Anachan's Corner

One woman's journey through marriage, motherhood, and the classroom…

Worth the Work

Written By: Anachan - Jan• 16•18

Reading should be fun!

To someone who grew up with her nose in a book, as I did, this is an obvious fact, but to the vast majority of my students, it is a foreign concept. So when I first started teaching, I realized one of my primary missions was to try to encourage the growth of this idea among my students.

One of the things I do for this is a Halloween tradition I established the first year I was assigned to teach English: reading suspenseful stories to my students. It is not an original idea; my eighth grade English teacher did it for us. It was the thrill I felt while sitting on the floor, listening to her read Edgar Allan Poe, which persuaded me that this needed to be done in my classroom, as well.

But every year, I get the reminder that I’m getting older. Things which used to be easy now make me just a little more tired, I cannot function on quite as little sleep as I used to be able to do, and somehow, my body seems to betray me just a little more.

This school year, the week before Halloween, I ended up with a mysterious allergic reaction which swelled up my face, sent me to the doctor, and necessitated a course of steroids, as well as a couple other medications. As I had never had such a thing before, I was somewhat amazed at how much the entire experience affected my mood and my energy, along with a mysterious lack of self-control toward anything which itched. I found myself tired and a bit cranky, two things which are not conducive to a happy teaching life.

Despite the issues, however, I was determined to keep to the Halloween tradition. I wore the embroidered Afghan nomad dress I had entered into the county fair a few years back, because it gave off a “gypsy vibe.” I rolled up the rug in my living room and loaded it into my car, along with my desk lamp, two saris, and a length of red gauze fabric. I pulled my fancy, gold-decorated copy of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe from the shelf in my study and packed it into my school bag. And I boxed up my set of battery-operated flickering candles. Then my daughter and I left early on Halloween morning to make it to school before even the early arrivals.

Once in the classroom, we pushed all the desks, save one, to the back of the room and pulled the chairs in front of them. We took the last desk and placed it at the front of the room, draping it with the saris, and placed a chair next to it which we draped with the red crepe fabric. The rug already in my classroom and the rug I had brought from home were placed in casually diagonal slants relative to the arrangement in the front of the room. We pulled down the blinds, turned off the lights, and put my desk lamp on the sari-draped table at the front of the room, tying the end of a sari around the stand so as to disguise it just a little. Finally, we turned on the projector and found a six-hour-long YouTube video of a flickering fireplace, with wind and thunder sounds, and projected it on the screen near the location of my crepe-draped chair. The book and a couple of printed stories laid on the table, we were ready.

The sophomores and juniors entered the room excited, knowing what was coming, and arranged themselves on the chairs or lying down on the rugs, as suited their fancies. For the freshmen, however, it was a surprise. They walked in a bit hesitantly, unsure what they should be doing, but soon found places on the rugs, tossing pillows between each other as they settled in.

The juniors, who are studying American literature and who have heard me read Edgar Allan Poe already, were treated to a story by another skilled American author: Stephen King. Last year, when my fourth daughter was taking a college literature class in high school, I learned about his story “The Man in the Black Suit,” which proved to be freaky enough that I decided it needed to be on my Halloween reading list for the juniors. This story about a young boy who has an encounter with the Devil was doubly appropriate because we had just finished studying “The Devil and Tom Walker,” a story from the Romantic era by Washington Irving.

The sophomores were treated to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” the end of which brought gasps of surprise from the listeners, and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” This year, unfortunately, my battery-operated candles had malfunctioned in their color-changing capability, so I had to forego changing them in accordance with the mention of the colors of the rooms in the latter story. But even so, the tale wove its spell, and the students ended shaking their heads, saying, “They couldn’t escape it.”

The freshmen had an entire class period of Edgar Allan Poe. First, I read “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a story they told me their 8th grade teacher, like mine, had read to them. “Good!” I said. “Then you’ll understand it!” Recycled or not, the story still had them leaning on the edges of their seats as the words of the madman captured their imaginations, until finally, with a shriek, he confessed to his hideous crime. The next story was one we would be studying in this class, anyway: “The Cask of Amontillado,” which required a little introduction before starting. Finally, we finished with “The Raven.” Throughout the experience, I explained that Edgar Allan Poe had been fascinated by the darker side of human nature. The pieces we read examined madness, revenge, and grief.

At the end of the day, as I began gathering up the fabrics and replacing the desks, students came up to me. “Miss, when do we get to do this again?”

I smiled at them. “Next year!”

