Tag Archives: sadness

It’s Okay to Be Disgusted

There’s news out of Florida on the testing front. If you haven’t yet heard or read about it, I feel obligated to warn you: it’s grotesque.

It’ll probably turn your stomach a little. It has the potential to raise your blood pressure a few ticks. It might bring a scowl to your face.

But don’t worry. It’s okay to be disgusted.

There’s a boy named Michael. He’s nine, and in Florida, that means the special time in his life has finally come when he takes Florida’s standardized test. Sounds like another anti-testing sob story, and you’re not disgusted yet? Keep reading.

Michael is your typical kid in so many ways, except for the following: he’s blind and he’s mute.

Now, I’m not by any means saying someone who can’t see or speak is incapable of deep thought, comprehension, or success. Obviously we know that isn’t true. Nor am I saying Michael himself, in his unique situation, is totally helpless or hopeless.

But here’s the thing about Michael. In addition to being blind and mute, he has a very limited mental capacity. Michael’s brain is literally incomplete. He has a brain stem, and that’s it.

Let that soak in for a minute. He has a brain stem, and that’s it.

But just because he’s at that special age where tests are the only way to show any kind of competency, Michael had to take the test.

No vision, no speech, no complete brain. Yet still, bless his heart, a test taker.

Now’s the time to be disgusted.

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume Michael didn’t do too well on this test. Am I holding him to low expectations? Am I saying he can’t do certain things? Am I saying he won’t ever be college and career ready? Uh, yep, I am.

Michael has lived and will live his life on drastically different terms than most. I’m not a doctor (just a know-nothing teacher), but, barring incredible medical advancements, I imagine he’ll never bathe himself, dress himself, feed himself, write his name independently, or articulate an opinion. I’d also have to guess he could never comprehend the testing instructions or a reason for it. His life will probably never be comparable to his peers, except for the fact that he is held to the same academic standards as everyone his age.

It’s okay to be disgusted.

But it’s those who let this happen who should feel the most disgusted. For they are the most disgusting.

We Are Not the Villains

It’s not okay when a child has to die. It’s not okay for innocents to be murdered.

And, now, for very crystal clear, solid reasons, it’s not okay to bash teachers.

I’ve often defended the teaching profession as the noblest of all, but so many people think teachers are selfish, lazy, apathetic union thugs.

It takes a certain level of cowardice to put down a teacher and their chosen profession.

The best teachers are pillars of society. They raise kids up and push them where they never thought they’d go. They devote their time and resources to impacting young peoples’ lives in ways they’ll never know. They encourage, inspire, console, love, and praise.

For most, teaching isn’t just a job. There are teachers so invested in their students that they have dreams about them. They think about them on the weekends. They buy them clothes and meals. They make sure the family has a Christmas tree when they can’t afford one.

And there are teachers so absolutely devoted to their children that they actually place themselves between an assassin and their students, unflinchingly accepting their own untimely and horrible fate so that little babies – with so much life, innocence, and potential – don’t have to.

Why must it take such a heinous, inconceivable event to make people rethink a teacher’s motivations? We don’t teach for summers off. We don’t teach for guaranteed sick days. We don’t teach for being home by 3:30 every day.

Teachers, above everything else, are human beings. We teach because we are good people who just want to leave an impact on the world.

None of us ever dreams of having to confront the same fate our colleagues at Sandy Hook did on Friday. We want our children to come to school with smiles, eager to learn. We want to lift them up when they’re down. We want to encourage them to take chances and to be proud of themselves.

We never want to see them become victim to lunacy. We want them to have all the best in life.

We are not the villains.

We are the heroes.

Victoria Soto was younger than me. She was a teacher. She died because the gunman must have been frustrated that her kids were “in gym” (though they were actually in the classroom hidden from his sight). He turned his weapon on her, and killed her. Victoria Soto died to save her students’ lives. Rather than let children be killed, she let herself be killed. Because of her, the mommies and daddies of those children got to see, hold, and speak to their children again.

Victoria Soto was a teacher, a hero, and an angel.

So, I defy you now to haphazardly lump all teachers together and call us, “selfish.” I defy you to say we don’t have kids’ best interests at heart. And I encourage you to step back and realize that we teachers – who want so much for our students, who advocate for them, who push them, who care for them – are not the problem.

