Excellence happens in spite of these things thanks to our awesome teachers and staff members and supportive parents.

Our public schools serve all our children, and they need our utmost support. The existing charters in Nashville have plenty of outside financial support on their own. They don’t need our help. And no one is asking them to close up shop. They’re here. We just don’t need any more charters. Instead, we need to focus our precious resources on the close-to-90% of students who attend our zoned public schools.

We have the facts, the data, the research that tell us more charters, and even the ones that have already been approved but aren’t yet open, will drain our budget and pull money away from our neediest students. So it is very clear we do not need any more charters.

Please follow the lead of the NAACP. They have recently called for a national moratorium on charter schools. They see the break down of communities, the removal of resources, and the closings of public schools caused by charter expansion, and they want to put a stop to the harm it’s causing.

The answer to increase equity in our schools is not more charters; it is to fully support and fund our public schools! We need to see the level of support and resources that my daughter’s school has at every school.

Dr. Joseph, while there are many things that concern me about some of your decisions and the people you brought here who you insist are the most qualified even though they are very clearly not the most qualified, I do want to support you. But it’s hard when there are so many red flags. What concerns me most is your perception of our district. You have spoken about how this district is broken, diseased, and how painful changes are coming in January whether or not we are ready for it. But this implies that you think we don’t know anything about how to educate kids, and that is simply not true. There are some very real needs in our district – the need to provide and retain qualified teachers for every student, the need to provide support personnel at our neediest schools, the need for resources and proper facilities, for example – but we are not failing. Our district is not diseased, as you put it.

And it’s not about test scores. So testing our students repeatedly and adding more tests, and this increased emphasis on data collection for the sake of data collection is not the way to go.

Our schools are not failing. Our students are not failures. They need our support. Their neighborhood schools need our support. And our teachers need our support. We have enough charters. I hope you all make the right decision. Our kids depend on it.

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As it turns out, when this item came up for discussion toward the end of the meeting, the board member who put the moratorium on the agenda, Will Pinkston, was also the one who decided to remove it indefinitely. As Pinkston said,

“We’ve heard that this resolution would somehow surrender power to the (Tennessee) State Board of Education, which is untrue,” he said. “For those outside of the board who don’t understand how laws and policies are made, this is what’s known as a memorializing resolution – simply expressing the mood of the body. The actual moratorium will play out over a series of votes next year when we’ll reject charter applications, one by one.”

Well, I look forward to seeing our school board hold to that and reject charter applications as they come to the board.

Amy Frogge, a well-respected board member and public school advocate, had this to say about the moratorium and the Nashville Chamber of Commerce’s role in trying to bring it down. It seems many wealthy (and white) business people in this city are hell-bent on privatizing our schools. 

There’s a frustrating perception the general public in Nashville seem to have, that our public schools are terrible. However, as my daughter’s teacher reminded me recently, your perception is your reality. When I talk to parents who actually have their children in our public schools, they are generally happy. They like their kid’s teacher, they like the school, they think their kid is learning. It’s just that they aren’t screaming it from the rooftops.

And I don’t believe parents actually want choice. Blogger Peter Greene put it brilliantly: “Nobody really wants choice. What people want is to have what they want. What they want from education is for their children to be in good schools.”

We’ve got real work to do with our schools here. It starts with fully funding our schools. That’s a state issue. But at the district level, there are many improvements and resources that are needed.

But underlying all this is something we can all do: We need to cherish our public schools and tend to them, now more than ever. We need to be champions for our children and our public schools. We need to fight for them. Our children aren’t failures.

ed-democ-2

The United States of Dystopia

I used to be more of an optimist. Sadly, that sunny outlook on life I used to have has faded quite a bit in recent years. This year, this election, has been rough, and that’s putting it lightly. To be honest, I feel numb, like I’ve been living in some sort of alternate universe for the past couple weeks, where nothing is really what it seems. It’s bizarro world, and I don’t know how to function normally in it.

A few times over the past year, my 8-year-old daughter would hear something about Donald Trump at school (I heard he’s a bully. I heard he’s going to build a wall around the country so that we can’t get back in. I heard he hates everyone. Will he be the president?). I would listen to her and then quickly reassure her that everything would be okay. There was no way he was going to be the president.

So on November 9, I found this article to be especially helpful. I told my daughter that yes, the bully won, but it was going to be all right. He’s not the only one making decisions in the country. We will be okay.

