Wake up. Teach. Repeat.
I wrote this piece of creative nonfiction two years ago, when I took a break from classroom teaching to support school change efforts in the southwest of England. I wanted to say something true about the life of a teacher, but everything felt trite when I put it into sentences. Teaching is something beautiful to wax poetic about, but the main thing is that it is an interaction. It is the between and amongst, and so much of what I believe is most important lies in the mundane moments, inside of the relationships that we cultivate every single day. So I wrote about one of those days, from beginning to end. This particular day is somewhat composite, but all events took place in the Spring of my fourth year of teaching, when I worked at High Tech High Chula Vista and was in my second year of my Masters of Education Program at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education.
Note: All of the student names have been changed.
Thursday, 24 March
The alarm rings. I wake up, hit snooze, and go back to sleep.
The alarm rings again. I roll out of bed as I tell myself, Today will be better if you run.
I jog for a mile. I concentrate on the rhythm of my sneakers hitting the pavement, and the ins and outs of my breath. The silhouettes of eucalyptus trees are black against the burgeoning dawn.
I pop two Eggo’s in the toaster and throw out yesterday’s coffee grinds. I put a new pot of coffee on to brew, then I wash my face, brush my teeth, and get ready to go.
I mentally rehearse my to-do list and my worries while driving to school. I notice the sunlight as it sifts through early morning fog and alights on the new spring flowers that grow beside the highway.
I flash my “sorry” face as I walk into the department meeting, because I am two minutes late.
Jess keeps saying that we’ve got to raise our test scores, and I ask, “Why? Can you explain why it is so important to you?” My question is not meant to be confrontational, but by the way Jess’s face suddenly turns red, and how her eyes fill up with tears, I can see that my question strikes a nerve.
She says, “It’s our responsibility to teach them these things. It’s their educational right. I don’t want to see our school turn into a shit hole!” She is crying by now. I can feel the fear that is laced within her response. I drop it. Everyone is on pins and needles as Jess recomposes herself.
After the meeting, I stop Jess before she leaves and sincerely apologize for touching a nerve. She’s all smiles now, “Don’t worry about it. I don’t know why I got so emotional.” I say, “Thank you for sharing how you felt. It helps me understand where you are coming from.”
I head back to my classroom before school officially begins. I check my email and respond to the coach at the neighboring school to agree to a debate scrimmage with them for the beginning of May. I email my debate captains to solicit their help with organizing judges. I see a reminder from the director that Progress Reports are due on Monday, which means I’ll have some grading to do over the weekend.
My advisory students shuffle in and sit in their usual spots. I move around to casually check in with each of the cliques. Today Big Mike is looking off, not his usual goofy self. I ask him if he’s OK. He says his parents are getting a divorce and his dad punched him in the ribs last night. He spent the night with his grandparents. He doesn’t look me in the eye. I ask him a couple questions, but he doesn’t want to say any more. It’s no big deal, he insists as he wrings his hands together and continues to avoid eye contact. He says his mom called the police. It’s handled now. I tell him I’ll write an email to the dean anyway and have him check in with you. We’re here for you, I insist.
My teaching partner Ted and I have a meeting with Jenna and her family for her annual meeting. Jenna has autism, and as her ninth grade teacher, I am a part of many meetings to support her individual learning goals, particularly as she transitions into high school. We all file into the large conference room — her teachers, her advisor, the resource specialist, her legal advocate, her mom and dad.
The resource specialist starts the meeting by asking Jenna to share about her strengths and areas for growth. Then she invites each of us in turn to also share. I applaud Jenna’s persistence in our last project, which was a real challenge because Jenna struggles both with fine motor skills and with self-confidence. I say how proud I was of how she persevered.
Her advocate tells me that Jenna cannot do creative work, and I should stop asking her to do it. She explains that this is a part of Jenna’s having autism. We dance around this issue in the end, because it is not a part of Jenna’s official areas of growth as dictated by the legal document which we’ve all gathered to discuss and sign.
I feel unsettled about how her advocate was not advocating for Jenna entirely. I know Jenna can write creatively. I saw her do it yesterday.
Ted has to run to Home Depot before 2nd period, and in exchange for being a little late, he brings me a tall coffee with a bit of cream, just the way I like it.
I type a quick email about Mike to the dean.
