The longer I teach, the less I feel I know about the profession. The more stuff that is dumped on my plate, the less I understand and the less time I have to process what has even happened to me. Time is this vortex that just sucks us along, and the more responsibilities, the more juggling, the less reflection, pondering and knowing. NWEA, Common Core, PSAT/SAT, Smarter Balance, new evaluation systems, Power School, Mastery Connect, Google Classroom, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), all of which, of course, align with 21st Century Learning Standards.
Some days, I stare wistfully at the Edward P. J. Corbett book Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student that sits lonely on the corner shelf. I think, if only I could simply focus on the structure of an argument, help students practice writing the strong sentence, the smooth and linked paragraph, the syllogistic logic driving the majority of our public discourse, that would keep things simple. After all, isn’t that the most practical outcome of an English class?
When the dust of my despair settles, a funny thing happens. I notice students. There they are, day in and day out. OK, it’s March in Maine. Therefore, some students are out for family vacations in Orlando because travel packages are more affordable when not coinciding with February or April breaks. Still other students are out because they feel like it, and parents endorse staying home or going wherever it is they go but to school. For the most part, though, there they are, day after day, in sickness and in health. There I am, too.
Many days, if I take a mental inventory, it is staggering how many students are coming from a single parent household. Several of those students are late or tired due to having to care for siblings. Some are working nights to help defray the expenses of running a household. Many haven’t had a good night’s sleep, eaten much beyond high fructose corn syrup and milk protein, found the time for anything but extracurriculars or done anything but worry about the adults in their lives, adults with serious challenges, adults on whom they are supposed to depend. What appears to be a dull consistency in my classroom, day after day of Hamlet or the exploration of literary devices in modern American poetry, may actually be a blessing.
The most remote, uncomfortable or wiley teenager seems to appreciate something as simple as the daily greeting. “Morning.” “Huy.” “G’day.” “Nice to see ya.” Basic nods and acknowledgements which require no response seem to be the stock and trade of my business, even more than feedback on essays, barrages of standardized tests, quarterly grade reports. I don’t even remember my own high school grade reports, at all. What I do remember was my photography teacher greeting me day after day, no matter how I had behaved the day before, always ready with a kind word. I remember that 30 years later.
When much of the flimflam of assessment strategies, reporting and accountability blows away like so many autumn leaves, we will still be there. Teachers will greet students ready to go, a fresh start every day. Students who make their best effort to show up will be treated with that daily respect that they deserve. Nope, it’s not assessable. No, it’s not on the standardized test. Yes, it is about accountability. Day in and day out, we are accountable to each other, directly. The relationships we build, ultimately, I am now convinced, are what matters most. Everything else is a passing acronym.