Confessions of a Teacher: Pandemic Edition

I AM TIREDDDDDDD!!!!! We are going into week 11 of our Hybrid model of remote learning, and this has been nothing short of tiring, exhausting, stressful, draining, depressing, and frustrating. While we signed up to be educators, which we knew was one of the most taxing jobs with very low pay, we did not sign up for these conditions. But then again who did? 

This pandemic has literally changed everyone’s lives, in the blink of an eye. So what is there to do besides adjust to our, hopefully temporary, new norm? Being open and willing to make changes and adjustments is easy. The challenging part is actually doing the work it takes to make those changes so that they are effectively helpful to our students. That oftentimes takes many revisions, because what we thought would work, simply did not. So it becomes this space of continuous change, and that can definitely take a toll. 

I haven’t talked much about the toll this has all taken on me, and ALL of my fellow educator friends (virtual and real life friends.) I was really in a space where I wanted to, as best as I could, see the bright side of things and find the good in all circumstances. Then I realized that it’s ok to not be ok. It’s okay and actually necessary to share your feelings and get them off your chest. So what better space than here to share some of my thoughts and frustrations about remote learning? After all, I created this site not only to give a space for us all to do just that, but to give others an inside view of the life of a teacher. At the end of each mini section of this blog, I will try and give some type of solution that has helped me navigate through each of the challenges. However for some, I just haven’t figured it out yet. So feel free to leave thoughts, comments, and suggestions in the comments below. Happy reading.

Spotty Wifi

Man Listen. Honey child. This internet connection has literally been the bane of my existence. I always hear students say, “I kept getting kicked out of the class. So I just stopped trying.” Of course my response is always, “You have to just do your best and keep trying to log in. Even if you get kicked out, keep logging in.”

Well, it wasn’t until I was sitting in a PD (Professional Development), on a day that I had spotty wifi, that I was truly able to understand the students’ frustrations. Here I am taking notes and trying to be fully engaged from the confines of my couch, when I get kicked out of zoom in the middle of my principal making a statement. I anxiously wait for zoom to reload and let me back into the session. This session was one of the few I was actually interested in, so naturally I was a little annoyed. I finally get back into the session and not even five minutes pass before I am kicked out again! UGH! This literally went on for the remainder of the session. I, no lie, was kicked out of that zoom session more than 6 times. While I tried to piece the tidbits of information together that I was able to be present for, I really wasn’t able to learn anything because I had missed so much.

Solution: 

This really humbled me and allowed me to see what some of my students were dealing with. It was absolutely infuriating to be kicked out of the session every few minutes. I, as an adult, lost my patience several times. Imagine how my students felt. Then the reality hit. I teach a math course. In a math class, when you miss parts of the lesson, it is extremely hard to put the pieces together and see the big picture. How can I expect my students to walk away with conceptual understanding and do well on an exit slip when many of them can’t even remain logged into the session long enough to learn the information? The reality was, I CAN’T. So what now?  

As a solution, I began to make supplemental videos for each of the lessons we would cover and post them on youtube. Each video went through at least one full example in detail from beginning to end. The videos are posted prior to teaching the lesson so that students can watch and copy the examples down before coming to class. This allowed them not only to come to class with some understanding of the lesson, but also made better use of the class time, as now they can focus on absorbing the material without having to copy it down. For my kids with spotty computer wifi, the videos are accessible from their cellphones, which ideally run on a different network than their home internet. 

To be very transparent, the planning and execution of making these videos and resources can be very time consuming. However, when students are working independently and I check on them, asking what they are working on and hearing them tell me they are re-watching one of the videos, it makes it all worth it.

Low Student Engagement:

The course I am teaching this year is typically an 11th grade course. However, because some students have had to repeat previous math courses, I have a handful of seniors this year. Many of whom have struggled with math all of their educational career. Now add the conditions of being in school during a pandemic to those already lingering struggles and it makes it nearly impossible for some of them to feel motivated enough to even try. 

This year one of my seniors literally came to class 5-6 times in 10 weeks. She is a student that I had previously in other courses so I knew how capable she was. The first year I had her, she shared that although she lived with her mother, her mother wasn’t very active and allowed her to do whatever she wanted. It made me proud at the time to see that even with the dangerous amount of freedom she had, she was still focusing and doing her work in school. And this is why, this year, I was getting so frustrated with her. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why she would wait until senior year to drop the ball. She is one of about 7 seniors that I have, many with the same stories. 

Why are so many students disengaged and what can I do if they won’t even log in?

Solution: 

After speaking with several of that student’s friends, all of whom have been trying to help her get it together, I decided to reach out to her myself. I had reached out to the parents but received  no response back. So I asked one of her friends for her number. I called this girl, back to back, about 4 times. Then sent a “Hey this is Ms. Hanif” text. I knew she saw it so called back another few times. I wanted her to see that I would keep calling until she answered. Eventually she did and she shared some of what she was dealing with and how she was having a hard time focusing. I shared some of the things I’ve done and created to make it a little easier for them. But ultimately I put the responsibility on her. I told her all that I can do is be there, support her, and be understanding but I couldn’t  do more than she does. It’s her education and future on the line.

I shared this story to say that all we can do as educators is continue to reach out to the students and their parents. Find out the WHY behind why the student isn’t showing up. I’ve realized that more times than not, it’s because they have things going on outside of school and are just completely overwhelmed. While we can make the work more accessible, we can also add additional scaffolds and resources, and we can give GRACE when it comes to deadlines. Ultimately the responsibility is on them (this totally doesn’t apply for elementary kids). But we can be there to support them and help them navigate through it all until they find that balance.

Unrealistic Expectations:

Mannn Listen. When I first found out that we would be ultimately teaching two classes during the same period at the same time (in person and remote), all I could say was how? I instantly got a headache because I already knew what that meant for my upcoming year. CHAOS AND STRESS. Teachers already have the responsibility of wearing several different hats at the same time. Now to be expected to balance more on top of that seems nearly impossible. 

I was recently asked to be a part of a team to help gather and prepare information for a grant my school wanted to apply for. As soon as I received the email, I laughed to myself and said aloud, “How?” I couldn’t fathom how I would add one more thing onto my already seemingly overfilled plate. As I sat in the initial meeting for the grant, I realized how much work it would be to not only to gather the information needed to apply, but the work it would require to maintain the grant. I said to myself, “Priorities, Elizabeth.”

That moment made me think of the number of emails teachers receive on a daily or weekly basis that add new tasks to the lists of existing “To Dos”. Sometimes it feels as though admin doesn’t consider or care about the load teachers already have. “Good Morning, Mrs. Xavier please send XYZ by the end of the day today.” “Good Afternoon Mr. Jackson, please call all 45 parents of the students who are failing your class because they don’t attend, within the next two days and document it.” “Good Morning Ms. Landry, thank you for submitting your lesson plans on time. However please be advised we decided to test school-wide on Wednesday and Thursday,so you will need to adjust your schedule and resubmit those well documented lessons.” “Good Evening Mr. Pinto, while I understand we have access to what we are about to ask you for, please compile a list of students who have over 10 absences from your class.” 

Solution:

Too often, as educators, we forget what it means to say no or prioritize. While many of the things being asked of us don’t seem to be a “big deal” to some,  when piled on top of our already heavy workload, it seems to be enough to make it all tip over. What I have learned to do is to write down everything that I need to do and prioritize that list from most important and necessary to least. What’s most important to you will differ by the course you teach and the school you work at. But at the end of the day you have to put up boundaries on what you do. 

