How the system broke my heart (and how my students mended it)

I originally wrote this story back in April in an old notebook on a Sunday afternoon, amid tears. I meant to rewrite it here in the space of my blog, but I wasn’t ready. I’m not sure why. I simply hesitated and put it off, positive I would post as soon as I was. Subsequently, I experienced a serious bout of writer’s block because I couldn’t possibly write on another topic until I got this story out. I am posting it now because I hope it can help others in similar situations, and selfishly, I know writing it will help put it behind me for good. This experience has also profoundly shaped my perspective and my heart. In simple terms, it has made me stronger.

So, it goes…

A sign is posted to the left of my doorknob which reads,“You enter this classroom as a student who is respected, empowered, challenged, and loved.” Originally created by my teaching soul sister, I adopted it as my own because it spoke to my philosophy of education. It does not feel natural to teach without this extension of love.

At 11 a.m. on Monday, April 13, the first day back from a restful spring break, my principal strolls in my classroom. She stops just past the doorway, picks up a small piece of trash and meets me halfway while asking whether this is my plan period. I have just finished three hours of teaching, reenergized to be back with my students, and reply yes with a smile. I meet her eyes and she says, “I just wanted to let you know your contract is not being renewed.”

Instinctually, my hand went straight to my heart, my spine elongated, shoulders back. Fifteen minutes later on the phone to my husband—amid sobs—I would explain it felt like I was punched in the stomach, literally punched, my breathing turned rapid.

I only processed pieces of that ten minute long conversation with my former principal. Snippets rang in my ears. Something about budget cuts, an apology, personal days, and the affirmation that I am a great teacher. I tried hard not to cry in front of an administrator who had yet to show any emotion with me. Damn, did I try. But, they came. In a professional tone, I apologized for the tears. In an attempt to be reassuring, I think, she said she would be emotional too. She then encouraged me to reapply for my position if the budget was approved and stated she would also be happy to write a letter of recommendation. And then with that, she left. Headed down the hallway to share the same news with another probationary, first year in the district, teacher.

Later that week, in meetings with the department chair and union reps, I would learn the decision was made unilaterally. My evaluations and peers agreed I was doing great work with the students and they loved me. It didn’t change the fact that my teaching spirit was crushed. Sadly, I have learned, this happens all the time to teachers new to a district. A fellow English teacher colleague of mine said his contract had been non-renewed five times, five times. He is my age—about 30.

The rest of that day was the hardest. I still had three more classes to teach and I had lost all my appetite for lunch. I made a cup of tea and found the name, “Benners” in my call log. I shared the news with him, and he shared the shock. When my husband got home that afternoon to find me painting with our daughter, he gave me my first embrace of the day. Because despite my need to be comforted, I chose not to tell anyone at my school that day. I simply sat in my classroom, lights off, door closed. I wrote, meditated, prayed, read blog posts from other teachers with similar experiences, and cried some more.

Eventually, I reapplied make-up, put on a smile, and greeted my students determined to be the best, damn teacher I could be, just as I had vowed when I began teaching seven years ago. I knew in my soul that it wasn’t about my principal’s power or budget cuts, it was about them—my students. And what matters is that despite everything else, they are the ones who make me feel respected, empowered, challenged…and loved.

Someone very close to me who understands my love for teaching, upon hearing the news, prayed I would receive kisses from God. I learned that later when, during a phone conversation, I shared just how intensely my students had been showering me with gifts of kindness and admiration the rest of that week. They did not know I was undergoing such a difficult trial in my career in public education, but perhaps they felt it. I was and am grateful for all of the loving reminders I received that ultimately mended a teaching heart, broken by the system.

Now that over two months have passed, I feel lighter. I enter a new chapter, carrying forth the stories of my students, and nothing more.

IMG_2264 IMG_2269 IMG_2271 IMG_2297

IMG_2457 (The first four pictures were all gifts from students. This last photo is taken of me and the school mascot. The students and staff voted me as staffer-of-the-month in May. I ended the school year feeling very appreciated by my students and colleagues.)

Surviving spring testing

This is my favorite time of year, and I long to be outside: gardening, picnicking, and even scabbing a few knees while playing with my running buddy.

For now, though, I feel like I am holding my breath until the standardized testing is complete in the public high school where I teach. We began testing this morning and ended at 2 p.m; students will resume tomorrow. And the stress that comes with the tests seems to sap energy during the work week for other spring-related activities.

