Stop Saying that Teachers are Inspirational

This morning on the radio the DJ reported a story about how a Nobel prize winner said he “owed it all to his bassoon teacher“, and then the DJ went on and on about how inspiring teachers are and how the station was going to have a series on inspirational teachers.

Now, I’m very glad that the laureate in question had such a wonderful bassoon teacher. Good for both of them. But I have to say — especially as a former teacher — I am tired of hearing about how “inspirational” teachers are. 

If teachers are so “inspiring”, how come we pay them 60% of what we pay their education-level peers?

If teachers are so “inspiring”, how come so many of them want to escape the profession (and 46% of new teachers leave within 5 years)?

If teachers are so “inspiring”, how come everyone and their mother thinks they know more about educating children than teachers do?

If teachers are so “inspiring”, how come we degrade the teaching profession by saying things like “those who can do; those who can’t teach” or “you’ve got it easy — you get the summer off”?

Let’s stop kidding ourselves.

If we truly believed that teachers were inspiring, we’d pay them livable (or even generous!) wages instead of empty applause and flattery for a select few who rise to the top.

If we truly believed that teachers were inspiring, we’d treat them like the co-parents to our children that they are instead of like stupid babysitters who aren’t working hard enough to make sure our kid gets an A.

If we truly believed that teachers were inspiring, we’d let teachers figure out how best to educate our children instead of tying their hands and forcing them to chase an ever-moving and impossibly high bar.

If we truly believed that teachers were inspiring, we’d stop using their love of educating children as an excuse to take advantage of them.

So you can call teachers lots of things. 

Call them “professional”. Call them “educated”. Call them “mentors”. Call them “graceful”. Call them “patient”. Call them “loving”. Call them “thoughtful”. Call them “passionate”. Call them “creative”. Call them “dedicated”. Or, call them “ineffective” or “impatient” or “frustrating.” They’re people — so call them whatever they are.

But don’t call them “inspirational”. That’s just an excuse not to call them “equal”.

A Deep Question From An Old Friend

Recently I received a letter from a friend. While going through some papers, he had found a letter I wrote him while I was a camp counselor almost six years ago and he decided to respond to it anyway. (Super fun!) Apparently we had been discussing some pretty heavy stuff back then, because one of the questions he asked me was this: “How has God informed the decisions you’ve made daily? How has he influenced you in your interactions with your husband and your decisions, including [leaving] teaching and your return to Minnesota? What and who is God to you?”

What a fantastic question!

It took me by surprise a little at first, but after a few re-readings and some thought, this is what I came up with. I hope you enjoy reading my answer to the question — but I also hope that you will take the time to answer it for yourself.


To your question about how God has informed my decisions and who God is to me, first let me say that I don’t really understand God. Not fully. That’s probably why God is God and I’m just little ol’ me.

But what I do know about God — what I believe, and what guides my whole life and all my decisions — is that God is a good God who desires above all things for we his children to be close to him.

I believe that one day we will be very close to him, in heaven. The way I bring the feeling of God close to me now, here on earth, is by choosing actions that I believe serve God’s ultimate purpose and desire for the world, which is that it be good and right as God is good and right.

So when I choose content writing over teaching, it is partly because it makes me happy but even more so because when I am happy I am more productive in bringing about God’s kingdom. When I teach, I am overworked and exhausted and constantly wishing I could actually help my students. When I write for non-profits, I am confident and productive and constantly seeing evidence of the ways that my work helps organizations help families love each other and stay afloat. THIS (my current work) is how I best help my students (or at least kids like them): I serve in the ways that make the most difference in bringing about God’s good kingdom in their lives.

Banned Books Change Lives.

[Warning: Offensive language ahead.]

This week (the week of Sept. 30th, 2012) is the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week. As someone who loves books and who has been greatly challenged and stretched by some of these “banned books”, I would like to take this opportunity to tell you why it’s important to keep “banned books” in our libraries, and especially in our schools.

As you may know, I am a licensed secondary English teacher. As a part of my student teaching, I had the privilege of teaching Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to 9th graders at a small rural-ish (almost entirely white & Latino/a) school in Minnesota. But before I continue my story, let me share a little background on the controversy surrounding this novel:

  • In the last ten years, To Kill a Mockingbird has been the #21 most challenged book.
  • Although its major race-related theme is the injustice and wrongness of racism, it is often challenged for being a racist book or for “promot[ing] white supremacy.”
  • One of the most frequent reasons cited for its banning is the use of the word “nigger”.

Now, back to my classroom. Knowing a few of my mischievous 9th graders as I did, I decided to be proactive about the use of the “n-word” in our classroom. I spent five minutes at the start of the first reading day explaining to my students that, although the author used that word frequently to accurately depict the setting of her writing, it was not acceptable for them to use that word, and they should count this as their fair warning that anyone choosing to say that word in class would be sent directly to the office.

Of course, the first “culprit”, to my embarrassment, was a student whose English proficiency was not up to grade level and who, I’m pretty sure, accidentally let it slip only because he had read it so many times in the novel. (But, follow-through-er as I was, I sent him to the office as promised, poor kid. I make me wince sometimes.) That night, I went home and designed an entire lesson specifically to educate my students about the historical significance of the “n-word”, because it was clear to me that the vast majority of them had no idea what they were (not) saying.

The next day, we went through my lesson and I did my level best to help my students understand that the “n-word” was so awful because of the hateful, dehumanizing racism it embodied. I searched for and found a photo that I thought exemplified the demeaning stereotype whites created to oppress blacks, and we discussed it:

A slide from our discussion.

