Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Thursday, May 1, 2014 7:54 pm

One rookie-of-the-year teacher walks away

My friend Robert Bell once worked with me at the News & Record before becoming a middle-school teacher. He was, and remains, one hell of a writer. But he’s no longer a teacher. He posted on Facebook to that effect earlier today, and with his gracious permission I’m republishing his post in its entirety. I’ll add nothing except to say that when a teacher of this caliber walks away, our children lose, and too many teachers of this caliber — some of whom teach or have taught  my own kids — are walking away.

* * *

It is odd, surrounded by all this quiet. Oh sure, if you listen – I mean really listen – there’s noise. The hum of the air conditioner, the muted taps of a keyboard outside my office, the distant laugh down the hall. But for the most part there is nothing but quiet, and that is new to me.

There is no Elijah in my face, laughing so hard milk explodes from his nose. There is no Destiny or Tyra to ask me what a boy likes in a girl. I haven’t seen Ben or Brooke in three days. Who will I tell to pull up his drooping pants if there is no Wade? Where is Kevin to politely remind him to keep his feet to himself?

I resigned from my middle school job last month. Looking back, the only thing more difficult than leaving my students was the job itself. On my first day of teaching – an exhilarating, uplifting nine-hour whirlwind of joy – I wondered where this job had been all my life. On my last day, I sat fell into my chair wondering how I lasted so long.

This is not a rant against how teachers are treated like lepers by our governor. His actions and inactions speak for themselves. This is not a screed against our legislators. They are perfectly capable of explaining how, in one session, they cut funding to our children’s education and gave precious tax money to for-profit charter schools while my students are using science textbooks that claim Pluto as the ninth planet.

Instead, this is an elegy to the folks I left behind, the hardest working and least understood professionals I know – your child’s teacher.

Like most jobs, teaching has two versions: The chestnut Hollywood portrays and reality. I fell hard for the Hollywood version. You know, the one where the teacher walks in and instantly a hush falls over the classroom. This is followed by students dutifully pulling out their notebooks and, pencils in hand, wait for those pearls to tumble from my mouth.

Oh, the places we’ll go! The stories we’ll read. There will be lively discussions of Whitman and O. Henry and Poe. Hands will shimmy in the air, their owners eager to share their own wisdom and connections.

Then there’s the other version of teaching I like to call reality. On my first day at my middle school, a father choked his son for leaving his lunch at home. Another student whispered to me she wasn’t wearing any underwear – and that she didn’t have any for the new school year. A third raised his hand and asked me to pronounce the word on the whiteboard: Welcome!

Welcome, indeed. After that first day I realize Whitman and his friends might want to come back in a few months.

Someone a lot smarter than me once described teaching better than I ever could. Imagine a lawyer (or banker or accountant or doctor) showing up for work one morning and finding 32 clients in need of their services. Each client had a different problem and was unable to articulate it. Some were angry they had to be there. Others were thrilled to get away from their homes if only for eight hours a day. Some were quick to explain their needs and desires, but became frustrated when it took so long to get to them. Others were easily distracted. Ready? Learn!

Don’t get me wrong, teaching is not an impossible job, just an incredibly difficult one. I’ve worked with many wonderful teachers who meet the needs of their students every day. And while the high test scores and rookie-of-the-year award were nice, my heart told me I wasn’t one of those teachers.

I dreaded telling my students I was leaving. At the start of the school year I brought in a cake and candles for each class. We closed the blinds and turned off the lights and made a pact around the flickering candles: For better or worse, we were in this school year together. I told them some might grasp the lesson that day and were welcome to move forward. I told them others might need more time – and that was fine, too. But one thing was certain: We were in this together. Nobody was being left behind.

After hearing that I was leaving, Elijah tearfully told me I was breaking up our secret club. I told him he was right. I told him I was sorry. I told him the only reason I would ever leave him was for Kate (a fixture during my after-school tutoring) and the rest of my family.

At the end of the day, Rion scribbled a note and put it on my desk before hurrying out the door to her bus: “Please don’t go, Mr. Bell. I know this letter is not fancy, but it was made with care. You were once like my white father to me. Now you’re like my father. I wish my mom had met you.”

CJ, who never met a lesson that couldn’t be put on pause so he could sketch, drew me a comic strip. I am swinging an oversized pencil at a dragon named Stupid. By the end, Stupid is sprawled out on the ground. Mr. Bell and his full head of hair are smiling and the children are cheering. “Do you get it? Do you get it? Mr. Bell! Met-a-phooor!”

I’m staring at his metaphor right now. It is in my office, my incredibly quiet office, next to the picture of the two of us at a school dance. CJ was nervous about going to the dance. He said the only way he would go was if I went with him. He clung by my side the first 15 minutes. Never saw him the rest of the night.

I knew I would miss CJ and the rest of the kids. I just didn’t think I would miss them this much.

When people asked me what I did for a living I gave them what they wanted to hear: “I’m a teacher,” I’d say.

What I wanted to say is, “What do I do for a living? Every day I walk into a classroom and discover worlds I never knew existed.”

Like CJ’s world, in which his mother keeps him home whenever she’s feeling lonely and depressed. Like Remy’s world, in which he came to this country after watching a warlord shoot his father to death back in Africa. Like Tyra’s world, in which she writes letters every week in class to her father in jail. She’s still waiting on him to write back. Like Angel’s world, in which he has a perfect attendance and regularly stays after school for tutoring – if only to escape going home to Mom and Dad’s arguing. Like Justin’s world, in which he and his two brothers and cousin take turns sleeping on a single bed each night.

