Teaching with Hands Tied

Sunset chaserThis week, I had an interaction with a student that cut deep. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then again, maybe it was the right place at the right time. In this student’s frustration, he lashed out, and I took it. The tired, pregnant teacher took it.

I knew that everything he felt had absolutely nothing to do with me. I tried to calm him, but I may as well have been trying to pet an agitated viper. Nothing I said could ease the caged feeling radiating from him. I saw it in his eyes. He was tired of school, of the expectations, of the world crushing in on him.

In the office, he stalked his anger, back and forth, back and forth, furtively glancing out the window at the students passing by in a blur of color. I struggled to find the right words, and with each inadequate thing I said, I only made it worse.

My mouth grew dry.

I found myself speechless—in awe.

While he paced outwardly, I recognized that I’ve been pacing inwardly. My heart in a cage, my rage un-allowed to escape.

A rage I felt over the inability to do anything to fix the situation.

A rage that tasted like failure.

And every day I feel like I’m failing, like I’m falling deeper into the well of inadequacy.

In Education, there has been so much pressure to perform. It trickles down from the legislature, seeps down into administrations, and leeches into the skin of the teachers. Companies see opportunity in this. They sell prepackaged curriculums and one-size-fits-all lesson plans. In desperation to show gains, districts fall into their clutches. In reality, these companies are little more than traveling medicine shows. They show up in their fancy wagons, promising a miracle cure that is nothing but sugar-water packaged in fancy bottles. They put on a show, say all the right things, make a fortune, and move on to the next district without truly fixing a damn thing. In the wake, desperately failing schools cling to the hope that the medicine they’ve purchased will work, but they drown in the pressure, never realizing that the life-raft they cling to is actually a cinderblock chained to their ankles.

By the time all this pressure reaches the kids, it presses them into these little boxes of despair. They are not old enough to understand where this feeling is coming from, nor do they understand why they have this trapped feeling wrapping around them. They have no voice, no one to advocate for them, and it has them in a chokehold, squeezing the air out of their lungs, out of their education.

Every once in a while, this pressure explodes into a volcanic, beautiful rage, but nine times out of ten, I’m too pulled apart in a million different directions to soothe it adequately. I’m torn between cheering it on and stamping it down. I’m torn because I usually opt for stamping it down for the sake of time, for the sake of moving on. I’m torn because I know that I am sometimes the cause of this pressure. I’m torn because I’m a human being, and it is hard being the punching bag for this frustration.

I’m torn because, secretly, I’m jealous. Secretly, I wish I could get away with volcanic rage.

Here’s something you may not know.

As teachers, we are encouraged to keep our mouths shut in the face of injustice. I’ve even been in meetings this year where administration discouraged us from discussing our beliefs online since it may offend parents in the community. And since I reentered the classroom, I have tried to comply with this silence.

After all, it’s what teacher do.

We fall in line out of fear. We don’t want to be known as the rabble-rousers. We don’t want to be known as trouble makers.

We don’t want to put our careers and livelihoods at risk.

I’ve struggled with this.

I oscillate between the desire to point out injustices and making myself keep my head down so as not to paint a bullseye on my back. Anytime I slip up and start to voice my heart, I reign it back in out of this fear. Anytime I want to speak out, I remember that no administration wants to hear the truth. It’s not their fault. They have pressures consuming them, too. They have truths they keep inside of their hearts out of their own fears. They, too, are torn between cheering on teacher rage and stamping it out for the sake of time.

After all, compliance is easier to manage than truth.   

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As a reward for my silence, I find myself trapped being the agent of things I don’t fully believe in rather than trusting in my creativity to design lessons and curriculum. I find myself longing to be seen as a professional, as an educator, rather than a lion-tamer to a class that doesn’t even have enough desks for each student.

I find myself longing for the freedom to be a real educator again.

I told a friend the other day that I feel like I’m teaching with my hands tied. Because of this interaction on Friday, I realized that if I feel this way so sharply, it stands to reason that these kids feel like they are learning with their hands tied, too. This is even more acutely felt for students unable to fit into these boxes of standardization. They constantly feel like they are one step behind, then two steps, then a thousand. With each step they fall behind the standard, the more likely they are to give up completely.

