Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Reflection on Failure

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again – this time, more intelligently.  Henry Ford

It’s difficult, to say the least, to acknowledge failure.  Even though failure has come into fashion, lately, as the cornerstone of creativity, lauded even, as the “new success,” it isn't a less bitter pill to swallow.  Nonetheless, I am very, very glad that in returning to the classroom, I am forced to see the stark evidence of my failure.  Too often, I think, we are able to manufacture success.  I left the classroom four years ago to “make a difference” for teachers; I returned to the classroom to find that nothing has changed.

The focus of my district work was on advocating for and trying to organize systems for working together. I am convinced – still – that it is absolutely necessary if we are to have any hope at all of meeting the diverse needs of our students.  In isolation, not only are we dangerously overburdened and under-resourced (how can we possibly gather sufficient resources alone each semester or year for a constantly changing set of needs?), but we cannot, on our own, affect the life trajectory of a child except in serendipitous ways, by being one of a constellation of positive experiences. Unfortunately, especially for those students who need us most, the constellation of negative experiences buries even our most heroic isolated actions.  Yet the classroom is still isolated.  Despite my district efforts.  Despite the efforts of the school that I've returned to. Despite the daily passionate thoughtful hard work of individual educators.

I learned of my new assignment on a Friday: 90 students in four different English courses on Monday. Here is what my return to the classroom looks like this.

Designing and finding resources:  Each day, every course, needs to be planned, for the most part, in isolation. There is not even a “one-click” space to find locally relevant curriculum-matched plans or mentors.
Learning about students: Each student needs to be figured out “manually”:  there is no on-line access to files and information, no system of meetings for support of the students with identified difficulties.  In the file room, there is a daunting sheaf of paper to sift through, most of it written in vague language with generic recommendations – allow for extra time with tests.  Each student is a mystery that I need to unfold in four short months.
Figuring out how to work again without technology:  I have a blackboard and chalk, limited Internet access for the ancient computer in the corner of the room (with its mammoth monitor), and I must complete the attendance twice daily by hand.  I'm still trying to find ways to support the students with dysgraphia and dyslexia using only paper and pencils and books, without peer tutors or EAs.
Teaching: The students continue to have unique needs.  I continue to face them alone in small room.  Even more, perhaps, than four years ago, they are skeptical that the education we can provide (with our chalkboards and novels) can make a difference to their future.  Their phones buzz and beep; they are constantly distracted, not just by the 29 other students in the small space, but by the world in their pockets.

I can read the student files, of course, find people to ask questions about what has worked for them in the past, organize meetings, connect with the department head, counsellors  principals, become an advocate (again) for technology in the school and in my classroom. I can find resources on-line and  try to connect with other teachers to co-plan at the end of the day.  But each step demands my additional effort – or the additional effort of other (overburdened under-resourced) individuals in the system. There is no system in place to lift the burden.  There is no continued relentless focus on removing the difficulties so that I can teach beautifully.  There are many hard-working, committed individuals doing their very best.

Week four. The question that I keep asking is this: How can I teach?

And this.  If I had to do the last four years again - more intelligently - how would I support teachers so that at last – at last – we can meet the needs of our children?

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