Before, the class had been its usual jovial self; as soon I showed this image, it was silent. You could feel the shock in the room, and when I finally coaxed responses to the discussion questions they were muted and brief.

After I was sure the meaning of the word had been made clear, we talked about the history of various words used to describe African-Americans (including which terms are generally acceptable today) and then ended by taking a few minutes for the students to jot what they had learned on a notecard. Most responses were simple — “I learned never to say that word” — but a few students shared more deeply:

I learned that the “n word” is more meaningful than I thought. I knew you shouldn’t use it but I didn’t know it was that important.

I found out that colored is not a good word to call a black/African-American person.

I learned today that black people were introduced as monkeys and were set up as them just because their skin was a color that some people didn’t like. I hate how whites think they can make fun of a different skin color!

I thought it was very sad when we learned about the bank of a man and saw the resemblance between it and the one of a monkey. I will never call anyone that word because of how disrespectful it is.

I learned that black people are not bad, and have never been bad. White people just made them out to be bad, and made them seem like they were [bad] to everyone. They are the same as us, just different colored skin, but that means nothing. They are still the same as us, and we are still the same as them.

My feelings were changed about how people treat other people that people were really awful to people that were different races and they still do. I got chills when I heard the things that people did and said and even showed the African American people as. It was upsetting to me and really hit a spot in my heart that had never really been touched before. Thank you. : )

I share these not to toot my own horn — clearly I was not a model teacher! — but to show the incredible need to educate our young people about past sins in order to help them understand their present world.

If To Kill a Mockingbird (or other books that contain “the n-word”) were banned, this conversation never would have happened. If we had never brought the “n-word” into our classroom, all those students would still not understand why their hackles raise when they hear it, or why it is taboo to say it. If I or the school or the parents had tried to sweep it under the rug, my students would have remained ignorant, and the only way to make any good out of our messy, hurtful, embarrassing history is to stop it from repeating itself. So I ask you this: If we sanitize our schools of all the ugly past, how will we ever learn from it?

Humanity is cruel and kind, evil and good, racist and just, murderous and life-giving. We learn how to act by seeing both what to do and what not to do. Removing the “bad parts” from our children’s education doesn’t make them better people, just more likely to fall into the same traps as their predecessors.

So this week, check out a “banned book”! You don’t have to like it — you don’t have to think it’s appropriate for any age (most things are not) — but please, before you reject it as a “filthy, trashy novel”, think about what we it might teach us and how it might help us to avoid repeating history.

Words from My Freshman English Teacher

This weekend Daniel and I have been working hard to condense and organize our possessions, which were packed rather haphazardly before our move (no idea who did that…). In the midst of the sorting today, I encountered my old high school English portfolios and flipped through a few pages. Then I started looking for a very specific page.

My teacher for Honors English 1 terrified me. She was a short, stout, intensely crotchety woman with a shrieky voice, and if your writing stunk she let you know it! She single-handedly terrified the lot of us into learning to write. By the end of my first year, I had earned an A- in her class and I am STILL proud of that accomplishment! But the most memorable thing about Mrs. Novissar for me is her own writing. I’ve never forgotten what she wrote on my first-year final portfolio, and today I got to read it verbatim from the familiar, powerful loops of blue ink on my title page:

Dear Rebekah —

I have to say that this portfolio shows off all your strengths and weaknesses. Obviously, the strengths far outweigh the weakness, but it seems that the very factors that make you a superb essayist in the creative vein work against you in the analytical papers. It’s that damn lightness of touch which, alluring though it may be in one kind of paper, can signal the death rattle in another. That lightness of touch keeps you from digging down into the bloody muck of human passion so that, instead, you skim the surface blissfully unaware of the darker depths!

Is that not flipping AMAZING??? Ten years later, and I can still recite portions of that from memory. And I do, frequently, when telling with pride how she whupped my lily-white writer’s behind into shape!

I finally learned how to dig deep, Mrs. Novissar — but don’t worry, I still have that damn light touch, too. =)

Do you have a particular comment or critique that has stuck with you for a long time? Or do you remember a specific teacher who helped you along the way? Tell me your story in the comments!

On being the language minority

This past week at the middle school where I currently teach we had parent teacher conferences. Since my middle school is about 60-70% Latino students, and since I speak Spanish, I always expect a few conferences will be conducted in Spanish rather than English. This round, however, it turned out that almost ALL of my conferences were conducted in Spanish. I honestly really appreciate a good excuse to remember (and verify) that I speak another language! But I’ve got to admit — I was pretty nervous those first few times the answer to my question (“English or Spanish?”) was “Spanish”. My brain started scrambling for vocabulary, I made stupid mistakes, and I felt embarrassed for using words that may not even be real words in front of other adults. I even asked a student once if I said everything right. (She said I did good.) But it was hard! I had to communicate important information on the fly in a professional setting in a diplomatic manner — and I had to do it all in my second language. Needless to say, I felt a little off-balance for much of the evening.

Then today, as I was reflecting back on it, I realized that most of my Spanish-speaking parents probably feel like that a lot. I have the privilege of knowing that when I go into a restaurant or store there will always be someone who speaks my language there to help me. I have the privilege of knowing I can get any book or magazine or form I want in my language. I have the privilege of never having to worry whether someone is judging my intelligence because of my language abilities or accent. Or at least, I do outside of parent-teacher conference night.

I’m not gonna lie — I’m glad I don’t have to worry about those things most of the time. But I’m also glad that I did have to on one conference night, so that hopefully I will remember to have a little more compassion in the future.