I knew that I would be a bit drained no matter what (active proctoring=never sitting down among other reasons). So, to combat that feeling:

-I aimed to have a relaxing weekend at home with my family (it didn’t hurt that the weather was fabulous–83 degrees at one point here in Colorado); we played at the park, stopped by a local bakery to go on a picnic, had a game night, did some spring cleaning, played with sidewalk chalk, went on a run, got Linnea her first, very own library card (big stuff!), and napped on Sunday afternoon with a book by my side.

-I also tried to create a peaceful classroom the day before the test (yesterday/Monday) and to do that intentionally, I tried something new…

I read this post, and was inspired by the work of my teaching friend, Mary. Meditative techniques are strategies I have dabbled with in the classroom the last few years. I never considered, however, to make it a consistent practice with the guidance of an app while I, too, participated.

Most streaming websites were down in order to get ready for the online test, but I did find one recording that encouraged students for five minutes to be aware of their breath and scattered thoughts. Some students laughed at awkward silences while others earnestly kept their eyes closed and legs crossed. I must admit, I too, felt the awkwardness at times (mostly with my ninth graders). But, there I sat, at the front of the room, eyes mostly closed, taking deep breaths and allowing the silence to get comfortable in the room.

I asked students how it went: Some athletes made connections to practices when their coaches had them envision success. Some asked to do it again. And some said it made them sleepy. Regardless, it seemed to at least have an effect on all, and I intend to continue this practice in some fashion in my classroom… to combat the frenzy, distraction, and stress.

As I prepare to end a school day that was filled with testing and no teaching, I think of an article I read over my lunch break. The writer and educator, Nancie Atwell–whom I admire a great deal–makes a case for more reading in schools. Her words ring true as I consider the many kiddos who chose to sleep over picking up a book.

I hope that my students will not allow all the assigned reading on these tests get in the way of reading for themselves.

Because tonight, in order to restore my own energy, I will sit on the back step with my daughter, two cups of tea, and a pile of books.

A story of fighting fear and finding humanity along the way

Paper-clipped piles of papers sit to the left of me, a reminder that grades are due soon. As we near the end of the semester, however, these are not at the forefront of my mind. Today something pretty incredible happened in my room, E121. And this isn’t a story about grades. It’s about a mute student in a speech class and 23 of his peers.

Meet Nate*. Nate does not speak in school. He is selectively mute. At home, he talks so much, his cousin calls him annoying. The first day of speech class this year, I asked the students to all participate in sharing something. We got to Nate and it was silent. I waited allowing the awkward silence to ensue. Finally, a student piped up, “Ms. Peterson, he doesn’t talk.” I was confused, didn’t believe her at first. Nate nodded, and I finally understood. We moved on.

A mute student in a speech class? As the teacher, I struggled with how to proceed. How could I create an environment that would be encouraging, yet rigorous so that he would feel compelled to speak? I had to learn more.

I called Nate’s home and spoke with his mother. She cried on the phone. I learned that Nate has been selectively mute at school since kindergarten. His mom did not have a reason ready for why he chose not to speak. To her, there didn’t seem to be a reason. She shared that it was his choice to take the speech class at this time…he wanted to overcome his fear. He wanted to speak in school.

Nate has an accomodation, which as teachers, we are legally obligated to uphold. His accomodation allows him to video tape speeches and other peformance assessments. And this is what he did for all his major speeches. And on the clips, it was clear: Nate has a natural, speaking voice, something that can’t be taught.

For his final, persuasive speech, I encouraged him (along with his cousin who is also enrolled in the course) to deliver his speech to at least a few of us. I offered to sort of hide in the room, so he would feel he was just delivering the speech to his cousin. He came into my room with his cousin over lunch several times, gearing himself up.

Today, was the last day of speech class. Last chance for Nate to speak.

With 25 minutes left of class, I looked at Nate, smiled and raised my eyebrows. And the class took it from there…

This group of students embraced Nick with their words, some with their arms, and many with their gestures of kindness. One female student, stood up and walked confidently to the front of the room declaring she was dedicating an impromptu speech to Nate.

“I believe there are no coincidences in life, Nate. You are here for a reason. You are in this class and in this room for a reason…” She explained that the whole class was there for him and that we would all support him in overcoming his fear to speak. I was moved to tears.

When the bell rang, no one moved. We sat in the circle around Nate that the students had so organically created. I ordered pizza and we eased into the moment before us. The circle was maintained and the students who chose to stay through lunch began to share some of their deepest fears. They even drew Nate encouraging words such as this on the board:

photo (5)

Nate never did speak. But, perhaps that wasn’t the end goal, after all: It was clear he came a long way in his inner struggle. In fact, I was fully convinced he was about to open his mouth and utter a word. Before today though, I am not sure I would have believed it. And at least he knows now that when he feels ready to speak in school, there is a safe place for him.