A teacher is more than just someone who fills your child with knowledge and makes them “globally competitive,” whatever in the hell that means. They make many of their students happy, well-adjusted human beings and instill in them the audacity to believe they can be more then what they ever dreamed they could be.

Maya Angelou, whose stories we read in class this year, once wrote “of all the needs a lonely child has … the one that must be satisfied, if there is going to be hope and a hope of wholeness, is the unshaking need for an unshakable God.”

I’ll count those 19 months in a classroom a success if just one of my students thought I was their Kingdom Come.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2011 8:19 pm

Even though — or maybe because — I spent 25 years in journalism …

Filed under: Aiee! Teh stoopid! It burns!,Journalism — Lex @ 8:19 pm
Tags: ,

… I have a certain sympathy for people, and even for Matt Damon, when they get asked a question so overwhelmingly idiotic that they lose the ability to respond courteously [language NSFW — duh].

(And, no, I don’t think it’s even close to coincidence that this idiotic a question comes from a reporter for Reason.TV.)

UPDATE: I thought that “10%” bit sounded familiar. Commenter baldheadeddork adds this bit of context at Nance’s place:

The “10% of people in any profession are bad” is a bit of cultural herpes left to us by Jack Welch from his days of running GE. He created/pulled out of his ass this idea that all of GE’s companies should find the worst-performing 10% of employees every year and fire them. It doesn’t require thinking, so conservatives and the idiot wing of the libertarian movement have latched on to it as gospel, never mind that it’s one of the reasons Welch left GE a train wreck of a company that had to be saved by TARP two years ago.

 

Saturday, December 13, 2008 3:02 pm

Predicting job success when it counts most

Filed under: Y'all go read this — Lex @ 3:02 pm
Tags: , ,

How do you tell when someone you’re thinking about hiring will succeed in the job you’re hiring for? In my experience hiring reporters for the paper, past success — as measured not necessarily by awards and prizes but by the caliber of work done (including but not limited to the four or five clips we typically ask for from applicants) and the creativity and leadership shown in past problem-solving — usually is a very good indicator. And even that package of attributes is not totally reliable.

And even in my line of work, a lot is riding on the outcome. Recruiting and hiring for an open reporting job costs a significant percentage of what we pay in salary and benefits in a year. In some other lines of work, it can run 40 to 50 percent of the position’s annual compensation.

So imagine the kind of money riding on the choice of a quarterback for an NFL team. And then imagine the nonfinancial but infinitely more important issues riding on the choice of a teacher.

Malcolm “Freakonomics” Gladwell didn’t just imagine it, he went looking for the recruiting answer in both lines of work. And in those lines of work, he found, predicting success is a whole lot more of a crap shoot than in my line of work:

[Pro scout Dan] Shonka began to talk about Tim Couch, the quarterback taken first in that legendary [quarterback] draft of 1999. Couch set every record imaginable in his years at the University of Kentucky. “They used to put five garbage cans on the field,” Shonka recalled, shaking his head, “and Couch would stand there and throw and just drop the ball into every one.” But Couch was a flop in the pros. It wasn’t that professional quarterbacks didn’t need to be accurate. It was that the kind of accuracy required to do the job well could be measured only in a real N.F.L. game.

Because the game of pro football is so much faster than the college game, particularly on defense, it’s much harder for quarterbacks, even the best in the college game, to succeed in the pros. Part of that difference, he observes, has to do with the offensive strategies college teams typically employ as opposed to the pro teams. But those strategy differences are driven by the speed of pro defenders — even the big, heavy ones. And you don’t have to be a football expert, or even to watch a lot of games, to see the difference.

In teaching, where the stakes are immeasurably higher even if the money involved doesn’t suggest so, there’s good news for parents, teachers and students: We’re learning a lot more about what is likely to make a successful teacher than pro scouts are about what makes a college QB likely to succeed in the NFL, as this examination of a recording of a teacher in action shows:

Then there was the superstar—a young high-school math teacher, in jeans and a green polo shirt. “So let’s see,” he began, standing up at the blackboard. “Special right triangles. We’re going to do practice with this, just throwing out ideas.” He drew two triangles. “Label the length of the side, if you can. If you can’t, we’ll all do it.” He was talking and moving quickly, which [Bob] Pianta [the dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education] said might be interpreted as a bad thing, because this was trigonometry. It wasn’t easy material. But his energy seemed to infect the class. And all the time he offered the promise of help. If you can’t, we’ll all do it. In a corner of the room was a student named Ben, who’d evidently missed a few classes. “See what you can remember, Ben,” the teacher said. Ben was lost. The teacher quickly went to his side: “I’m going to give you a way to get to it.” He made a quick suggestion: “How about that?” Ben went back to work. The teacher slipped over to the student next to Ben, and glanced at her work. “That’s all right!” He went to a third student, then a fourth. Two and a half minutes into the lesson—the length of time it took that [previously examined] subpar teacher to turn on the computer—he had already laid out the problem, checked in with nearly every student in the class, and was back at the blackboard, to take the lesson a step further.

“In a group like this, the standard m.o. would be: he’s at the board, broadcasting to the kids, and has no idea who knows what he’s doing and who doesn’t know,” Pianta said. “But he’s giving individualized feedback. He’s off the charts on feedback.” Pianta and his team watched in awe.

Writ large, the inability to predict success accurately during the hiring process is probably a significant drag on the economy. But if you’re a parent, you probably care a lot less about that than about how well one or a handful of teachers can help your kids learn (and learn how to learn). And if we’re not expert, at least we’re getting better.

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