So I stood there, stunned, in a community of one, holding my breath. I look back on that night and wish for a do-over.
It feels like it was about a hundred years ago. I faced a group of eighth graders, armed only with a 20-year-old grammar book full of practice sentences reinforcing obscure grammar rules that even I could barely understand.
I tried deploying the units I carefully designed in teacher school, my favorite built around Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. Hmmm. These Tennessee twelve-year olds were not into Cat’s Cradle or me.
Quickly deemed by my principal at a faculty meeting, “that crazy-ass Jewish hippie from California,” I found few companions—much less friends—among my colleagues. One social studies teacher was kind to me until he realized I wasn’t budging on that Jewish thing and concluded that I was destined for Hell.
My students? An equal mix of poor, rural white kids who lived near the school and middle-class, urban black kids who spent half their day on a bus to and from Nashville. They hated one another. They hated school. So did I.
What I did next—and how it flopped
During my third year, I advocated for an eighth grade Honors English class. If I could gather the kids who secretly yearned for a real academic experience, I reasoned, we could all learn something.
With my own money, I bought 25 copies of The Diary of Anne Frank. I hoped to bring my students to a place of commonality, to highlight the universality of suffering. Plus, they’d get a real live Jew in the room to make the story and history real. Then we’d get back to diagramming sentences.
Open house usually brought only two or three parents. That fall, I sat alone in my room, wearing my only suit, grading papers. Then suddenly, my room was filled with exquisitely angry parents. Their message? The Diary of Anne Frank was too challenging. I’d asked too much of their kids. I also heard a different, unvoiced concern—a much uglier one.
So I stood there, stunned, in a community of one, holding my breath.
I look back on that night and wish for a do-over.
I was so defensive. I answered every question with fear and anger instead of thoughtfulness. I wish I had listened more, asked more questions. Those parents came because they were mad, sure. But at the core of everything was our mutual desire that the kids learn, and I missed that rather obvious path to reconciliation.
But I survived—not just the night, but the next twenty years in this profession. I’ve taught in a prison, a middle school and, for the last sixteen years, at Western Hills High School in Frankfort, Kentucky. I feel great warmth for my new(ish) Kentucky home.
The need for a broader view
Here’s something it’s taken me a while to realize: when we face the same struggles with the same people, we tend to invent the same solutions. It is stifling.
To do right by our students and ourselves, we require a larger community—a broader view.
A breakthrough occurred when I began to work toward National Board Certification with three other teachers in my department. Earning certification cracked the window a bit. Despite our various specialties, my colleagues and I had a common purpose and guiding framework, and the experience transformed us into a powerful local team.
Then, when our state implemented the Kentucky Core Academic Standards, I joined the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ)’s virtual community and found the window wide open. This community sought out and valued teacher voice—valued me as an expert and a learner—no longer an oxymoronic idea! Working with forward-thinking teachers from across the nation showed me the power in that often frightening word describing our new standards: “common.”
I know now that thousands of educators share my passion and enthusiasm. Share my frustrations. My view of what is best and what is possible in my classroom isn’t limited to what I witness in my own school, but instead can include the practices of educators all over the globe. Open to dissent and to myriad perspectives, CTQ helps me feel like I can breathe.
What’s possible in Kentucky
Within the Collaboratory are smaller lab spaces where teachers can collaborate and share with others in their geographic areas. The CTQ-KY lab offers an amazing opportunity. Right now, CTQ-KY includes almost seventy teachers. We are a “small class” in the 4,000-strong larger community of the Collaboratory.
Couldn’t you benefit from a fresh perspective on an old problem… or support in facing a new challenge? That’s what this space can offer you.
It’s okay not to have all the answers. As Emerson says, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . . speak what you think to-day in words as hard as cannon balls, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”
Wouldn’t a space to test the wings of your opinions offer a safe place to learn to fly? I find support and space to grow as a teacher leader in the diverse spaces provided by CTQ, and the same can be true for you. We are eager to learn from your ideas, stories, questions, struggles, and celebrations.
I’m that “crazy-ass hippie Jew from California”—who’s committed to helping Kentucky’s kids succeed. Who are you? Let us know—and tell us what you seek.
All the best, Lauren
P.S. How to get in on this community:
- Become a member of the CTQ Collaboratory at http://www.teachingquality.org. (It’s the orangey-red button at upper right.) This solutions-focused community is open to all who are in favor of teachers transforming teaching.
- Once you’re logged into the Collaboratory, join our local group of Kentucky teachers in the CTQ-KY Lab.