How We Are Changed II: I Can't Get It Up
[more at the end]
The most apt metaphor for my instructional adequacy is to the inconsistently performing male porn actor, but this blog is too closely tied to working with kids, and my veneer of anonymity far too thin to let loose with that one, so I'll fall back on basketball: I'm the small forward who just can't get on track. The jump shot isn't falling, even though I'm getting good looks. I'm taking it to the basket, but can't finish. The defense is spotty, and there have been embarrassing lapses, and bonehead mistakes. Except it's not all the time. If it were, coach would bench me, and I could figure things out from my spot on the pine. No, I have good moments, times when I come off the screen and nail the jumper, and every time I sprint back on D thinking, That was it. I needed that. Now we're gonna really get it going.
I can't get it going.
Some of it is unavoidable. My students need structure. As a teacher I need structure. But as a human being, the endless predictability of my days is draining. From an educational perspective, it's a good thing that I can tell you in exacting detail what will happen on June 7, around 1:15 p.m. From a personal perspective, it's disappointing and droll.
Some of it is avoidable, though. I'm caught in a stupid cycle of knowing I need to do a better job engaging kids, and building relationships, especially with those squirmy boys I want to put in intellectual headlocks, academic figure-fours, instructional pile-drivers. I know I need to build more dynamic practice, more satisfying assessment models, loosen the reins a little and let the ponies run. I know I need to do those things, but I trip over the cause and effect chart of the whole thing.
CAUSE: The kids act immature and weak.
EFFECT: I self-flagellate and work harder.
EFFECT: I raise the bar and reduce instances of immaturity.
EFFECT: I am embittered by the process.
Then wait a month and do it again.
I've fallen into the George W. Bush trap of seeking to avoid rewarding bad behavior, as if engaging lessons, effective teaching, and positive interactions were somehow a reward that students earn by putting up with me on the days when I produce none of the above. As if compliance with drudgery functioned as a prerequisite, granting access to something far greater. My brain uses phrases like giving in and playing their game. I'm trying to instill abstract quid-pro-quo contractual understandings with 12-year-olds, and that's just not a good idea.
Stepping further back, and I can see I've done good work this year. I have some rock star students, a number of kids who will test proficient next week when they couldn't even sniff it a year ago. There's W. and A., two girls who have been in this country about two years each, out-achieving just about everybody in my H.P. B class, soaking up vocabulary, syntax, and skills as fast as I can spit it. There's the fluency gains, already in excess of two years for over ninety percent. I've made good instructional choices, pacing things better, and making the decision not to teach certain skills to my lower groups -- an important choice, and a hard one, but also valuable. I've implementing a tracking and accountability system for reading strategies, and its functioning well and acting as a source of motivation.
But I lose the forest for the trees. All I can think about anymore is how J. and M. are checking out, how F. and V. and I. continue to ditch school, and how K. is just a damn train-wreck. I'm in that bear-trap of letting the negatives overshadow and dominate the positives, and that's a disastrous place to be.
We practice characterization, kids are acquiring grade-level skills, I'm making references to literature and Kelis' Milkshake song, the quizzes are tremendous, and I go home feeling empty because A. and M. made spitballs and had to be held after school indefinitely to clean and be castigated.
What the hell is wrong with me? Why can't I get over and past this?
I think some of this is the year five slump I've been slipping in and out of, fueled by the fact that too much of this year looked too much like last year. Some of the repitition is the nature of teaching, I guess, but every prior year has seen an increase in effectiveness and new innovations to instruction. I haven't innovated so much, and it's bummed me out. The cool thing I did to boost achievement is still a cool thing that effectively boosts achievement, but the seventh time through felt a little less cool than the sixth time, which felt a little less cool than the fifth, which felt a little less cool than... and it's not always about me, but it has to be a little about me, too.
I think I stalled myself out a little, conscious of last year's success and really hoping not to screw it up, to replicate it really, to not lose whatever it was that so powerfully raised achievement. Dig it, I got paralyzed by the pie chart.
But there's also this: I need to create an environment where kids can make mutli-year academic progress, significant gains in the TFA parlance. When you're three, four, and five years behind in seventh grade, there isn't a whole lot of time left to make high school graduation and college more than theoretical. And kids do it, lot's of them, more each year, and now some making more. But in setting up a class this way, kids making two years of growth start looking like they are underachieving, slipping, and not keeping up. That's a problem.
The longer you think about it, the bigger a problem it becomes, one that cuts across curricular design, expectations, communication of progress, reinforcement, pacing, student motivation, and instructional choices.
Or maybe it's a little problem: too many kids doing too well, and I just need to chill and let things work themselves out.