Category Archives: education

What to do the day after you leave teaching…

Try to write a long-overdue blog post about the end of the school year, but fail. The emotions are too complex. The parts about the kids and the work itself and whether you made the right decision and why come out sounding hackneyed. The parts about why you are leaving are too bitter at worst and too confused at best. You haven’t separated out your own personal shortcomings from those of the system or of the school, so leave it. It’s not something to write about yet. Worry about not being able to keep your promise to the kids to come back and coach robotics next year, because of the souring of one particular relationship that might lead to a complete separation from the life of the school you helped found. Six years ended with a cold goodbye and a handshake. Know that the kids have had promises broken before. You aren’t the first and won’t be the last. Reflect that the schools themselves are a broken promise to these kids, even the better schools.

Think about the workshop on suicide prevention you were required to attend three weeks before the end of your teaching career, and how you said, at the end, that you thought you could recognize warning signs and would take it all very seriously, but the fact of the matter is that more than half the kids, arguably, have witnessed trauma or experienced pretty troubled relationships and could probably use some counseling, but it’s not an option: even those in crisis sometimes have to wait months. So really – you didn’t say this part out loud – what the hell is the point in being educated again and again about how to identify kids at risk and get them help when there is no one available to provide that help? It’s triage, the guy leading the workshop acknowledged.

Wonder how it all came to feel so personal, and how, if you want to make a difference on this earth, you are going to have to get over this tendency to hold everyone and everything to an unreachable standard. Not personal in the sense of, oh-the-kids-are-so-troubled-I-can’t-bear-to-look; it’s personal in the sense of letting things bother you far too much: all the little policies that feel wrong, all the breakdowns in communication, all the how-to-run-a-school stuff that could be different and better. It’s knowing an entire brilliant, enthusiastic, committed staff has been alienated and that each of those people will leave, sooner or later, and it probably didn’t have to happen, and that’s heartbreaking. But for you, it was time. Wonder if someday, you’ll be patient and wise enough to return or even to lead a school.

Feel like this post is swinging towards the irretrievably negative and that wasn’t the intention. Remember the hug a girl gave you on Wednesday when she said she’d miss you so much, and the explosive smile on a kid’s face when you told him that you hope his new school will work out for him because you know he’s a really good science student and not to throw away that ability. Cross your fingers that he settles down, stops fighting, and doesn’t follow his three male role models to violent death or prison. Think about the games you played with the kids on the last day of school, all the summer camp stuff you taught them and how they sat for hours playing and how you baked a cake and had a party with your advisory and they helped clean up with only a little prodding and then you danced to Fergie with them and a boy came to the door and saw you dancing and his mouth kind of dropped open and everyone laughed. Know that there are a thousand-odd kids out there who learned a lot of science, and that when they come back from high school they have grades in the 90s and are talking about science careers, and that 8 years is a long time and a lot of impact even if it isn’t the fabled 25-year-life’s-mission.

Wonder about the future. Feel excited about new projects, especially when you’re with your new colleague or in your new office or picturing the events you want to organize. Feel excited about a new, less-grueling schedule. Feel exhaustion rippling through your bones, your skin clammy with woke-up-too-early-because-it’s-so-hot stickiness.

Call all your doctors and schedule long overdue appointments. Turn your organizing energy, once reserved for sixth grade team leadership, to planning a Batman marathon before the new one comes out and a picnic in the park when Feist is playing and three days of beach next week and your writer’s group meetings. Consider signing up for another writing class. Think about visiting IKEA so that the next time you move, you’ll have even more furniture. Think about DSLR cameras and plane tickets to China or Thailand this winter. Realize you seriously need to spend some time walking through green landscapes. Ask friends about borrowing a tent. Wonder if that guy is ever going to call back or if he just isn’t into you. Fill your calendar with free music and outdoor theater and festivals and movies on rooftops. Listen to your cat snore and lick her lips in her sleep and wonder what she is dreaming about. Clean your room. Go to the gym. Go to the bank. Write some thank you notes.


Go see some falling water.

Talk to you later, everyone.



Filed under confession, education, teaching

News of my death…

has been greatly exaggerated. I’m feelin’ you, Mark Twain. All my posts lately are about how busy I am, and how that’s what’s keeping me from doing any real writing for you… but there will still be plenty of writing next year, and much of it related to education, too. More on that late-June-ish. And if what brings you here is not the education stuff at all, there’ll be who-knows-what dropped at a dark barker. If all goes exceptionally well, there’ll even be pieces published on real, tree-killing, high-gloss paper.