I told her that, but truthfully, I’m not sure I believe it myself. I don’t really know what to think about the fact that Donald J. Trump is going to be the 45th president. I feel mostly depressed and worried. Like I can’t wake up or focus or scream loudly. I look at my African-American husband and my biracial daughter, I think about my husband’s family, my Muslim friends, my former (possibly-undocumented) immigrant students, my LGBT friends — and I just feel nervous about what is to come for our country over the next several years.

****

When Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for president last year, I was overjoyed. I cried because I felt a real sense of hope for the future. I felt that hope for months – every time I saw him speak, the crowds at his rallies, the artwork he inspired, the response of young people to what he was saying, the ideas he had for the future – and it was inspiring.

I still tear up when I see him speak and think about what could have been.

Trump ran on a platform of hate and a message of “Trust me, I’ll fix it.” But there is no trust there. He has no real plans. And the things he promised his supporters during the election have already changed. His transition is an unfolding disaster.

One thing that scares me now, after the election, is the way things are being spun. As if it’s a normal thing to have Trump as our president. As if it’s a normal thing to have a racist advise the president on important matters. As if it’s a normal thing to have the president’s children so involved in the White House while also running the family business. The truth is nothing about this situation is normal.

Case in point: Yesterday, I received the following in an email from my mom (My mother?! I mean, she’s 86 and frequently forwards me emails, but they are usually jokes or sentimental stories. Every once in a while, she forwards me something political, even though I have begged her to stop. We do not agree on politics, but since I want to keep loving my mom, we don’t usually talk about politics.). Here’s what the email said:

Our Muslim Govt …A MUST READ
I know that some of you aren’t enthused about Donald Trump but this does explain some things.
This is absolutely unthinkable that nobody- especially the CIA would have noticed this….
Trump is starting to look better all the time.
This information has all been checked, then double checked… It is 100% Correct.
That’s why there is such an alarm within US government, since Trump’s statement about temporary suspension of migration of Muslims to US until US authorities make sure there is a proper concept of safe penetration of US territory.
People are stunned to learn that the head of the U.S. CIA is a Muslim! Do hope this wakes up some!
Until it hits you like a ton of bricks read it again, until you understand!
We now have a Muslim government in the US!
John Brennan, current head of the CIA converted to Islam while stationed in Saudi Arabia.

Obama’s top adviser, Valerie Jarrett, is a Muslim who was born in Iran where her parents still live.

Hillary Clinton’s top adviser, Huma Abedin is a Muslim, whose mother and brother are still involved in the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt

Assistant Secretary for Policy Development for Homeland Security, Arif Aikhan, is a Muslim.
Homeland Security Adviser, Mohammed Elibiary, is a Muslim.
Obama adviser and founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Salam al-Marayati, is a Muslim.

Obama’s Sharia Czar, Imam Mohamed Magid, of the Islamic Society of North America is a Muslim.

Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships, Eboo Patel, is a Muslim.

Nancy Pelosi announced she will appoint Rep Andre Carson, D-Ind, a Muslim, as the first Muslim lawmaker on the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, of all things! It would make Carson the first Muslim to serve on the “Committee that receives intelligence on the threat of Islamic militants in the Middle East !” He has suggested that U.S. Schools should be modeled after Islamic madrassas, where education is based on the Quran!!!

Last but not least, our closet Muslim himself, Barack Hussein Obama.
It’s questionable if Obama ever officially took the oath of office when he was sworn in. He did not repeat the oath properly to defend our nation and our Constitution. Later the Democrats claimed he was given the oath again, in private. Yeah, right.
CIA director John Brennan took his oath on a copy of the Constitution, not a Bible??
Valarie Jarret wrote her college thesis on how she wanted to change America into a Muslim friendlynation and she is an Obama top advisor!
Congressman Keith Ellison took his oath on a copy of the Qur’an, NOT the Bible!
Conservative Congresswoman Michele Bachman, R-MN, was vilified and verbally tarred and feathered by Democrats when she voiced her concern about
Muslims taking over our government!
Considering all these appointments, it would explain why Obama and his minions are systematically destroying our nation, supporting radical Muslim groups worldwide, opening our southern border, and turning a blind eye to the genocide being perpetrated on Christians all over Africa and the Middle East!
The more damage Obama does, the more arrogant he’s become!
Our nation and our government has been infiltrated by people who want to destroy us! It can only get worse!
In his book Obama said, “if it comes down to it, I will side with the Muslims.”
If you fail to pass this one on, there’s something wrong… somewhere!
Common sense doesn’t grow in everyone’s garden!