We have a writing seminar this morning, so I spend the rest of my prep period going through the students’ QuickWrites and getting them ready to be shared in our writing conference. I’m struck by the content of their writing, even on a prompt as simple as “Write about what you see.” Their personalities and daily struggles come through in these spontaneous monologues. I learn about Jose’s issues in middle school, when he was in a gang and dealt drugs. Natalia witnessed her father getting shot in the head. Diego has been in and out of foster care, and was just recently reunited with his sister after living with his aunt and uncle and their five children. Isa’s mom spent this year in prison. I know I am just scratching the surface, pulling the weeds that have grown up around them, trying to make room for good things to grow.
I finish preparing the writings and send them to the printer. I type their handwritten words exactly as they are written. It’s strangely cathartic. This year, it has been so difficult to hear them. When it’s project work time, my classroom feels like a circus. I struggle to hear them above all the noise. Last week, Chuy was literally lying on the ground, moaning, not because he was in pain, but because he was bored and tired (he said). But when I type their writings, for this brief window of time, I feel as though I really see them. I am in their heads making their spelling errors and thinking their thoughts.
Today I am alarmed by one of my student’s writings. Victoria writes, “How do people sell drugs to customers (I think that how you spell it). How did my dad buy drugs? Does he go to her/his house and just get them? My dad went to my quince and we danced father/daughter dance. Why doesn’t he love his family more than drugs. If he really cared about me and my mom and sister, he would do all possible to quit.”
I email the dean directly — my second email about red flags in one hour, but there’s no sense of holding onto something like that.
I am writing the agenda on the whiteboard as the Thunder Quacks come into the room. Luis puts his foot on a desk and says, “Look at my socks, Ms. Kay!” They are green and yellow striped. “That’s very nice, Luis,” I tell him. I am amused, but I don’t show it. “Don’t put your feet on the desk,” I say.
We start with Enjoyment Reading, fifteen minutes every day for the students to read any book of their choosing. Even at ninth grade, the students have such wide ranges of reading ability, and besides, nothing kills the love of reading like being told you have to read something. It’s an important part of the day that is minimally judged, and left free for students to pursue their own interests.
During Enjoyment Reading, I also read for enjoyment. It is a sacred time for all of us.
The students rearrange their tables into a circle for our writing seminar. Once everyone is settled, I pass out the writings, and introduce the norms of the seminar, and my expectations for how they will participate.
“Write down what you hear,” I say. “Write down lines that strike you, for whatever reason. Write down what you think the author is intending to say. After someone shares, we will say what we heard.” I keep track of who participates. I ask them to participate three times in each seminar. Because it’s graded, they mostly do.
I ask, “Who would like to start?” And it is usually Miranda or Luis to raise their hands first. I call from my participation cards, and invite new voices to contribute. Today Rue shares her writing about identity.
“Who am I? I’m so many people, daughter, sister, friend, student, athlete, weirdo, know it all, annoying little sister, brutally honest bestie. Who I am on Monday is not who I am on Tuesday, so how do I know who to be on Wednesday? I need to slow down, things are getting crazy…”
As she reads, the class furiously writes down lines that strike them. They are consumed by her words. They smile when it’s funny. Rue smiles when they share what struck them, what they thought she intended to say. She smiles to be heard.
In third period, the Tootie Frooties noisily tumble in and take their seats. We follow the same agenda, but it already feels different. I introduce our warm-up now as Enjoyment Reading, Writing, and Drawing. They cannot manage to all read in silence, so I introduced writing and drawing as options for them to practice working independently, to practice making a pleasant working silence. I encourage them to be wholehearted with whatever they choose. I say this every day.
I try to concentrate on reading during this time, but it is impossible with the sneaky silence. I see Jimena communicating with her eyes across the room to Teresita, with their books open in front of them as props. Whatever they communicate makes them giggle quietly.
After five more minutes, everyone is mostly quiet, until Tim dumps out the entire contents of his backpack. The class snickers and laughs. My face gets red. Tim looks embarrassed for a half-second, and then he laughs the loudest.
Annoyed, Lolita interjects, “Cállate! You are such an asshole.”
I ask Lolita to step outside with me. We stand out of view of the class, and I ask, “Do you know why I asked you outside?”
Her arms are crossed across her chest and her head is turned from me. She grunts and says, “No! I wasn’t doing anything wrong!” She rolls her eyes and her tone is aggressively indignant.
I am calm. I keep my body posture open. I say, “I heard you call Tim an asshole.”
“Well, he is! I was trying to read and they’re always messing around.”
“That sounds really difficult, but I can’t have you call anyone a name — regardless of how they behave.”
