05 September 2011

Putting things back in perspective

Recently, I've been a big 'ol bag of complaining. (further proof here and here)(oh, and also, my facebook news feed. That's been pretty brutal recently). I haven't been happy to give up my department chairmanship, to learn a new curriculum, or to not have my own classroom. Though I've tried to see the positive, especially in a county where unemployment hovers near 16%, I have been struggling. 

In a situation like mine, it is too easy to fall into the pit of negativity. Those of you who know me know that I tend to be a *ahem* realist *ahem*. That said, my realism often drifts into negativity. 

So, as you've read, the negativity spirals and feeds itself. Though I tried to find the positive, and often did, my long hours, and nearly constant thought about school conspired to wear me down. I was in a rut, and wasn't enjoying teaching.

And then the unthinkable happened. It is something that happens everyday. It is something that schools are simultaneously prepared for, and utterly unprepared for. 

A student was killed in a car crash.

Suddenly my not having a classroom, the copy codes not working, having a bad were all trivial. A family was without a son and brother. A team was without a member. Classrooms would have an unexpectedly empty seat.  Suddenly there were, as I told my history classes, bigger things to deal with.

This is one of the hardest things any teacher ever has to deal with. How can we possibly be prepared to return to a school which is in grieving? How do we address this in class? Very few (if any) of us have formal training in counseling or grief management. Sure, the school brought in the crisis response team, and the counselors and chaplains did a great job, but this is a situation that can quickly overwhelm that crisis team. Even if it doesn't, young people are apt to struggle with the reality long after the professionals are called to another tragedy. 

In 10 years I've been in schools where this has happened twice. In both of those cases, I didn't know the student. This time it was worse than either of those cases, because the victim was in my 4th hour U.S. History class. No amount of classes can prepare you as a teacher to have a class 20 hours after one of it's members has been unexpectedly and tragically killed. The school psychologist was there for class, sitting in his seat. She let me open class, and then she led a brief discussion about the feelings we were experiencing. We talked. I talked. Tears flowed. No U.S. History was covered. Again, we had more important things to do. 

When I came home Wednesday night, after perhaps the longest teaching day of my career, I felt oddly relieved. This feeling should not have happened. I examined why I felt the way I felt ( a dangerous examination, to be sure) and decided that it was because I had been a teacher. I've been struggling with this. The new classes, the state testing, the discomfort; all of it has been keeping me from being comfortable as a teacher. 

This tragedy gave me an opportunity to not worry about any of that. It gave me an opportunity to teach. The teaching wasn't content, though, it was life. As I told the class towards the end of our discussion, we were learning something that a book couldn't teach. We were learning to mourn. 

And this is, yet again, something that the data/run-schools-like-businesses movement can't understand. What I did last week was far more important than anything in the state standards for U.S. History. Schools don't exist to just teach content. They are places where adults help young people learn how to function in society. Schools teach things that no standardized test can ever measure. That is why kids don't just come to school for rote memorization. That is why we have behavior modification plans. It is why we have tardy policies, and dress codes, and hundreds of other things that are largely not related to content. 

Those that would champion online, or home, or any other number of schools that focus largely on results almost always miss this. The argument should not be primarily about how well every single child learns every single specific fact that the state wants them to learn (although learning is of course an important factor in schools), but rather about how the whole person is made better by the schools. 

If we use that matrix to evaluate schools, classes would get smaller, students would memorize less and learn more, and (I think) American schools would turn out better citizens. They'd score worse on those international tests, but that would be ok, because scoring well on a test isn't an important part of being a successful human.

Learning how to deal with the loss of someone you knew and loved is. And that's what we've been working on this week.

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