If you want to find a silver lining to this very grey cloud, look no further than the heroism displayed by the teachers at Sandy Hook. And the next time you make a generalization about teachers, instead of saying, “Anyone can be a teacher,” say, “It takes a remarkable human being to be a teacher.”


Sandy Hook: Why?

The news came on a prep and made us sick to our stomachs: there had been a mass shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut.

It’s hard enough to accept that there are people who would actually hurt children, but what kind of a person makes it a mission to kill them?

It’s impossible to imagine the carnage and horror that ensued at Sandy Hook. No doubt we will hear many stories of courage and bravery. In these situations, which are all too common, often the worst of humanity is confronted with the best of humanity. We should look toward the heroes of this tragedy. The heroism of the teachers who protected their students humbles us. Some made the ultimate sacrifice so their students wouldn’t have to.

And about those children who didn’t escape. All their potential, laughter, joy, and life were taken from them with no warning and for no reason. A situation like this makes you stop and think, for quite a while, about so much.

The questions begin and end with a seemingly simple one that can never be answered: “Why?”

As Summer Dawns

Today is the last day of the school year. The room is bare, ready to sparkle for next year’s students, but devoid of the kid-friendly charm that greeted us every day since September. Desks are empty, closets are packed, computers are prepared for a two month respite. What was once our classroom is now just another room.

Yet, it is not the room that makes the class, but the people. The last few days have been relaxed in some ways, apprehensive in others. Not every child is thrilled to be moving on.

Indeed, some of mine have been with me for two years, and they are anxious about moving on to fourth grade with a new teacher.  Gone is the security they had with me. Waiting for them is the next adventure.

Lately, the shyest ones are the most vocal. The most hardened are suddenly soft. There have been a lot of “I’m going to miss yous” going around. I try to reassure the kids that, yes, I will be in the same room next year. Yes, I will visit you and you can visit me. Yes, you can come play with the ocean animals.

But I also try to make them believe they are ready for the next step. I remind them that they were in one place early in the year and grew in many ways to where they are now.

I hope I’ve given them the tools for being successful. I read one of my favorite books to them yesterday, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” At the end, one of my girls asked, “But what are we supposed to do when someone says, ‘You’re dumb,’ or, ‘You can’t do it,’?” I told her she needs to show those people they’re wrong. I said, “When this year started, I know a lot of people looked at this class’ reading and math and said, ‘Oh, they can’t do it.’ But look at where you are now. You showed you can do it.”

And so it goes that another year’s book is sealed. Summer beckons, and we embrace it with open arms, but not without first taking time to reflect upon the last 10 wonderful months and the exciting challenges that another year will eventually bring.

Goodbye, School

Goodbye school

Goodbye class

Goodbye students who want school to last.

Goodbye books

And the paint we used.

Goodbye desks

Goodbye tests.

Goodbye nameplates

And goodbye game days.

Goodbye lunches

And laughs in bunches.

Goodbye all my friends

And goodbye counting by tens.

Goodbye floor

And goodbye door.

Goodbye, teacher

Goodbye more.

And goodbye to everyone

Whispering, “Shush.”

Goodbye stairs

Goodbye cares

Goodbye for two months everywhere.

Can Teachers Still Change the World?

Teachers change the world, one bubble at a time.

I can’t think of a more serious question right now regarding the current state and future of the teaching profession than the one I’m posing today.

In a society where outside-the-box thinking in the education world is discouraged and people with more money than the U.S. Mint are pulling the strings in the puppet show in which we’re the marionettes moving at their whim, you have to wonder: Can teachers still change the world?

Seems there’s less and less time for those things we came to this profession for. You know, trivial matters like inspiring kids to greatness, helping them discover the wonders of the world, and introducing them to a really sensational book. Or even more trivial things like, oh, I don’t know: learning to think for yourself, questioning authority, and being an active citizen in a democracy.

The process of education is eroding, if it isn’t already gone. That means, of course, that the goal of education is also in jeopardy if not already gone. In their places has settled the misguided, blasphemous reliance on test scores as the number one focus of school. Despite what politicians, supporters, and media – the vast majority of whom, it is always worth remembering, have never taught a day in their lives – would have you believe, yes, school has become about the test, and yes, countless hours of instruction and discovery time are lost because of the harsh punishments waiting for schools that fail to perform. For every photo-op of the chancellor of the country’s largest school system reading to pre-schoolers (which looks oh so fun and ideal), there are countless other cries that by the next year, those same kids should be taking tests.

