We were lucky this year to be able to do two presentations. Today’s was about surviving teaching. We intended an interactive session where our attendees talked more than we did. We wanted them to have space for conversation about the landscape of life as a teacher. We wanted them to leave with some concrete ideas about some things they could commit to in order to maybe make their day-to-day existence in this really difficult job a bit more manageable. We each shared a story from our teaching lives to help the people in our session think about their own teaching lives. My story was about balancing the parts of a teacher’s job that aren’t the actual teaching part.
A few years ago, I had a really challenging year. I was doing way too much on top of my classroom work. I shared this pie chart today in the session to help explain what happened that year and how I was able to think through making some adjustments. I was teaching 4 preps, including advising the yearbook AND newspaper. I was teaching a methods course at the nearby university. I had a .2FTE literacy coaching gig for my district. I was the journal editor for our state NCTE affiliate. I was a teacher consultant for the Colorado Writing Project. And I was on three district committees. Those are all of the pieces in the pie chart at the right. The pie chart represents the space I had in my mind to juggle all of this thinking work effectively–a diagram that helps me to remember that there is not infinite capacity in my mind for handling work, at least not if I want to do a good job at everything.
There are three huge pieces outside of the pie chart: one represents the writing I really wanted to do. The next reminds me that I’m a mom (and a wife and a sister and a daughter) and if my thinking energy is completely taken up with work, there is no space left for my family. The last pie piece that couldn’t fit into the pie chart for that year represents all the things I need to do to stay healthy: exercise, sleep, eat well.
After I made it through that school year, I had to make some tough choices. I wanted to fit those outside pie pieces in, so that meant getting rid of a few things: advising yearbook, editing the journal, teaching at the university, 2 of the 3 district committees, and the literacy coaching. I set all of that aside so I could focus on the things that mattered most, the things I felt I could have the most impact with: teaching, writing project, my writing, my family, my health.
Things have been more manageable since then, but it’s still a lot to keep moving along. When I look at that pie chart representing my work life from a few years ago, I wonder how in the hell I managed all of that. I’m grateful to these people, my dear colleagues I presented with today. Not only did they support me through that year where I had said yes to too many things and I could barely manage it all; they have also supported me in saying no when I need to in the time since then. Tracy, Paul, and Jay have all made some careful decisions about how to manage their work lives, and they show me that it’s okay to set very clear boundaries to make time and space for the things that they need to keep in their lives to keep them happy and healthy. My heroes, yes, in so many ways. How fortunate am I that I get to work with them?
We attended a research session today where Cati de los Rios and Donja Thomas presented their dissertation research on teaching ethnic studies in high schools. I cannot express to you how important their research is, especially now in this post-election world that has left many people in our country worried about their safety, their rights, their families. The students in Cati’s study learn in a vibrant, multi-lingual classroom space that values their culture and language and that asked them to think about the ways they could become civically engaged in their communities. Her work found that focusing on these literacies of civic engagement gave them the opportunity to engage in critical discussion and writing about oppressive social structures. It empowered them. It gave them voice. Donja’s research gave voice to the students involved in her ethnics studies course called English 12: African American Voice. We listened to the words of several of her students–a few of my favorites:
This world is not all unicorns and sunshines like they want you to believe. Get woke so you’re not walking around with ignorance, so you know what they don’t want you to know.
I do feel like I can make a difference and spread the truth.
I love how her work honors these voices. I love how the curriculum she built focuses in on how our country has wrongly educated us on race. She works to “break the chains of miseducation that imprison minds and brutalize bodies.” She argued that cultural studies should be an educational standard in our classrooms nationwide. I agree. Claire and I started talking immediately after the session about how we can engage this conversation in the senior class that we both teach.
Donja also offered us her vision on the heels of the election. She said that the 21st century should be a century of justice, and to get there, we all need to be clear-headed about race. We must create spaces for our students–all of them–to explore race, culture, identity, and power. She said that rather than despair, she now feels an expanded sense of purpose.
Ernest Morrell was the discussant for this research presentation. And as always, I found it a great challenge to take notes as he spoke because every sentence was something I wanted to capture (anyone else have this problem taking notes on Morrell’s presentations?). He made the point that ethnic studies are for everyone but right now, they are also radical self care and reconciliation, something sorely needed in American schools and in American society. We have some significant hurt and pain we need to heal. He also reminded us that what we teach has a greater impact on our students than what we say. If we say we’re all about valuing diverse experiences but don’t make sure all students can see themselves reflected in the texts and conversations we put before them, then we aren’t doing what needs to be done. He said that it’s an American journey to make sense of race, and this is something we need to do together. Ethnic studies, he said, are not just about our black and brown students. We need to “counter the idea that learning about others creates division.” Learning about others forges connection, and we need that now more than ever.
In the end, Morrell said “enough about marching.” He explained that once that kind of speaking out ends, we’re left with the day-to-day landscape of our classrooms. And that is the space where we need to advocate for each other. We need to stand up for voices left out in our departments for instance. We need to do the work every day in our interactions with each other, to stand together, to see each other, to value each other. We need to do this work every day with our students, to stand with them, to see them clearly, to value their lives and perspectives, to give them voice.
This is a message that lines up well with what I’ve heard in other presentations–Newkirk’s call for us to cultivate the practice of deliberate acts of kindness. Minor’s statement that we only deserve our teaching licenses if we demonstrate fierce, selfless love. Donja Thomas’s idea to see deepened purpose rather than despair. I feel so overwhelmed by the state of things post-election. Powerless against it all even. But kindness and love and deepened purpose are all things that I can do, that I am already doing to some degree, that I can commit to doing more of.
The day ended with Ta-Nehisi Coates. He paralleled the work we need to do in our country with the work humans need to do in relationships. Love is hard work. A marriage, a friendship–people are flawed and difficult to love sometimes. But to make a relationship work, you can’t ignore that. You have to strive to understand it and just get to work on the relationship. He said the same goes for loving our country. We need to understand the forces in history that have brought us to this moment and simply get to work. When asked how he has advocated for others in his life, Coates responded that he really has only one little thing he can offer–the time he spends with words on the page. That, he said, is what he’s good at. It’s what he can contribute to the world. So he focuses his efforts there.
Coates also said that school was best for him when he could connect what his teachers asked of him to something real and meaningful. This I think is the most important work that we can do. Reading and writing matter, but our students may not see that implicitly. We must show them. We must teach them to read our world (more complex than any book they will read) so that they can write their lives and future within it.