If you have one more lesson to do but feel like you’re about to fall apart, submit what you have and send the last one the next day. If you have been asked at the last minute for a document or to complete a task but have other things that are more crucial to your day to day to complete, then complete those things first. If you get to the other items on time, great. If you don’t get to the other items, then do so when you can. Be open and honest with your admin about what you are able to do and by when. In a time when it seems admin doesn’t have realistic expectations of us, we must have realistic expectations of ourselves and protect our mental health, and most times that includes prioritizing.

This first quarter of teaching hybrid classes during a pandemic has left many of us feeling overworked and underappreciated. We are tired. I am tired. Nobody has the answers to it all. We all have so much on our plates, and finding solutions to the many issues we are all facing has felt seemingly impossible. Hopefully these few tips have helped in some manner.

Feel free to drop some tips, experiences, or comments in the comment section below.  

Oh hey Karen, WE SEE YOU.

According to Wikipedia (not my favorite source but appropriate for the context of this blog), Karen is referred as “a common stereotype that of a racist white woman who uses her privilege to demand her own way at the expense of others.” Recently we have seen an increase in the Karen’s who are known for calling the cops on black men and women unnecessarily. We have seen it all from calls about stealing parking spots, words exchanged outside of stores, and even being asked to put on a mask during a global pandemic.This “Karen” calls the police believing that when they arrive, they will believe her, take her side, and arrest the person of color simply because she is a white woman. Privilege at its worst. These Karen’s are entitled, obnoxious, and look down upon black people. They believe they are better than others, especially black people and others of color, and aren’t afraid to say so.

But what about those Karen’s who work in schools with our children? It would be offensive in a time like today to not address such Karen’s. Believe me there are many different types of Karen’s. So let’s talk about a couple of them.

The most blatant and obvious Karen is the teacher who doesn’t find value in getting to know their students. So what happens is when a student acts out, the teacher, instead of communicating with the student, kicks the student out. They call the dean, assistant principal or safety officer to come have the child removed for an act that could’ve been a discussion or a conversation. They over exaggerate situations that happen inside of the classroom when reporting, knowing that if a student, who was white, exhibited those same behaviors, the response would surely have been different. These Karens are dangerous because their behaviors tell our children that they are not worth a conversation. Their behaviors, the haste to kick a student out, tell our children that their presence does not  add value to the classroom. These Karens are dangerous because their lack of desire to understand our children’s behaviors push our children out of school and into the streets. Oh hey Karen, WE SEE YOU

Or how about the Karen who believes that she’s the judge and jury in every situation? The one who wants to make sure “justice is served.” Not realizing that justice, when it comes to children, is changed behavior and learned lessons, not retaliation and punitive punishment. The Karen who always insert themselves into the conversation overtly negative and talking about the “troubled” kids. The Karen who has so many opinions on what the best solution is. The Karen who believes the student should be suspended for every infraction, even the ones they too committed as a child. Oh hey Karen, WE SEE YOU. 

How about the Karen whose classroom is a one size fits all model. The one who has no intention of differentiating their lessons for the students below grade level, resulting in those students receiving failing grade after failing grade. The one who then blames that failure on the parents’ “lack of involvement,” or lack of “care and concern” for their child. The same Karen who is never available to help her students outside of normal class hours, but wonders why their students aren’t successful. Oh hey Karen, WE SEE YOU.

Or the Karen that, from the moment your child walked into the classroom, knew they weren’t going to be successful. The Karen who had the idea that children who come in below grade level cannot rise to the occasion and excel. So they lower the standards and expectations of the student, rather than pushing them to meet and exceed the challenges before them. Oh hey Karen, WE SEE YOU. 

Lastly, the Karen who doesn’t believe students’ home lives affect their ability to be the “productive student” during school hours. How naive you are! Believing that when children walk into the building their problems just disappear. The ones who believe our students are “just kids” and don’t deal with real life issues. The ones who, if they took the time to get to know their students, would learn that some come from emotionally abusive environments, live in poverty, share rooms with multiple siblings, or have no adult they can safely confide in. But you’re harassing them about their incomplete homework. Really? 

Oh hey Karen! WE SEE YOU! And to be honest, you don’t belong in our schools. Our children deserve the very best! And that includes someone who looks past their flaws and/or deficiencies, meets them at their level and pushes them beyond their wildest dreams. They deserve someone who sees poor behaviors and helps them to learn how to consistently make better decisions. They deserve someone who is all about seeing them prosper and be successful. And Karen, THAT AIN’T YOU! 

PLEASE FEEL FREE TO SHARE ANY THOUGHTS OR EXPERIENCES BELOW!

NO MEANS NO

Protecting Our Women At All Costs!

There’s so much going on around me that has led me to writing this piece. Women are victimized daily, yet they decide to swallow the large pill of what has happened to them at the expense of their own mental stability. But why? Why are women keeping silent? That has been the question many people have been asking. Is it because they put themselves in that position? Is it because they deserved it or were too suggestive to say it wasn’t consensual? Is it because NO doesn’t always mean no? So many questions without real answers. Prayerfully, by the end of this read, you will have a different outlook and better understanding on the whys. Prayerfully, it will cause you to reevaluate your outlook and if provoked, change your perspective.

Jennifer (that’s what I’ll call her for the purpose of this piece) and I have been friends for over 20 years. We have had many ups and downs over the years. However over the last 5-7 years we have become closer than sisters. It is for this reason that when she shared this story with me, for the life of me I couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been sooner. Was it because we weren’t really the friends I thought we were? Was it because she didn’t feel comfortable sharing ugly situations with me? We’ve talked about everything from family, friends, and stupid ex’s. Why was this any different?

Jennifer had a close male friend (let’s call him John) whose house she would stay if everyone went out and she was too drunk to drive home. They had a completely platonic relationship, which made his place one of safety and comfort. Well one night, after being out, she decided to stay at John’s house because she didn’t want to drive home. While she wasn’t SMACKED, she had a drink or two more than that of someone who should be driving anywhere. John had planned to step out for the remainder of the night because he was meeting up with a “friend.” He also had another friend who was staying on the couch, I’m guessing for the same reason as Jennifer.

When John left, this friend came into the room and asked Jennifer if he could sleep in the bed with her. She was completely thrown off, sending him to the other room, because nothing in her recollection should have given him the impression that this intrusion was warranted. In the middle of the night Jennifer felt a tug at her pants and jumped out of her sleep. She realized it was the couch sleeper, clearly not on the couch. As she tells him to stop, he continues tugging. She tells him to stop again, as he is forcefully trying to remove her pants. She fights him off and yells for him to leave. She immediately reaches out to John, the friend whose house it was, telling him to come back immediately. When John returns, Jennifer begins to tell him what happened from beginning to end. His response was, “Well, you both were drunk.”

For those unaware or uninformed, according to Wikipedia (not my favorite source to use), sexual assault is defined as “an act in which a person intentionally sexually touches another person without that person’s consent or coerces or physically forces a person to engage in a sexual act against their will.” Jennifer was asleep and woke up in the midst of a sexual assault. 

So the question is why don’t women SPEAK UP?!  One of the main reasons women don’t speak up when sexually assaulted is fear that people won’t believe them or take the act seriously. The fear that people will ask, “Well what’s the whole story?” As if telling them that you said no, or weren’t able to consent because you were asleep or drunk, simply wasn’t enough. Fear of having to defend themselves by reliving the moment over and over, a moment they want to do nothing more than forget, in an effort to convince someone that it happened. 

