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Or, how do you prepare?

This has always been a mystery to me.  How do you prepare to teach a bunch of kids you haven’t met yet?  You can’t know how to speak to them or connect to them until you know a little bit about them.  .  .  But you have to do something on the first few days while you size them up and they do the same with you.

What I have done in the past is to ask them to read V.S. Naipaul’s beautiful short story “B. Wordsworth” and then a letter I’ve written and photocopied about the story, and on the back of that they write a letter to me talking about the story, about my letter, and about themselves.  I wish I could say that took up most of the 90 minutes I typically see them, but it’s only about a half an hour.  “B. Wordsworth” says a lot about paying attention, about mindfulness, and about teaching.  It’s great.  But they can’t really take in anything on day 1 and maybe that’s better saved for later.

I’ve been told that you should do your most pizzazzy lesson on the first day so they go home all agog and tell their mums and dads.  That’s poor advice in my opinion.  Why would you want to set yourself up so the entire rest of your course is a let-down?  And anyway, they won’t remember it.  Day 1 is a blur.

I’ve also been told that you shouldn’t smile til Christmas.  This reminds me of a saying my father used to cite:  “A woman, a horse, and a walnut tree: the more you beat ’em, the better they be.”  I can’t speak for walnut trees, but I bet even the horses reject that piece of cruelty.

Image result for walnut tree

(Don’t let them hurt you, kiddo!)

No, the thing to do on day 1 is something that comes out of your own heart, expresses your values, respects the kids and yourself, and recognizes that we all need time and space to decide our feelings on anything so important as our new teacher.

I myself am not a fan of icebreakers, so I don’t do one.  If you like them when they’re offered to you, great.  Go for it.  For me, that would be phony.  This year I might give them an article (The Atlantic has one now about smartphones ruining a generation) and ask them to read and discuss in small groups and then open it up to discuss all together.  Or go over procedures, introduce myself, and give them the article to take home to read and begin Wednesday with a discussion.

I don’t know.  So the true answer to what am I doing this weekend is that I am sleeping as much as I can, buying plastic containers to pack lunches, visiting with my family, re-stringing my guitars, going for walks, having dinner with friends, and altogether living my life– invoking the muses to grace my creativity and imagination with lesson ideas that will inspire my students big time.

In other words, I’ll figure it out.  Ideally before the first kids arrive on Tuesday.


(Can’t wait to meet those scary, wonderful kids).


Do you know this sweet old song?

Button up your overcoat. . .

“Button up your overcoat when the wind blows free. Take good care of yourself: you belong to me.” I would like to sing that song and do my best Betty Boop impersonation for all new teachers. You should be taking extra good care of yourself: go to bed early, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, get some exercise every day, eat a good breakfast, and all the rest of the homey ways you can think to boost your health and spirits.

But there is a fly in the ointment. Now that you are so busy and stressed to do what can’t actually be done, you may find you can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t move.

Let’s look at sleep first. I have a relative who is a sleep tech. He’s the guy who hooks insomniacs up to the monitors and tucks them in to bed, watches over them during the night, and unhooks them in the morning. He told me that it’s not rare that when he goes in in the morning, a patient will say, “Well, that was a waste.” They perceived the number of hours they slept as zero. He replies, “You were asleep 90% of the time.” I’ve experienced this myself. I’ll be lying there, waiting patiently for sleep to come, thinking about my crazy 4th period class, and my husband will give me a nudge and ask me to please stop snoring. How can you be snoring when you’re wide awake?! You can’t. But you can be asleep when you don’t know you are. (so in my opinion, you should ignore the advice that says if you can’t sleep, get up and do something else until you can)

My relative also tells me that it’s normal for humans to experience diphasic sleep. They go to sleep, get about 4 hours, then wake up and ponder for an hour or so, then back to sleep for 4 more. That’s normal. Not weird. It doesn’t mean you’re coming apart at the seams.

Honestly, the worst thing about not sleeping isn’t even being tired, it’s the fear of being tired. You lie there, wishing you were asleep, pining for sleep, yearning for sleep, telling yourself that if you don’t go to sleep all is lost and you’ll be useless in the morning. Yeah, way to de-escalate the consequences. Much better just to take what comes.