“Happy fifth birthday, Johnny! Now, I know you wanted Legos, but, little buddy, you know there’s no time for that. So I bought you a book! It’s called Dick and Jane Take Tests!”

Rewinding back to kindergarten in my mind’s eye, I remember: the teacher playing a piano, blocks, a corner for us to play house, musical instruments, and a little bit of reading. Tests? Not so much.

How are we ever going to live up to the examples of our former teachers who helped spark in us all those interests that we still have today (which for me, include: zebras, turtles, the environment, whales, and writing)? How can that be done when everyone in the school is judged by the tests?

Ask me to tell you about the five best projects I had in my public school career, and I can do it with ease. Ask me about what my scores were on a standardized test, or if I remember anything about them other than a class aide checking my bubbles, and I’ll say, “Huh? School wasn’t about that!”

Will my students write their blogs one day reflecting about me by saying, “Mr. Ray was so great. He taught me how to underline the main idea when I read and made me make sure I bubbled really neatly inside the lines”? I sure hope not. What a horrible way to be remembered. It’d be depressing to think I dedicated my life to helping kids be good test takers, a skill that offers no readily apparent application to the real world.

This is the truth as I see it.

We’re no longer wanted to change the world. We’re not meant to inspire. We’re not here to make lives better. We’re wanted to enforce things we don’t believe are good for our students. We’re meant to follow the book and do as we’re told. We’re wanted to raise test scores. So the logic goes, no one who is anyone ever amounted to anything without good test scores (including, I guess, Abraham Lincoln and other bums like him).

This testing fetish brings in the whole issue of our students – like mine and so many others – who will never do well on a test. The major victories they score in school just aren’t good enough for the elitists who think everyone must, can, and should be educated and assessed in the very same way.

Too many tests to take. Too many kids to fall through the cracks. Too many kids to be lost in the shuffle. Too many kids to be ignored, ashamed, and forgotten. Too many books left unread. Too many experiments left undone. Too many instruments left untouched. Too many blocks left unbuilt. Too many potentials never realized. Too many.

So, I really mean it when I ask: Can teachers still change the world?

No Chances for Success Means You’re Doomed to Failure

In a recent conversation with my principal, I brought up the fact that I was worried about how my students would react to taking their first standardized tests this year. As students with disabilities, standardized tests are a omnipotent monster they’ll be battling. I expressed my concern that the monster would win…and then what?

My kids are good kids, hardworking, respectful, and conscientious. To this point, far as I can tell, the fact that they are in a small room with only 11 peers and three adults hasn’t affected their confidence. Nor, again, as far as I can tell, has the fact that, in reality, all of them except one are reading on a kindergarten or first grade level (as 8-10 year olds). And, yet again, nor has the fact, far as I can tell, that while general education classes in the third grade keep writers notebooks and publish on looseleaf paper, they are still using folders and publishing on primary grade paper.

Either they are blissfully unaware or I can expect the other shoe to drop pretty soon. Or both.

As they get older, the gap will, sure as the rising and setting of the sun, become ever wider. Indeed, it’s only a matter of time before repeatedly seeing 1s all over a report card or low marks all over a test becomes a bit too much for them to handle and they start to mail it in. Then their academics will begin to impact their behavior. Who knows what their repeated failures will lead them toward?

The very sad, even heartbreaking, truth is that these students are victims of a system that doesn’t value them and establishes them as absolute failure at every juncture, with no chance for success.

Meanwhile, it is report card time, and despite the real progress kids are making, the report cards won’t speak much to that point.

In our number-crazed world, there’s going to come a time when my message and the numbers no longer jive. And just like that, more students and more potential will be lost due to the injustices of the system.

It’s as if the kids are walking blissfully, joyfully, confidently…right over the edge of a cliff. And there ain’t a damn thing I can do about it.


When Your Best Isn’t Worth Anything

You Are Not Your Grade

An Absence of Journalistic Integrity: Data Without Context

It’s finally hitting the fan.