Why don’t women speak up? EMBARRASSMENT and GUILT. The thoughts and feelings of “How did I get here?” “I allowed this to happen.” “I put myself in this situation.” “Embarrassed that I could be so stupid to put myself in this position.” Too often, because men don’t take accountability for their own actions, it leaves victimized women in a space where they have no option but to place blame on themselves. 

Have you ever heard conversations that sounded like, “Well she went over there with that skin-tight mini dress on. What did she expect to happen?” Because I know I have. Or comments like “It was 3am after they had been drinking. What did she think was going to happen when going into his house?” I myself have said that one. As I look back in disgust with my own previous thoughts, I yell to you all and myself, “None of that matters. All that matters is NO MEANS NO.” The events of the night are all irrelevant. She could have thrown herself over him all night, kissing, hugging, WHATEVER. All that matters is when she said no, she meant NO!

Why don’t women speak up? Could it be because we live in a society where it’s “Bro’s before ho’s.” So when men hear about their bro doing foul shit, they minimize it as “being drunk.” Jennifer shared with John that his friend sexually assaulted her. He responded, “You were both drunk,” as if drinking too much validates an attempt to take advantage of someone who was asleep. As if being drunk equates to NO DOESN’T ALWAYS MEAN NO. The situation couldn’t have been that serious because that’s my bro and he’s not like that. Maybe she’s overthinking it. A woman with two degrees can’t possibly differentiate flirting from a sexual assault. 

So what can we do? 

PROTECT OUR WOMEN AT ALL COSTS!  When you see foul behavior, SPEAK UP! Recently there was a video circulating on social media of a guy attempting to talk to a girl who wasn’t interested in him. It made me think back to when it would happen to me, followed by “Fuck you bitch,” or “You aren’t that cute anyway, ho.” Well this young lady in the video wasn’t as fortunate as me to just have abusive words thrown at her. Before she could respond, he smacked her across the face with a skateboard. A SKATEBOARD! So I ask, are we protecting our women? Who stood there and recorded the video and posted it? How many other women have been abused by this man, either physically or emotionally, before this incident and how many people sat around and said nothing? Who was protecting her?

So what can we do?

PROTECT OUR WOMEN AT ALL COSTS! Stop victim shaming and minimizing because of your views and ideology about the woman. You weren’t there! I recently listened to an interview on The Breakfast Club with Dr. Umar Johnson (link here) where he shares his views on the Bill Cosby case (20 mins in). He shared that because the woman was white and of power, there is no way that she could be a victim and wait a year to tell her story. He shared that because Bill is a black man and she is a white woman, it was not possible for her not to tell her white friends or whomever about what this “black man” had done to her. While it is true that black men are persecuted and sentenced unequally to their white counterpart, to take a situation such as this, sexual assault, and reduce the actions and effects of the trauma to “If it really happened, she would have spoken up because of her race” is disgraceful. Who was protecting her?

So what can we do? 

PROTECT OUR WOMEN AT ALL COSTS! Mothers–love on your children. Show your daughters and sons what respect and love looks like. Teach them to not only take accountability for their actions, but when to let go of the guilt associated with situations where they were taken advantage of. Fathers–show your children what healthy relationships look like. Show your sons and daughters, through your actions, how to treat the ones they love and how they should be treated by the ones that love them. Parents–teach your children that NO MEANS NO. Instead of us simply teaching girls how to be careful and to avoid certain situations, teach your sons to respect women. Teach them what consent is and what it is not. Have continuous conversations with your children to inforce… and reinforce…right from wrong. Protect them at all costs!

TO THE VICTIMS:

Please know that IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT! There is no situation that you could have put yourself in that warrants someone taking advantage of you. If you did not give consent, it is not your fault. If you did give consent and changed your mind and said “No” or “Stop” and they didn’t listen, IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. Regardless of the time you went over there, if you said “No” or “Stop” and they didn’t listen, IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. Regardless of what you had on, if you said “No” or “Stop” and they didn’t listen, IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT.

TO THE VICTIMS:

FORGIVE YOURSELF! Don’t hold on to the idea of ‘What could I have done differently?’ Let go of the “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve’s” and FORGIVE YOURSELF. In every situation in life, literally every single one, good or bad, we could have done something different. But once you said no, IT WAS NOT YOUR FAULT.

TO THE VICTIMS:

Although it may feel like you are alone in a room full of people, YOU ARE NOT ALONE! Step out of your fears (trust me, I understand it’s easier said than done) and share your story. You will be surprised by not only how supportive your real friends will be, but also by the amount of people who share similar stories. Your story might be the one that someone needs to hear in order to heal from their own. 

TO THE REST OF US:

PROTECT OUR WOMEN AT ALL COSTS! Remember, women don’t speak up because sometimes it feels like the pain of reliving those horrible moments isn’t worth it. But once someone finds the courage to speak up, listen. Don’t question them. Be a listening ear. It took Jennifer two years to share her story because the first person she shared her story with did not listen. DON’T BE THAT PERSON.

PROTECT OUR WOMEN AT ALL COSTS!

THANK YOU FOR TAKING THE TIME TO READ/LISTEN. PLEASE SUBSCRIBE AND SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS/COMMENTS BELOW.

Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone

FOLLOW

With the death of yet another black man at the hands of the police, my thoughts and feelings have been all over the place. Why does this keep happening? Why does this keep happening? WHY DOES THIS KEEP HAPPENING?

As I scrolled through social media, I kept seeing posts about how the “good cops” should be speaking out. They should be making statements and standing against their colleagues, but for justice. I also saw many posts that stated if you, a teacher, who is not a person of color, aren’t addressing the injustices that are occuring, then you are a part of the problem. While I agree with these statements 100%, why aren’t we as educators holding ourselves to those same standards in our regular day to day?

As a teacher, who is responsible for the safety, physical and mental wellbeing of my students, I feel it is my job to stand up for my students. If I see someone mistreating them, it is my duty to speak out and find resolve on behalf of my students who can’t always speak up for themselves. However, I have noticed in my years of teaching that many teachers don’t have this same sentiment. Many times teachers see injustices in their own buildings and say nothing. Why is that? Whether it be with students, parents, colleagues, or administration, why aren’t we having these difficult conversations? Why aren’t we calling out inappropriate and implicit micro-aggressions in our school buildings?

I believe the first reason is discomfort. One year I experienced a teacher’s interaction with a student that made me overwhelmingly uncomfortable. My classroom somehow always becomes the hangout spot during my students’ lunch period. This particular day there were about 5-7 students hanging out in my room, as well as another teacher having a small group session with two students.  There were a total of about 11 people in the room, adults and students. Another teacher came in and asked if their student, who was serving detention, could sit in my room while they went to get lunch. 

A few minutes later, the student who just finished eating his lunch asked if he could go wash his hands. While the student was in the bathroom, the teacher returned, asking where he was. I informed them that he was in the bathroom and the response was “He better come back.” WHAT? Looking back I wonder if that was a threat to me or him? But at that moment I thought sarcastically ,’Where else would he go?’ Either way, the student came back into the room and the teacher informed him that his detention assignment was to copy a specific page from a textbook. I thought to myself ’Who does that? but decided to mind my business.

As the bell was about to ring, the student finished and the teacher said, “Where’s the rest?” The student responded, “You said copy this page, I copied the page.” The teacher then began to go OFF on the student. The student just sat there, remaining silent. While I can’t recall the teachers exact words, I vividly remember the look on the student’s face as he looked over to me. His eyes said, “You’re just going to let this white lady talk to me like this?” The teacher stood there and ranted on and on, literally arguing with herself because the student had not responded or reacted. As the bell rang, the teacher told the student that he needed to serve detention the next day because he didn’t finish the assignment and walked out. I was speechless. 