Try this article about the second dart.

Sometimes the universe likes to play tricks on us. It’s like a game. “You think you’re stressed out now? I’m going to show you that you’re actually just fine by stressing you out more and you’ll survive that, too. You’re better than you think you are, kiddo!” We meet a whole new normal.

It’s like being a new parent. You’re overjoyed, panicked, anxious, desperate to do a good job if only you knew how, overwhelmed, confused, gob-smacked by love, deeply suspicious that you should have been given this responsibility, and sleep-deprived. Now, go! Do a great job!

Or maybe your issue is that you sleep all the time and you can’t get any exercise and you’re just a giant slug on the couch. Or maybe you can’t eat and food disgusts you and you’re hungrier and hungrier but you and food are not getting along. It’s all okay. Not pleasant, but okay. Most young teachers are far stronger than they can know. Just try to stay calm and accept what comes with good grace and, if possible, humor. Do the best you can. As Thurgood Marshall’s mother used to say to him, “Do the best you can and then be satisfied with that.”


He got good advice from his mom.  He went far with it.

Button up your overcoat when you can. Have faith in your own survival when you can’t.


Baby, it’s cold outside.



Today the New York Times had an article by Julie Bosman about an attempt in Kansas to relabel what most people call public schools as “government” schools.  So, having poisoned the word “government”, making it synonymous with authoritarian oppression, the far right now wants us to see our own schools, locally operated and governed by our neighbors, as factories of indoctrination.

Here is the article:

Public schools? To Kansas conservatives, they’re “government schools”

I wrote a response and, as usual, come up frustrated because there isn’t a forum for people who care abut education to hear from teachers.  Where do we post this stuff?  Where someone might see it, I mean?  I emailed it to the reporter and I hope she responds.

But this is the problem with blogging about education.  I’m telling myself all the things I know I think: kind of frustrating.  It’s like a message in a bottle.  I suppose, though, that it’s better than not even hoping that anybody will ever care.

So here is what I wrote in response:


A rose by any other name.

So you want to start calling the school I work in a “government school,” and at the same time express miffed surprise that I would mind that. After you’ve gone and said that “government” is a vile cancer on our freedom and you want to sell off federal lands to the highest bidder, amass great arsenals in your family rooms in case the “government” invades your town, and send your own kids to an unregulated charter school that may or may not teach science and is happy to suck public funds while seeing no need to account for any of its spending.


I prefer the term “community school.” Public schools in this country are run by local, elected citizens and foster the children of those who live in the community. They are “government” schools only to the degree that legislators who know nothing about education hand down ill-conceived notions. Yes, they are funded by taxes, like “government” police forces, or “government” fire departments, or the “government” post office. Why aren’t you out there having a fuss about “government” roads?

Public schools are, in fact, cornerstones of democracy, in conception, in execution, and in result. Our community schools are the chief means by which we ensure that all our children are prepared for the serious work of adulthood: making a living, raising a family, and participating in civic life.

And you see this as a threat to freedom?

I think we’ve got some issues with words. You say you can’t understand why, if we liberals like government so much, we would mind your designating our life’s work by a word you clearly detest. That’s like saying that if gay people are truly okay with their orientation, why would they mind if you call them any of the many, many hateful things you’ve called them? It’s not the word so much as the hatred.

So you go on and claim words to yourself, and invest them with a lot of emotion, and then claim the high ground when you offend.

I’m going to take “freedom” back from you. You use it as an excuse for selfishness. When you say freedom, what you mean is the right to have it all your way, to refuse to pay for the common good, to look after anyone’s children but your own. Your freedom is mean and spiteful, childishly selfish.

Our freedom is generous and open. It invites all to the table: all the kids, from the most challenged to the most brilliant, of any color of skin, from any family, of any belief, and we try to lead each one of those kids to curiosity and inquiry and the fulfillment of their highest potential. Community schools offer freedom from isolation, freedom from want, freedom from ignorance and blighted opportunity.

Community schools: owner-operated engines of freedom since 1821.


