Category: Becoming Mrs. L

from They’re Rolling In It

. . . One area in which I’ve always been a poor employee sits in my ability to get to work early. I don’t. At this time, my children were one and three, my husband was in New Jersey during the work week, and the day care I could find started at 7 a.m. In Pennsylvania, the roads are often snowy or icy, so reaching the school before 7:30 could be a challenge, although the drive took less than 15 minutes on dry roads. Anyone who has small children knows what it’s like to get them out the door, especially when cold weather gear is involved, and that transition at the babysitter’s can be a killer–especially early on for my one-year-old who’d been with me 24-7 for a year. So I’d run a momma marathon by the time I pulled into my parking space each morning. Many of those mornings, my school principal was standing smack-dab in the middle of my parking space. Dramatically staring at his watch. As if I didn’t know what time it was.

In my defense, even though I actually lost my first daycare provider in October, and even though I was never, never, early, I was on my a.m. hall duty the minute I was supposed to be every morning, even though I pulled into that parking spot with seconds to spare on many of them. I took no days off, and had a class-load of 172 students that year, with five different preparations–and no curriculum or textbook provided by the school system. I had a really good teaching year–no discipline issues, solid student development, especially in writing, and a positive rapport with students, parents and colleagues. And absolutely the worst teaching evaluations I received in my entire 33-year career. To the English curriculum coordinator–who provided no materials beyond a list of novels students were to read–everything I did was wrong. And although my evaluations were improving as the year progressed, when I finally did take sick days, the principal weighed in for the final time.

Snow sweeps across Pennsylvania in a west to east swath that nailed Downingtown, the little suburb 30 minutes west of Philly where I lived, with incredible regularity, especially that winter. So by the time spring thawed the snow and after-school playtime with my toddlers chasing bubbles and clambering the swingset finally began, the school year had settled into a comfortable routine. I was managing the working mom juggle. The evening bath routine, stowing the kids in their beds before eight, powering through those last sets of papers before midnight: I was back. Until the night I noticed the little red sore my son kept scratching on his tummy, which turned into ten, then twenty. Of course when they first appeared, I didn’t think much of it, and shuffled him off to daycare and did my day. As they spread, concerned, I called the doctor. A brief description led to a telephone diagnosis: chicken pox. “When can I bring him in?” brought the quickest NONONO I’d ever heard.

Oatmeal baths and calamine lotion. But no one wants to see you. No daycare: He’s contagious until the last sore disappears. No doctor: He’s contagious until the last sore disappears! And no babysitter: He’s contagious. Until the last sore disappears. I had to stay home with him, and called in my plans. I went back to work, knowing the other poxed shoe–my daughter–would drop with all likelihood within three weeks.

Sure enough, about 20 days later, a little red sore showed up on her tummy at bedtime. This time, at least, I knew what it was, and didn’t bring her to daycare. But this meant calling in for longer even than I’d been out with my son. Of the ten sick days allotted, I took six total for their chicken pox. When I returned, an appointment slip to see the principal sat in my mailbox.

“Why were you out again this week?”
“My daughter had chicken pox.”
“That’s no reason to be out!”
“There was no one else to care for her: she was contagious, and she’s one year old.”
The conversation continued, him more adamant, me more strident, until he concluded with, “That’s unacceptable. I’ll have to dock your pay for the days you were out.”

So, the truth about sick days, and here I speak only for myself: I averaged two sick days a year, max, that meant I myself was too sick to get to work. Most years I was not sick once. At least two days each year I’d use to catch up on my paperwork. Compositions I had to read before the end of the marking period. Papers that piled up because two toddlers at home and 150+ students at work just inhibited my ability to physically read that many pages and also sleep enough to function. But that year, those six days were all I took, not because I was sick, but because my kids were, and there was no one else to care for them. In New Jersey, we were allotted family illness days, an absolute godsend, but in Maryland and Pennsylvania, parents take their own sick days, often, to care for sick children. Does the private sector differ in that regard? I can’t know, although I do know my husband took family days from his pharmaceutical company once we lived in New Jersey. Even when you might find a sitter for the workday, if you’ve been up all night with a sick child, the energy to face five classrooms-full of teenagers just won’t be there. So I never saw it as the cheating you might. And I never lied about my reason for being out, then or later. He had me in that office because he knew I was out for my kids’ chicken pox. I had been asked by the school nurse if there was any chance I was infected when my son was sick, and assured her that I’d had them as a child. No risk to the student population.

