Friday, May 3, 2013

The real "data" behind teaching is often the stories which go untold

I left work this Friday, my mind obsessing over the day. Teaching tends to do that to me. It's something I just can't escape: the good and bad moments with adolescents certainly weigh on my emotions and thoughts long after the students leave after the last bell of the day. Eventually, after many years and countless students, those thoughts and feelings tend to dissipate, floating away into some mis-mashed meld of things recalled inaccurately or forgotten completely. However, there are the pristine, crystal moments, those that are so intensely memorable they become permanently ironed in my memory.

I must write this teaching moment from today. I have to share it on this blog, regardless if ten people read it, or 50, or hundreds, or even thousands (I doubt that will happen because my readership base is just not that high yet). But if just one non-teacher reads this, I think that will be progress. I feel more and more compelled to share my teaching stories.

Here's why: We teachers are not good at sharing our stories.

Of course we tell about our work to those whom are closest to us--our spouses, family members, close friends, and other teachers. They all get to hear glimpses of our daily positive and negative moments. But we clearly don't do a good enough job telling people outside of that immediate circle, the people whose notions of teaching and learning are strictly limited to only their own experience and perceptions of being a student in school. This is a problem because the immensity of our work as teachers goes misunderstood. Or it is misrepresented. Or it is diluted. Or simplified. Or judged. The narrative most politicians, the media, and some of the public at large espouse is highly negative towards teachers, public schools, and an entire system they simply don't understand. That statement is not meant to be a slam on anyone. You just can't understand the complexity of teaching unless you live it.

For all you readers out there who are teachers or have been teachers, you get what I'm saying. And I know this story will resonate with you because we all have stories similar to this one--the one I will remember from today, forever.

First, the background.

Amelia (I have given her a pseudonym) is in my reading intervention class so that she can build reading skills to meet certain standardized test requirements. She is very bright. But she has not yet passed this particular standardized exam. Amelia wears an ankle bracelet, has a tracker, and a probation officer. She is fiercely social, her face screams intensity almost always, and she is loud. Very loud. I like all of that about her. She is a force to be reckoned with and, most days, I look forward to seeing her.

Amelia is failing my class. She was failing three weeks ago. Her out-of-school life often interferes with her in-school life. So, three weeks ago, a situation with Amelia escalated in my classroom. I was trying to get her to do the work I was asking her and other students in class to do. She was being defiant. The situation unraveled quickly to the point where Amelia was screaming obscenities at me, storming out into the hallway. I stepped out of the classroom with her, where things got worse. I asked her to go to the main office, at which point she threw a book--the one she was supposed to be reading--at me as her final insolent act and she continued to scream profanity walking down the hallway.

Amelia, her principal, and myself met the following day to discuss the situation that transpired. For the sake of brevity, I will only share this one moment of that conversation.

"I feel like you're always picking on me," Amelia told me with piercing eyes.

"I understand why you feel that way," I responded. "I am kind of picking on you."

Amelia looked at me, kind of stunned at what I had just said.

I continued, "Amelia, you are probably the smartest and most capable person in my reading class, but you are not passing. It is my job to help you pass my class. That is what I get paid to do. I am going to continue to ask you not to do things when they interfere with your learning in class. So yes, I'm going to 'pick' on you because you have potential. And I care about you passing."

Flash-forward to yesterday. Amelia and her friend asked about my ethnicity. This topic of conversation seems very important to Amelia, as she is curious to know about her fellow classmates. I was surprised when she inquired about me because I'm clearly very white. During our conversation, I began to tell her that my ancestors are Czech, explaining that my heritage on both my mom and dad's side of the family can be traced back to Czechoslovakia. She was confused. She had questions about where I was "from". She wondered if my wife was white too, or Czech, or Mexican. It was an innocent, yet intriguing, interaction.

Then, today, I was in my classroom during my off period, grading papers. This time, it was my turn to be stunned. Someone was standing outside my classroom door.

"Mr. P?" It was Amelia.

"Hey, what's up?" I said.

"Um," she hesitated, "Do you know what it means to vent?"

I kind of laughed. I think she totally underestimates my vocabulary as an English and Reading teacher. Whatever.

"Sure," I said, "Venting means that you need to tell someone something. You need to complain. Something is bothering you and you want someone to just listen. You need to get something off of your chest."

"I need to vent," Amelia told me.

"OK. Come on in," I said.

I probably should have asked where she was supposed to be, inquiring what class she was skipping to come and talk to me. But I decided that wasn't important information in this moment, nor was it an appropriate question to ask Amelia immediately, since she needed to vent. She seemed serious, acting in a way she had never revealed to me before. Her same intensity was there, but it was different now. I saved my question for later.

