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Not Your Superwoman

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By Paloma Garner
Art by Mobsolete

A colleague of mine recently shared Joshua John Mackin’s The Atlantic article “2014 Resolution: Stop Watching Feel-Good Teacher Movies.” As I enter my eleventh year of teaching, this article speaks very deeply to me.  Mackin’s main point is that feel-good teaching movies perpetuate the idea that when teachers genuinely care about and dedicate themselves to the education of all of their students, a happy ending is guaranteed.

Early in my teaching career, I still bought in to this storyline.  I got to work early, stayed late, did engaging activities, regularly assessed progress, and built meaningful relationships. Nevertheless, at the conclusion of my first year teaching, we had a meeting where the faculty’s standardized test passing rates were graphed in order from highest to lowest. At the very, very end of the line, appeared my name with a sad 38% passing rate. It didn’t matter that I was a first year teacher, or that 35% of my students were receiving special education services (compared to the 20% school average), or that some of my classes were pushing 40 students (so that the top of my desk and teacher chair were both assigned seats for students). All that mattered at the end of the year was that number.

Ever the optimist, I took this ego blow as a challenge. In the haze of my second year in the classroom, naively eager to finally have my superhero teacher moment, my partner and I took in a student. In our home.

All she needed was someone to believe in her, we believed. In the two years she lived with us, we spent every spare moment trying to catch up. We did homework together, I was in daily contact with her other teachers, we ate healthy meals, she got glasses, she visited a therapist, we read novels together, did art, visited museums and talked about world affairs.  But it was not all roses.  For as smart, talented, and charming as she was, she was still a teenager in distress who lacked the academic, social, and behavioral skills to be successful in a standard school setting.  Although she did eventually graduate from high school, the experience was an emotional, physical, and financial drain.  There was no magic moment where we packed her up for college or landed her in an amazing job. Life just kind of…went on.

In the years since then, I have continued to develop my skills as a teacher. One of my favorite parts of this job is that there is no perfecting it—there is always a better way to teach something and it’s fun to try to figure that out. For years I have worked on fine-tuning lessons so that students leave the classroom everyday better than when they came in. In that time, I have become increasingly confident that most of my students do indeed finish the year with a deeper understanding of the way biology is a beautiful and very real part of their lives and the world at large.

Unfortunately, none of that matters, because our success is based on one 55-question multiple choice exam. And based on this one exam, my school, my students, and I are failing miserably.   Does it really matter if all of my students remember what is a ribosome when they are 35? It seems much more important to me that they understand the bigger picture, that we are all interdependent and that this interdependence can best be understood through investigation, research, and experimentation.

So, year after year, I am told to do better, work harder, and care more—without any concrete feedback or coaching on how to improve. The truth is that nobody knows the answer  because there is no magic bullet. Yet we come back, day after day, ready to do it again. My colleagues and I are well aware that we are cogs in the system. So we do our best to balance the extreme pressure of these numbers with our real sense of duty: teaching students to be creative problem solvers who possess a sense of wonder.

Those of us who have been in the field long enough to know that we will probably never have a “movie moment” are okay with it. The joys of teaching are more like the beauty of the desert than a final scene where inspirational music throbs in the background.: minor and precious. The triumphs in teaching are tiny; small moments of joy found between frustrating hours of planning, grading, coaching, counseling, nursing, parenting, paperwork, and endless patience. Our victories are in the details and the fleeting moments that go unnoticed to the untrained eye: a student asking a question, or getting to class on time, or staying for tutorials, or taking a creative risk, or visiting after graduation to thank me—these are the moments we work for, and these are the moments that let me know that what I do matters.


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