For me, the shock came not at his restrictive sick day policy, which I completely understood even though I saw it privately as insensitive. I never liked being out, but this stint at home with two successively sick tots who couldn’t go out but for the most part continued full of energy had stretched my stamina and emotional calm. Being the only parent strained particularly that month. Then I stared at a paycheck calculated per diem, so that those three days cost me $600!!! My gross pay was $600. I was astounded: even calculating on only the 180-day calendar (and of course teachers work 190 in that district) I earned $72, not $200 per day! Clearly he had gone back and taken my pay for the other absence, plus some. A chunk so large that for the following two weeks we were on a spaghetti and Cheerios and peanut butter diet, and I had to pull my son out of his Montessori program because I couldn’t pay his fee–and beg my daycare provider to keep them on until my next paycheck, gratis. Yes, she suffered a pay hiccup herself. Of course, if I didn’t work, I couldn’t pay her at all, so she agreed.

But I felt horrible. Never in my life had I been unable to pay my bills. Never had I been unable to offer proper balanced meals to my children. Never had I felt so low about my career choice than at that moment. If I was so smart, why was I doing this, I had to ask myself. When I hear statistics about how many teachers leave the profession in their first five years, I remember that month, and know exactly why. . .

from What Will You Do When They Come For You?

As I swing into a parking space, 102.7 blasting, I notice the AP standing at the perimeter of the lot, expectant, and wonder to myself, “What now?” There’d been activity from admin in recent weeks in response to Columbine–analysis of our security procedures, what emergency routines were or were not in place, personnel assignments during drills–so I was unsurprised to see, as he directed me to the circle entrance, that they’d cooked up a new drill. I had no idea what it was, as part of this drill was to surprise staff and students alike. Only a handful of staff members were “in”. The rest of us queued up at the entrance, answering students’ questions with “I don’t know any more about this than you” and “They didn’t mention this to the faculty either” as we waited for–well, whatever we were waiting for.
The entire school population, holding bookbags or backpacks, slowly inch through the hallway set aside for this exercise. Word floats back through the throng: “It’s a metal detector! They’re running us all through a metal detector!” and “What are they looking for?” and “Did something happen?” Again, we teachers in the crowd simply shrug, once again repeating “They didn’t tell us about this either.” Inside, I’m thinking This is going to be really embarrassing–my switchblade is on my keychain. I begin to wonder if that switchblade, used almost daily, the knife to cut surprise treats kids bring to class from Home Ec, the screwdriver to jiggle a floppy disk out of the computer or to unjam a file drawer (in my defense, the corkscrew was never employed at work!) I wonder, Are they going to take my knife? Arrest me for having it in a school? Oh Lord. Of course, I am packed in among hundreds of students, all bombarding me with questions–as if I knew something and just wasn’t telling–and they have their own questions. “Am I going to be in trouble for having a pager? matches? cigarettes? penknife?” And it was clear they wondered about other contraband but kept silent. Calmly, I repeat, “I’m sure the worst that would happen is they’ll just take it.” But I really didn’t know what the point of this exercise was, exactly.
Warring with those thoughts and that potential switchblade exposure, concerns about my teaching day: FPS books were due, and I’d quickly gone from a Looks like we’ll miss first period concession to Yikes, second period’s already over–how can I get in touch with those kids? inner hysteria. The FPS program deadlines were statewide, and an in-house decision to run a drill on a due date wouldn’t matter to them: I had to collect their books, xerox three copies each and mail them out, postmarked today. Accomplishing this, a scramble on a normal day. Actively looking for Futures kids in line, each time I’d spot one I’d sliver through the crowd into a quick tete a tete, grab what piece of the book that student had in hand with the message “Send anyone to me as soon as you see them. I’ll give them a pass to their next class,” hoping word would spread so I’d get those books before my free third period ended: This, my only time to xerox.
What I did know, and what the kids soon came to deal with in the inimitable way of teenagers, was that we were much like cattle, herded down a chute to slaughter. And the journey was taking a claustrophobic FOREVER. Since I wasn’t one of the early arrivals, I was packed in with the 7:30 crowd. We noticed that many of those who’d arrived at 7:00, the front of the line and well ahead of us, were still being processed at 8:30 through the single gate the police had erected. At the two-hour mark we’d moved about ten feet, still stuck in a hallway, intimately cramped. My morning coffee began calling, “When am I going to get a chance at the bathroom?” Varicose veins began their own pounding refrain. Racing through my mind, a constant restructuring of battle plans for collecting, xeroxing, and mailing those books. And that test in 3-honors? When can I re-schedule that? Every lesson I’d planned for that day, somehow, involved a series of assignments reaching closure, and this drill would bump several things back. I’ll have to reschedule that Media Center visit. And the rewrite due date. I’d intended to return a set of papers today for rewriting, and needed to conference with all my students beforehand. Time just squeezed, and I felt my breathing rate increase, stressed at the day I now faced. Although a colleague had wedged in next to me, we couldn’t discuss what was going on, nor our discomfort, because students were, literally, in our whisper zone. So we chatted about nothing to pass the time. It was at about 10:00 that I first heard it. “Moooo.” First softly, one voice, then picked up by others, in a crescendo, “MOOOOO”ing like the cattle we were. Teenagers have a lovely way of crystallizing an experience. My reverie had taken me to ordinary people herded onto and off of trains, many to certain deaths, past wondering how people could be so easily shepherded to their doom. “Mooooooo” became their battle cry, their critique: Didn’t you think about how long this would take, the conditions you’d put people in, without just cause, the illegal search and seizure . . . My switchblade loomed ever larger in my imagination.
By the time we re-entered the school day, the lunch schedule had been crazily compressed and I faced a manic afternoon. My Futures students managed to submit all their pages by the end of the school day in slapdash, sometimes running deliveries, and once xeroxed (the machine only jamming three times, a record), I’d had to go to the Post Office (via the ATM machine so I could pay for the postage) and was an hour late to pick up my younger daughter from daycare, subsequently missing my son’s transition from school day to evening concert altogether. But I’d made the deadline. It took more than a week to pick up the threads in my honors class, unable to reschedule the Media Center in its busy time of year. I’d had to start a new unit without finishing the last, then revisit the compositions with a tighter due date, and finally, test. And then pull two all-nighters to get those papers graded before the marking period ended. Once again I wished administrators would plan from a teacher’s point of view. Doing this drill so close to the end of a marking period creates serious issues.
Can’t there be room for both security and education?

