Fighting the good fight

Hey, cómo estás? Cuenta conmigo.

Sappy Emir Sensini/Justo Lamas lyrics aside: it’s November. To other people, November means Thanksgiving, fall, pumpkin spice lattes, football. To teachers, it means: ONLY TWO MORE MONTHS UNTIL CHRISTMAS SLASH WINTER BREAK. For me, we are about to enter competitive one act season which is basically code for me potentially losing my mind. One act is stressful enough for me, but this year both our volleyball and football teams have made it into district playoffs, which requires a lot of juggling between me, the other coaches, and the students we all share.

So this post is about the students. I am definitely a touchy feely feelings kind of teacher. I care about my kids, and I want to fight for what’s healthy and sane. Not just for me, but for them too (which, not so mysteriously, tend to be the same things). When I think back to my high school days, my only question is: how in the world did I ever do it all? My senior year, I was in marching band, jazz band, regular choir, show choir, one act, the musical, and the spring play – all on top of my normal class load (including AP physics) and having a job. There were nights when I was at school by 7:30 am and left around 9 or 10 pm. When I didn’t have practice, I was usually working from 5 to 10 pm, plus weekends. When did I ever sleep or eat? (Spoiler alert: I didn’t, really, and it affected my mental and physical health.)

That was in 2004. The world has only gotten more frenetic and more overwhelming since I was a high school graduate. I thought college was, for the most part, far easier than high school because I only had class 15 hours a week, and a job that had very flexible hours. I could even take a nap most days! It was awesome!

So I worry. I look at my students who are (and this is a real example): in a fall sport, winter sport, FFA officers, play production actors, NHS, student council, and compete in speech, parliamentary procedure, and quiz bowl, oh, and many of these students just started working at various jobs.  I worry when there are other coaches and directors who will ask their students to practice in the morning AND after school. Some ask for weekends. Some might schedule a practice, and then go way over time. Some teachers assign mountains of homework. The ‘rule’ that we should theoretically follow is 10 minutes of homework per grade level. But assuming high school teachers follow this – which many don’t – that still means that seniors ‘should’ have 120 minutes – 2 HOURS of homework per night! Are you kidding me? Where are they going to find the time? Even with a study hall in school, that still leaves over an hour of work for students to complete at home, on top of their other activities and jobs and stuff like applying for college.

I worry, when my friend’s son is failing Spanish (in a different district), and of course I offer to look at his work to see where it could be improved. And that’s when he shows me a packet including a copy of every worksheet from the Realidades chapter they’re working through. And I was so sad, because I used to be that teacher. I used to ask my Spanish 1 students to learn 50 words every 2 weeks and be able to apply grammatical constructs that they wouldn’t remember anyway, because their brains weren’t ready to acquire them. My teaching was wide but very shallow, and my students left being able to use Spanish in spite of my methods, not because of my methods. My friend’s son hates Spanish and it’s his least favorite class, because the work is so overwhelming.

I don’t know about you, but that’s not what I want for my students. If students don’t like school because they’re unmotivated or they are so far behind (for whatever reason) that the work is not appropriate for their level, well, those are challenges that we always have to deal with. But I don’t want my students to feel like school is a trap for their time. I don’t want students to dislike school because they are constantly overwhelmed. I want my students to have free time, to see their friends, to have other hobbies where THEY get to dictate when and how and for how long and with whom they work.

It is hard, as a teacher, to fight this fight. It’s hard to fight the expectation that students should have homework, and they should have lots of it. It’s hard to fight the expectation that students should have every moment of their lives controlled by an adult. It’s hard to fight the expectation that students will receive a number grade for every move they make. Foreign language teachers have particular fights, like how much vocabulary is appropriate to introduce at any given time. How much grammar should be introduced at a level. How much should we really expect our students to be able to acquire and do within the time that we have them.

But by the same token, we must also reach a middle ground. There is a wide space between ‘no homework’ and ‘tons of homework’.  There’s a huge leap between ‘no grades’ and ‘grade everything’. As teachers, there are certain expectations that we need to uphold for ourselves and our students. It’s also hard not to be a zealot for our particular causes. Any teacher I’ve spoken to believes wholeheartedly in school reform, and with the technological availability nowadays, we are the ones to push forward. Schools aren’t meeting the needs of our students in terms of what is taught, how it’s taught, and how much time we take of our students’ lives, but how do we move forward? I’ve seen some downright blowouts happening in the online edu-sphere, and it makes me cringe. How can we be effective models for change and expect our students to respond reasonably, when we can’t do it ourselves?

So I don’t know about you all, but I’m tired. It’s November. But giving up the struggle for a reasonable work-life (or school-life, for the kids) balance is giving up on any hope that one day, schools will more effectively meet the needs of our students. So I will push on. I know you’re tired too, but we’re all in this together. One day at a time, right?