Calling the mother of the student who gave the impromptu speech was another highlight of my day. She hesitated when she picked up and realized it was a teacher. “I don’t normally get phone calls like these,” she said. After a 15-minute long conversation about what happened in class and how her daughter helped to facilitate it, she thanked me for calling and said “this was exactly what I needed to hear today”…Maybe her daughter is right; everything does happen for a reason.

Class today was about something bigger than getting someone to speak. My students reminded me, Nate, and each other that humanity can still exist in education; in actions and in words.

*Please note: Names have been changed.

Choosing Joy

I walked into a colleague’s classroom on Wednesday and was met with tears on cheeks, kleenex in hands, and sentimental music playing in the background. She was sad. The students were sad. And I started to feel sad.

A family member recently asked if it is difficult saying good bye to students at the end of the year, especially seniors. My answer? Absolutely, and truth be told, some more than others. But, more than being sad, I am happy. Happy for them to move out of this place and into their own skin, to find their place in the world.

I remember the last day of my senior year well: I brought a new pack of stationery to the yearbook room before school, and scribbled notes dripping in gratitude, appreciation, and, yes, lots of sappiness. Those notes helped me with the transition of change as did the newsletter I created of contact information of peers in a pre-facebook era. I tried to find distraction from the truth that life would not be lived in the same way again. The routines, rituals, and the faces of everyday would be altered indefinitely.

What I did not know then was that in the sadness of change, we grow. And in growth, we find joy. My ultimate hope for my students facing this transition is that they never remain stagnant:

When they must choose between the familiar and unknown, may fear not get in the way.

When they experience guilt, may they let it go.

When they find love, may they hold onto it.

When they discover a passion, may they do whatever it takes to nurture it.

And may they continuously pursue joy, for others, but mostly for themselves.

My own joy at school this year has come from my students, and so it is with a heavy heart, that I say good bye to them…more happy than sad during this beautiful transition. May it be just one of many to come.

And here is the end of one of my favorite Walt Whitman poems, “O Me! O Life!”, that I read to my seniors yesterday:

Finding authenticity with students: Writers Workshops

I walked into the school building at 6:33 a.m, the earliest I have arrived all year. I stepped into C212 armed with my tea, mat, and flip flops. Yoga with my teaching friend & soul sister, Mary, and her students is the only reason I would kiss my daughter while still asleep and slip out of the house so early to head to work. During chivasana, a student read this by Marianne Williamson: I delivered a presentation to my colleagues yesterday after school, a requirement of all teachers that ends with a bonus if approved by administration. In years past, I spoke about differentiation, assessment, being culturally responsive. Not this year. This year, I wanted to share about authenticity: Authenticity in the writing of my students and, hopefully, the authenticity in my own teaching. My last year here–at a school I have taught at for the last six years–would end with me speaking about what spoke to my heart.

I began describing my senior students and my motivation for creating more opportunities for them to write creatively. They came to me at the beginning of the year reading, on average, at an eighth grade level. A week ago, they took the Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI) that tested their lexile again. This time, they averaged, a 10th grade reading level. I linked the growth, at least partially, to the creative writing workshops from Lighthouse added into the curriculum this semester. For many, this was the first time throughout the school year, despite my best efforts, that they lifted their heads off the tables and paid attention, remained engaged, and actively participated throughout the entire class.Image I felt like the uncool parent of 33 teenagers who was replaced by two hip babysitters. Listen to Ms. Peterson talk about haikus? Lame. Two local rap artists who work on the side as writing teachers? Absolutely. ImageStudents, like Giovanni shown here, shared their writing, which many had never done before. They were not asked by the writers. They volunteered and I sat back in amazement; it was inside of them all along. I was in awe of what some of them produced; And when I read one such poem during my presentation, yesterday, I teared up and turned red. Proud of my students and embarassed to be getting emotional in front of my guarded colleagues. We are a school that is “data-driven”, a token term used too frequently. My “data” was partially based on tests and observations, yes. The data that mattered, however, was the feeling of being in the class. And the way my students and I felt during these workshops was proof enough for me.

I am heading to Office Max this weekend to create portfolios of their best pieces. I want them to have something tangible to take with them into the future. Proof of authenticity in their writing, education, and lives.

As I contemplate the role of authenticity, though, I am drawn back to that poem I heard while lying on a yoga mat this morning. My students revealed their light through their writing, which has given me the encouragement and permission to do the same. Being present is also about being authentic, a worthy goal to pursue in every moment–spoken or written.

Thank you!

                                Above: My class with our two guest writers, Adrian Molina and Bianca Mikahn, on the last workshop day. I’m very grateful to them and Lighthouse for making those workshops possible.