For discussion: The issue of school safety continues to confound educators. There have been over 100 school shootings just since the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy a little over two years ago. So the question remains: Is there room for both security and education?

from Technology is a Curse

In 1978 the Apple 2E came to our high school. A handful of these babies sat in a little side room. Teachers were offered after-school training in how to program them. Computer students at my college laboriously typed punchcards that fed huge refrigerator-sized computers in the math building at the far end of campus. The cards would fan through the system for a day or so before spitting out long reams of paper results. English majors avoided that building, so I signed on to see what this new invention offered. I learned a little rudimentary programming, and it seemed a cool toy, but nothing I learned there applied to my classroom. If computers existed at my next two schools I never saw them. When I relocated in 1985, a full complement of Apple 2Es sat in a Writing Workshop in the English Department, and clear schoolwide commitment existed to eventually populate every area of the school thus.

Herein lies the comedy that is educators and technology. We had a lab full of computers, but no real curriculum to apply them, no philosophical basis for their location, and no teachers trained to use them! The English Supervisor recognized this, and encouraged some teachers to apply for appropriate courses, but no monies funded this effort . . .

When I left in 2010 there were 26 computers in these two rooms alone, and several computer labs throughout the school; this necessitated a complete rewiring of the building in the ’90’s. Never, however, in all those years, as the Apple 2Es became the GS, then switched to PC brands, never were teachers placed in the lab with any computer training. The one notable exception occurred the year the school transitioned to online gradebooks. One portion of one in-service day on three separate occasions was devoted to teacher training, in a large group. This meant two or three teachers to each computer. This training did not extend beyond How to Sign On and Here’s the Menu of All the Things You Can Do! Ever. These presentations invariably included promises of further training that never materialized. The first two sessions included a collapse of the network ten minutes after the lesson commenced.

