Archives for the month of: March, 2015

Someone I know is going to have a baby. She said to me, “I just wish I could be doing something about it. It’s so hard just to wait!” Yes, I said, it’s hard to wait, but if it depended on mothers doing stuff somebody would be sure to mess it up. This is strictly a growing kind of thing. You cannot grow taller by trying and you can’t make a better baby by trying, even if you could decide what a better baby would look like.

But other things take a fantastical amount of doing, yet they can’t be hastened, either. This is what discovering our ability as a teacher feels like. I keep going back to John Steinbeck in my mind. He had to discourage the thoughts of the past and success he had already met, which was worse than useless on the project of Grapes of Wrath, and he had to fend off thinking about the future, with all its attendant worries about whether the book would be good enough, or an abject failure. What mattered was the work each day.

Not built in a day.

Not built in a day.

And so it is for new teachers. What matters is the work each day. In fact, this is equally true for our students. Measuring ourselves just isn’t very helpful. Projecting to the future is irrelevant and fears from the past are actively harmful. It’s as if we are pregnant with our future selves and we have to allow that gestation to develop in its own way and time, yet with this pregnancy there is nothing but doing the work with a will.

This slow, laborious process is made all the worse by others around us offering well meant advice about taking it easy. You ought to have more fun! Come on, live a little! But we can’t. We’re laboring.

Or, if it makes more sense to you, rather than being pregnant with your future self, the first few years of teaching are like having at least twins, or possibly, depending on how many students, how many preps, how well you know the content, and other circumstances, triplets, quadruplets, or quintuplets. You would not say to a new mother of multiples that she ought to live a little. You would congratulate her on survival. Is she getting any sleep at all? Is she getting to the end of the day with a shred of sanity? That’s success.

Now the fun can begin.

Now the fun can begin.

New teachers: I congratulate you on your survival! Those infants will grow up and one day they’ll go to school. They will still be lots of work and your major concern, but it will get progressively more doable. Yes, you have to give up many pleasures and joys for now. Your life can’t be the same. You walk around in a daze and with a wet spot of drool on your shoulder and you can’t go out with your friends but ever so rarely. But it’s so, so worth it.

One day, you’ll be born as a teacher, and you’ll know it. As Aeneas said on the beach to his desperate men, fled from Troy, “One day perhaps we will remember even these our present hardships with joy.” (Except you won’t. Nobody likes to remember the first year or so. I just said that to cheer you up.)

Aeneus and Achates meet Venus. Illustration by Warwick Goble, posted at

Aeneus and Achates meet Venus. Illustration by Warwick Goble, posted at

Somehow all of us must find a way to balance what needs to be done with what we can do, remembering that sometimes, for new mothers, Steinbeck, Aeneas, the builders of Rome, and teachers, it’s going to mean a lot of work here and now.

There are three strands to this post and I hope to braid them together into something coherent.  We’ll see.

First, I’ve been thinking lately about self-improvement and how it can feel like self-rejection.  Alan Watts talks about this, the sense that we have to white-knuckle our way out of being who and what we are to become something a whole lot better, and how the real message there is self-hatred.  I had a big checklist at the New Year, with all sorts of improving things to do each day (exercise! practice guitar! floss!) and I kept it faithfully, most unlike me, for twenty plus days, to find life had become miserable.  The whole time I was doing one thing, I was eying the rest of the undone tasks and scheming on how to cut corners on each so I could squeeze them all in.  It was horrid and I’m still recovering.

I think about this with some of my students, who, some of the time, are playing me.  They don’t want to do the work I set for them and they find ways to kick against it.  The message of an assignment is, after all, that I’m not accepting them the way they are.  I want to see them grow.  That’s not bad, but it is a potentially annoying part of the relationship.

Second strand: this morning I read a long article in about Steinbeck and the journal he kept while writing Grapes of Wrath, detailing his many crises of confidence, his self doubt, his granite commitment to this important novel, and his fears about not having the skill to bring it off.  He suspended his life to write the book, all the while wondering if his ability could do justice to his conception.  And yet not to write it!

Inspiring to think even these kinds of writers have doubts.