“God, I don’t understand why I’m getting lectured. I didn’t do anything wrong.” Her body is agitated. She swivels her hips and flips her long hair, rolling her eyes again.
“Lolita, we only have control over our own words and actions. I will deal with Tim separately, but this is about the choice that you made.”
“You’re always picking on me!”
“I am sorry that you feel that way.”
“You don’t understand. I’m having a bad day. My parents are fighting and I had to take care of my brother… whatever.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. And you’re right, I don’t understand your day or what’s going on in your life. But I still need you to understand that we have to work together to create a better environment.”
Lolita storms back into the classroom. I lean into the room, and can see that no one has been reading for the past two minutes. Even so, I signal for Tim to come outside.
He looks sheepish. I can barely see his eyes beneath his long bangs.
“Do you know why I asked you outside?” I begin again.
“Yeah… I’m really sorry about the bag. I didn’t mean for that to happen. I just picked it up to get a pencil and the zipper was undone and everything just kind of spilled everywhere.”
“Yeah… but you know it’s not just today.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Tim, we all have to work together to make our classroom a place people can concentrate. There are kids in our classroom where this is literally the only time they have in their day that it can be quiet, and they can concentrate and read.”
“I know. I’ll do better.”
“OK. Thank you.”
We both walk back inside, and all eyes are on Tim as he returns to his seat. Chacho grins and says, “You got in trouble” in a singsong voice. “Chacho,” I say sternly. “Sorry Ms. Kay.” I know it is pointless to try to continue our warm-up.
I want them to be able to seize the power of their voices, but how can I encourage them to speak when it is met with taunting and harassment? If I was them, I would stay quiet too.
After Enjoyment Reading, Writing, and Drawing, the Tootie Frooties take their time rearranging the tables and chairs in a circle for the seminar. Last year, my class could rearrange all of the tables into any formation in less than a minute. This year, it takes more like five.
I ask, “Who would like to share?” And I wait for volunteers. It is a long awkward pause until Robert agrees to share. He reads aloud, mixing metaphors and building layers of imagery.
“Who’s the author?” Chacho asks afterwards for his notes.
“I am,” Robert says. He is one of only four students who feels comfortable sharing his own work.
“Dang, that’s good,” Chacho’s eyes widen. There is a murmur of approval that ripples through the room.
As I collect the writings and return them to their authors, I notice that one of the students has written a comment on someone’s work. The author wrote, “Right now I really don’t know what I am, but I feel different. Not like the others. They have their lives so together. So un-complicated. I guess I feel like Wall-E. The odd one out.” The comment says, “I know how you feel. Don’t worry. You are not alone!”
I am surprised by this anonymous act of kindness. When I return this writing to its author, I see her smile as she reads the comment. She folds the paper and puts it in her binder.
I heat up a frozen burrito in the copy room, and make small talk with teachers as we wait in line to heat up our food.
I take my food back to my shared office. Ted and I prop up our feet and eat our lunch. From our office, we can see white clouds drifting across the sky. He sees a turtle reading a book. I see a duck wearing a hat. Ted says, “I hope I never stop seeing pictures in the clouds.”
Before lunch is over, we discuss the team and their struggles with managing themselves independently. We come up with a new announcements, and new strategies to try to help them make progress this afternoon during what we call “project work time” when students work in groups to complete their projects.
Danny and Jorge open the partition to make one large room while we give announcements. Ted starts out, “Good afternoon, Team Vista!” and they respond half-heartedly. “That’s not how we do it,” Ted reproaches. “Good afternoon,” he says again. They respond in unison, smile, and roll their eyes. We take turns making announcements and establishing expectations. “Nine more days until we exhibit your roller coasters! Everyone will be here to see them — your family, friends, and classmates. Let’s work hard and finish strong,” Ted reminds, “Go!” Ted claps and they get to work.
The groups start out by making to-do cards, and Ted and I walk around and check to make sure each student has three things to do for the next two hours, and has them listed in priority order.
Ted assists with the construction. I move around and check that the students are on task, and am conscious of conflicts that arise during work time.
Raymond and Miranda get into a tiff about their roller coaster, and Teresita cannot handle it. “She is just so frustrating!” she says with her eyes bulging. “We already agreed to do it this way, and now she’s changing everything!” Miranda throws up her hands and shouts, “I cannot work with them!” and runs away. I follow her to a nearby hallway where she is crying hysterically. “I just want to call my mom!” she shouts, and I say, “That’s OK. You can call your mom. Do you want to tell me what happened?” She calms down enough to explain, and then calls her mom and gets worked up again.