I had several reactions to this email:

1) What the f—?? Seriously? Is this for real? Do people actually believe this?

2) Ummmmmmm…. Mom? Is this really how you feel? Because I am not sure what to say to you if it is.

3) As a former English teacher, I wonder who wrote this originally. Because it is really, really bad. The author(s) doesn’t seem to know what a fact is, how to look up information on the internet, how to cite sources, and how to write proper sentences. (And that is 100% Correct!)

4) Is this what the next four years will be like?

****

 

When I taught high school English, we studied dystopian fiction and read the novel 1984. In recent years, students noticed an eerie similarity between many of the things mentioned in Orwell’s novel and our reality. And now? I shudder to think about the similarities between the fictional Oceania and our current situation.

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I am actually glad I am not teaching right now. It would be extremely difficult for me to be objective about politics while teaching even though it wasn’t in the past. It would be hard for me to separate how I feel about Trump being president from the simple facts of the matter. So I am thankful for teachers who are hanging in there and seeing it through. Because I don’t think I could handle it.

1/25/17 UPDATE: We are less than a week into Trump’s presidency, and it’s already chaos, “alternative facts” and all. And what do you know, 1984 is back on the best-seller list. 

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One of the scariest aspects of a Trump presidency – and there are many – has to do with what will happen with public education. Will he destroy public education? With his choice for Secretary of Education, it seems clear he has no respect for teachers or the concept of public education for the common good.

Public education activists and supporters have been fighting for our public schools for a while now, against the corporate reformers and privatization, and I wish there were a point where we could feel victorious. Like the tide was actually turning. But no. It’s not. We must continue to fight.

I hope I have the strength.

When I look at my daughter, who loves 3rd grade, multiplication, geometry, writing in cursive, reading the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, Pokemon, Minecraft, drawing, learning about other countries, singing, doing cartwheels, and her teachers – oh, how she loves her teachers! – I realize I must find the strength. Our public schools need our support now more than ever.

****

A few days after the election, Diane Ravitch wrote her thoughts about the outcome. The following really resonated with me:

“I will watch and wait to see if President-elect Trump moderates his views and policies. I will hope for the best. I want America to be a land of hope and dreams, of idealism and mutual respect, of e pluribus unum, not just unum. We are a quilt of many colors and it is a beautiful quilt. We all belong here. I will wait to see if President-elect Trump is willing to speak to and for all of us and not just for his rabid movement.

“I want America to be America. I want it to be a land of liberty and justice for all. I want my grandchildren to learn what I tried to teach my children: kindness, compassion, a commitment to fairness, a love of justice, and a willingness to defend the underdog. I want them to aspire to be good people. I want them to treat others with respect for their individuality and humanity.”

In works of dystopian fiction, there are frequently moments when it seems like everything might turn out okay. Like it’s possible for things to turn around, just for a few pages or lines. And then, it’s back to the dystopian reality. Because there is no actual hope that everything will be okay. That’s not the purpose of dystopian fiction. It’s not a fairy tale or a romantic comedy. No, as you read, you know everything will turn out very, very badly. The lovers will not end up together. There will be no light at the end of the tunnel. Superman will not show up to save the day. There is no happily ever after.

So maybe the fact that we are living in reality and not a fictional universe is actually a glimmer of hope. We aren’t doomed — or maybe we are — but nothing is written in stone. We can fight. We can unite. We can make the world a better place.

I will try to remember that in the days and weeks and years ahead.

 

What I miss

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A few months have passed since May, when I was last a teacher. I ended my 15th year as a high school English teacher by starting this blog on the last day of school. Then I spent the summer in varying stages of grief before finally feeling free of it, for the most part. People – my mom, in particular – kept asking me what I was going to do next. But all through June and July I didn’t know.

I actually had no idea whatsoever what I was going to do next.

I wanted it that way on purpose. I thought that if I completely emptied my mind, that eventually some way forward would emerge. So I purposefully spent those summer months allowing myself to feel whatever. I reflected a lot. I focused on my family and friends and fun times. Sometimes I had to force my mind to be blank.

