A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Saturday, February 22, 2014

More changes of state

Yesterday, during the middle of 1st period, Dr. P summoned the entire staff for an impromptu staff meeting to deliver some unexpectedly sad news. As the staff gathered, the administrative team monitored the classes from the hall. Everyone wondered what was happening. Had we received a bomb threat? Were we all getting fired?

My mindset was at a total mismatch to the situation, considering the gravity of the moment. Although Dr. P maintained his typically even-keeled expression as we entered the auditorium, concerned looks and worried comments from other teachers who noticed that something seemed out of place should have been a cue that, perhaps, I needed to be a little more concerned. However, I was looking at the day through the visor of a sports gladiator preparing for just another game in a long season, feeling particularly indestructible. "Bring it on," I mouthed under my breath to my friend Louise Lawyer, sitting behind me, who will be retiring this year.

"I just worry that maybe I did something wrong," Lou replied with a grave expression.

Why shouldn't I be confident, I thought to myself? 4 hours of sleep the night before was plenty. I had an effective start-up routine, a solid lesson plan for teaching area and perimeter which had engaged even my dysfunctional 4th period class, had turned in my schedule recommendation letters that morning to the Special Education Department Chair, albeit a day late, and was reasonably well-prepared for my 12 pm meeting with Dr. P, the school's Testing Coordinator, and my Instructional Coach. Although my U.S. History to 1865 alternative assessment binder for Alah had invited scrutiny from our locality's auditor for some minor matters of form, as well as questions the auditor had raised with me about whether word banks would be considered valid by evaluators on April 7th when they review Alah's binder, Ms. England and my Coach had me in a position where Alah and I knew we could both be successful, despite my feeling that the odds were stacked against us. With a student fully committed to the process, I was envisioning hoisting a skull and crossbones flag. "Life is a game, this is fun," the little voice in my head told me. Chaos around me, for some reason, has always calmed me.

Having awoken with the decision to utilize Tony Robbin's "global metaphor" strategy from Lessons in Mastery to re-frame the the delivery of bad news of progress reports to my 1st period class, as just the results of a few games in a long season, as just my way of preparing students for the big game 11 weeks way, with Interim Reports a week away, I had placed mints on every desk. While students quietly worked on their warm-ups, I had "We will rock you," by Queen, playing in the background. When Ms. England calmly summoned me with her characteristically warm smile, promising to watch my class, "Good news! Looks like you have extra time to complete your warm-ups," I encouraged my class.
After all of the teachers and staff had been seated patiently in murmuring auditorium waiting for a few stragglers, Dr. P informed us that Jim Auden, our colleague, who had been a Special Education Teacher at our school since 2001, had unexpectedly passed away of unknown causes the night before. We all gasped, as the room fell eerily silent.

After school, later in the day, when Alah and I went to the teacher's lounge so that I could by him a soda before we got down to the "bidness" of doing his Friday history assessments, as I glanced at the empty coffee carafe on the counter, I reflected, "So that's why there was no coffee in the Teacher's Lounge today."

Mr. Auden, who once responded to my question of why he did it, insisting that he had all the money he needed, had quietly been providing coffee for the entire staff. It bothered my sense of justice that Mr. Auden was paying for everybody's coffee, on some level, in silent protest. What bothered me most was that I had never noticed anyone else, other than me, cleaning the coffee pot.

Personally, while I appreciated Jim's kind gesture, I had stopped drinking the coffee after my first week. Frankly, it tasted terrible. The calcium deposits in the coffee maker needed to be flushed, and years of bitterness had soaked into the plastic. Preferring the taste of my Nestle's Clasico instant coffee to Mr. Auden's Maxwell House in a blue can, feeling a little uncomfortable with a dysfunctional dynamic, I preferred to make my own instant coffee.

My old friend and former mentor, Gene Scales, at Allied Plywood once told me that he never came to work to make friends, but that if a friendship developed, he was okay with it. I've always had the same attitude about keeping work and friendship separate. When it comes to work, I maintain a low-key, non-judgmental exterior. While I greet others with a genuinely warm smile whenever I make I contact, because I genuinely like people, make no mistake, I am all business. I play to win. If I make a friend while conducting business in my typically calculating fashion, as if I were playing a game of chess, I am genuinely surprised and appreciative when a friendship develops, because making friends has never been my purpose when I wear a tie.

Funny, the business of education is all about nurturing and caring. What an oxymoron! From the day I met him, in contrast to me, Jim Auden had been cultivating me as a friend, looking out for me at every turn.