Despite the school secretary getting irritated with me not taking roll right at the beginning of class (How could I when my computer was busy projecting a fireplace?), and despite the sheer exhaustion I felt after a full day of performance, I knew it was all worth it.

Life Is Not Fair

Written By: Anachan - Sep• 14•17

Freshmen whine a lot. They whine when assignments are given; they whine when someone else got the stability ball chair first; they whine when they are required to be separated from the friend with whom they were playing a “poke me, poke you” game because of the disruption to the class.

One of their biggest whines is “It’s not fair!” To this, I usually reply with a well-worn phrase I read on the Internet, years back, “Life’s not fair; get used to it.”

Of course, that truth is easier said than accepted.

The other day, I received my teacher evaluation from the state. This evaluation is a conglomeration of student standardized test scores, observations from the principal and others, survey results from students, and attendance records. The results are categorized as “Ineffective,” “Minimally Effective,” “Effective,” “Highly Effective,” and “Exemplary.” Anything below “Effective” means, of course, you as a teacher are in trouble.

Last year, the first year I received such an evaluation, I knew it would be rough. As one of only two teachers whose student test scores rely on the PARCC, rather than just state-created End of Course (EoC) exams, which have historically been easier, I knew my evaluation would suffer. So I was relatively pleased to find that my score, while in the “Effective” range, was almost at “Highly Effective.”

Not bad, I thought to myself. I can improve that. After all, the use of the PARCC was new, and we had been learning what needed to be taught in order to have our students learn the skill set needed for this kind of test question. (Unlike some subjects, English and math require the student to have skills, rather than just regurgitate facts. This is a much harder thing to teach.)

And so I worked to teach my students what they needed to know to be successful in their subjects. In my algebra classes, this meant dividing them up after the first semester into a class of those who had passed (and so were ready to continue to the second half of algebra 1) and those who had failed (and so needed a semester of pre-algebra before they even considered continuing.) I knew that, while this was what the students needed, it would work to my detriment in the testing score component of my evaluation, for even my pre-algebra students would be required to take the algebra-level PARCC, as the only test available to 9th-grade students. Still, I wanted them to succeed in the long run, so I brushed off the risk.

At the end of the year, all but two of my algebra 1 students passed the state EoC exam! They were so excited, rushing up to me after the test, with lights in their eyes, to tell me they had passed. I was not only happy for them, I was happy that my gamble in separating the classes had worked to their advantage, enabling me to provide for them a “real” algebra class, rather than one which had to move slowly to accommodate the failing students. These students had worked hard, and they deserved that passing score.

When we received the results from the PARCC exam at the beginning of the next school year, I found that over 70% of my junior English students had passed their PARCC requirements. This was the first class I had taught English to since their freshman year, and I was so astounded that my jaw dropped. I was absolutely thrilled that they had managed to fulfill their requirements on the way to graduation, and I figured that something I was doing must have been right. (Sometimes it was difficult to know, with all the resistance I got from them.)

So with those results, I had every hope that this year, I would kick that evaluation over into the “Highly Effective” range. To sweeten the deal, the superintendent had managed to get a grant to distribute among teachers, based on their evaluation rating, and I looked forward to that reward.

As you can probably guess, it didn’t happen. At lunchtime, after the results arrived, I met with the principal in his office, as usual, to discuss the results of my evaluation. But when I looked at the paper, all I could see were the letters in larger font at the top right of the paper: “Effective.” My score was the same number as the previous year, four measly points away from the “Highly Effective rating.

I listened as the principal went through all the statistics, charts, and other indicators which were included in the evaluation paperwork. I signed the paper to show I had received it, took my copy from the principal when he handed it to me, and left the room with water in my eyes.

The tears came when I returned to my room. I shut my locked classroom door, moved to the part of the room which couldn’t be seen from the door window, and slid to the floor with my back to the cupboards, my arms wrapped around my knees. Why? I asked myself. Why was I working so hard, when even my success didn’t end up to my credit? Why was I even caring about teaching the students to the best of my ability and improving what I did? Maybe, I thought, I should just do my job, go through the motions, and not worry about the students’ results. I did care, but what was the point?

Before lunch was over, I had managed to stabilize myself so I could get back to my feet, wipe off my face, and put on my “I’m role-playing a teacher” demeanor.

The afternoon must have gone by, but I do not remember it. On my drive home, I listened to a pulp fiction fantasy novel (3rd one in the original Legend of Drizzt trilogy) and so managed to maintain equilibrium.

