A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

I had not intended to start my Tuesday slice with an unhappy story, but I need to get past it, so here goes…

Several years ago I was happily bubbling along in my role as an elementary-level ESL teacher. A late-bloomer in public school teaching, I was really appreciating my new career (since 1993) which allowed me to pretty much be as creative as I wanted to be in my own classroom while helping students to learn English. I was rewarded for my work and creativity in 2009 when I received the New York State TESOL teacher of the year award, as well as a LI ESL Teacher of the Year award from Molloy College. Things were better than good. I was enjoying my work, feeling confident about my skills and knowledge after 15 years on the job, and eager to stay on the jobas long as I could.

Fast forward to 2012-2013. The Common Core and new teacher evaluations were summarily introduced into our district with little warning and no preparation.
Panic and chaos set in. Programs which had taken years to develop were curtailed, such as our Balanced Literacy Program. New curricula were passed on to the teachers with no prior professional development.
New approaches were dropped within months because they were ineffective. It was survival of the fittest in every school in the district.

During all this turmoil, the esl students and teachers were the last concerns on anyone’s mind, but I felt from the get-go that the new exams would be inapproprate for esl students still very much in the throes of learning basic English, never mind the more sophisticated and nuanced tasks required of them by the new exams. I was right. When the evaluations were presented to us on the first day of school in 2013, I was one of 11 teachers labeled Developing. As such, we were burdened with a TIP (Teacher Improvement Plan) for the remainder of the year which involved particular tasks, most of which were monotonous, tedious and in my case had nothing to do with ESL pedagogy. I failed to see how I would benefit from this punishment. Furthermore, my students had all done well on the ESL state test, the NYSESLAT, so my evaluation was based on the results of their other state and local tests on which they did poorly. No surprise. I hated the fact that each of the 11 Developing Teachers were invited to “appeal” our case to a kangaroo court which approved only 1 change in status; the fact that I had to spend several hours per week on a TIP plan that was irrelevant to my work; to the fact that I was considered Developing after 20 years of very satisfactory annual evaluations and the awards spoken of earlier. Nonetheless, I continued to teach in the most professional way I could and strove to support my students for the challenges that lay ahead of them.

I decided to retire at the end of 2014 for many reasons, not the least of which was because I was losing my passion for being a teacher. Although I shrugged off the label of Developing, I could see the handwriting on the wall for me. My students would never do well on the Common Core tests, or even the local tests, BECAUSE THEY ARE STILL LEARNING BASIC ENGLISH! They were simply not ready for the cognitive challenges presented to them because of the level of their language development. In addition, as I told both my Principal and Assistant Principal, I would probably be labeled Developing again in 2014 because my students that year were even weaker in language arts than my previous year’s students. Several of them had also been recommended for evaluation for Special Education, a process which took nearly the whole academic year. There were also unidentified Special Ed candidates who had been in my class for a year or two because the parents refused to allow them to be screened and/or the district delayed screening them because of their ESL status. It was a no win situation for them and for me. I couldn’t see the point of continuing to work as hard as I had for 21 years only to be punished again by my evaluation.

So, yet, I retired. And yes, I was mailed by evaluation in late August. And here’s the “kicker.” I was told that I was again a Developing teacher…on the same day I was diagnosed with a very scary, late-stage cancer.

I spent the next six months fearing for my life and dealing with chemo and radiation treatments. I am one of the lucky ones….I am now considered “cancer free.” I know that what really matters is that I have my life back and now I can really retire. And I no longer have to report for a job that devalued my expertise and experience in my final two years of teaching.
But still….

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The Church of Nature

I’ve always responded enthusiastically to nature.  Today as I write this I am looking through my kitchen sliding doors at the hill behind my house covered with confectionary sugar.  Nature has always been a source of great beauty and comfort to me. When my children were younger I used to tell them that the closest I ever felt to “God” was when I went backpacking in the High Sierras of California above the treeline where it feels like you can reach out and touch the sky at night.

Today, as a retired teacher, I still feel the same way and look forward to the days when taking a walk is possible or to the sudden arrival of a flock of birds in my backyard as did happen yesterday when dozens of robins appeared out of nowhere to peck at the ground on my hill looking for insects to eat.  I can get as excited about sighting a blue heron as I can about anything else in my life.

This brings me to “The Church of Nature” and how it came to exist in my life.  When my children were around the ages of 8 and 10, as a family we took a “hike” every Sunday.  We are fortunate to live on the north shore of LI where the local scenery is quite lovely in most seasons and opportunities for short hikes are easily accessible.  For me the goal was to get outside and away from all the indoor concerns of the past week and the week to come, while introducing my children to the wonders of nature, albeit on a smaller scale than the High Sierras. We would pack a snack and drinks in our backpacks, dress appropriately for the season and set off for the day’s adventure.

In an age when it is irresponsible to allow children to just wander as I did as a child in my small seaside town, it was a relief to be able to let my children run through the woods or along the seashore discovering nature for themselves.  We have walked in Caumsett Park in Lloyd Neck when it was so cold the entire landscape was frozen.  We have often visited the Theodore Roosevelt bird sanctuary in Cove Neck and ended our walks with an obligatory visit to their nature center where my children could watch the local birds feeding from a wall-sized window or browse among the specimens of local flora and fauna. We have spent many summer Sundays on north shore beaches watching the children explore the saltwater marshes, discovering and capturing in their small nets (and releasing) the small crabs and fish that inhabit these waters.

Today, both my children are avid nature-lovers and environmentalists and each of them has traveled to far-flung places like Africa and Australia to experience the wonders each locale has to offer.  I like to think that some of their enthusiasm is due to the many Sundays we spent hiking and enjoying our local natural wonders.  When they got older I told them that instead of going to church every Sunday, we visited “the church of nature,” as a way of explaining to them where my personal brand of spirituality comes from and most likely theirs, too.

What Does It Mean To Be a Teacher Today?

This past Saturday I attended a workshop hosted by the Long Island Writing Project (LIWP) at Nassau Community College offering K-12 teachers a chance to discuss and write about the topic “What Does It Mean To Be a Teacher Today?” This group of professionals has been my “go to” group since I became a full-time teacher over twenty years ago. It has consistently provided a safe place for teachers to hone their writing skills and learn how to help students become better writers. As a recent retiree (June 2014), I wasn’t sure whether I would still “fit in.”

I learned very quickly from the sharing of writing that took place at the workshop that teachers today are very torn between what they know in their hearts they need to do to help kids learn and what they are being told by administrators about how to spend their classroom instructional time. When teachers describe giving inappropriate tests to developmentally unprepared students as being “abusive” to their students, and then feeling guilty about doing so (as if they have any choice), we know we are in a state of crisis. When teachers are told to teach a “module” that will force kids to analyze a text beyond their reading comprehension level instead of one they can feel comfortable with and passionate about, teachers feel very conflicted and students begin to dislike learning.

I left the workshop feeling that my passion for teaching is still very much a part of me and that my “voice” is still welcome. But I felt both distressed and challenged by what I was hearing and grateful that there is a still place of refuge where teachers can safely express their feelings and ideas about what is happening to them. Now, if only we could do the same for students.