Some school systems buck this trend. The county system in the south where I substitute teach does, in fact, couple its commitment to technology infusion with teacher training. Many of the jobs I get are to cover for that very thing. Students are issued ipads, and teachers are shown techniques to enhance their lessons using this new tool. Classrooms carry smartboards and teacher laptops so that the computer and internet resources sit central to every lesson. Students become accustomed to having questions they can immediately research; teachers know a map or painting or video clip or musical piece will be a few key clicks away to illustrate any unanticipated student question. The powerful world of information sits in every room, and every teacher knows how to access it. But even here, frustration, as the district does not issue its substitutes a laptop, nor any training, so those who retired just before the Smartboard’s immigration (or never taught at all) cannot offer that immediacy of information. Lesson plans become a pile of xeroxed worksheets, the hex of busywork looming large when a teacher is absent . . .

The first year a VCR hung in every classroom in our school one might think we’d be dancing, and on one level we were. But no one asked teachers what features might be useful; no one who was a teacher was involved in the purchase at all. You may ask, what’s the big deal? What key feature, based upon how teachers show programs, could be all that essential? Any teacher back then could slam-dunk this answer. Showing a feature film in English, for example, happens usually for two reasons. If part of the viewing strand and meant to be looked at as film, then there will be a view sheet so that students don’t miss essential elements that can be reviewed later, and the piece is seen straight through. But since feature films usually run 90 minutes minimum, and can be well over 120 minutes long, this takes two or three teaching days. Because one’s teaching load generally involves two or three, maybe more, identical classes Do you see where this is going? a teacher shows the same film in multiple classes over multiple days.

So, what is that essential feature? Rewind, fast-forward–common features, not a problem–AND A COUNTER!! How else can you denote where you stop and start?

Imagine our surprise in discovering the beautiful new classroom VCRs had no counter on the machines. And imagine, if you will, what this means. In the four minutes between classes, when the teacher must stand at the door to the hallway (the principal’s order: we ostensibly improve student behavior during passing times simply by our presence at the door), how can one rewind what, say, a Period 1 class just finished watching back to where the Period 2 class left off yesterday? With no counter to mark the spot?

Try this at home, if you still have a VCR. You may not, but schools do; substantial taxpayer dollars have been invested in not only the machines, but a library of VCR film versions. Watch a 40-minute segment, and then, in less than four minutes, rewind it back to its starting point, sans counter. Oh, and be sure several teenagers are asking you questions about last night’s assignment, or what they missed yesterday, or “Do you have another copy of that worksheet? I lost mine” over and over while you do it. Sprinkle in a couple arguing over who’s seat’s whose, or another pair chasing each other around the room. Then you’ll have the barest inkling of one reason we teachers wish someone would ask us what we need to be successful in the classroom before they go out and buy it!

The VCR purchase represents a broader common experience. School administrators bought thousands of dollars of computers, printers, copiers, faxes, gradebook software and more, without directing one questionnaire prior to purchase at staff–or one dime post-purchase for staff training on said equipment. It’s the “Figure It Out” game, in education. Or should I say, “Figure It Out and Make Do”? Because over and over again, that’s what we do . . .

Too often I watch teachers choose to break or ruin equipment rather than betray ignorance of its use. Entire class gradebooks, lost. Documents formatted incorrectly, or worse, saved over the template, spreading the mistake virally. Xerox machine parts, snapped. Jams in printers, abandoned. Ribbons of videotape spiraling out from some jimmied piece of a VCR. This was the greatest frustration I faced in using the many tools purchased to help me in the classroom.

As Millennials begin to populate faculties en masse, computer literacy among teachers will improve by default. But Millennials will invariably face new technology. Without some change in how teachers are encouraged to retool and retrain, this kind of waste can tumble into perpetuity. Those quick studies can and will figure it out, managing; but those less deft, left untrained, will leave the latest technological tool collecting dust at best, or at worst, broken to bits. Wouldn’t it be wiser to set policies in place that will put it to greater use?

*Every incident and person described in Becoming Mrs. L is real and accurate, according to this writer’s best recollection of each event. In order to protect their identities, the names of all schools, staff and students have been changed, including the author’s. Becoming Mrs. L is not about one specific place or time or person or incident, but about the real challenges every teacher meets in the course of a career.
Discussion Topic:  What technology policies are in place at your school that you appreciate? What could your school implement that would improve technology purchases and training, and so maximize student potential and taxpayer dollars?