The other teacher who was holding a small group session with her students, who I forgot was even there, looked at me when the students left and said “I feel bad for him.” All I could think about was how inappropriate it was, not only in the way  she spoke down to him, but the fact that she felt comfortable enough doing so in front of two teachers of color, as well as a group of students. I was conflicted. I knew it wasn’t right and I knew I had to say something. But because I didn’t have a relationship with the teacher, I felt uncomfortable.

I shared the story with two work friends, one who told me to tread with caution, as the teacher can be very defensive. The other, telling me to pray about it. Later that night I had a conversation with my mother, who is usually my guiding light, and shared that I really felt the need to address the teacher. My mother told me to stay out of it but to also pray about it. By the morning, I had decided to just mind my business and stay out of it. Funny thing is the teacher came up to me to talk about it. I literally looked up at the ceiling thinking, “God, you think you’re funny?” I knew I had a responsibility to stand up for my students (even though he wasn’t my student specifically, they are all our students.) At the time I thought the teacher tried to make light of what happened. But now that I replay the situation in my mind,  she wasn’t trying to make light of it, she didn’t see anything wrong with it. She asked if she could use my room again and then made a statement about the student’s behavior.THE NERVE!! 

I shared with her that I actually wanted to talk to her about the student and was glad she found me. She began to say “Oh I know about him,” characterizing the student and his home life. I explained to her that I didn’t know the student nor his home life, however I was clear that the way she talked to the student made me uncomfortable. She quickly responded defensively, saying that she didn’t see anything wrong with what happened. I used that as an opportunity to point out things I saw. “You badgered him. He wasn’t responding to your attacks and you kept going. You kept poking and poking, and when he didn’t respond, you lied about what the assignment was. I was paying attention, as was everyone else in the class. It was hurtful to see you talk to him that way, but also in front of a group of students.” Of course she was not trying to hear it, and I was now getting really frustrated and decided to take a different approach. “Listen, as a parent, I didn’t like nor appreciate how you spoke to that student. If Zoey were to come home and tell me a teacher spoke to her how you spoke to him, IT WOULD BE A PROBLEM. I would be coming for your job. So be mindful how you talk to students because these are people’s children, not yours.” 

I shared this story to say, certain conversations are just uncomfortable. But as educators and part time parents to our students, it is our responsibility to advocate for them! It’s our job to step outside our comfort zone and have uncomfortable conversations. If we don’t, who will?

The second reason many teachers steer away from the difficult conversations is privilege. Privilege allows people to ignore topics and situations that don’t affect them. However, the reality is, if it affects your students, it should affect you. How can we say we care about our students and not address their everyday issues? A huge problem with schools in urban communities is that teachers aren’t of the same ethnicity as the students they service. This is a problem because many of these teachers have had the privilege of never experiencing some of the issues their students deal with. Many times this results in these issues being ignored and left unaddressed. This privilege oftentimes results in teachers who are not culturally responsive nor empathetic.

The third reason teachers steer away from the difficult conversation is fear of the response or resulting effects from administration. Since I have only worked in the charter school system, I know first hand that there is no job security. However, in a Department of Education school, there is a union. If for some reason a school wants to fire a teacher, the teacher has the support and backing of the union that prevents schools from just doing whatever they want. In a charter school, it doesn’t work that way. Ultimately they can let you go for any reason at any time, as most contracts are at will. This forces teachers to feel the need to be very careful about what they say and to walk on eggshells not to offend or ruffle any feathers. 

This past Monday I brought Angelo Pinto, a lawyer and social justice activist, on my Instagram Live session to talk about the “Importance of Cultural Competency in Education.” He had been in Minneapolis the previous week on the front lines protesting police brutality due to the recent murder of George Floyd by a police officer. As we were discussing last minute details Sunday morning, he shared that we should shift the conversation a little towards “Cultural Competency in Education in this Moment of Social Upheaval.” I immediately thought, ‘I have to be careful about what I say because of my job.’ I focused on questions I could ask him that I could also respond to in a safe manner. 

As I kept thinking, I began to feel guilty. I should be able to speak my thoughts without fear of saying the wrong thing or fear of the effects of my views on my job. I shouldn’t fee like I’m so easily disposable. I shouldn’t feel that one statement could cost me my job. 

A friend of mine shared that we as teachers(or people, in general) of color are conditioned to walk on eggshells. Because life as a person of color isn’t the same as that of a white person, we end up always afraid of what our actions could cause us to lose; or the possible effects of our actions, knowing the results wouldn’t be the same for a white person. She was absolutely right. Here I was, earlier in the week, thinking of how I, a black professional, could address police brutality with my students without ruffling feathers, only to find out that a white colleague simply did it without any thought of repercussions or response from administration. Even in preparing for my IG live, I was treading cautiously, when, had I been white, I would not have any of the same concerns. Why are we like this? I suppose there are 400 years of answers. 

With that being said, “How do we begin to have these difficult conversations?” 

I think the first step is acknowledging that although the truth can be uncomfortable, it is the reality. We aren’t talking about some fiction being read in a book. We are talking about real life issues that are happening and need to be discussed. The reality is, if it’s uncomfortable to talk about, it’s probably a conversation that is necessary to have.

The second step, if I can be straight forward, is to build a backbone. Stand tall and advocate for what you believe. Advocating doesn’t have to be aggressive or offensive, but it’s speaking your piece on the injustice, whatever it may be, that you have seen. When the teacher brought up the student with me, I could have just let her say her piece and kept it moving. But I was so uncomfortable about what I had experienced and saw with my own eyes that I had to grow a backbone and speak up. Her response to what I said didn’t matter, because I did what was right and spoke up for my student. So if you see something, SAY SOMETHING. 

The third step, for white people, is to acknowledge your privilege. If you can’t see that there are injustices that you will never experience simply because of the color of your skin, then there is a problem. Once you can acknowledge your privilege, it allows a space for you to empathize with the implicit and explicit biases and injustices your students face on a day to day basis. It can also help you to see and acknowledge some of your own unconscious biases and begin to dismantle them. 

Injustices happen every day, in many different areas of people’s lives. As educators, it is our responsibility to step up and CALL THEM OUT. Nobody can say that they care about their students and then ignore the injustices they see happening to them and the people that live in their communities. What’s happening today, the increasing amount of deaths of people of color at the hands of police officers, SHOULD MAKE YOU UNCOMFORTABLE. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it. Let’s stand together and have the uncomfortable conversations with each other and with our students.

STEP OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE AND SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS, FEELINGS AND/OR SIMILAR EXPERIENCES YOU HAVE HAD.

The Value of Cultural Competence in Education

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I suppose before we can talk about the value of Cultural Competency, we must first talk about what it is. A short definition of Cultural Competence is one’s ability to understand, empathize with, respect, and want equality for cultures outside of your own. Oftentimes, people who are of the majority may not see the value of or even the awareness that they lack Cultural Competency. In a sense, it is a privilege not having to relate to and understand the lives and cultures of others (the minority.) In this blog, most of what I will discuss will be in reference to teacher-student interactions. However, it will all be applicable to any person you interact with of another culture. 

In education, one aspect of being culturally competent, and honestly, to me, the foundation and most important, is building relationships. The key to understanding someone is getting to know them. In a classroom setting, believe it or not, many educators  find it difficult to carve out  the time to get to know their students. With the pressures of performance rates, standardized testing, and administration down your back, building relationships may seem trivial and impossible to find time for. 