But yes, it is goodbye to teaching. Or at least, goodbye for now. TMAO says it’s a false promise to leave indicating one’s possible return when that might just be a rationalization or a fantasy or something. But teaching science has been good to me. It’s been full of challenges, adventures – dead lobsters, dead crickets, LEGO robots, homemade musical instruments, and more, and let me meet a few hundred interesting people who are fast on their way to becoming adults.

I ran into one of those young people on the bus the other day. He was in our school, perhaps illegally, in the very first year. Illegally because he was supposed to get services that we couldn’t provide. He was kind-hearted, didn’t read or write all that well, loved science but could be infuriatingly lazy, drove us up the wall, and thrived at the same time. He’s a junior in high school right now, teaching chess to little kids at a camp this summer – he always was a super-star chess player – and was talking about taking the SATs and the Chem Regents and starting college visits pretty soon. He wants to be a chemical engineer. How do I capture what it feels like to sit on a bus next to this young man, talking about his future, thinking back on the three years that I taught him, knowing the long odds for a kid from the South Bronx, a Dominican male with special needs, becoming an engineer, and yet knowing that he is already far along that path and can now see it unfolding in front of him. This kid is going to make it, and I played some role in that, and what’s simultaneously remarkable and reassuring about it all is that among the students who have graduated from my school, he is not an exception (I don’t have any data to back this up, just a few anecdotes and a sense). (The fact that he wants to go into a science-related field is just icing).

But it’s been a hard year, and the eighth hard year in a row, and at a certain point this winter, every cell in my body was telling me it was time for a change, physically, mentally. Time to make space in my life for healthier relationships, for the trazillions of interests that I have besides education, for pursuing writing in a serious way, for slowing down and redirecting my energy, at least for a while. I’m turning 30 next week: I guess that’s part of it. And then I saw an opportunity, and soon there was a job offer, and then I accepted, and then I told my boss, and then I wrote a resignation letter, and here we are. My new team met yesterday for a few hours, and reality got a bit realer, some initial planning was sketched out… well, I really can’t share more than that but be patient!

Still, I wish I could annotate this post in multi-colored post-its and add all the things that I’m leaving out (for now)… thoughts about why teachers stay and why they go, about my own personal reactions to stress and whether the problem is me or the job or the particular version of the job that happens in certain kinds of classrooms and schools in the city, about where I hope life might go next and the ten-thousand things that might come as next steps. I’m leaving, but I’m not going anywhere.


Filed under blogging, confession, education, midlife crisis, New York, science, special education, teaching

I need some air…

It’s just a love that you can’t get back
It’s just a tale of a heart attack
You feel alive, but you’re sinking fast
Just close your eyes, this won’t be your last

You wanna lift somethin’ up, you gotta pin it down
You wanna pull somethin’ in, you gotta let it out
You wanna light something up, you gotta burn it down
I wanna feel the sun, I just need some air

The only word that you know is please, please, please
The only life that you see is from your knees
I wanna feel the light, I just can’t receive
Don’t wanna leave the ground, I just need some air
I need some air

-Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

Yesterday, we took a wonderful field trip to the Liberty Science Center.  They warned us at the start of the film “3D Sun” that chaperones should prevent students from screaming and jumping out of their seats.  It sounded a bit harsh, until charged particles started drifting towards us, accelerating, until we zoomed over the horizon of the sun, past coronal arches and loops…. wow.  When the satellite called Stereo floated out towards me, I’ll admit I reached out to touch it.

The only bad part of the trip was a peanut allergy scare, which ended with no problems at all but made me realize several things about my experience teaching:

1. We are very lucky nothing too awful has happened given how poorly informed we are (by parents in the first place, and then by the school once the parents do inform us) about our students’ potentially serious health issues.

2. The incident calls into question so many things – the standard of care our children receive at hospitals and health clinics, the organizational systems within our schools, the levels of trust between parents and children, the potentially dangerous issues that arise when all of a student’s emergency contacts speak only Spanish, and you are in an emergency situation where no adult speaks Spanish.  And so many other issues.  We got a serious lecture about the need to carry an Epi-Pen from the staff at the Liberty Science Center.  And I sound like an idiot saying, But this allergy wasn’t even reported to the school!  A colleague cited some statistic or another (no idea where he got it) that peanut allergies are more prevalent in large urban areas – yet this is the first – or maybe there was one other – I’ve encountered in 8 years.  So, where are these kids?  Do our kids not live on PB&J like a lot of suburban kids?  Is the allergy hidden within an asthma diagnosis?  (But these are such different things!)  Are there tons of kids out there with unreported life-threatening allergies?  I want to find out more about this one.

