If We Don’t Who Will

Some days you walk out of your classroom feeling that nothing spectacular happened that day. Nothing was learned and even less taught. A lingering cold, wrapped in exhaustion, wrapped in lethargy, wrapped in an overwhelming sense of banging your head against so many walls that you’re not sure where you are or how you got in. Forget about any notion of getting out.

The room is dark and empty, but still heavy and slipping away from you. The classes came and went, their opaque faces drab and reflecting your frustration. You ever try to teach a group of thirteen year old boys the power of metaphor?  The subtle beauty of poetry, the understanding that beneath their carefully constructed shell of angst and machismo, there may just be a tinny furry animal waiting to sing. Might be whimpering now, beneath the dirge of braggadocio and false self-esteem, but if you can convince them, they may perhaps hear  a more authentic Yawp, but on days like these there are few rooftops, and what little plateaus may glimmer in the fog are tame and totally translatable into words like defeat and failure.

They didn’t learn today. Words were exchanged, ideas shuffled, you sang tired song and danced a sad dance, but they saw right through you. They saw  through the mask and realized that the clown was only human and the lessons he was selling were false and trite and unnecessary. You could see the words dribble from your lips, as your convoluted ideas grew higher and higher drowning you both in wasted effort. Thesis statements, understandings, abstractions, imagery, truth. What do you know of such things to have the gall to teach? Each child struggling with his or her own inability to comprehend or grow or learn. Your teaching rather than act as a life preserver, awkwardly transforms into anvils of confusion, which you carefully tie around each ankle and watch them sink.

Sure there was the literal kid, confessing his in ability to see what could be. Trapped in a world of what is. His young brain, trained by rulers and numbers packed so snuggling into his perfect little box. His eyes looking into yours, cold, “I don’t know why the world is beautiful.” Even after the claim of the worlds beauty was one of his professed truths. “Let’s make a list of things you find beautiful,”  you reassure him. “Mountains okay! That is good. What do mountains tend to represent?” Blank stare. Quiet. “If mountains were people, how would they act, how would they look?”  Whispering. Unsure. “Yes good– strong, wise, old! What else is beautiful?” We are getting somewhere. This is scaffolding. This is teaching. “Rivers. Yes! Sure they are fast and flow and change. What do they do to mountains? Shape them! Perfect.” High fives. “Have you ever been to a mountain? Swam in a river? No? Oh….” The high is low. Poetry without experience is nothing more than empty words.  You both stare at dead letters blinking on the page. You google a few images of mountains and rivers and ask him to write a poem about a little boy who sees the beauty in the world, but has never felt it. You hope for the best. How do you teach what could be, when we live in a world of what is?

People criticize teachers, bloggers, writers who only promote and share their success stories. Claiming that by sharing what works we set the bar too high. Perhaps they are right. Maybe we do need more posts sharing the days where it just didn’t feel right. We tell our students that they cannot hope to achieve at the highest level all the time, but we hold ourselves at this high standard. We are so afraid to admit that some days we just don’t have it.  It feels good to admit that. Because after all, we have been doing this long enough to know that these days come and go. We know we will head back into the classroom, we will look back into those eyes, we will sing the song, we will dance the dance and we will teach kids poetry god damn it, because if we don’t who will?


14 thoughts on “If We Don’t Who Will

  1. avatarGavin
    Twitter: Theweiser

    Beautiful post. Like the mountain the child professed about. Absolutely are some days better than others. This resonated well with me so I had to comment. See you back on twitter!

  2. avatarLiz Durkin
    Twitter: LizDk

    Nice post. We all can relate. We don’t like publishing our feelings of failure though. Thanks for making the rest of us feel better. :)
    As for you, you will rise again: tomorrow will somehow be a fantastic day. The students will sleep on what they have learnt, and you might find out you have done better at reaching them than you thought.
    If it makes you feel any better, I think the photo of the classroom makes it look pretty attractive: homely but also uncluttered.

  3. avatarIan Tymms
    Twitter: itymms

    I used to tell my student-teachers that, if one in three classes felt good, we were probably doing OK. At UWCSEA I think most of us do a little better than that, but we still have the major difficulty that our craft has people as its raw material. Much as it might feel like we’re shaping wood or lead or ice on particular days, what we really do our work on is matter much more complex. It’s a fickle craft, my friend, and, there are days when I feel like I am on fire but the writing my students do is not; others when I feel like I am on ice and my students fly.

    What I feel matters is that we are constantly wanting the best for the students and always challenging ourselves to work out how to better help achieve it.

    Hope your cold feels better tomorrow.

  4. avatarChris Huntington
    Twitter: huntingtonch

    Jabiz! I can’t remember if it’s in True Notebooks or in a Believer interview, but Mark Salzman had a great set about how much he loved his students at juvenile hall–but some days, he was so disappointed with them, he just wanted to set them on fire. You’re not alone, brother. The other day Nic was in my room, practicing that Looking for Learning; he asked a student what they were learning and the boy said, “Nothing.” I laughed at the time, but when Nic left the room, I felt exhausted and mostly worthless. But you know that story about General Grant after Antenim (sp?), I think it was, when he was in his tent with the other officers and they were listening to the crying of the wounded who had been left on the battlefield. Some pigs from a nearby farm had gotten loose and they were nosing the fallen soldiers, making them scream and maybe eating them for all I know. But Grant reportedly just kept looking at his maps. “We’ll lick ’em tomorrow,though,” he said.