In my blog titled “The Power of a Quick Check-In,” I discuss how I used writing prompts at the beginning of some of my classes to get students to open up and let me into their world. These prompts are most likely completely irrelevant to math, the content I teach, or even school. Finding the time, whether it be 5 mins or 15 mins, has such a huge impact in the long run. By finding time to build relationships with your students, you let the students know that you care about them as a person. It tells them that they are not just a number to you, but that you see them and want to be a part of their lives. 

I oftentimes have conversations with people about the difference between my students’ behavior in my class and their behaviors in some of their other classes. I had a student one year who was really dealing with heavy depression. There were days when he would come to class and his friends would say, “Miss, he’s really having a bad day.” I would think, ‘Already? It’s only first period.’ I spent time every time he was having a bad day, along with some days he wasn’t having a bad day, just talking to him and trying to encourage him. I often would let him know that whatever he was going through wouldn’t last forever.   We needed to find him someone to talk to who will help him work through what was holding him back. Building a relationship with this student was difficult because he didn’t want to discuss the specifics with me. It wasn’t until I realized that some of the issues he was having he wasn’t comfortable talking to me about because I was a female. So I found him a male in the building who I trusted, who I knew would be able to help him 

From that I learned that my relationships with each of my students will be different. And that  isn’t a bad thing. This student wasn’t closed off because he didn’t trust me, he just didn’t think I could understand what he was dealing with. And when I found out what it was, he was right. Had he opened up to me about it, while I would be able to listen and comfort him, I had no knowledge of that type of stuff. I still would have needed to bring him to someone-a male-who could really talk to him and relate. But building the relationship with him and trying to be there for him as best as I could, resulted in him putting in more effort in my class. Even on his worst days, he would really try and push himself to  be present and get the work done. It was very clear that it was really hard for him but he tried. Whereas, in some of his other classes where he had no relationship with his teachers, his head was down. 

Another aspect of being culturally competent is having a desire to know and understand. People of different ethnic groups oftentimes have different cultural beliefs and norms. Without having a desire to understand those differences, it is easy to misjudge and misunderstand the simplest of behaviors. I’ll give an example of a story shared from a book I read. 

There was a Caucasian teacher who taught lower elementary students, I believe kindergarten. She was having trouble with one particular student of color. Her issue was that the student wouldn’t listen to her. As a result and out of frustration she asked a colleague to come in and observe the student. When the student would be out of his seat, the teacher would ask “Don’t you want to sit down?” When the student was talking, the teacher would respond “Shouldn’t you be listening to the story?” Once the observation period was over, the teacher went to their colleague and said, “See! He didn’t listen all class.” The observer, who happened to be a person of color, began to explain that children of color are used to directives. In their homes parents ideally tell them what to do explicitly as opposed to posing the request as a question. “Clean your room,” “Wash the dishes,” “Do your homework.” The child wasn’t ignoring the teachers requests or not listening. He simply took it as  a choice to decide if he wanted to do xyz, as opposed to a directive from her telling him to do it. 

Such minor differences in dialect and language used can create huge misunderstandings when you don’t understand the culture of your students. By no means am I saying that you should know every single detail, but you should have a desire to know. You should have a yearning to continuously learn about your students and the lives they live.

Another component of being culturally competent as an educator is understanding the value of sharing parts of yourself with your students. I have been teaching in urban schools my entire educational career. A huge part of urban culture is music. Music tells a story and people gravitate to a specific type of music because they feel as though they can relate to it. Artists tell stories through their music, even if it’s not their own story to tell. They reel their audience in by writing or releasing music that people can empathize with. The same thing happens in the classroom.

Great teachers share parts of their lives with their students. It allows the students to see that their teachers are human. They share stories of when they weren’t “perfect.” They share stories of when they had to fall hard, to learn a lesson and not make the same mistakes. They share the good moments they have with their families. They are an open book to their students, which naturally builds the relationship they have. Of course there are boundaries in what they share, as to only sharing what is school appropriate. But the sharing of themselves allows their students to also know that this teacher is someone they can come and talk to about anything. Those relationships and the trust that is built is more valuable than one can imagine. 

While this blog was intended to discuss the value of being culturally competent when interacting with students, these components discussed can apply to any person in any field. We should all have the desire to understand the values and culture of the people we interact with on a daily basis. It gives us an inside perspective on who they are and why they do the things they do. I hope that you were able to receive something from this and apply it to your everyday life. 

PLEASE SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS AND/OR QUESTIONS IN THE COMMENTS BELOW. DON’T FORGET TO SUBSCRIBE. 

The Power of a Quick Check-In

I think it’s safe to say that I have lost my mind about 750 times over these last 7 weeks of online learning. It seems like all of the hats that I wear have been tugging at me all from different directions. One minute it seems like I have it all together and then I BLINK and that balance has been disrupted somehow. To add to the craziness of our new norm, being stuck in the house is absolutely adding to my drive towards Insanity Road. 

During such a stressful time I usually have my students do a quick write on how they are feeling. There ideally are no rules. Students can write whatever they would like as long as it’s school appropriate. They can write as much or as little as they would like, and are encouraged but not forced to share out. Ideally what happens is one student decides to share and it makes the other students comfortable sharing. It allows me to see exactly how the students are feeling and what’s on their minds. It also helps them to see that while they feel like they are alone in their thoughts and feelings, they really aren’t. Many of their peers are struggling through something. Maybe not the same thing, but the feelings they are experiencing are mutual. 

One Monday I had my students do a quick write in response to the question, “What’s one thing about you people wouldn’t know by just looking at you?” The real purpose behind the task was just to get them all seated and engaged, because it can be tough to do that on a Monday. Never did I expect for it to go the way it did. One student shared something simple like they were a twin, and their twin went to another school. Another student shared that they could write with both hands. But then a student shared that she was being raised by her dad because her mom left them when her parents split and never kept in touch with her. Talk about a bomb dropping. Before I could respond, one of the kids asked how she felt about that. She began to share feelings of abandonment and not feeling valued or worthy of her mother’s love. The way the class supported her was simply amazing. As the tears ran down her face, she said “I never talk about it because I try to act like it doesn’t bother me, but it does.” 

Another student then shared that his grandmother is battling with Alzheimers, and that oftentimes she doesn’t remember who he is. He described all of these memories of and with her, and how hurtful it was that she doesn’t remember him. Another student then shared that his dad is fighting with cancer. How his dad has to be strong for the whole house, but he knows deep inside that his dad is really hurting and struggling. Another student shared that her mother tries to buy her love. That all she wants is her mother’s affection but instead she buys her whatever she wants.

Instantly each student had a story about how strict their parents were and things they didn’t like about their parents. While this time was totally meant for a venting session, I needed to reel it back in and make sure they took something positive from it. So I shared with them that parents are honestly just doing their best. Sometimes parents become their parents without even realizing it. Sometimes parents don’t know any different so they demonstrate the same behaviors they didn’t like from their parents because it’s all they know. Some of them began to agree.  “Well my grandfather was very strict”  and “my grandmother isn’t affectionate.” hey were able to see that their parent’s behavior wasn’t necessarily a result of the child’s behavior, but more as a result of what was naturally inherited from their own parents. I encouraged them to share their feelings with their parents, because behaviors can’t change if someone doesn’t realize they exist.  