I find Natalia and Sophie in the hallway making their big loop. “How’s it coming, guys?” Natalia smiles broadly and exclaims, “We are almost finished!” and Sophie grins, carefully maneuvering the heat gun and smoothing out the plastic.
Victoria gets pulled into the dean’s office, and he emails me to let me know that Victoria was just blowing off some steam with her writing. Her dad isn’t living with her family anymore, so there is no threat or risk of neglect.
I email him back to apologize for emailing so much, but he responds that I’m doing the right thing. He thanks me for being so on top of it.
“Time to start cleaning up!” I say as I walk around to the groups again. “Don’t forget to finish your daily log,” I remind, and they groan but pull out their notebooks to jot down reflections and updates from the day.
I change into stretchy clothes for tumbling and jogging class.
I and eight students run a half mile to the park. We stand in a circle and I lead a group stretch. It feels good to be outside and doing something physical. Evan points out a monarch butterfly flying high against the bright blue sky.
Some of the students sit in the shade and chat. Reyna turns back handsprings. Alex asks me if I will spot them on a backbend.
At quarter past three, we walk the half-mile back to school.
Alex is only a sophomore, but they’re already thinking about colleges. They tell me that they want to go somewhere far away, maybe Boston. I tell them it’s not so much important where you go. It’s the student that makes the school, not the school that makes the student. We have the power to shape our experience no matter where we find ourselves.
At school, I change back into normal clothes and remember to print off my critical friend’s latest draft of her research for the consultancy tonight. We have worked hand-in-hand together this whole year, sharing draft after draft, as well as the messy parts of our lives that have had to squeeze in between the deadlines. Then I have to go. Just as I’m locking my classroom, Miranda approaches me.
Miranda has a question about the homework for tomorrow, but there is no homework tomorrow, I say.
“I need to check,” Miranda insists.
“Miranda, I need to go,” I say again.
“Just one minute, please.”
Even though she says she just needs one minute, I know it’s not true. One minute with Miranda is ten minutes in reality, because she struggles to comprehend instructions. She asks to repeat, repeat, repeat, and I just don’t have the time. Not today. I say I am sorry, but I really have to go.
I stop off at Trader Joe’s to pick up snacks for class tonight.
I read over my critical friend’s excerpt from her research paper. I highlight and underline. I write down a few questions.
At grad school, we start our seminar with an activity called “I used to think, then I learned, now I know.” We are given white sheets of paper and markers. I write, “I used to think that the teacher’s primary job was to promote social justice through lectures and lessons; then I learned that students can only pay attention for as many minutes as years they are old; now I know that we teach social justice in secret, by interlacing it into everything we do.” We take turns sharing our journeys, and affirming one another’s experiences.
We work as a cohort to workshop sections of our action research. I facilitate my colleague’s feedback session on a dilemma with her work.
We check in with our critical friends and have an assignment to complete a list of next steps for our research projects.
I tell her, “This year, more than any year so far, I struggle to believe that any of this matters. What am I supposed to do with all of their pain?” I list the problems: Sophie’s failing grades. Diego’s habitual lying. Raymond’s inability to time manage. The heckling. The unnecessary comments. The language that they speak with their eyes when they’re supposed to be reading (or writing or drawing).
She nods sympathetically. She knows more than most what a struggle this year has been so far.
I continue, “After we finished the last project, we had this moment where it felt like we’d done something amazing. Lolita had even come to me and thanked me for believing in them. She realized that through this process, they had become like a family. And today we were standing in the hallways talking about name calling. What am I doing wrong? Why isn’t this working?”
She encourages me that we cannot always tell by looking at what is happening. She reminds me of a poem by Marge Piercy that we both love:
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always.
For every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.
We are both crying by the end of our meeting, and stay late to keep talking, and do not finish our checklist.
My housemate has made macaroni and cheese from the box and invites me to finish what’s in the pot. She heats up some leftover zucchini too. We chat about our days and Elle worries out loud about wedding planning for a wedding in the summer when she is not technically engaged.
I start winding down for the day. I check my Facebook, and write a quick message to a friend whose birthday is today. I write a longer message to my boyfriend telling him about my day. I do not call him, because I have no more words left to say out loud.
I take a quick shower. I wash my face, and brush my teeth, and get ready for bed.
I turn off the lights. My anxieties about everything I couldn’t solve in a day keep me up for a while. I whisper prayers in the dark like breathing, like hoping.