Teachers need and ask for more time, which is one reason why we rejoice when we have a snow day. Yes, there’s some extra sleep in it for us, but what it really means is that we have a few extra hours in which to get the grading and prep done. There is more of this than layfolk may believe.

A former student of mine is now a teacher in my building. She is having to force herself to take off one day per week, either Saturday or Sunday. I would estimate that she spends two or three times as much time planning and grading as she does in front of her students, which is 4 and a half hours per day. In addition to the 90 minutes of plan time she has per day, she puts in 3+ hours after school and 6+ hours each weekend day. At this rate, she will burn out.

I’ve been doing this for a long while and the longer I teach, the more efficient my use of time. It used to take me a half hour to grade each paper, back when I was unclear on what the kids were likely to master or find challenging and when it was harder for me to put what I wanted to tell them into words. Now it takes me about 10 minutes for a good paper and 15 or 20 for a bad one. So let’s say I have 25 kids per class. Each time I collect papers, that means

25 x 15 (average amount of time per paper) = 6 ¼ hours x 3 classes = 18 ¾ hours

That’s in addition to my contracted hours, plus meetings (faculty and department), clubs and activities, extra help for kids after school, and all the rest.

And that’s just the papers. There is also all the other work that needs to be graded (quizzes, classwork, projects, etc.). And that’s not even glancing at the time I need to prepare lessons—and no, I don’t recycle them from year to year. It’s far more effective to make up lessons with these particular kids in mind.

And don’t forget college recommendations. And helping them with their college essays. And reading their poetry and short stories, which they’d like to share out of pure exuberance at loving to write.

Does this strike you as a complaint? It isn’t. I love my work and see the grading and preparing as an integral part of it. It’s a fact that, no matter how long you do it or how efficient you get, teaching is a labor-intensive art, requiring enormous skill and oodles of time out of the classroom.

Time in the classroom is only the tip.

Time in the classroom is only the tip.

TIME is what we could give teachers that would help to make them more effective. Not money. Merit pay is a stupid idea that works absolutely nowhere—and it’s been tried many times and in many places. Merit pay posits that money is the main motivation for all people and that teachers aren’t trying as hard as they would if you dangled a bonus in front of them. Both assumptions are wrong.

No, what we need is time: days in the building, built in days for which we could plan, when we could collaborate, plan units together, meet with kids, catch up on grading, college recs, etc. We ask and ask and ask, but generally, it seems that to mollify crankypants columnists and their ilk, administrators feel constrained to fill what little time there is with more responsibilities.

There should be designated days, built in to the calendar at regular intervals, for teacher collaboration and planning, for assessment, and for meeting with kids who need extra help. The suggestion that we use snow days, which happen rarely if at all, for that crucial work shows how little it is actually valued.

Somebody has an issue with teachers staying home when there aren’t any students in the building.

Why does he care?  We have a lot of work to do that isn’t place-dependent.  Why can’t we do that work at home, as we do all week when we don’t have snow days?  Do you care where a columnist writes his column, whether office, coffee shop, or living room?  What difference does it make as long as he gets his work done? (in this case, I’d have been just as happy if he’d been watching TV instead).

But this writer says he believes teachers do no work on snow days and loll about eating bonbons, so we ought to be forced to go in to work like “everybody else.”  Why the malice and distrust?

Are teachers professionals who must be counted on to prepare for and follow up from their time with students?  Then let teachers figure out when and how to do that.  Or are we clock-punchers who don’t have to take work home?  We’d be very glad to go in on snow days if the only work we did was in the building.  Either way is fine with us.  You guys figure yourselves out and let us know and quit griping at us.

It gets down to whether teachers are professionals or not.  We have master’s degrees and courses beyond, equivalent to the course work for a Ph.D.  Why must people be so angry if we do a wonderful job by giving our own time at home?

Somehow teachers are the new “welfare queens.”  If we say that we work really hard, the angry public responds, “Yeah, we do, too!”  But weren’t you just saying that we didn’t work hard?  I don’t get it.  Nobody is attacking lawyers, who can write briefs at home, or college professors, who work far fewer hours in the classroom, or nurses, who can’t take work home, or sanitation workers, who also got the snow day off.