Meanwhile, we have another trip coming up which was supposed to be the sixth grade end-of-year trip.  It was supposed to be really fun.  We set a pretty high standard of attendance, behavior, etc. to attend, and then our administration raised the bar to what we knew was pretty much unattainable (ours was already going to be very, very hard), but what could we say?  Now only 25% of our kids qualified.  We didn’t succeed in motivating them to work extra hard this month to get to go, because they really quickly figured out they’d never make it.  The culture of the class has, if anything, turned against the trip.  We are filling the spots with kids from other grades… I don’t know, it’s just not the trip I want to take at all anymore.  Leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I feel like I was put in a really bad position by others who won’t really have to deal with the long-term impact on student motivation or the immediate backlash when the kids who get to go are announced.

There’s more – our entire Science department is leaving this year.  Right now there are no candidates to replace us.  I might squeeze in a few hours here & there consulting for the new teachers next year, because otherwise they’ll be starting from scratch.

We were grading science exams after school today (this is the third day we’ve stayed after, at least one or two more afternoons before it’s done), and another teacher quoted the song above… she was talking about a relationship but it feels right for everything.  The pressure’s all right, somehow everything is getting done, it’s tiring but under control, but with a little more space to breathe things could be done so much better…. my cat never sees me anymore, my house is a huge mess.  I’ve scheduled my moving truck for June 1st, a birthday event for the following weekend, and I have a cake commission (for someone else, it’s a longish story) for the actual day of my own birthday…  I’m running twice a week and went to a yoga class for the first time in months (it felt great, even though the teacher was not awesome… it’s so nice to realize that after months away, I’ve at least got the muscle-memory if not the strength or flexibility).  Busy is the way I like life, but hey, I could use a little air…

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Filed under confession, education, New York, teaching

Budget Cuts Vigil in the Bronx this Thursday!

I can’t go – I have to run from the last session of robotics down to my writing class – but that doesn’t mean YOU can’t. Sure, the economy’s not doing so hot, but to spend trazillions of dollars on data-management systems that barely function, near-monthly assessments, and reorganization after reorganization – and then to demand that schools find the money to cut out of our budgets for things like supplies, enrichment programs, custodial services (the very nice man who sweeps my floors is looking at losing his job), you name it… well. This is not okay. Get out there and show ’em.

Thursday, May 1, 2008 – 4 pm – Bronx Courthouse Steps (161st St., near Yankee Stadium)

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Filed under education, New York, politics, teaching

So there’s this summit in DC…

called Ed in ’08, which sounds like it would be interesting, at a minimum an opportunity for networking and debate, and I went right ahead and sent out an email to a couple of folks I thought might agree (turns out one of them is not only going, he’s speaking) but then, luckily, before passing it along to another half-dozen NYC education bloggers whom I know, I stopped and took a closer look. Most of the people I know who blog about education also happen to be teachers… and this summit is on a Wednesday-Thursday. It makes me a little sad & irritated that a summit intended to be about education reform would occur at a time that is virtually impossible for any actual working educators to attend. We have an obligation to our kids to be present pretty much every weekday between now and the end of June. That doesn’t mean we don’t have opinions or experience relevant to education policy – on the contrary, what is policy without the voices of practitioners?  We’ve put our voices out there through our blogs – some more overtly political, some more personal, but each trying to share stories because we think someone can learn something from them.  Don’t carelessly exclude us from the conversation!


Filed under education, politics

The teaching has been good…

We’ve hit a point in Weather & Water where it’s one fun experiment after another, starting with the old “differential heating” experiment, comparing how water, soil, sand, and air absorb heat.  The FOSS method for this experiment was subtly different from my old method, and worked a hundred times better.  I had the kids write lab reports, and while many did not turn in first drafts, those who did turned in really, really good first drafts.  I’m excited to grade their final drafts over vacation.  It’s interesting, the Science Expo really made a positive impact on their understanding of the process of doing an experiment and writing about it.  They are still awful at identifying variables, but I don’t sweat that because in part it’s their young, developing brains struggling with cause and effect and abstraction.

We also did an experiment with aluminum and steel bars, placed in hot water, with liquid crystal temperature strips taped to the top of each bar.  As heat moved up the bar, the temperature strip changed color.  It was dramatic, easy-to-understand, and simple.  Sweet.  Their understanding of heat, radiation, and conduction seems pretty solid so far.  Right now, I’m lovin’ FOSS.