At times, I was angry about what was happening in public education. Like how teachers are leaving the profession in droves. And how maybe the resulting teacher shortage was a concerted effort on behalf of the reformers so that we would come to rely on inexperienced teacher drones who have been “trained” by TFA or fake teacher schools (I’m looking at you, Relay!). Or how what may be coming next is the bold (read: scary and ridiculous) plan to incorporate “adaptive” technology into the classroom so as to diminish the role of the teacher, otherwise known as Personalized Learning or CBE (you can read all about it on this blog). And don’t even get me started on standardized testing and the folly of the accountability movement (see herehere, and here for some insight). Then there’s the group of billionaires who seem hell-bent on destroying our system of public education (see here and here for some background). And when you see how schools are underfunded and inequitable and how teachers are underpaid and not respected, it’s beyond frustrating. Or locally, here in Nashville, there’s an awful lot going on (hmm, grrr, argh) that makes me angry… Wait, my blood pressure is rising… Frankly, there are a LOT of things to be angry about in education. Take a deep breath. I’ll write about those things at length in other posts. But for now, relax. Count from 1 to 10 slowly…

At times, I was worried about what all that meant for my 8-year-old 3rd grader.

At times, I was anxious: Did I do the right thing by quitting? What will I do know? What will I do to fight for public education? Will it be enough? 

And at times, I felt like a failure of sorts, as in I spent a lot of time and money in school training to be a teacher and now I’m just walking away?! But that decision clearly was not that simple (see here, here, here, and here).

Mostly though, I tried to enjoy this period of “empty space” in my life, this time of transition, and tried to make peace with it.

Sometime in August, a light bulb went on for me. I had established some loose criteria about what I wanted to do next in life: 1) I like to help people, 2) I like working with people, 3) I want to do work that is meaningful and/or brings joy to others in some way, 4) I need something with flexibility in scheduling and work hours, and 5) After years of making my own decisions as a teacher, I want a career where I am in charge. #controlfreak

And since my mind was really open to all possibilities at this point after several months of wandering and grieving, when I saw a friend on Facebook post about getting a massage at the Mind Body Institute, a massage therapy school here in Nashville, I suddenly had an idea. I started researching the field of massage therapy and talking to people I knew who were massage therapists, and I realized that this career met all of the criteria that I had for what I wanted. I was sold.

I made an appointment at the school to talk with the owner, and I immediately felt at home. I had that intuitive feeling that this was right. I applied, got accepted, and started school in early September.

So now, I am a student. The tables have turned. It’s kind of funny – this program is a 9-month program that goes from September to May, pretty much the same time frame I was used to as a teacher. So that was an easy adjustment. Only now I’m the one taking notes, studying for tests, completing homework, and anxiously awaiting my scores on class exams.

Those first couple weeks of being a student were full of revelations and little in-jokes for me. Like laughing on the inside the first time I had to show my teacher my completed homework and thinking so this is what it feels like to wait for the teacher to come to you to check your work! Hope I did it right. Or when I was preparing to take my first exam – on all the bones in the body – and I made note cards and studied and felt confident, and then when I got the test and freaked out for a second – this isn’t what I studied! Oh no! – before realizing it was all going to be okay. Hey, I got a 91 on that test, and I was pretty happy about that. Or when my teacher is teaching, and I am making mental notes and critiques about how the subject is being taught. Or when some of my fellow students and I stay after class to study together, and I find myself talking in my “teacher voice” as I review concepts.

It’s definitely been interesting. I guess on some level, I will always be a teacher.

I have to say, I’m loving being a student. Even as a teacher, I always felt I was learning new things, like having new revelations about literature I hadn’t had before or seeing things through the eyes of my students, so that part isn’t new. But having the space to only be a student, where I can really focus on what I’m learning, is a luxury. And what I am learning is all completely new to me – anatomy, Swedish massage techniques, therapeutic massage techniques, business principles, Eastern theory, ethics related to the massage industry, etc. – but it has been fun and challenging. (This weekend I’ve got to study 19 muscles of the body, where they are located, proximal and distal attachment points, how to palpate those muscles, and their movements within the body. It’s hard! There’s a test Monday.)

[Update: I got an “A” on my test! I’ve got great teachers!]

My experience thus far has also made me reflect on what I miss about being a teacher.

In August, when the new school year began, I felt sentimental. On Facebook, I saw teacher friends preparing for the first day, and I felt a range of emotions – mostly nostalgia with a tinge of sadness – about not having my own classroom to prepare and new students to meet.

