June 12, 2012
A few weeks ago, a parent sent a note to my principal. In part it said, “Ms. Whitehouse is an asset to your school. I only wish there were more teachers like her who would go the extra mile for the kids.”
I was touched by this mother’s kind words and the thoughtfulness displayed in taking the time to compose and send the note, particularly in the current teacher-bashing atmosphere. The note worked also made me think about that “extra mile” — who runs it and how far it actually is.
Every morning several teachers arrive at school by 7 a.m. (We’d arrive earlier but we are not allowed inside the building until then.) We prepare for our day by organizing lesson resources. We make copies (when the copy machine is working) and put notes on the board. We grade homework and analyze data. We fill out paperwork, plan trips and clean desks with anti-bacterial wipes. Some of us water plants, read professional materials, or prepare our bulletin boards. (That feels like a mile.) A little before 8 a.m., the “show” begins and until 3 p.m. it is a whirlwind of lessons and assessments, student conferences, planning, and duty in the yard, bathroom and cafeteria. Many of us skip “duty-free” lunch to run detention, tutor students or attend meetings. (That’s at least two miles, isn’t it? Cause I’m winded.)
When the students leave, our day is not done. Teacher “milers” stay behind to straighten up, review supply needs, gather original materials that need to be copied, and reflect on the day’s lessons or a student’s errant behavior. We look over students’ work and think how best to address their deficits and highlight their strengths. We assess ourselves and redesign our lessons. We make phone calls to parents. Sometimes we speak with colleagues about upcoming tests, lessons, trips, or activities. Often we seek advice from a more seasoned teacher. Some of us attend professional development or college after school. For instance, several evenings a week, Ms. Lichtman takes classes which keep her away from home until 9:30 p.m. (That’s definitely got to be a couple of miles.)
After we leave school, our race is not over. Often I go to my local library to augment classroom reading materials. Other teachers go to Staples or the art store for supplies. Sometimes we go to the photo shop for prints of our latest class outing or activity. Sometimes teachers go to the supermarket for snacks for the kids. (Okay, maybe that’s not a whole mile but surely half a mile?)
Once at home, teachers write create assessments and lessons or tweak old ones. Many of us design our own graphic organizers to scaffold difficult material. We spend time thinking about how to break difficult concepts into more digestible pieces. We look for ways to make dry material interesting, fun, and relatable to teens. We browse the web looking for support materials and lesson ideas. Special-education teachers, such as Ms. Samuel, work from home writing Individualized Education Plan goals. She spends hours tailoring IEPs so that each is truly reflective of her students’ talents and challenges. Other teachers draft communications to parents, such as the letter I wrote after the state exams describing how hard their children worked but also explaining that school was not over and that it was important to keep sending their children to class. When we finally close our laptops, it is frequently past 10 p.m. Sometimes I rely on the sound of Jimmy Fallon’s theme music to signal it is 1 a.m. and long past my bedtime. (Surely that must have been a mile or four.)
Teacher “athletes” make contributions in lots of ways. One of our teachers ran the Lego program for an entire year without pay because the budget had been cut. That meant that two Saturdays a month and twice after school, for two to three hours at a time, she donated her time. Our seventh-grade science teacher, Mr. Wang, volunteered four hours a week for 12 weeks, to run the cross-country club. He also purchased batons and arranged for Columbia University representatives to visit to correct students’ running form. Additionally, Mr. Wang also runs a prep class for specialized high school applicants, again without pay. (I hear at mile 24 we might get a cup of water.)
Did I mention that our team often buys things for our students? There’s the under-paid office staff who often pool their money to purchase graduation outfits for children who otherwise could not attend the event. There’s Ms. Cabrera-Perez, a paraprofessional, who brings clothes to school for students whose families are living on a very tight budget. There is Ms. Tully who, to enliven her drama class and school productions, spent more than $3,000 on dresses, wigs, masks, costumes, hats, etc. Ms. Gabela, the eighth-grade science teacher, purchases almost all her of own academic supplies. From highlighters to Wite-Out, from composition paper to pencils (colored and graphite), from index cards to folders, she clips coupons and shops sales all summer so her students have the materials they need during the school year. And she is not alone: I cannot think of a single teacher at our school who has does not spend his or her own money to support student learning. (Sounds like this part of the run is uphill.)
It is worthy to note, in this Olympic year, that teachers participate in their own incredible, yet largely unrecognized, “athletic” event. Our daily race to educate and enrich the lives of children requires not just “an extra mile” but indeed a team marathon of devotion and sacrifice. So the next time the “Race to the Top” comes up, I hope it conjures thoughts about the teachers and students who actually do the running, how far the race is, and all the obstacles we work to overcome.