Meanwhile, I have a double-size enrichment cluster on Fridays, with another teacher: Chemistry.  I’ve put together a fun series of experiments for them to do (it’ll cost a fortune in materials, even though many are household products, but it will be worth it) to capitalize on their excitement while still teaching solid science concepts.  Last week, we started off with the vinegar & baking soda experiment, because it’s everyone’s favorite, but they had to test different variables that might speed it up or slow it down.  It was a bit rushed but very successful.  Since it’s a big, excitable group and it’s Friday last period, I let them choose groups but those groups are going to be in a competition based on points earned for doing a good job completing the lab worksheets and for behavior.  This week will be a surprise for them when they realize that some groups earned 2 points per person while others earned nothing at all!  I think it will help them focus and get more out of it, while still working with friends and having fun.

This week’s revelations:

I like teaching science.  I knew that, but this year has been a lot of change in both curriculum and in the habits of the kids, and for a while, I lost touch with what’s fun and challenging – but also easy! – about my job.

My kids – minus a few with very serious social-emotional-behavioral problems – are starting to perform like kids at my school typically do in the fall of sixth grade.  This year’s group came in a bit behind, but the gap is closing.  The work is much better.  We’re moving forward so much faster.  Then again, the weakest students might be farther behind than ever, especially those with poor attendance or who have been suspended multiple times.  But that issue is so much bigger than me and my teaching, I have to let go a little bit.  I help them as much as I can, and I ponder the broader, longer-term strategies & policies that might help them, but today, this week, this month, I let it go a little.

I’m still digging out from the pile of work and obligations.  Posting will be infrequent for the duration, bear with me.


Filed under education, science, teaching

8 Bad Days and Counting

1. Some kids are beyond reach.  Discuss.

2. No kid is beyond reach, but schools can’t do it alone and our society isn’t committed to doing everything it would take to truly help these kids, so for all intents and purposes, from the point of view of the school, they are beyond reach.  Discuss.

3.  All kids are within reach.  Failure to reach these students is failure of the imagination and commitment of the school administration, staff, and classroom teachers.  Discuss.

4. We’re rattling around in a box of our own making.  How to get out?  Time to blast this thing wide open with some new ideas.  What’s old is working so-so but not well.  Where can I get a paradigm shift?  Discuss.

5. Don’t worry about what you can’t control.  School culture is bigger than one classroom or hallway.  Children have baggage.  Discuss.

6. When you stop rattling and look at the box, you see the cracks in the walls.  Investment.  What have we done to invest the 65-75% of kids who don’t stand out in any major way, behaviorally or academically?  The swing voters, so to speak.  Is there a place in our school for more than behaviorism?  What about a little of this?  Do we have goals that speak to children?  Do they have goals?  Yeah, sure, we set goals, but do they have any power?

7.  Looking at the cracks in the box, again: Everyone talks a good game about “teaching kids to be good people” but what does it all add up to?  What does that teaching look like?  Is it happening in advisory?  I basically told my advisees today that they are hypocrites, who set nice-sounding little goals and talk about why it’s important not to be bullies, but then on the way out, trip someone intentionally. (I’m not feeling very nice this week).  They didn’t disagree.  When does the touchy-feely become real?  Cross that fuzzy boundary and start to mean something?  And why is it that when someone suggested to someone more important than me that we get some professional development on this stuff, on peer mediation, on running really meaningful advisories, the response was: no one should have to teach you how to care.  Oh.  Well then.  But just because you can keep a classroom of kids more-or-less safe and on-task doesn’t mean you know how to do the longer-term work that reduces rather than just suppresses the violence.  What does it mean, teaching kids to be better people?  Show me that.  Show me that when you’re on a mean block with kids whose parents occasionally say things like, I can’t help him anymore, I’m just waiting for them to take him away from me.  He’s ELEVEN.  He’s the sweetest child on Earth.  What a thing to hear from your mother.

8. My grades are due.  I have to work on that instead of this.  Anyway, I’m a little stuck.  It feels like a puzzle, something to be unraveled.  If you crack this code, if you figure out how to break through to the kids, all of them, or most of them all the time and the others most of the time, the world is yours.  Anything can happen.  But I’m stuck on this side of the code, I can’t see my way through it, resources are scarce, support is there but only for certain kinds of solutions which are a piece of the puzzle but not, in my mind, the solution.  I’m supposed to be a leader: what next?


Filed under education, New York, teaching