I found myself reflecting a lot on my years in the classroom. Was I a good teacher? Do my students remember me fondly? Or at all? Did I make a difference? Could they see that I cared about them and their education, their future, their possibilities? I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I realized what I was going to miss the most about being a teacher.

I will miss my interactions with students.

That is what I loved most about my own experience as a student back in the day (I shudder to think about how long ago that now seems). I loved coming to school each day and learning new things from my teachers. Sure, at times I was driven to find out more on my own about things I was interested in, but for the most part, I loved learning from my teachers. I loved that Mrs. Luckey made donuts with us in kindergarten, that Mrs. Moore encouraged me to put on these silly one act plays for my class, that Mrs. Fox gave us weekly spelling tests (and oh how I loved when I got a positive written comment from her on my test!) and cool options for our book reports (I remember making a very detailed movie poster with a plot synopsis about an Agatha Christie book I had read during my Agatha Christie phase in 7th grade)(I still have that poster), and that Mr. Moseley told us all about his travels and how they related to our study of US History. I could go on and on with examples. These experiences have stayed with me and ultimately inspired me to become a teacher because they touch upon the most important thing in life – relationships.

So now, I miss that I have no students, no classroom, no knowledge to share, no a-ha moments to be experienced as a classroom teacher. I feel a great sense of loss about that.

Even though I am really excited about my new career choice and feel good about my decisions that got me to this point, I can’t help but look back at my teaching career. That feeling of mattering to someone, of being a part of someone’s life (even if it’s only for 9 months), of caring about them and their well-being and all of the possibilities that exist for their future, of feeling proud of them and their big and small accomplishments – that teacher-student dynamic – that is the essence of teaching. The heart and soul of being a teacher. It can’t be taught in teacher preparation programs, and yet it is the single most important thing about teaching. And I miss it.

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And so it begins…


I had planned to start this blog in April of 2015. Having recently attended the 2nd annual Network for Public Education (NPE) conference in Chicago, I was really motivated to start writing. But… you know… the daily things that occur regularly in life just kept happening, darn it! and I never found time to actually do it. I may have also been a bit nervous about actually hitting the Publish button. Now that I’ve quit teaching – you can read all about it here, here, here, and here! – I have some time to think.

So now, I present my original first blog post. At the time, my 14th year in the classroom as a high school English teacher was winding down. Here it is:

APRIL 27, 2015

I have been tossing around the idea of blogging for quite some time now. There are several reasons why I haven’t started this blog earlier. One reason is time. Or lack of time, to be exact. But when I say that out loud, it really just sounds like a lame excuse. Another reason is anxiety. I’m a little nervous about putting my thoughts onto paper (or screen) for all the world to see. Even if only three people end up reading this, it’s still anxiety-inducing. The fear of being judged isn’t so easy to shake off, it turns out. But I’m over 40 now, so I’m trying not to give a damn. The final reason I haven’t blogged until now is that up until this weekend, I didn’t really think I had anything original to say.

I mean, I’m just a teacher. I’m just one of thousands of teachers who do their best and work hard to reach their students. But I’m fed up and tired of wanting to bang my head against the wall every time I read another article about the current state of public education.

A few years ago, I started getting upset about what was happening in education. I started teaching in 1998, so I’ve see the pendulum swing from no standards to state standards to Common Core standards and the testing frenzy we have now. And around 2008, I was starting to get frustrated. Maybe it began before that, but by 2011 I was downright angry. And that’s when I started researching educational issues online and realized there were many others who were feeling the exact same way.

Only I didn’t personally know many of those teachers. I seemed to be the only one I knew who was angry and aware of what was happening in education on a national level. I found like-minded people online, in the Badass Teachers Association (BATs) on Facebook and in the comments section of Diane Ravitch’s blog. But where I worked, I wasn’t encountering many who felt the same way I did at that time.

Even now, there are still so many teachers around me who have no idea of the struggle we are engaged in for the future of public education. They are content to close their classroom doors and shut it all out. Maybe they know but don’t want to face it. Maybe they are quietly seeking a way out of the profession so they won’t have to get involved or be here when it really gets bad. Or maybe they know but don’t know what to do. Many don’t speak out because of fear, and still others just have no idea what is happening outside of their own school or district. But I believe a lot of it is just purposeful ignorance – that they don’t want to know. But once you know, it’s hard to ignore. It’s hard not to be angry and frustrated. Not knowing could be their way of coping. I get it.