Thinking about how productive these conversations were with my students and how I, myself, had been feeling during this Covid-19 quarantine made me also think “How my students were holding up emotionally?” Had we been in class, I could have easily done a check in with them. But since we were all home, I had my students take the first 7 minutes of our zoom call to respond to the question, “How is Covid-19 affecting me?” I decided to share one of the responses: 

“I cant take it no more I just want my nails done my hair done my eyelashes done AND I need to get out this house before I have a mental break down. I thought we was bout to be litt no school or what eva but nooo school is even worse the teachers giving us mad work like we robots or sum and im so done like I want to dropout. And I need to go out even when im on punishment I sstill go out like. AND the other bad thing my mom has to go food shopping every Saturday because my brother love to eat and IM TIRED OF THIS FAMILY they always have something to say like I asked for there opinion or something like nooo I didn’t  and they so annoying like I’ve never been stuck in the house for so long with these annoying people. I just want to see my friends and go out I lowkey miss school idk because yah giving a lot a bit of to much work. I love sleeping and being on my phone right BUT NOW IM TIRED OF IT like netflix is running out of idea’s like and youtube not even fun no more and my playstation can even keep me company no more. I get bored and go to sleep or either I see some food and im not even hungry but im still gonna eat it because im bored and it may not be there later. Whewww thank you ms.hanif for letting me vent thankyou!!!!!!!!!!!!”

When I first read her response, I chuckled because I could absolutely hear her saying this. I also imagined her trying to get this whole thing out in one breath. Once the giggles passed, it really hit me. She needed to get this out. During these crazy times, while everyone is scared and trying to hold it together themselves, it can be hard and even impossible to think about others. After reading her response I thought about how nobody probably checked on her these last few weeks. Sometimes we think of kids and how easy we think they have it, not thinking about the stresses that have. And while the issues of a high schooler may be trivial to us, to them, they are huge. 

This quick check-in allowed the kids to vent-get out their thoughts and feelings. And not just about the scary times we are in but also about their experience with online learning. It also allowed me a space to communicate with my students one on one and help them in any way possible. It reminded me of the power of a quick check-in. Sometimes that check-in is what students need in order to know that they aren’t alone and that someone cares. It lets them know they have a safe space to feel how they feel and share those feelings without judgement. So I urge you all, parents and educators both, to engage in a quick check-in with your children. You’ll be surprised what you find out.

Hopefully this gave you something to think about. Feel free to share your thoughts whether you agree or disagree. All comments, views and responses are valued and welcomed. Also subscribe and follow me on IG and/or Twitter.

An Educator’s Fight For and Against Special Education

When people think of children in “special education” most times they think of special needs children all in the same classroom for the duration of the school day. Honesty, that’s what I remember it being like in high school, except the “bad kids” were in that class as well. But things have really changed, for the most part, when it comes to special education. The push now is for inclusive classrooms, where children with learning disabilities are emerged in the general education population. The goal is to normalize the classes, while also providing those students with the scaffolds and resources they need. 

This topic always brings my mind to the conversation of Equity ~vs~ Equality. While all of our students are treated Equally as humans and children, the accommodations given to children with disabilities allows us to be Equitable to our children. They allow us to put  our students in a situation where they can all meet the same goals as their peers just in different ways. So, while there seems to be many benefits to special education programs, why is it that parents oftentimes are so resistant to the idea?

After a few weeks of class it is ideally pretty easy to see who are your consistent strugglers. Some students struggle with the material because they struggle with reading and/or comprehension. While others may struggle with the material for other reasons such as the lack of ability to retain the information, difficulties organizing information, etc. Every year there are usually a few students who I pull a mental yellow flag on. Meaning, I’m noticing some consistent difficulties they are having so I consult with their guidance counselor and other teachers to see if the struggle is across the board in their classes. I keep an eye on them to see how they progress or don’t. I would normally throw up a mental yellow flag if I notice a student is doing poorly on assignments where they must work independently, having a hard time focusing, having a difficult time understanding or reading instructions, or sometimes even refusing to do the work. Many times those students who teachers have behavioral issues from are the students who need some assistance, but instead of asking choose to act out. The yellow flag doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong, but just that a concern is there. 

One year I had a student who was really struggling with basic foundational concepts. When I would try to help him independently or invite him to small group with other students who needed just a little more one on one help, he refused. This could be really frustrating, because here I am trying to provide students with the help they need and am being met with resistance. There was nothing I could really do in those moments, because I can’t force a student to receive help. I reached out to his mom, expressing my concerns and desire to help him, but ultimately it was his decision if he was going to be open to it. 

Unfortunately, what ended up happening was this particular students would begin to distract other students. It was one thing for a student to decide they weren’t going to do the work or get the help they needed, but it’s a whole different story when you begin to distract others. Eventually, I got tired of speaking to this student about their behavior and their disrespectful responses when being called out on those behaviors. So I had the student join another class for a few days, to somewhat give us a break from one another. He was tired of me and I was surely tired of him. I reached out to his parent, for what felt like the 30th time and her response was, he (the student) doesn’t like me and doesn’t think I like him. He doesn’t want to be in my class and the mother wants him moved. NO PROBLEM!

I had the student permanently moved to the other class, because honestly I never want a parent to feel uneasy about their child being in any class, let alone mine. While I was completely aware that this was their way of deflecting from the real problem, the student needed help academically, I gave in to the request. Surprisingly enough, the teacher whose class he was moved into found he was having the same exact issues. As we began to reach out to his other teachers, it became clear these academic struggles and behavioral issues were happening across the board. As the guidance counselor reached out to the parent about coming in to meet about the student, they would get no response and no call back. Here this child is struggling in all of his classes , and the parent was not being cooperative. 

Ironically, once the student was moved from my class he became to come by and visit me and we would have conversations about all kinds of things he was dealing with. One day I decided to talk to him about his academic struggles. I pushed and probed, asking questions in an attempt to get him to see that he would benefit from the additional resources he would get had he received an IEP (Individualized Education Program), which it was clear he needed. Eventually as I explained in detail what accommodations he could possibly get, he agreed that he needed them and that they would be beneficial to him. But he expressed some real concerns he had, and they were all social. “I don’t want people to think I’m stupid. I don’t want to be pulled from my classes for everyone to see.” It became obvious that he was watching as other students received the same accommodations he needed, because he knew he needed them. So I asked him, do you think the other students who get pulled out are embarrassed or think people are talking about them? He quickly responded “no.” So I asked why he thought people would do that to him. I explained that initially, I’m sure that the other students were a little scared or even uncomfortable, but they go used to it and saw that it was really helping them. 

This quickly made me think about his parent, and the many other parents who are hesitant to get their child tested to see if they have some sort of intellectual disability. It can be difficult to accept that your child is struggling and needs additional help and resources. Feelings of shame and blame can arise, and it sometimes just isn’t an easy pill to swallow. Other times parents are simply scared of the stigma that they believe comes with having a child with a disability. As a parent you never want to do something that can harm you child in the long run and making decisions such as these can be very difficult. Which is why it’s important to have a humble and empathetic team present to help the parents navigate through the process.

As an educator I have mixed feelings about the idea of Special Education as a whole. THE GOOD: The accommodations give our students with disabilities what they need to be successful. For instance, some students receive read a loud for all assignments and assessments. This means any passages, instructions, or questions can be read to the student. What this does is, say in a Science class where you are testing students knowledge plants, students don’t fail and aren’t penalized because they have trouble reading the words on the page. I’ve seen first hand the benefits of read aloud in a math class. Some of the questions are long and wordy, and it can be easily discouraging to look at for someone who struggles with reading. But once the passages are read to the student, they become more comfortable answering the question. 