So today, I have been unable to conduct any business because, frankly, I feel it would be totally inappropriate for me to simply move on without pausing to reflect and appreciating everything Jim did for me. Deep down, I feel guilty for never reciprocating sufficiently. I feel empty because, not one to reveal my deepest feelings to a colleague, not once did I communicate to a friend the extent to which I appreciated everything he had done for me, but instead maintained a poker face, because that's what players do.

It bothers me that I was not a better friend to Jim. If it were not for Jim, I doubt I still would be teaching today. I would likely have been toiling away, in quiet desperation, in some low level clerical or retail position, drowning in debt, feeling resentful and unappreciated, feeling cast aside by Marymount University's Professional Development School wondering whether I had been blacklisted, feeling like a poker player playing a losing hand, but still listening to Tony Robbins, still hoping to find some strategy for digging my way out of a deep hole, but possibly considering personal bankruptcy. Instead of enjoying marital bliss, maybe my financial problems would have been just too much.

One day in 2012, just before Christmas vacation, I had picked up a substitute teaching job from a robo-call after finishing a long-term sub position in a Cat-B position where I had taken over after a teacher literally abandoned her classroom -- fortunately, I did not earn a contract, because Cat. B is not for me. Jim literally chased down Dr. P to have him observe my teaching, which led directly to my opportunity to take over a 6th grade math classroom last year at this time, a class that ended the year with a 93% pass rate on the state testing. Luckily, I had stumbled upon the right fit.

That morning, Jim observed me telling fart jokes, such as "gas, always funny, and "there was something in the air," I repeated as the punchline, while swinging the door open-closed. That day, I had closed with a tall tale about Jethro, a high school student who had ripped a stinky fart, as everyone roared with laughter. Jim was impressed at how the class responded to my repertoire of cuing strategies derived from Responsive Classroom and Chris Biffle's Whole Brain Teaching Videos, which Shannon Melideo had introduced to me in her class on Lesson Planning. That day, feeling the end was near, I had decided to not worry about how others were perceiving me, to just be myself, to have fun, and just play. "What did I have to lose?" I thought to myself. Seeing something unusual in me, Jim did something he had never done before. He recommended directly to Dr. P, his mother's close personal friend, that Dr. P needed to hire somebody.

I never communicated to Jim how much I appreciated how he had stuck his neck out for me. When it comes to friendship, my voice long before I ever met Jim, had become muted.

We live in a cruel world, and the teaching profession had been particularly cruel to me before I met Jim. Jim gravitated to both me and Lou Lawyer because of a philosophy we shared that is often at odds with how the business of education is often conducted. I think Jim would agree with me that, in the business of education, appearance, process, and Type A personalities are typically overvalued, curriculum pacing is typically inappropriate, and unique styles of thinking are typically under-appreciated.

In my view, the most vital thing a Special Education teacher must do is endeavor to overcome the learned helplessness of students who lack the strategies and self confidence to wire their own brains for success, being too quick to cede that responsibility to others. Only through the calculated cultivation of self-reliant, rational thinking, can educators counterbalance the tyranny of "social proof" and despotism.

John Locke in 1690 in The Second Treatise on Government, argued that revolution against monarchies, in particular James II, was justified because the social contract had been broken. Locke argued that everybody had a natural rights to life, liberty, and property, and that nobody, even the King had an inherent right to do what he pleased and infringe upon these rights without the consent of the governed. Today, over 300 years later, Americans too often cede their natural rights because of sheer ignorance.

Yesterday in Mr. Sherman's class on U.S. History to 1865, Mr. Sherman challenged the class of 6th graders to interpret a passage from Locke which had inspired Thomas Jefferson as he overcame writer's block in drafting the Declaration of Independence. The smart, funny, popular Landon, had chosen an incorrect interpretation. Alah, on the other, a student with a decoding problem, who never raises his hand, had chosen the correct answer, refusing to budge, even though just about everyone in the class was supporting Landon's position, because he knew that he was right.

I wish I could have shared that moment of triumph with Mr. Auden. Jim would have appreciated the miracle I had witnessed.

Later in the day, I ran into Lou, who was at wits end with Alah's defiance, which had gathered momentum after she criticized him for logging off improperly. Alah, who I know cues off facial expressions, was unaware that Lou had just lost her best friend, and that emotion was coloring how she was responding to him.

Alah and I finished testing and cleaning up the room around 6:30 pm. He had been trying to call home for a few hours. Later, we learned that his mom had been turned away at the school. Somebody had told her that Alah had already left. Because it was dark, I drove Alah home. During the ride, I shared with Alah that Lou is my friend, and asked as a favor to me, to please apologize to Lou on Monday, even if he did not really mean it, because it was the right thing to do.