Later that evening, my husband and I discussed the incident. “Well,” he told me, as he stirred something on the stove, “you have to decide if this is what is going to motivate you or not.”

“Yea, yea, I know. I have to ensure that all the little things the observers want to see to raise my observation score are obvious,” I grumbled. “I can do that.”

He looked at me seriously. “It’s not just that. If this is something you are going to need, in order to feel like you are valued, there are things you can do. But they come with a price.” He reminded me of some other people we have known who have been successful in their careers. “These people were demanding. Nobody is just going to give you what you deserve. You have to fight for it if you want it. You have to be the person who goes to the principal and argues about their observation scores when they aren’t ‘4s.’ You have to tell him, ‘Sir, I had the most successful year ever, and your observation scores cost me money,’ hoping it will guilt him a little into giving you higher scores this year.”

I felt myself melt a little into the floor. “I can’t do that.”

“Yes, you could,” he told me. “But there is always a cost.”

I looked at the floor for a moment. “The trouble is,” I finally burst out, “I’ve never really respected that demanding side of those people, the ones you’ve named as successful. I don’t think I’m that kind of person.”

He finally smiled. “I didn’t think so.”

My tears couldn’t be held back, at that point, and I gave him a hug. He stroked my hair. “It’s kind of like that ‘treasures in Heaven’ thing,” he said, “the work you do.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

I pulled back and laughed. “You know, at just that moment, what popped into my head was ‘You cannot serve God and Mammon.'” (Matthew 6:24)

My heart was still hollow, however, for most of the evening, and when I went to bed, I found I couldn’t sleep. No matter how many times my good sense tried to intervene, I found myself dwelling on the evaluation and going in and out of tears. Midnight was closing in, and I was wondering how well I was going to manage the next day on five hours of sleep when I gave up and pulled out my phone, turning to social media.

And there they were: the words of a prophet.

I do not remember the line which was displayed–something about life not being fair–but it resonated within me. Life was not fair, the evaluation system was not fair, and no matter how much I knew I should just get used to it and I would get used to it eventually, at that moment, I was feeling crushed and beaten, and I needed help. I clicked on the link.

I was directed to a talk in the General Conference of the LDS church in April 2016: “That I Might Draw All Men Unto Me,” by Elder Dale G. Renlund. There, I read a reminder of two less-than-righteous people in the Book of Mormon.

Nephi’s closeness to God enabled him to recognize and appreciate God’s “tender mercies.” In contrast, when Laman and Lemuel saw Nephi receiving blessings, they “were wroth with him because they understood not the dealings of the Lord.” Laman and Lemuel saw the blessings that they received as their due and petulantly assumed that they should have more. They seemed to view Nephi’s blessings as “wrongs” committed against them. This is the scriptural equivalent of disgruntled entitlement.

Was this me? Was I thinking I “deserved” that bonus? Was I viewing the higher ratings given to other teachers–the ones whose tests were easier to prepare for–as a “wrong” committed against me? Well, yes, I was. “Disgruntled entitlement.” Was this what I was choosing to feel? This was not who I wanted to be.

With peace trickling over my broken heart like water seeping into cracks in the stones, I read that the one for whom life was the most unfair was our Savior, Jesus Christ. Then came this reminder: “If life were truly fair, you and I would never be able to stand clean before God. In this respect, I am grateful that life is not fair.”

By the time I had finished reading the talk, I was calm, with no remaining anger or resentment or despair. With a silent prayer of gratitude for messages from inspired leaders and for the comfort of the Spirit, I replaced my phone on its charger, laid my head on my pillow, and slept, awakening the next day with my usual cheerfulness, if a bit more puffiness around the eyes.

Life is not fair, and it’s a good thing. As I walked into my classroom, I repeated to myself with a smile, “Thank goodness life is not fair. How dreadful it would be if we received only what we deserved,” and I remembered the love Jesus Christ has for me and for my students. And so, instead of looking for affirmation from a flawed evaluation system which is not fair, I will look for it in the smiles of students who finally “get” it. I will look for it in the young man who, two weeks after an incident, finally admitted responsibility and asked that he only be punished, not his entire class. And I will look for it in very rare moments when the juniors whom I taught math to as freshmen come for tutoring and said, “Miss, I wish I had listened to you more when you were my teacher.” Most of all, I will look for it in the approval from my Savior, through His Spirit. I will get my monetary pay when I finish my Master’s degree, but that will not be my motivation, day to day.