THE NOT SO GOOD: My issue with Special Education programs as I have seen them is that while we give students these accommodations and scaffolds, if we don’t remediate the issue, we aren’t  truly helping the student in the long run. If a student struggles with reading, then as we provide those read aloud’s we should also be providing them with the help in learning to read. From my experience many students receive accommodations for years, without appropriate remediation. Which means, ultimately the child never learns to read. So what happens when they graduate and go on to the real world and those accommodations are gone. When there is nobody there to read for them or help them to break apart the tasks. 

I believe the only way for these programs and accommodations to be truly helpful to the student in the long run, is to slowly pull back some of the accommodations as time goes by. The goal should be to help the child learn to read so that ultimately they won’t need the scaffold and/or accommodation any longer. While I am aware that this isn’t possible for all students, because some students disabilities are more severe then others. There are a vast number of students being done a disservice because of the lack of remediation.

Please share your thoughts or comments…

What Covid Should be Teaching Us…

So I read a blog two weeks ago titled “How The Coronavirus Should Impact Education,” from a blog that I follow (www.matthewrmorris.com) and it really made me think. What should this time of pandemic teach us as people, parents, and educators? So I decided to share what I have learned thus far, during this time of isolation, from all 3 perspectives.

As a person, this time of isolation has taught me to really appreciate the people I deem as important in my life. So many people close to me are losing people they love and it’s hard to see. It’s easy for us to unintentionally take people’s presence for granted, because we assume they will always be there and thats simply not the case. I have a previous student who lost his mother due to the virus. I reached out to the guidance counselor to get his number, because I wanted to just check on him and let him know I’m here for him. So I sent him this  message: 

“Hey _____________ it’s Ms. Hanif. I just wanted to reach out to you and let you know I’m soooo sorry for your loss and I’m here if you need ANYTHING!!! You’re an amazing kid and you deserve all of the support possible during this time ❤ ❤ .”

Well a couple of hours later he responded, and I was completely shocked by his response:

“Oh my god thank you Ms Hanif 😦 ❤ it’s so good to hear from you. I hope you and Zoey are doing well and staying safe. Thank you again for everything you’ve done for me past and present. I really appreciate it.. I know I didn’t do exactly as well as I wanted in your class but you still hold the title of my favorite math teacher 🙂 I learned a lot from you both academically and life wise.”

I must have read that message about 3-4 times in a row. Here we all are complaining about not being able to go outside, to a friends house, brunch, wherever, and this kid lost his world but found time to be grateful. Here I was reaching out to him to encourage him, and he encouraged me. It really reminded me the importance of showing people their value in your life, and giving them their flowers while they are still here to enjoy them. 

As a parent, FIRST AND FOREMOST this time has taught me a new level of respect for elementary school teachers. I know you may be thinking, “You’re a teacher what do you mean?” Well I teach high school kids. My students know right from wrong, for the most part have self control, and can be held accountable for their decisions and actions. But LISTENNNNNN, being home getting Zoey to sit and do  work was no easy task. I tried to get into a schedule and when we finally did, my work schedule kept changing and meetings popping up so it made it nearly impossible. She’s so easily distracted and entertained, that initially getting through the work was a battle. I ended up sending her teacher a message of appreciation that started with “girllllllll.” Lol. She ended up telling me Zoey was one of her best students, and I instantly felt bad for the other parents. If this is “the best” I’m scared to see what they are going through. For the teacher to deal with 20 of these kids on a daily basis, KUDOS TO YOU!!

It has also taught me, or should I say is still teaching me, patience and priority. There are times when I’m trying to get work done, or making calls and I begin to get frustrated because Zoey’s making too much noise. Or times when she’s asked me for each of the 15 different things from the fridge. There are moments where I get so overwhelmed because I have so much to do, my Zoom call, calling parents and responding to them all day, helping Zoey to complete her work, and just general moming things that are done on a daily basis now that we are home. I had to take a breath and realize while I was having a hard time adjusting, so was she so I needed to be patient with her. She was used to being able to just go outside or to see her grandma or her friends, and all of that has stopped. Now she’s stuck in the house, and all she sees is Mommy behind the computer all day working. She’s trying the best she can to remain entertained and not go crazy in the house. So I realized I needed to, first and foremost, just breathe and relax. But also while I have a job to do, my first and responsibility is to my kid. I had to take a step away from my make-shift desk and say, today is all about you Zoey. I was so busy trying to fulfill my work duties, that I began to neglect my duties as a mom. And even though it was wasn’t intentional, I realized I need to adjust my priorities.

As an educator this time has taught me the importance of presence. The best thing about teaching for me has been being able to build relationships with my kids. Even though I teach math, often times we start class with non relevant writing prompts (what makes you you, what’s one thing you’re struggling with outside of school, if you could change one thing what would it be…etc) They are given the option to share or not, no pressure. Oftentimes what happens is one person will share and then gradually they all want to share. But this allows me to get an insight on who they are and what life is like for them outside of school. Sometimes while this portion is intended take 15 minutes of class time, it ends up taking a whole 45 minutes. Being at home away from my kids, makes it really hard to sustain those personal relationships we have built because we are focused on so many other things. It feels like a never ending long distance relationship. 

This time has also reassured my feelings about standardized testing. I’m not totally against the testing. However, how the data is used is unrealistic and ineffective. We teach students on a daily basis, and are expected to differentiate. Which means creating lessons that reach all students on their different levels, and making sure every student has an entry point in the lesson. However, these tests don’t do that. I have a friend who teaches Special Education, lets call her VE and I often watch her and all that she does to help her students understand the content in their different classes, and break assignments down so that they are doable for them. I think about those same kids, who oftentimes have anxiety, sitting through state exams where the only accommodations given to them are extra time and read aloud. They go from having a bomb teacher who helps them navigate through it all, during the school year, to being required to do it all on their own and its not fair. Nothing about these tests meet students where they are and therefore can’t effectively measure students abilities. So to then take these tests that are unbalanced baselines, and then “hold teachers accountable” based off of them is crazy. 

Now with Covid happening, all of these state tests are cancelled. Students ability to move on to the next course and grade will be solely based on their performance in class. This should be showing educators, and most important the big decision makers in Education (who oftentimes have never been in a classroom) that things need to change. The tests need to and can change, the standard needs to and can change, and the way things are measured NEED TO AND CAN CHANGE.

Please share your thoughts or comments on what this time has taught you…

Teaching Our Boys to Be Strong

It was my second year of teaching, and my kids were so much more fun then my kids from the previous year. They had so much personality and were not afraid to show it. Heck, sometimes they couldn’t mask it or contain themselves. I had this one student James (for the purpose of keeping his identity anonymous) who started off the school year rough. He was not really retaining the information and was doing the bare minimum, if that. As a result he failed the first two quarters. 

Throughout the year I spoke with his mother pretty frequently about some of the small issues I was having with him, mostly his silliness in class and these random noises he would make. He was a good kid, however the struggles of transitioning into 9th grade really got the best of him (peer pressures, trying to fit in, adjusting to the workload and independence, finding his place.. etc.) So, even though he somewhat got it together the last two quarters, it wasn’t enough to prevent him from going to summer school. 

This was my first summer teaching summer school, and I was totally winging it! I was trying to figure out How do I fit a whole year of content into just a few weeks?The expectation was also that all of the students in summer school who didn’t pass the Regents the first time around, would retake it after summer school and then pass. Soooo, was this summer school or Regents review? 

Anywho, James was in this class and he was doing well. I mean it was everyone’s second time seeing the content, so it should have been easier. 

