Living with Labels

The last couple of weeks have been rough, to put it mildly, so I want to take some time a write about something positive in my life.

My education has been made up of a series of epiphanies. I remember the first one occurring in college, and the last one occurring on April 7th, 2016.  I know it happened that day because while I was writing about school spirit, I stumbled upon a religion blog. I have been reading it on a regular basis since then. During this past weekend, my pastor had a sermon about “what is in the way” between me and God. In among the Google searches for school leadership pops up one religion blog, and then the sermons the past couple of weeks, for me it is just too much to be coincidental.

(A quick aside, I realize I am a public school teacher and I would never dream of preaching during class. I do value the separation of Church and State, and it is because of my religion that I value that separation. However, this is my personal blog and I think I am allowed to voice a religious opinion, even though I am not trying to hide from anyone. I need to express it because it is so central to the way I define myself.)

Let me start in the beginning. (Punny!) I want to make this post about labels. Normally I don’t openly identify in public as a Christian. This is because some of the few people I would consider close friends are openly atheist or agnostic. Several of my favorite students are also openly atheist or agnostic.  And I empathize with them when they tell me stories about how mean and hypocritical some of the people who claim to be Christian are.

From my experience, there are those who define their Christianity by avoiding curse words, dirty jokes, alcohol, and evil television shows like Family Guy. They use their avoidance of such immoral things as a reason not to interact with those that do accept them. But I use all of those, and actually enjoy some of them. Does that make me someone Christians should avoid ? If I want to claim Christianity as my label is there just a list of moral and ethic choices I should be making?

From my experience, there are those who define their Christianity by reading the right books, by participating in praise bands, and going on mission trips. But I grew up as part of the Frozen Chosen, a reference to both the climate of North Dakota and the demeanor of many of the people. Does it make me un-Christian that I am not comfortable waving my hands in the air during hymns, or that I don’t desire to go on mission trips to neighboring states and countries when I seek the Kingdom of God out my own window?

My atheist and agnostic friends will point out what they see as hypocrisy in the behavior of their friends. Honestly, most of the time I agree with them. Then I cringe because the actions of those who claim Christianity just pushed more people away.

This post is supposed to be about labels though, so let me get back to that. In the ether of society I believe there is an image of teachers that most people hold. There are certain mannerism, behaviors, and boundaries that are somewhat universally accepted.  During the 2011-2012 school year I became very jaded towards the system of education, to the point that I questioned my entire purpose for being there. I started to believe that many of the qualities that are typically associated with being a good teacher are really rooted in obedience. At the same time, after spending 6 years in the education profession, I started to realize that much of what masquerades as “the best interest of the students” in schools are really the manifestation of power struggles of the adults in the system. Because of this, I entered the 2012-2013 school year in somewhat of a crisis mode, questioning my place in the educational establishment.

My answer came when I decided to do what I thought was the right thing to do as a teacher, and not what the education system wanted me to do. I stopped justifying my actions with, “that’s what good teachers do.” If I couldn’t think of a reason to explain my actions I shouldn’t do them. For example, let me explain why stopped grading homework. There were many students who failed Algebra I and History with me during the 2011-2012 school year. When I looked at the overall grades more closely, I realized that many of the failing students failed because of terrible homework grades. I thought about the financial impact of summer school, the social stigma of having to repeat a class, and I felt bad for many of these students. The justification for graded homework was that’s what good teachers do because students need to practice, and to make students practice they need to be motivated with grades. That’s when it hit me, those students failed because they didn’t do what I wanted them to do. For them homework wasn’t about learning, it was about grades. The relationship between me and my students wasn’t centered on any sort of grace, but rather on obedience.

The next year I still did largely the same thing, but I will admit that homework grades were skewed to have students avoid summer school and failing. My image of a good teacher tells me that I should feel guilty, but I don’t. To this day I don’t assign homework. (That doesn’t mean that I think individual practice is pointless, but attaching grades to the practice confines its purpose to obedience rather than knowledge.) Eventually I changed my practices to the point that my classroom became unrecognizable to a traditional teacher. I dropped the idolatry of being a good teacher and decided to do what I thought was the right thing. Consequently, the 2013-2014 school year was one of the most rewarding I have ever had. We watched movies and did math at the same time in my Algebra I classes. It worked as great, as the extrinsic motivation I provided motivated those students who normally would have tuned me out. I made my upper level courses about the art of learning in general, attacking phrases such “teach me how to,” in addition to covering mathematical topics. I worked with the upperclassmen on ACTs and college applications. I pushed several students beyond their normal comfort levels to make them question their own knowledge. Several realized the shallowness of their knowledge, despite high grades. I pushed several to want and desire more after graduation besides going to the local college and entering a field that will get them most money the quickest. I pushed to the point of tears. I pushed until a student told me to “fuck off.”

And those are the few students with which I maintain contact. Those are the students who have written some of the most heartfelt thank you notes that I keep stashed in my desk.

I was so eager to start the 2014-2015 school year. My grandiose experiment of changing my use of extrinsic motivation, of abandoning the justifying principles of being a “good teacher” felt so rewarding. I wanted to share my experiences, and I did, much to a detrimental effect. In my classes I couldn’t motivate the students to drop their idolatry of grades. Instead of giving them time to realize that the most effective learning takes place in an environment free of grades, I became bitter and  started blaming the students.

At the same time I became worried for my job security. I had informational gathering, non-walkthroughs sessions because of what was heard. I was pulled into the hallway and lectured in front of my students about acceptable behavior. I received numerous emails in ALL CAPS. I was forced to change my teaching methods to appease authority figures. I had awkward,  “off the record” conversations. I was accused to pressuring students to confront the administration on my behalf. I was told that my students are lying to me. My evaluations came back as ineffective.

One of my weaknesses is that I am not a strong willed individual, meaning there are only so many times I can bear the label of ineffective before I start to internalize it. I was confronted with a dilemma. I could change back to the teacher I was, and get rid of that ineffective rating, protecting my job security. Or I could stick to the principles I had developed, which I know are right, but it would jeopardize my job security. What did I do? Some sort of in between garbage. I kept the structure of my classroom, it still appeared the same on the surface, but I lost the connectedness that had previously made me successful.

So, for the past year and a half I have been a horrible teacher. I abandoned my principles that made me such an effective teacher for a couple of years and replaced it with an idol. My idol became losing that label of ineffective. I threw the education of those students under a proverbial bus to appease my idol. I became an asshole. Should I be surprised when so many of my students retained their idolatry of grades to keep me at a distance? (I think I should make grade worship a post in and of itself.) Why should they care about what I care about when I don’t care about them because I am living a me-centric life. But it was on April 7th that I read this post, equating being an asshole with sinning. It is such a simplistic thought that clarifies how I should define my actions in a Christian sense. If I asshole, I sin. I want to avoid being a sinner, so I need to avoid being an asshole.

Since I read that post I have been trying to make amends. I have pushed less on the academics. I started literally sitting with my students instead of talking at them in front of the room. I have noticed a slight change in the demeanor of the room, but I fear it is too late for a couple of students. I so desperately want to recreate what I had back in the 2013-2014 school year. I want that environment back  where both my students and I were able to abandon our idols and actually learn something. But I fear that because I have spent the last year and a half being an asshole, those students that I want back, that I want back because I know I can be a positive influence for them, those students have lost all faith and trust in me.

I need to apologize and grovel. I need to ask for forgiveness. I am back to thinking of all the things I should have done, and now  I am living a life of regret. I wish I could make amends, but it is just too late.



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