Inspiring to think even these kinds of writers have doubts.

Third strand:  Mister Rogers.  Watch this:

Mister Rogers Good-bye.

My transcription of part of it: “I’m just so proud of all of you who have grown up with us.  And I know how tough it is some days, to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead.  But I would like to tell you what I used to tell you when you were much younger:  I like you just the way you are.  And what’s more, I am so grateful to you for helping all of the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe and to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods.  It’s such a good feeling to know that we’re lifelong friends.”

So how do they go together?  Is the answer to refuse to write a Pulitzer/Nobel book, since it’s so painful?  Or to accept that some kids will take advantage of their teachers and brag about it to others?  Or to grind our molars and force ourselves to do what we think we ought, regardless of the heartbreak?

No.  I think there may be a quietly insistent inner calling.  We know what seeds we contain.  Having a baby isn’t the easiest thing, either, but some of us wanted to be mothers badly enough that we braved it.  And it was magnificently, opulently worth it.

We have to love ourselves and one another just the way we are, and know that that also means loving the seeds we contain.  Some, like Steinbeck or my mentee, are going to have to give up the present to grow those seeds to fruit– but the cost of not doing it is so great that we can’t bring ourselves to pay it.

And I must continue to love my students, even the advantage-takers, just the way they are and hold out faith for the seeds that they contain, even if right now they cannot muster Steinbeckian courage.

A master teacher.

A master teacher.

It is a beautiful, varied, "standards"-defying world. Photo credit:  Jason Kinnan.

It is a beautiful, varied, “standards”-defying world.
Photo credit: Jason Kinnan.

I keep meeting with smart people who believe they see benefit in establishing “standards” for what kids must learn in school.  I feel like Dave Barry’s wife, of whom he remarked about her experience in childbirth, “Would you believe, she almost completely lost her sense of humor!” So that I can quit sounding so peevish at dinner parties, here is my platform on “standards:”

  1. Kids learn at different rates, so what is a good target for one kid at a given age is inappropriate for another kid at the same age.
  2. “Standards” place intolerable pressure on kids who cannot meet them and render invisible kids who already surpass them. “Standards” inevitably aim toward the big middle. If we adopt them, we are no longer taking an interest in our best and brightest, who can already pass all the stupid, reductive bubble tests. This is no way to “compete in a global economy.”
  3. We should not be trying to standardize kids, anyway. What we want is creativity, resourcefulness, and diversity of thought and ability.
  4. Even if the standards could be made flexible enough to suit all kids (ha!), what’s the point of codifying what they need to know today when we don’t even know what problems we will face tomorrow? “Standards” are inherently ponderous and slow on their feet, unable to keep up with the rate of change.
  5. We’re never going to agree on them anyway. Either everyone already knows it, like the fact that all kids should know how to read, or people can’t agree on it. When should we teach symbolism? Comprehensive sexuality education? Global warming? The proper place to fight these battles is in communities, where there is some hope that wisdom can in time prevail, as opposed to Washington, where if you’re for it, the other side has to be against it just because.
  6. They are very, very expensive. All time and money devoted to testing is time and money away from kids learning things—billions of dollars and countless hours. Why create a sinkhole for money and expertise when both are in short supply?
  7. “Standards” presume that teachers don’t know what to teach, but they do. They always have. We don’t have a problem with teachers not knowing what kids can and should learn—we have a problem with poverty traumatizing kids to the degree that they are unable to learn it. That’s the bulls-eye of the problem and it cannot be solved with “standards.”
  8. By allowing “standards” to be foisted upon us, we allow the presumption (#6 above) to stand. We devote enormous time and money (#5) to identify all those putative horrid failing teachers rather than asking them what they need to do the job better.

Standards are worse than useless. They are actively hostile to teachers and their work.

Instead of bogus, artificially imposed, conformist benchmarks, we need to cultivate the best and highest in every single person.

Each person, highest potential. EP, HP.

Each person, highest potential.

Each person, highest potential.


Now I'll go back to my trashcan and try to cheer up.

Now I’ll go back to my trashcan and regain my usual cheery disposition.

100 Day Journey

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Katherine Good

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