I think it is because of all this that I realized I do have something to say. I want to add my voice to the national conversation and help people understand the struggles we are facing in public education.

I’ve been in way too many conversations lately where we are discussing issues in public education, but the person I’m talking to doesn’t have a basic understanding of the problem. Like all they know about this issue might be their two-fold opinion that A) their child’s school is pretty good, but 2) we’re in big trouble everywhere else according to the news (or some other faulty assumption).

In other words, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is “I read Diane Ravitch’s blog daily and frequently find myself wanting to bang my head against the wall in frustration about what is happening with the massive and concerted effort to privatize public education” and a 1 is “Who is Diane Ravitch?,” the majority of people I come across are in the 1-2 range. On this scale of mine, I’m a 10. But there aren’t many other 10’s around me.

Let me be clear – this is not a criticism. It just seems to be what I have encountered. I’m not looking down on anyone. After all, unless you are a teacher or a parent with kids in public schools at the moment, public education may not be in your top ten list of big issues right now. I completely understand that.

So once I realize I’m talking with someone who is a 1 on my made-up scale, I don’t know where to begin. Is it, “So, let’s begin by going back to 1983 when A Nation At Risk was published…” or “Well, basically everything you think you know about public education today is wrong“? I mean, there’s just a cavernous amount of background information and topics to choose from when I’m in these conversations. Most of the time, I try to relax, take a deep breath, and try to quiet the voices in my head (How can you not know what is really going on?! Don’t you see what’s happening?). Then I’ll do one of two things: change the topic to something simple (“Hasn’t it been raining a lot lately?”) to avoid even having to continue the conversation because I don’t want to overwhelm the person (or have them think I’m some kind of crazy conspiracy theorist), or take a chance and continue the conversation.

I might try to ask a probing question to see what part of the iceberg we can start chipping away at first. Charters and school choice? TFA? High stakes testing and the opt-out movement? The role of the Gates Foundation or ALEC or other education reformers in public education? The effort to privatize public education? Teacher’s unions? And then, maybe, I’ll begin educating. I say maybe because I am frequently hesitant to begin a deeper conversation.

Once this happens, the person I’m talking to usually looks at me in a bewildered way, like Really? I had no idea! And if they are interested, I’ll keep going. At some point, I suggest they get Diane Ravitch’s book Reign of Error or her recently updated The Death and Life of the Great American School System. And sometimes, I see the fire being lit in their eyes that shows me they want to know more. This doesn’t happen often (though it’s been happening more and more lately), but when it happens, it’s awesome. That’s what knowledge does – it lights a fire that will keep burning so long as you keep feeding it. And I’ve got plenty of firewood to add to that fire.

So that’s why I’m starting this blog.

I’ve never written publicly before. Actually, I can’t say I’ve ever really written like this privately either. I’m not usually a journal-keeping kind of person. So I know I will struggle to find my voice. But I hope to hone it over time. I teach English, so when I write I have a tendency to have my English-teacher-voice speaking in my head, making me a little more cautious than I hope to end up being.

I’m hoping this blog will be a collection of my thoughts about public education. It will include my own thoughts and insights, reflections on my experience as a teacher, and a collection of what other great writers have to say about issues in public education. Over time, I may develop a more singular focus, but for now it seems like this will be a hodgepodge of things related to public education in some way.

I am a little scared of putting myself “out there.” Of inserting myself into the conversation. Of being exposed on the interwebs. So this blog is also a leap of faith in the hopes that I’ll gain more confidence in my own voice. But I’m at the point now where I’m going to explode if I don’t get in the game.

And so it begins…

Teaching, a love story: PART 4 (the final chapter)

With this post, I wrap up my reflections on my 18 years in public education. To recap, Part 1 is where I discussed why I became a teacher and those early years of my career. Part 2 is where I delved into my experiences from 2000-2008. It gives some insight into how we got where we are today in public education. Part 3 focuses on 2008-2013, which covers my time off from teaching and the first two years back in the classroom after becoming a mom.

And now we begin the final chapter.

INTO THE FIRE

We moved to Nashville, Tennessee in June 2013.