Why the special hatred for those of us who work hard to get kids interested in learning difficult concepts and skills?

Note:  when I get a snow day, I am thrilled to have some time to get caught up with all the work there is never enough time to do.  No bonbons.

Besides, I’ll be making up all snow days at the end of this year, as all public school teachers do.

Teachers, stay home and get some work done.

Teachers, stay home and get some work done.

Back in the fall, someone I know had a piece published in the NYTimes magazine featuring Eva Moskowitz, the head of Success Academies Charter Schools.  I wrote him a letter, received a response, and this is what I replied to that.  It sums up my feelings about what will work with kids who are failing to thrive academically.

I’ve been putting off writing you back to consider carefully what matters to be said. Probably not much. As you say, you’ve arrived at your conclusions and you aren’t engaging with me to the degree of answering the points I raised. I appreciate your kind words very much. I dislike this adversarial conversation. I still find it difficult to believe that you disagree with me.

The one part where we agree completely is that something must be done about kids with blighted hopes and futures. It seems obvious to me that that something is smaller classes, caring teachers, and plenty of arts and fascinating digressions. The education you chose for your kids is a pattern for all kids. I cannot understand how focusing on test scores and intense discipline is going to help anybody. Stress and pressure do not enhance learning, they impede it.

As for seeing Eva Moskowitz as a lightning rod. . . Public schools are under assault and have no means to defend themselves. Someone who throws rocks through your windows and makes money doing it is not what I’d call a lightning rod.

So that’s another thing that troubles me. Your piece was very far from objective, yet somehow you have the privilege of getting your opinions published. The voice consistently absent from these discussions is career teachers’. Our public education system is for the most part splendid—we do beautiful work except in areas of concentrated poverty. We would do even better if anyone would listen to what teachers know kids and schools need. But instead, some well-intended, impatient people and others who seek profit and some kind of libertarian extinguishing of all government institutions sweep in and declare themselves experts and ignore everything those of us who actually do the job have learned. I hope you read the New Yorker piece about Zuckerberg’s attempt to save Newark’s schools.

I’m sorry, but I am grieved by where you have landed in this debate and I believe you will regret your support for this woman and those groups. In teaching and learning, as in parenting and raising children, there are no shortcuts. We know exactly what works for kids and it’s consistent worldwide and throughout history. Safe, loving, rich environments foster intellectually curious, confident, able kids. You just can’t browbeat someone into being educated. Kids with the least need the most. If Success Academies are achieving, it’s because they are spending more and providing a richer environment with higher teacher:student ratios. It is then utterly unjust to blame the co-habiting public school for not having hedge fund benefactors.

It’s fine with me if you want to let our discussion drop here. I hate the saying “agree to disagree” because we don’t in fact agree, not probably even on disagreeing. Nevertheless, I think we’ve probably said as much to one another as is fruitful and, I hope, respectful and painless. I know I will be glad to shake your hand next time I see you.

I’m still learning how to write letters like this.  I can get cranky and start to yell, as it were.  That does nothing to open anyone’s mind.  Yet how to stay open when you’re dealing with someone who has it all wrong, as you believe?  Not easy.


It probably doesn't do any good, but it's better than a metaphorical asp.

It probably doesn’t do any good, but it’s better than a metaphorical asp.



A colleague sent me a link to this fascinating article by Brian Gallagher:

Brain Damage Saved His Music

Guitarist Pat Martino lost a huge chunk of his brain, excised by surgeons to remedy debilitating seizures and other symptoms, and suffered massive memory loss, including everything he had known about playing guitar.  In time, with help and encouragement, his skill slowly returned, bringing with it many memories and associations that had been lost– as if the music itself was interwoven with the essence of the man.

Pat Martino then and now.

Pat Martino then and now.

This is the part that most intrigued me:

In a scene in Martino Unstrung, Martino looked at his MRI brain images. As he stared into a black void of his brain, where his left temporal lobe used to be, he commented, “I would say that what is missing is disappointment, criticism, judgment of others—what is missing are all of the dilemmas that made life so difficult,” he said. “That’s what’s missing. And to be honest with you, it’s beneficial.”

