Friday, November 10, 2023

The Teachers of PS 39

           They were always together. Chatting in the hallways, sharing lunch in the break room, socializing outside of school. They were technically colleagues, but in essence they were more like family. It was just a small elementary school in northeast Staten Island, but they made it feel like home.

My mother was a teacher, and for most of her career she taught at Public School 39 in the South Beach section of Staten Island. She taught whatever the year required – third grade, fourth grade, music, you name it – and she did so with joy. I spent plenty of days visiting her in the school, and I witnessed the deep connections she made with students. Those visits had plenty to do with the decision I made to become a teacher myself.

But I was always fascinated with the relationships my mom built with her fellow teachers. These people weren’t all the same in terms of personality and interests. Yet they cared deeply about one another and knew all about one another’s triumphs and struggles. They all came over to my house, for my mom’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party, and for regular visits. I spent time in their houses as well, getting to know their children and becoming close with some of those kids. My mom organized Broadway trips, and the teachers would travel to Manhattan together for dinner and a show.

As I grew up, these women became some of the most important adults in my life. One of them delivered a reading at my wedding. Another became a trusted mentor. Still another gave me one of her old cars to serve as my first set of wheels. These teachers paid me to work at their houses, painting walls and raking leaves. They invited us to their Jersey Shore homes. And, when my parents retired to Cape May, they all made pilgrimages down there to spend time together. My parents returned the favor, visiting their retirement homes everywhere from Connecticut to Florida.

For most of my teaching career, I was hesitant about growing too close to my fellow educators, out of an attempt to maintain professional boundaries. It’s true that I did become an administrator in the school where I’d taught, and I found myself supervising people with whom I’d worked side by side. But that happens, and I’ve found that it is possible to supervise a friend. Over the years, my boundary-setting left me missing some of what my mom and her friends had. It’s as though I ignored the very thing they were modeling for me all along – the reality that the best friends you make in life might just be the ones teaching across the hall from you, toiling by your side in one of the toughest jobs anyone can choose. When you work in a school every day, you develop a partnership with those who care about it as much as you do, as you bond over a mutual understanding of how much compassion and dedication go into this job.

As my mom’s Alzheimer’s has progressed, these teachers have made their way to visit her in the assisted living home where she now resides. The teachers sit with my mom and talk, and she listens, sharing her wish that she could remember all the times they have spent together. They hug her tight, and tell her they love her. My mom does the same. Nothing can take away the love they have for each other. The teachers call me on the phone as well, and ask me for updates. When we finish, I tell them I love them, too. Because I do.

They will be there for my mom throughout, because that’s the only way these PS 39 teachers know how to operate. And I will be there for them as well, because that’s the least I can do to honor the friendships, the family, the inspiration, and the kindness I have received from these very special educators and humans.

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Seismic Changes

             I began my teaching career three months before the turn of the century, at a time when the baby boomers were starting to retire and bipartisanship was still a thing. We looked forward to a millennium of changes beyond our imagination, in education and in the world at large.

            Three years into my career, the 21st-century educational changes began. No Child Left Behind ushered in a seismic shift in education. Standardized testing, school accountability and educational standards became required, unquestionable aspects of every state and district’s educational landscape, and the use of data to evaluate school success became a fixed part of how we run schools. It took years for school districts to adjust to this method of evaluation, and many are still struggling to produce data that reveal a quality commensurate with the education that district leaders believe they are seeing in the classroom.

            Change can be exciting, but it also can be all-encompassing. In their classic scholarship on organizational leadership, Lee Bolman and Terrence E. Deal describe four frames of leadership – the structural frame, the human resource frame, the symbolic frame and the political frame. A seismic shift in education hits all four frames at once. No Child Left Behind, for instance, altered the very nature of what schools do (structural), the job requirements of educators (human resource), the messages we send about educational equity (symbolic) and the fixes legislators had made to that inequity (political). For institutions as complicated and bureaucratic as school districts and school buildings, a seismic shift takes a lot out of everyone. After all of the meetings, professional development, and readjusted lesson plans, we hope we’ve found a way to pivot toward improved education for the students we serve.

            Another seismic shift arrived after the Newtown, Conn., mass shooting of 2012, this one focused on much stricter school security. In the first decade of the century, yet another seismic shift began as both smartphones and social media arrived in students’ lives, bringing technology into our classrooms every minute of the day. And a fourth shift took place over the course of the first two decades of the 2000s, as many colleges maneuvered toward higher tuitions and lower acceptance rates, thereby turning the promise of higher education on its head and leading to a near-obsessive student/parent focus on the K-12 finish line.

            All of these shifts led to countless research and policy changes, as well as deep challenges to the daily lives of educators. We know that big changes are coming in our careers, and we know that rigidity will be of no use. But we do hope that these changes can be spread out a bit, so as to make the essential job of educating students more manageable. Four huge changes in 20 years was a lot. But it was actually easy to handle compared to the past several years.

            In this last 5-10 years, the frequency of seismic changes has increased at a pace few could have expected. While I identified four such changes over my first 20 years as an educator, four more have fully developed over the past half-decade or so. For one, we have a mental health epidemic affecting our children, which existed before the Covid pandemic and continues to exist after it. Two, we have ever-increasing polarization that leads to intense divisions and lines in the sand on virtually every topic you can find. Third, we have rapid increases in the development of artificial intelligence, coupled with a widening mistrust of source material. And fourth, we are expected to produce quality education in the midst of catastrophe, whether it’s from infectious disease or climate-induced crises.

            In essence, these four current shifts are challenging the very nature of wellness, the very nature of truth, the very nature of learning, and the very nature of survival. With changes this wide and deep and disturbing, it’s no wonder some are choosing not to pursue careers in education. These are tough times all over, and the classroom is no exception.

            My doctoral dissertation focused on two tough yet critical topics in education – media literacy and racial literacy. One day, while I was conducting my research in an eighth-grade classroom in New Jersey, students were discussing sources related to immigration. In a small-group conversation, two boys offered differing views on how much is too much when it comes to U.S. open-border immigration policies. When we gathered for full-group discussion, a third boy from that group quietly shared that he’d been listening to his two friends as they had disagreed over whether this country should accept more immigrants. He said he heard both points of view, he believes both classmates to be really good people, and he was having trouble determining who was more correct in their points of view, and what to do about it.

            We listened to this student, and the class quietly reflected on his point. He was addressing an issue that has no quick fixes. And yet he was listening, learning, and sharing. He was engaged in respectful conversation with his peers as they studied up on the topic. He was ready to keep learning and talking about the issue. He wasn’t shying away from it, but he also wasn’t expecting easy answers.

            Bolman and Deal’s four frames were all on display here: the structure (student-centered learning); the human resource (respectful discussion and discovery among peers); the symbolic (democratic learning with free exchange of ideas); and the political (fearless entry into the tough topics, with mutual respect). This was just one conversation, for sure. But for me, it shone a light on an educational path that can seem dark and foreboding in 2023. Just as seismic changes can hit all four frames, so can collaboration and our commitments to learning and growing together.

The changes are abundant and they are overwhelming. But I have to figure that if these kids can find a way forward, one step at a time, so can I. And so can we.