I knew what I was getting into. This was the birthplace of VAM. The use of value-added measures (VAM), is called TVAAS here. This magical mystery formula has some roots in Tennessee, created originally for agricultural purposes (no joke!). The bottom line was that 50% of my evaluation AND up to 25% of my students’ grades in my class were going to be based on standardized test scores, and that included both achievement and growth scores. If I thought the emphasis on data in California was bad, Tennessee was much, much worse. It’s liked they worshipped data. After all, Tennessee was one of the first states to win money from Race to the Top. Nashville was, in many ways, the epicenter of education reform. Kevin Huffman, Michelle Rhee’s ex-husband, was the Commissioner of Education. They had Chris Barbic and the ASD for the bottom 5% of schools. TFA has a strong presence here. There are charter schools galore, and the really ugly fights that went with them. School board races where spending huge amounts of money had begun to be the norm. This is one of the states with the lowest amount of money being spent on education. Teacher pay ranks 16th from the bottom of all states, well below the national average. There are some crazy legislators who don’t know a darn thing about education making laws about education.

Seriously, what was I thinking?

I got a job as an instructional coach in Metro Nashville Public Schools, and I stayed there for a year. I was frustrated because there wasn’t freedom to speak up, ask questions, and stand up for what is right. There was a real culture of fear present, and it was hard for me to work under those conditions. So I quit and applied for a job as a high school English teacher with Williamson County Schools. I was hired the same day I had an interview, and I taught there for two years.

I knew being a teacher here would be rough. But we moved here anyway. And we love it here. It’s a great place to raise a family. We love the schools in Nashville. Great things are happening here in spite of all the BS. However, as a teacher, I tried to do my best while biting my tongue. But ultimately, I couldn’t do it.

I saw my colleagues, unlike me, seemingly more able to not worry about these issues so much. Maybe they were used to it? Or maybe they felt like I did but didn’t dare speak up. But I hated it. I hated that 50% of my evaluation was based on my students’ test scores. I hated that we talked about the damn tests almost more than anything else. This was definitely not the reason I became a teacher. I didn’t want to be a part of that culture. It really weighed on me.

One reason teachers don’t speak up much is because Tennessee is a right-to-work state. Several years ago, the state legislature gutted the provisions of the collective bargaining process. Essentially they wiped out any power the teacher’s union had to bargain on behalf of teachers. In a right-to-work state, you can be fired anytime for any reason. There is no due process. What that translates to is a high amount of fear – fear of losing your job, fear of being looked at as an instigator, a troublemaker, someone who sticks out. When I so much as asked a question, I was looked at as someone who was aggressive, trying to stir the pot; this was a characterization I did not like. Coming from California, where the culture is decidedly different, and asking questions and speaking up is something that is respected or at least considered the norm, I felt very out of place. I also felt stifled.

ABOUT THAT SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY…

All that aside, we loved it here. That whole Southern hospitality thing you hear about? It’s real. People are friendly, for the most part. They start up conversations when you’re in line. They smile and say hi. They let you in when you’re in traffic and trying to change lanes. They stop to help. It’s noticeable. And no, not everyone does those things, but it was very obvious to me as an outsider that things were friendlier, slower, kinder in Nashville, and I really liked that a lot.

Over the past three years, we’ve decided that this is home. We’ve met wonderful people, established connections, laid down roots. It’s not hard to do here, to feel connected to this place. I was born and raised in California, but I hardly ever thought about state government and policies that affected me every day. Here, though, within months, I became acquainted with members of the State Legislature and the school board and learned a lot about local and state government, especially with regard to public education. I feel that legislators, school board members, and other elected officials – and the process of democracy itself – are more accessible here in Tennessee. Perhaps because it is a smaller state than California, but also because of that Southern hospitality.

A TRIP TO FANTASYLAND

Teaching in Williamson County was like being in some kind of fantasy land in some ways. I grew up somewhat poor in south San Diego. We lived in a trailer park. My mom worked two jobs to make ends meet. I never felt poor, but looking back, I knew we struggled. Then I went to work in that same school district in two of the neediest schools. Well over 70% of the student population there was non-white. We had a very high percentage of students on free and reduced lunch as well as a large number of English learner (EL) students. So there was a lot of need. I frequently provided supplies to students and extra support as needed.

But things were very different in WC. First of all, there is a serious lack of diversity. I worked at the most diverse high school, and that meant that only approximately 20-25% of the student population was non-white. Secondly, the students are mostly middle to upper class. I noticed very quickly that my students did not have a lot of the needs I was used to seeing. Did anyone need paper? Pencils? A binder? Not really. When I assigned a book to be read, many students bought their own copy. Every student had a phone. Most students had a car.