I am sitting here, watching with ever-intensifying disgust, as reporters from the NY Times, Schoolbook and WNYC tweet out teacher data reports of their choosing. They are doing what we’ve all been cautioned not to: interpret the data as sound and meaningful and as the only measure of a teacher’s value.

I’m going to take the high road and not use any names. Suffice it to say, though, the line separating sensationalism from journalism has been badly blurred. How else do you explain a tweet linking to a school that is being phased out and has “below average” teachers? Within three minutes, using records easily searchable online, I discovered that 99% of the students there receive free lunch. The context makes those numbers a bit more meaningful, no? Amazing what a little (and I mean little) research can do for a story.

Maybe I should have stuck with journalism.

I feel for my colleagues, both in my school and out, whose names are linked now to numbers that tell nothing about the true challenges and triumphs of their work.

What can provide a more accurate picture of why numbers are what they are? Anecdotes and discussions with people in the schools or numbers compiled on a web site from those sitting in the ivory tower of “journalism?”

Schoolbook is asking for teachers to go ahead and defend themselves in an attempt to let teachers clear their names by lending context to the numbers. They’ve approached me for my input (although I do not have a report).

Here’s my input regardless: The numbers are already out there. From here on, it’s all going to be damage control. Releasing the numbers and names without the stories was irresponsible, unethical, and potentially devastating to careers and livelihoods. Teachers will now be forced to play catch up. If numbers don’t lie, as so many people believe, then each data report should be accompanied by demographic breakdowns by school and by teacher (students receiving special education services, number of English Language Learners, number of students receiving free lunch, etc.) But no – that would mean the numbers would have to wait. Couldn’t have that happen, could we?

Masquerading the numbers as news is unfair. Journalists are supposed to be objective. Pushing ahead with a story before responsibly compiling relevant data with the opinions and concerns of those being persecuted is just plain wrong.

Remember the Whales

I was driving along the coast of Connecticut, heading toward a right curve that put the car alongside the sparkling blue water of the Atlantic Ocean. To the left was an unpopulated white beach. I saw mist was coming up from beneath the surface and recognized it as the product of whales’ blow holes.

I had been fascinated by the majesty of whales since fifth grade when we studied them for a whole unit and adopted one as a class. So to see this spontaneous display as I drove was quite emotional for me. That’s why, when a blue whale launched itself out of the water, high into the air like an acrobat before diving back below the surface, I felt tears welling in my eyes. I wanted to stop to watch, but couldn’t. I continued to drive, upset by my inability to stop, simultaneously thrilled by the natural spectacle occurring right there on the coast.

Ocean now obscured by brush and with the golden sun setting, I pulled into the town where street vendors hawked their crafts and food. All I could appreciate was that no one shared my excitement over the whale.

Then, with that unpleasant tightness in the chest that accompanies the undesirable outcome of a dream, I awoke.

I read so many articles yesterday that were about the narrowing of our curricula and the complacency of test prep. A whale in my dream arrived to say it shouldn’t be that way. We should celebrate the amazing things in our world, the spontaneity of discovering what we never knew about, and the joy of experiencing firsthand what interests us.

Let’s not become the disinterested street vendors so focused on their profits that we forget about everything else. Let’s remember the whales.

Nothing Lasts Forever

Yesterday, what had been inevitable for several weeks finally came to pass: two girls moved into my class from another one and one of my boys learned he would be leaving.

As excited and comfortable as the girls were by the end of the day, that’s how worried and upset the boy was. I had to break the news to him toward the end of the day that, given that we were over the limit of kids in our class, someone would have to move into a class where they were one under the limit.

Try as I did to butter him up and make him feel better – “They asked me to suggest a boy who has gotten better in school this year and who makes friends easily” – he was devastated. He cried for a good 20 minutes. No amount of reason could make sense to him. He said it wasn’t fair.

It was hard for me to argue that point. Unfortunately, this is one of the necessary evils of being a teacher and building a community: nothing lasts forever.

So we bid him farewell. I’m comfortable in the knowledge that he is going to a talented colleague and is bringing with him the confidence of knowing that he has done well this year.

It is a difficult transition for him to make, but in the end, I don’t doubt he will continue to thrive.

That doesn’t make it that much easier on his former teacher and classmates, though.