One day James came into class and he was really quiet, I mean SILENT! That was completely unlike him. I addressed it after giving him time to settle in, thinking maybe he needs to take a walk or vent really quick before class starts. I ask him to come into the hallway so we could talk. NOTHING. NO RESPONSE, no eye contact, he just sat there blinking as if he was the only person in the room an nobody around him existed. So I left him alone, I had a class FULL of students and honestly there was nothing I could do in that moment. He just sat there, in that state for the whole hour and half or so of class. He didn’t take anything out, didn’t pay attention at all to the lesson, and even ignored his peers when they asked what was wrong. 

Class ended and he left out before I could speak with him. I figured he was just having a bad day and maybe tomorrow would be better. Well the next day was exactly the same. I thought to myself why come if you’re just going to sit there. Something had to really bothering him, because I had never seen this side of him. So, after class I called his mother and explained to her what the last two days of class were like for him. She broke down into a real heavy sobbing cry. I just sat on the phone in silence (what else could I have done besides let her get it out.)

She began to apologize while sobbed saying, “I thought he was past this.” She began to explain that they were struggling, and always have been. He and his brother didn’t have the nicest things or nice things at all when they were younger. Their father wasn’t around so she was doing and had been doing the best she could do to provide for them. She shared that when he was in fourth (or fifth) grade he was being bullied at school. The whole school year went by and she had no idea (not judging because this happens often.) It had gotten so bad that one day he had this break down, where he just stopped speaking. Days went by and we would just be mute. She didn’t know what else to do, so she took him to get evaluated. The clinician was able to get him to talk about what happened, which was when he shared what he was experiencing at school. 

She asked why he hadn’t told anyone what was happening, and most importantly why he hadn’t told his mother. His response was along the lines of My mom does a lot all by herself. I help her take care of my brother when I can, but I had to be strong for her. I didn’t want to upset her or stress her.So he pretty much held everything thing in because he needed to be strong for his mom and strength didn’t come in the form of needing her help or needing her to handle what he was dealing with. 

Over my five years of teaching, I have met so many James’s. Not because he was bullied, but because of this idea that he had to hold everything in. While he wasn’t taught that directly, it is something that manifested from the reality of his situation. It made me reflect and think about all of my students who were taught either by parents, family, or even society (social media.. etc), that if you show emotion you are weak. That you have to be STRONG and MASCULINE, a macho man. That you can’t have feelings, and if you do you have to hold them in. 

So what happens? Well, I suppose some positives are you create a man who has the desire to provide, and hold his family down. Maybe even someone who can or at least desires to be in a position to defend his family, if need be. But what’s the downfall of this narrative? In my experience, it creates children who have no emotional outlet. Children who learn to bottle everything in, and ultimately explode in one form or another. It creates children who are emotionally unbalanced. It forces our kids to hold the weight of the world on their fragile shoulders. 

Ultimately, these children can turn into grown men who are emotionally cold. Men who don’t know how to communicate effectively. It can create men who are scared to trust people because they have no experience allowing someone to be there for them and help them through the rough times. It creates unhealthy men, who foster unhealthy relationships with women and others around them. This cycle continues until they learn (sometimes through some form of counseling) that it’s ok to need help. It is ok to say you’re scared. It is ok to be emotionally vulnerable. Showing emotion doesn’t make you weak or feminine, it makes you human. 

Hopefully this gave you something to think about. Feel free to share your thoughts whether you agree or disagree. All comments, views and responses are valued and welcomed. Also subscribe and follow me on IG and/or Twitter.

Finding The Balance During Covid

Well I think it’s safe to say, nobody saw this coming. Or maybe a more appropriate statement would be, who knew it would get this bad this fast? What appeared to be some rare virus, that really only affected older people with underlying health issues has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

I remember leaving work Friday March 13, 2020 thinking, “oh I’m just glad they cancelled Saturday Regents Review,” because now I get to sleep in finally. Little did I know, that day would be the last day that I would be teaching in my classroom for a while. Who knew we would have to switch over to online learning, making videos, and grading work digitally so abruptly?

To say this has been a challenge, would be an understatement for sure. Every week day, I wake up to prepare for my hour long virtual class. What will I say to them? Which questions can I ask that are effective enough to pull information from them? What problems should we do, so that we can address the common mistakes they could make, before they make them?

Normally this would be an easy task, planning a lesson for a certain topic. Having the students physically present, was just different. Don’t get me wrong, a part of teaching includes redirecting students when they are not focused. Every day, on a normal day, I am tasked with redirecting students several times during each period. This isn’t because the kids don’t care or because they don’t want to be there. At the high school age (9th grade to be specific), students don’t have the capacity to sit in class all day “focused.”

I say this to at least one person each week, students included, “Just because they walk into this building, doesn’t mean their problems go away.” While being at school, can be a break from students’ at home reality, when they leave school that reality still exists. So, it’s common for me to have a student who is having a day where they just can’t deal with their reality. By that I mean, whatever lemons life has handed them are consuming them to the point where they can not function as a student.

When I see it, on their faces or in their actions, normally I can pull them out of the class and have a talk with them to see whats going on an counsel them a little. That conversation usually goes, “you can’t hold everything in, you have to find someone, preferably an adult, that you feel comfortable sharing with. Someone who can give you advice and help you to navigate the feelings you are having. If you don’t do that, your thoughts will consume you, and it’s just not healthy.”

Well what the heck am I supposed to do now? Students are not in the classroom with me. I can’t simply pull them to the side and give them some encouraging words to get through the day. Students are now stuck at home with the same distractions, they try to get away from every day. School for some of them was the only safe space they had. Now that safe space is gone. All of those distractions, which could be as simple as too many people living in one house, or as rough as emotionally abusive family members, are in front of them day to day. There is no escape.

So as educators, what do we do? How do find the balance? How can we be flexible but still hold our students accountable? The thing with children is, they will do what you allow. So if you continue to move every deadline there is no incentive to get the work done on time, for those who can. If you have strict deadlines, there are students who simply can not meet those deadlines for reasons outside of their control. So how do you find the balance? Is there a perfect medium?

I’m not sure there’s a real answer to that because every teacher and student is different. What I’ve done is, instead of giving a daily assignment, meaning giving an assignment one day and it is due the next day, I’ve giving students all assignments and deadlines at the beginning of the week. Sunday night, I email the students with all important updates and information, as well as what work is due and when it is due. This gives them the opportunity to do the work at their own pace, and still be able to complete it by the due date. I also make videos that are posted on Sunday, to go with each of the worksheet’s students are assigned. I’ve made the Zoom class calls optional, because I want to respect their time and not have someone sit through a lecture on a topic they already understand.

But most importantly, I try and monitor the amount of work I assign. It’s easy to get caught in the idea, “Well they are home and have nothing else to do.” Well for one, they have other classes with teachers that have the same mindset. If every teacher gives loads of work, then it leaves the student to decide what work they will and won’t do, because there’s too much. Secondly, most of our students have become instant babysitters, which is a huge responsibility that they didn’t sign up for, but also can’t opt out of.

So, as we move forward in the remainder of the school year, I ask that teachers take into consideration, student’s home lives. Before you aggressively reach out to a parent or a student, because their child hasn’t completed any work take a few things into consideration:

  1. They may not have internet at home (library’s are also closed)
  2. Stores that have free wifi have also been closed
  3. The student’s home life (that you may not be aware of)
  4. The relocation of the classroom (from a school building to their house full of distractions)
  5. The student’s actual ability to complete the tasks assigned (if they struggle in school they will continue to struggle at home)

Please share any stories, thoughts, or ideas about finding balance during this tough time for us all.