Not every student was privileged, of course. And they are teenagers, so no matter what their socio-economic background or ethnic makeup, they all have those typical teen issues – emotional roller coasters, does he like me?, no one likes me, I’m an outcast, etc. In fact, I saw more and more anxiety in my students – no matter the school, district, or state – as the years went on, and I bet it had to do with access to technology and social media. But that’s a subject for another post.

On the whole, I was dealing with less stress and fewer in-class problems in WC. However, there was a lot of pressure to keep test scores up. WC was known for having “good schools” (meaning high test scores) and that was a HUGE selling point for realtors. The overall attitude was that WC had GREAT schools and everywhere else, not so much. But teachers weren’t doing anything special in WC that wasn’t happening anywhere else. It’s just that these kids didn’t want for much. They had resources. They were generally well-fed, supported, and prepared. They had engaged parents who demanded A LOT from them. Williamson County is the wealthiest county in the state AND has the highest test scores. There’s definitely a correlation there.

I was frustrated by the emphasis on test scores. I initially thought that because WC had high test scores, there wouldn’t be as much focus on them. But that just wasn’t the case.

One time, at an English department meeting, a colleague was talking about the upcoming state tests and how we were under pressure to be practicing for the test. So as a result, she said there just wasn’t time to teach any poetry. She said we needed to skip it and teach what was on the test, and since it wasn’t on the test at the time, buh-bye poetry. I was aghast. And there was no way I was skipping poetry and “teaching to the test.” I was uncomfortable by all this emphasis on the test. But because the stakes were so high, that’s the way it was.

And what about the tests themselves? They were a mess. First there was TCAP. Then there was supposed to be PARCC. But TN pulled out of PARCC, so we had TCAP for one more year. Then there were huge debacles over test delays, quick scores, cut scores, and who was going to be grading the tests, which gave the impression that these tests didn’t really mean anything other than what the State wanted them to mean. They were worthless.

And then came TN Ready this year. So much has been written about TN Ready and the absurdity of it all this year, but the bottom line is this: it was a fiasco. Everyone knew it. Teachers, parents, and especially the students. The test was worthless and a complete waste of time and money. And for what? Added stress? Lost time in the school year? Money spent on technology that could have been better spent? Arghhhh…… I was done.

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THE BREAKUP

I think I knew I was done around December 2015 during winter break. I felt it. I knew this was going to be my last year as a teacher, but it took a few months for me to say it out loud – then it became real.

My career as a teacher was over. The profession I had loved so dearly was changed and dead in some ways. The way I had defined myself (Hi! I’m Mary, and I’m a teacher!) was finished, and I would be starting over. I felt angry. I felt sad. I grieved. I felt weak. I felt like a failure. I felt insignificant. I felt frustrated. I spent the last few months of the school year grieving the loss of my profession, of my identity. And then, finally, in the last week of school, I reached a sense of peace and relief about it. A dear co-worker, who was retiring, told me I needed to give myself “permission to be free” from the stresses of the job and from the pressure I put on myself. And she was right.

That idea of having permission to be free was what ultimately allowed me to let it go.

I read this essay from a former English teacher and cried. Because every word of it was true for me.

THE NEXT CHAPTER

And now, what? On my last day as a high school English teacher, my classroom was empty and bare. My students were gone, already enjoying the summer. My belongings were condensed to two crates and a bag. Everything else had been given away or thrown out. I sent out an email to everyone saying bye and launched this blog on that day.

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I spent the summer relaxing, trying not to think about it all.

Since moving here three years ago, I have gotten to know a host of education activists and now, friends. First through the BATs. Then with TREE and the Tennessee Education Association. There are some great bloggers here, like the Momma BearsDad Gone Wild, and undercoverBAT. And there are some wonderful teachers who are rising up to run for State Legislature (Vote for Larry and Gloria!) because we need actual educators making the laws about education. Together, we forged alliances like Mid-TN CAPE and TNRefinED, fought against dark money, worked hard to get people elected to the school board, and stood up against bad legislation. There are good things happening here in spite of everything else.

I am so grateful I met these people. But I just can’t continue to teach with integrity. I just can’t do it. I know as a public school parent, I will continue to be involved. I will never stop caring and fighting for public education – an equitable, high-quality public school education for every student in this country – but I’ll be doing it now as a parent and former teacher.

So what will I “do” now? When someone asks me what I do, what will I say? I know I’ll figure it out…