Asked to expand, to reflect on the difference between his guitar playing before and after his surgery, Martino said, “My original intentions prior to neurosurgery had a great deal to do with craft and climbing the ladder of recognition by others. It had to do with the desire to achieve five stars as opposed to two stars for the judgment of an album. And then after the neurosurgery, that no longer had any meaning to me. I am more concerned with the reality of the moment, the enjoyment of that moment. I’m more concerned about the players that are with me, about their feelings, about the emanation of compassion and other virtues that we share together in the process. These are the things that I find much more rewarding than my achievement as a famous musician. Now it’s just enjoyment and friendship and compassion and concern. It’s an enjoyment of all things as opposed to the enjoyment of specific things.”

Martino may always have holes in his memory. In fact, said memory expert Nadel, Martino’s testaments to living in the moment are echoed by other patients who have suffered amnesia due to brain damage, and have lost the ability to recall the past or envision the future. But clinical diagnoses mean little to the guitarist these days.

“The greatest, truest essence of creative productivity is joy,” Martino said. “It’s a joy witnessed by those who surround it. They are no longer witnessing a craftsman, they’re witnessing a human being who’s happy about living, who projects that aura.” When he performed now, Martino said, he barely felt the guitar in his hands. Improvising a passage in a song was a spiritual journey. “The brain is a funny thing,” he said. “It’s part of the vehicle, but it’s not part of where the vehicle is going. The vehicle will take you there, but it isn’t you.”


I’ve been thinking a lot about process vs. product.  It seems that product is like coral– what’s left after the living organism dies.  It may be very beautiful and useful, but it isn’t the living creature.  The joy and love, the engagement with work, the being of music or art or literature or science or math, are what matter.


I’ve changed my tag line to something that I hope makes a little more sense. “Free teacher ramblings” implies, I hope, that my views here are unaffiliated with any group, organization, or individual other than me. I want to make clear that I speak merely as an individual who has thought a lot about teaching over the years.

I find it weird and sad that when you read about schools and teaching in the press, you will rarely hear a teacher quoted. Here’s an interesting graph posted in Media Matters:




Arne Duncan (bless his heart) is not a teacher. Bill Gates is not a teacher. Our legislators who delight these days in passing nonsensical laws that drive us to distraction are not teachers. I think we ought to speak to the people who are doing the work we want done—and I’m one of them. So, since nobody asked, I’m singing out loud and strong.

But, precisely because I’m still doing this work fulltime, I must make very clear that these are my views and reflect to no degree on those I work for, with, or alongside.

I had a conversation with some neighbors yesterday about what happens in their companies (multinational corporations) when someone posts something unwise or controversial. I heard a story of a man who posted something political and incendiary on his Facebook page. He could have been fired but was not. He said he had a disclaimer on the page that there was no affiliation with his employer, but it was clear he put that up after he’d already posted the objectionable material.

I don’t plan to post anything objectionable. I plan to post nothing unflattering about my students or employers. There is plenty to talk about even if I restrict myself to remarks about teachers, our preparation, our hopes, our failures, our triumphs—what would make our performance more effective and what impedes us from doing our best work.

Nevertheless, just in case someone reads what I have written and takes offense (it’s funny to think of anyone reading what I’ve written at all), please note: it’s just me and nobody else. I’m out here on my own and proud to be here.

There is so much stupidity out there that I could spend all my time rebutting the moronic, illogical contentions of those who know nothing about education except precisely what to do to “fix” it. Frank Bruni of the New York Times made an ass of himself, as usual, today. But unless I determine to write him a letter, I’m going to ignore it.