Amelia began talking. "I just want to give up," she started.

After that phrase, I was compelled to close the cover of my laptop as a way to signal to her that she had my attention. I listened, asking leading questions to get her to tell me more. Amelia shared that she has "been in the system" since she was 11 years old because there was some physical abuse in the home. As she grew older, crime and other scenarios have kept her in the system. She sees a therapist every Monday. Her mom recently told her that she doesn't care about her anymore, doesn't want to have anything to do with her, and wants her to live somewhere else. Then, recently, some conflict unfolded between Amelia's boyfriend of a year-and-a-half. The boyfriend is Amelia's one supporter, the person she really trusts. Well, he dumped Amelia, and then some other complications transpired on Facebook. Amelia said she was working hard to get her grades up and pass her classes because there are only three weeks left of school before summer. However, today, during her first period, she was taking a test and she just couldn't concentrate. She said she kept reading the same question over and over again but couldn't understand it. Her problems just kept taking over her thoughts. She told me she didn't even want to come to school today.

Throughout our conversation, I reassured her. I told her that her experience on her test this morning was completely natural and that most people going through what she was going through would also have a hard time concentrating on school. I processed with her how she could talk to her first period teacher to see if she could have a second attempt on that test. I asked about her therapist. I told her I would get in touch with her school counselor. I asked if there were other adults she could trust. I reminded her that, while she feels alone and abandoned right now, she is not alone. I thanked her for coming to talk to me.

And, most importantly, I pleaded with Amelia to not give up, telling her life is rough.

I said, "We can't let the bad stuff get in the way of what is good. We have to keep fighting. Don't let this bad stuff right now take over and cause you to fail classes when there are only three weeks left of school. Because if that happens, you have to deal with more bad stuff."

Amelia nodded through teary eyes.

"Thanks, Mister," she said. She calls me "mister" more than she calls me Mr. P.

And then I asked what class she was supposed to be in and if that teacher knew she was coming to talk to me instead of going to class.

Students like Amelia may not pass a test in their first period class because life prevents them from being their best. Equally so, if they are required to take a high-stakes standardized test on a particular day when life gets in the way of learning, they will fail. And then the results of that failing standardized test is used as "data" to label Amelia as a "failure". Additionally, that same data on Amelia is used to label her school as a failure, or "needing improvement". And her teacher is labeled a failure too. And, then, public schools are failing.

The real "data" behind every score on a particular test on a particular day are the minutes, days, weeks, and months of interaction between Amelia and her teachers. Because one day Amelia is launching profanities and throwing a book at me, and then, many days later, she needs me to be her advocate. Amelia is absolutely, unequivocally NOT a failure.

Teachers, we must tell more of our stories that inform the data on public schools.


  1. Hey Todd
    Soon, I will be teaching Reading Intervention just up the road from you. I have observed and talked to "Amelia" throughout my dissertation research. Some of these students say that well, they've never had a teacher inspire them and that they don't even know what they need to be successful in school, because they don't feel that it's ever been given to them. Sure, we can say that young people tend to overdramatize their situations and these testimonies may be extreme--but these are repeated statements from different young people. The scene you have just shared happens to many educators, but it's the scene invisible to the non-educator and those who make decisions about schools--and ultimately then, about kids.
    I believe all students want to surprise us with their talents and to show us that they are indeed thinking, that they do care, and that they want to make us proud. Unfortunately, too much "life" tends to get in their way. It's our job to help them sort through all of that.
    Thanks for returning to education...the kids need you.

  2. My goal is to be a teacher someday. I only hope I can make the same sort of difference in student's lives that you are. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Mr. P., you make me proud. --Mrs. P.

  4. Todd, Thank God you returned to teaching! You are so needed, not only by the students, but by other teachers as well! Much love to you, Todd.

  5. Hi, Todd. I really appreciate your narrative and analysis of the situation. Thank you for posting. Is this class Reading Ideas or Reading Elements? I'm curious to know if Amelia actually has trouble reading at all? Does she have trouble decoding or with comprehension? It seems to me that a salient problem is that she doesn't have a trustworthy adult in her life, and she may have found that in you, her literacy teacher. I wonder how that will influence her attendance and her text scores, and the joy she may gain from reading all kinds of texts. I have a paper about similar students as Amelia that is almost on its way to a journal for publication. I will share it with you. You may find it helpful or useful. Best, Loukia Sarroub

  6. Todd, you make us so proud to have you as a part of our family! You are obviously a great teacher with so much insight and compassion for those who you come in contact with.