  5. avatarMs. P
    Twitter: paulaguinto

    You have played,
    (I think)
    And broke the toys you were fondest of,
    And are a little tired now;
    Tired of things that break, and—
    Just tired.
    -ee cummings

    Hey bro.
    Funny. I was just telling Ian today (and you over lunch, I think) how a discussion in class just didn’t work; how it fell apart and went absolutely nowhere. Ideas were too raw yet I wanted the students to make a big leap to completing the puzzle because I could have sworn all the pieces felt right. From reading to the graphic organizer to our very clear strategies to modeling and asking the “right” questions…the discussion still fell to pieces. Am lurking in the google document now hoping that if the final pieces (including a good night sleep) fit, it will all come together tomorrow.

    And I guess, that’s it.

    Tomorrow is another day. Tomorrow we have the chance to do things differently, to create new opportunities we didn’t think of today or be inspired by a word or choose the right moment to be silent instead of “save” the conversation; see the kids move a piece here or there as they figure out the puzzle of their thoughts, assertions and insights. More than fingers crossed, I will try again with all intent and flexibility that it will happen. Tomorrow.

    Poetry is tricky. And we need to be patient and clever and resourceful. So we don’t get in the way but be accessible to the kids when they need us to ask the right question, give soft advice and useful strategies to give what seems two dimensional in their heads some texture, imagery and well, life.

    Dylan Wiliam said if it’s not challenging, if they are not making any mistakes, then it’s too easy. That they are not learning/growing. And right now, they are learning to use language a certain way. And it’s not easy at all. I mean just like the table…we don’t ask the kids to come to the table because they have it all figured out, right? They come to the table to help each other figure it out. Make sense of things. Refine their thinking. Sure they should be prepared with their own thoughts, assertions and meet everyone wherever they are at with the imagery. They are not supposed to come blank. But they also need time, space, triggers, examples and strategies to try and practice, fail at and succeed.

    But you know all of this. I think you are just tired. And human and still an amazing, inspiring teacher who just wants the best thing for the kids all the time.
    Tomorrow it will be better. Can’t wait to hear about it, bro. #seasons

  6. avatarJohn T. Spencer
    Twitter: johntspencer

    I can appreciate bloggers who tell a story when I know they’re not trying to sell a story. I’m a big fan of humility and an even bigger fan of vulnerability. You showed both in this post and that is why I find it easy to believe your success stories.

    This whole year has been hard for me. I cringe at the utopian statements I see on Twitter and in blogs. But when people are open about what isn’t working, I am reminded that there is no edutopia. Really, there’s not.

  7. avatarMike Kaechele
    Twitter: Mikekaechele

    What has been a struggle for me recently is not just bad days, but broken relationships with students. As much as I work to build relationships with students sometimes things break down because we are human. Many times it is due to factors in their lives outside of school that enter the classroom. The truth is we can’t always reach every kid on the level that we would like to. I am not ok with that and I hope I never am, but the tension can get to me at times.

  8. avatarChris Betcher
    Twitter: betchaboy

    What a beautiful post. Whatever poetry may have been lacking during the day, was certainly made up for in your writing about it.

    It’s hard. We forget sometimes that our students are so young, and that they don’t have the depth of life’s experiences that we do. It’s hard to get them to appreciate the beauty that comes from the stillness on top of a mountain range, or the tranquility that comes from sitting beside a fast flowing stream in a rainforest, because for many of them it’s not something they have any personal experience of. I remember scoffing at my parents when I was a teenager for the way they waxed on and on about many of the places we went that had great natural beauty, I had no idea what they found so awe inspiring about some of the places we went, but now, many years later I do.

    All you can know is that you’re planting seeds that will one day grow, and your students will recall the insights and the beauty you tried to help them see. The simultaneously wonderful and frustrating thing about teaching is that the harvest rarely comes in the same season as the planting.

    Hang in there.

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  10. avatarJabiz Post author

    Thank you every one for your kind words and support/ I have had a few great classes since and hope to document those soon. The roller coaster that is teaching continues. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  11. avatarJanet Abercrombie
    Twitter: jabbacrombie

    ‘Tis the season…to feel ineffective (at least I do). We bloggers DO share our successes in the hopes of inspiring and sharing ideas.

    But sometimes what we all need most is a reminder that it’s okay to not be perfect. I type this as I stare at a pile of papers needing to be marked… :)

  12. avatarJosé-Antonio Femenía

    Inspiration seems to be the word coming into my mind if I put together poetry and teaching… What is inspiration? How do we get inspired? How do inspire each other? Is inspiration something that can be communicated, shared felt together. Inspiration is magic and we need to brainstorm more about it. With colleagues, with students, with our communities. And stay hopeful.
    Thanks for your posts, by the way. Always inspirational.


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