Instead I want to remember something that happened yesterday in class. We are reading Their Eyes Were Watching God and we are at the beginning. The kids noticed with some alarm the language describing Janie’s awakening under the pear tree. I recalled for them walking in April under the magnolia trees on Oxford Street in Rochester, age 12 or so, and a shower of petals fell about me, and I longed—pined– for a boyfriend. That surge of energy, pure and unrelated at first to lust, is what Janie experiences. I knew I was unready for love: chubby, spotted with pimples, and sporting ugly braces on my teeth, I needed no one to tell me that I was no man’s dream. The loneliness and longing! And kids told of their own embarrassment and shame in veiled references and tentative acceptance of a passage quite recently passed. For a few moments we were all just human beings together, and united with Janie under her glorious pear tree. One girl raised her hand and said that until this moment, she never considered how alone she felt in this universal experience. Here we all were, all of us in memory of our awkwardness, that isolating conviction that we were the only ones on earth so gawky and unlovable—never dreaming that our very isolation was universally understood.


I live for moments like that. Thank you, my dear E.K., for that.


(let’s see you put that on a standardized test, “reformers”)


Enough to make a girl's heart swoon.

Enough to make a girl’s heart swoon.

Here is a helpful response to Time’s latest cover story, about how megabillionaires want to fire great heaving masses of evil teachers and throw all the rest of us into a state of peril:


Time Magazine is just an embarrassing internet troll now by Jeff Bryant


One of my favorite passages:

As a recent commentary by law school professor Erwin Chemerinsky in the New York Daily News explained, “A study published in the Harvard Educational Review found a significant positive relationship between rates of unionization (and accompanying job security) and student scores on the SAT and ACT. Every year, the states with the highest student performance are those with robust protections for teachers – places like Maryland and Massachusetts.”

Matt Di Carlo of the Albert Shanker Institute has meticulously studied the relationship of student and school performance to the strength of teachers’ unions that argue for tenure protections in their contracts. He wrote, “Binding contracts are not associated with lower [National Assessment of Education Progress] scores, at least at the state-level. Charter schools, which are largely free of both unions and their contracts, overwhelmingly perform no better than regular public schools (see also here and here). And the undisputed highest-performing nation in the world, Finland, is wall-to-wall union, with contracts, tenure, and all the fixings.”

And this:

American teachers, in fact, already have one of the more challenging work environments compared to other teachers in the world. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristofrecently pointed out, the most recent report from the OECD, an agency tracking data from developed nations, “indicates that American teachers work far longer hours than their counterparts abroad. Yet American teachers earn 68 percent as much as the average American college-educated worker, while the O.E.C.D. average is 88 percent.”

While there are some signs that the tide is turning and that most parents and kids love their teachers and appreciate their hard work, a combination of profiteering and ego is running with the old narrative.  Nobody has been able to offer any evidence that there are huge numbers of ineffective teachers.  We lose 40% in the first five years– it’s a pretty self-flushing system.  Administrators are responsible for hiring and awarding tenure to teachers:  where is their responsibility?  It’s not hard to imagine that without our job protections, teachers’ jobs could become political favors.  I can see certain governors (not naming any names, but nearby states where their tough-talking, swaggering govs’ names begin with C come to mind) firing all the teachers they deem “ineffective” as a result of their outspokenness and bestowing them on sycophants.  They are predicting a big teacher shortage in this country.  Who is going to want to do this work, when you could be fired at the whim of someone who knows a lot less about it than you do?

But the real issue, as always, is misunderstanding what teachers are and do.  We choose to do what we do because we love our subjects, our kids, and our communities.  We love learning.  While hedge fund managers look at community schools in poor neighborhoods and see failure and a potential honeypot of tax money, we see valiant professionals struggling against all odds to preserve those kids’ and families’ last hope.  When the Gateses and Waltons look at highly successful community schools in well-off neighborhoods, they see an inexplicable anomaly and an even bigger honeypot.  We see the system working the way it was designed to work.  Since when did being rich mean that you knew everything about everything?

Teachers need to be paid a wage that allows them to live in reasonable comfort in the communities in which they work, and they need protections to shield them from ignorant whims and fads.  It takes a long time to learn to be a good teacher.  Job protections help to shield excellent teachers from somebody’s megalomaniacal self-promotion.  Too bad Time allowed the megalomaniacs/”tech billionaires” to throw sand in its eyes.


Give me a break, Time.

Give me a break, Time.



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Katherine Good

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