And what’s more? They are shoved into classes of thirty (or more according to projections for next year) and are expected to excel.

Think on this for a moment.

Teachers are given classes of thirty or more, full of struggling students, and are expected to address each individual need throughout the course of a 45-minute lesson. Teachers are told to hold kids accountable to learning without the proper tools, space, time, and support to do so.

We are expected to perform miracles with sugar-water cures.

Expected?

More like demanded.

Yet when our country sets up schools, teachers, and students to fail, can we truly be surprised by the outcome? When we talk about allocating money to build walls instead of schools, when we allocate money to fund prisons or build football fields rather than classrooms, when we buy scripted medicine-show curriculums rather than hire more educators to alleviate class sizes, can we truly be surprised by the failure of schools?

And when schools inevitably fail to meet such impossible expectations, teachers are demonized. We are shoved even further into the cycle of standardized testing, standardized curriculums, and standardized classrooms. We are set up to sink deeper into the well of failure and drown under its pressure.   

I must admit during my time out of the classroom, I’ve forgotten how deeply this weighs on the soul. I forgot how I carry it home, this helpless feeling of wanting to do more, do better, do greater things for the kids under my charge. This feeling of my intentions being misunderstood by students and staff alike. This feeling of caring so much that it hurts bitterly when discovering there is little you can do outside of your classroom to influence positive change.

In this world of education, every time I climb over one Mt. Everest, there is another waiting that is higher and more impossible.

This feeling is endless.

Many might say that teachers sign up for this, but if you’ve never stepped into a classroom, you can’t possibly understand what it is like to be the whipping-boy of education. You see, teaching is the most misunderstood profession out there, and every day, it becomes more and more misunderstood because teachers are asked to comply with demands for silence in order to avoid offending.

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But I’m starting to realize that if we keep sending these pressures downward, the rage will eventually find its way upwards. After all, there’s only so much rage a heart can hide, and teachers are the first to recognize it boiling up over the edges. We are on the front lines, seeing the effects our silence has on our students’ educational opportunities.

Which brings me to this DeVos nomination.

I can’t comply to silence any longer.

Our country sits on the cusp of a decision, and I can’t help but wonder if DeVos wins this nomination, what will it mean for students when the consequences trickle down into the classroom? Or, if we somehow get past DeVos, who will her replacement nomination be? Will we finally get someone who truly understands what struggling schools are in need of?

When I look up the ladder from my lowly position as a teacher, I wonder when someone up there will remember what it’s like because they have been down here.

Or will everyone making the decisions on education remain oblivious to the fact that no two schools face the same struggles and no two students face the same challenges? Will everyone making the decisions keep shutting their eyes to the true problems public education faces? Will everyone up there continue to ignore our pleas for true reform simply because our demands have become whispers caged inside of compliance?

I, for one, am tired of being quiet in this. I’m tired of watching my students drown. I’m tired of living in fear of what might happen to me if I speak out—if I offend.

Our schools are failing. They will continue to fail if we keep ignoring the true problems. They will continue to fail if we keep putting people in charge who are not qualified to make the decisions that will impact education. They will continue to fail if we keep relying on standardization rather than trusting in the abilities of professional educators.

They will continue to fail if teachers continue to be silent.

It is time to tell the truth.

And the truth is, this path we are on does not work.

The truth is, we need someone up there advocating for us, down here.

The truth is, we need individualized plans that meet the needs of each diverse community.

The truth is, we need to reduce class sizes.

The truth is, we need to support creativity in our educators and students rather than boxing them into standarization.

The truth is, we need funding for supplies and technologies that will bring lessons into this century.

The truth is, we need a platform for students, educators, and administrators to voice their needs and be heard without the fear of retaliation.

The truth is, our kids deserve better.

The truth is…

They deserve our voices, not our silence.

They deserve change, not compliance.

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ON THE LIGHTER SIDE OF LIFE

Song I’m Addicted To: 

Ground Control to Major Tom by David Bowie

Baby is the Size of: 

an Artichoke

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Random Craving of the Week:

Decaf Ice Tea

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J.D. Brewer is and educator and the author of Intrepid, Vagabond, and The Birth of Anarchy. All three books are available on Amazon.

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