Essays From The Middle School Frontier, Part 1

I originally published these essays on my school's google group, but thought they might fit in with the spirit of Classroom 2.0.

Round Holes and Square Pegs

a mid-year reflection for public consumption

During my first year of teaching it was not uncommon for my
then girlfriend to come home at the end of the day to find me
sprawled face down on our bed, a kind of slain snow angel, shoes still
on, my "I'm serious about my profession" red tie loosened but still
around my neck, my whole body seemingly in a state of perpetually
postponed suicide. Next to the bed our dog Vanya would often be
sitting stoically, looking up at her, as if to say, "I don't know who
he is anymore." Indeed. Teaching changes one.

Four years later I do not sprawl upon beds with my shoes on at the end
of the day. And I now have the energy to take my tie all the way off
(yes, I still wear one on most days and yes, I am still serious about
my profession). What has changed has mostly been internal. Oh yes,
lesson plans are more detailed, my abilities to explain and model and
scaffold and cajole and entertain have been sharpened against the
spinning, unyielding wheel of new children that come into my room each
year. Actually, a stone wheel is not quite the right metaphor. I
suppose they arrive more like a flood. Yes, the way a flood arrives in
an area where one has been told repeatedly "Don't try to build
anything there." That's what it's like. Teaching in Los Angeles, in
2007, in a neighborhood currently not lacking for violence and gang
activity and all of the inequities that give rise to those more
conveniently observed phenomena certainly feels at times like one is
building on a flood plain. But if there is something that couples us
with those undaunted souls who build their lives in areas of known
danger, there is also something that separates us. The rising waters
are a force of nature. As teachers we don't pretend to have the
ability to alter weather patterns or DNA. And we cannot change
history. What we are interested in is the controllable - that which is
left to us after genes weather and circumstances have had their way
with a child: nurturing.

And while we teachers sometimes feel we are trying to farm a fallow
field, the truth is we are the field. The well-documented (and
ironically all the more abstract and forgettable because of their
documentation) demands of our profession are mighty. We teachers are
at the center of a terrible storm and we are at times ill-equipped to
be the eye of that storm. We get confused, we get tired, we take
things personally that would be better shaken off and left to the
workings of administration, we dive into political and administrative
concerns when we should be storing our energy for the more pressing
problems of human interaction with the middle schoolers with whom we
share most of our waking lives. We get torn down by a river of days
filled with quixotic bureaucratic changes, distorted public opinion,
politicians using the name of our profession like a coin in a slot
machine (drop it in and you inspire fear, excitement, and doubt - the
casino patron replaced by an electorate that prefers its decisions be
made by unreliable proxy gamblers). But I digress.

It is not the least important of revelations that teachers, myself
included, come quickly to once resting our career boats upon the soggy
marshland shores of education: we must focus. We must blot out that
which is irrelevant in the moment. We must disregard test scores and
IEP warnings and parental failings and previous teacher failings and
bloated class sizes and lack of sleep and the pink memo we forgot to
distribute during sixth period yesterday and the necessary but hard-to-
fathom-as-related homework from our credentialing program and the fact
that our paycheck could easily double as a CIA encryption device and
the institutionalized binary thinking and learned helplessness of our
students ("Is this right? Is this right? Is this right?). We must
ignore the writing on the wall. We must ignore the wall. We are
teachers in middle school. We must focus. And happily, there is a
place for that focus to rest. And there is a time. It is our room. And
the time, currently, is 83 minutes. And in that vast 83-minute
universe, sans visitors and observers, cut off from statistical
identification, we can nurture.

As my longtime friend Scott, a 13-year veteran 6th grade teacher-
turned-assistant principal-turned-principal in Newark, New Jersey is
fond of saying to me on our monthly long-distance phone calls,
"Teaching is not a science, it's an art." And by that he does not mean
to dismiss research or abandon curricula or deride state standards
(well, okay, there is some derision of state standards, truth be told,
but that is a matter for another reflection). What he means is that
the 83-minute universe does not adhere to the laws of nature. It
adheres to the laws of nurture. We are nurturers. The reason good
classroom management is invisible and the reason high rates of
performance are often difficult to replicate is because good nurturing
does not rely on a set of discreet skills that can be codified,
discussed, and repeated over and over. Nurturing is a two-way
relationship. And it is not enough for us to be a common denominator.
After all, in order to get equal results the common denominator needs
to be the lowest common denominator, and I don't think that analogy
needs further explanation.

Luckily for us, we are in a school that recognizes the historically
recent conversion of priority in our profession: we are not measured
by what and how much we teach, but by what and how much students
learn. What and how much we teach can be codified and replicated to
whatever extent we assent to. What they learn, however, resists,
indeed mocks attempts at replication. And that is because, as my
friend Scott indicates, we do not teach in a lab. To use an SAT
analogy: The actual classroom is to education as the Galapagos Islands
is to the rest of the world - unique, full of surprises, resistant to
classification, beautiful, and mysterious in a way that by definition
makes it impossible to approach with traditional instruments of
measure. It must be advanced on cautiously, with that other much
maligned but resilient of human mechanisms: the heart.

So as we sleep and recuperate and reflect during this inaugural JLMS
break, I thank you, my colleagues, and above all I thank you, my
strange and beautiful students, for teaching me again and again, that
my job is a process and not an equation. And if I can remember this,
if I can take this awareness into even some small portion of the
moments that string together into a school year, I will be the wiser
and my students will be the better served. To that end, my New Year's
resolution is to honor the 83 minutes of mystery I inhabit in Room 203
and take back those energies I waste fighting it. Long live the chaos
and let us ride its wave with increasing elegance as time draws us
forward.

-- Barker

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