Finding a bit of myself in “Finding Me”

The book Finding Me, by Beth Hoffman (Penguin Books, 2013), is not necessarily something I would have chosen to read. My first impression in glancing at the cover was that it would be yet another cliché “charming” Southern tale.  But my husband picked it out for me for Mother’s Day, and he has an unerring instinct for finding books I would probably not consider but end up truly enjoying, so I gave it a chance…and didn’t regret it.

I’m not going to say that this is the best book I’ve ever read.  At times it felt like a Barbara Kingsolver “wannabe”, with its “protect God’s creatures and the environment” sub-plot.  And I was occasionally annoyed by the attempts at detail that instead devolved into cutesy, for example of what the characters had chosen to wear.  Yet it drew me in.  The travel book reader in me liked the descriptions of a Kentucky farm, the Kentucky Red River Gorge, and the antique shops and stately old homes of Charleston.  And I ended up caring about the characters in a way I didn’t anticipate at the beginning.  The protagonist, Teddi Overman, narrates through back and forth flashbacks the story of how she left her farming roots to eventually own an antique shop where she also refinishes furniture.  Along the way, we meet and are drawn into her troubled family.  Her unhappy mother dies fairly early in the novel, and as Teddi works through that grief we also encounter her deceased World War II hero father, a figure she adored and the catalyst for her courage to leave home.  We eventually learn that she is harboring a deeper sadness.  Her only younger brother “disappeared” as a teenager.  Did he die in the wilderness, or is he still alive, living off the land and serving as a mysterious protector of wildlife from poachers?

Why do I say I found a bit of myself in this book? Unlike Teddi, I’m fortunate to have a strong relationship with my still-living mother, and appreciate that both my parents always encouraged me to follow my passions, even when that took both my sister and I far away and had to have been painful for them.  Teddi makes assumptions about people and their actions that later prove to be based on false or incomplete information, and wow, can I ever identify with that!  But the character that actually drew me in – and brought tears to my eyes at the end – was the mysteriously disappearing brother.  I saw my son, Geoff, in this character and his refusal to live with the injustices of this world.  And while my Geoff hasn’t technically “disappeared”, he is in many significant ways just as gone to me, and has chosen to distance himself from our family in his search for a way to be true to himself.

If you are interested in a book that will draw you in gently, envelope you in a different world, and leave you feeling hopeful about people in general and your life in particular, I can recommend Finding Me.

Why this teacher chose to take early retirement.

I’ve spent the last thirty years teaching high school Spanish in two different Colorado schools, and chose to take early retirement starting this August.  Many people have commented on how relatively young I am to have taken this step, and a few have even made jabs at the Public Employees’ Retirement Association (PERA) that made this possible.  Since my decision has a great deal of overlap with current conversations about the state of public education in this country, I thought I would put forth my reasons for this decision.

For those who are wondering, I’m not going to be collecting 100% of my salary, which I suspect is an assumption some (especially the PERA critics) have.  I will need to scale back some of my expenses, though I hope that when I’m no longer buying supplies for my classroom, professional resources I need to be able to do my job effectively (books, games, movies, music, continuing education, etc), food for my students, and clothes that make me want to get up in the morning, I’ll make it work just fine.  Not that it’s really anybody’s business, but I’ve also saved diligently since I first started teaching in 1984.  I’m certainly not going to sit at home and watch TV all day!   As a sort of part-time job, I’m planning to get my artist husband’s oil landscape paintings on the market through a website, galleries, and shows.  I also intend to give back to my community through volunteering, and as my mom ages it is nice to know that I’ll be more available for her if she needs me.

So why did I decide to retire?  My principal was pretty adamant that I was an effective teacher, and that I should keep going for at least a few more years, so it wasn’t that I was being encouraged to leave.  My colleagues were nothing but supportive.  Students and parents both asked me to stay.  My husband will have to work for at least six more years, and in fact part of why I can take this step is because I can go on his company’s  health insurance.  So why have I left the classroom?

Before I launch into the reasons, which unfortunately are probably going to seem fairly negative, I want to state unequivocally that I LOVED TEACHING!  There is absolutely nothing better than that magic moment when a student “gets it”, and when a class is engaged and excited.   I especially relished the challenge of teaching the upper levels, because by that point students had come to really see the value in learning another language, and once we could move beyond numbers and colors and days of the week, seeing students interact in an authentic way with Spanish-speaking cultures on a daily basis was exhilarating for me.  Every day brought new and interesting challenges, and the energy and enthusiasm of young people could be infectious.  This last year I especially bonded with my AP students, and literally every class was a joy.  In fact, I could probably have gone many more years if I only had to teach Spanish 4 and AP.  However, that would never really have been a scheduling option, and more importantly was unfair to my colleagues, who also wanted to move into teaching those levels.  So when I weighed my choices, why did retirement win?  Well, here goes…

Cell phones.  Now, I love my iPhone just as much as the next person, but cell phones had become the bane of my teaching existence.  I started to suspect that they were actually making students unable to learn.  They certainly seemed to be causing increased anxiety and decreased social skills.  The fact that students had become accustomed to having any piece of information available with a tap meant that they often didn’t  LEARN even the most basic of vocabulary, the key to effectively communicating in a language.  Students looked at me blankly when I  suggested to them that in another country they may not want to pay the data charges associated with a dependence on Google translator or the myriad other apps that purport to make actually learning a language obsolete.  And I still worry about the inherent loss of true connection when all communication -in our own or another language- occurs through short, cryptic text messages or whatever a computer chooses as the correct translation of an idea.  By the end of the school year, it was a constant struggle to get students to put their phones away and participate in class activities.  At this point, I can see some critics thinking “Well, if your class were truly demanding and engaging, you wouldn’t have this problem”…which leads me to my next reason for retirement:

I’m pretty sure the job is actually impossible.  I say this half jokingly, half in earnest.  If I was known for anything in my career, I think it was that I was demanding and inspiring (to some, anyway), that my classes were interesting and engaging, and that I worked exceptionally hard to plan a variety of activities that spoke to a variety of learning styles.  But I truly believe that at some point learning has to be about hard work, struggle, personal motivation and responsibility, and the occasional failure, and that’s just not supposed to be an option any more.  For many years, I had this quote from Bill Cosby over my desk:  “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”  In the current dialog about public education, that approach has become unacceptable.  We are told we HAVE to reach every student, that if we’re truly effective we’ll be able to do that, and after thirty years in the classroom I can tell you that is just not possible.  In fact, I’m convinced that…

The new Colorado evaluation system (that is touted as a national standard) is designed to set up teachers to fail.  Last fall, when the new evaluation system mandated by the legislature was unveiled in my district, the assistant principal charged with introducing it informed us that “You will pretty  much have to walk on water to be rated highly effective.”   The document itself is thirteen pages long, and the list of skills teachers are expected to produce evidence for is exhaustive and exceptionally time-consuming.  And that is only half the evaluation; the other half will be based on student test scores.  I was unclear as to what those scores would be in my subject area, since the district assessments we had been using were deemed to be inconsistent with new state standards, but I read in the newspaper that in other districts where there were not tests associated with a teacher’s content area, the other half of their evaluation would be based on how the school and district as a whole did on standardized tests.  Now, if I walked into class the first day and said “None of you will actually be able to get an A, and half of your grade will be based on how the rest of the class does on tests”, how motivated would my students be?  And, how long do you think it would take before angry parents called demanding my immediate firing?  Speaking of angry parents…

I was called a “bully” when I asked a student to put away her phone and do her work.  If you know me at all, you probably know that “bully” is not a word typically associated with my demeanor.  In fact, my friends, family, and colleagues often express that I can be too much of a pushover!  So when a parent called AND e-mailed me AND my principal not ten minutes after I asked her daughter to stop texting/Instagramming/Facebooking/whatever the heck it was she was doing instead of her Spanish, and then proceeded to tell me at the meeting she demanded the same day that I was a bully, I knew it was time for me to leave.  Not necessarily because of that particular encounter -there have always been kids looking for a way out of accepting responsibility for their grades and parents who will believe whatever their child says- but because of the wider trend it represented, namely…

There is very little student accountability in the system any more.  I can only speak to my own experience of “No Child Left Behind” testing, “Standards Based” grading practices, and “Differentiated Instruction.”  From reading other blogs, books, and articles, I know that each teacher is going to see this differently based on their unique state, school district, school, and educational philosophy.  My observation is this:  in the schools I am familiar with, the state assessments mean NOTHING to most of the students.  There is much gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair over test results, but you can graduate from the schools where I taught with “Unsatisfactory” results in every single test every single year.  This applied to some of the brightest and most talented students I knew, as well as some that I suspected were illiterate.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that scores tend to go down the longer students are in school.  By the time they hit high school, students know that unless they or their parents care about the results, the only people who are going to be held accountable are the teachers and districts.  (I’ve said since their inception that any person who thinks state test scores are an accurate measure of student learning should actually have to administer them from start to finish.)   Another fad in education that caught up with me in both schools was “Standards Based Grading”.  Now, this is an idea that looks great on paper.  Students are given multiple opportunities to show mastery of material (test “re-takes”)!  Students move at their own pace!  Students are given alternate assessments!  In practice, human nature catches up with most kids, with a young person deciding to do none of the practice/homework for a unit of study because it can’t count more than 15% toward their final grade, then asking “when can I re-take this test” before they’ve even completed it the first time.   While it may result in higher graduation rates, I’m pretty sure there’s a direct correlation with higher college remediation rates as well, and I know from personal observation that often students were caught unprepared when they got to college and couldn’t do “re-takes” to save their grades, resulting in lost time and many thousands of dollars.  Closely associated with this trend is the current insistence on “Differentiated Instruction”.  I tried over thirty years to come up with an effective way to individualize in my classroom.  I tried to get to know every student, I researched learning styles, I provided “scaffolding” and a variety of ways for students to access material.  But true differentiation, I found, was elusive.  I began to suspect that “differentiation” was actually code for a reluctance to expect students to take personal responsibility for their learning, as well as a diversion from larger class sizes and lower expectations.  The continual emphasis on  teacher responsibility for seemingly everything that happens in a student’s life eventually led to…

The job was starting to affect my health. Last year I went to the emergency room with chest pains, and was eventually diagnosed with two heart arrhythmias and generalized anxiety.  As I lay in the hospital, I reflected on the comment made by the veteran teacher mother of one of my colleagues after she saw the movie “Stand and Deliver”, THE inspirational movie when I started teaching.  Now, I really thought that if I followed the model of Jaime Escalante I could also bring about real change in the lives of my students.  But after viewing it during a faculty meeting, my friend’s mother had a different interpretation, asking “Is the moral of the movie that if you work hard enough you can make a difference in students’ lives, or is the moral of the movie that you’re not a good teacher unless you’ve had a heart attack?”   Given that my instrumental music teacher father died of a heart attack at the age of 47, this was a comment that often came back to haunt me over the years.  The truth is that I don’t really have the personality to be a teacher.  I’m an introvert by nature.  I was effective  (or at least the cards, e-mails, letters, etc. I’ve collected over the years tell me that) because I LOVE the Spanish language and Spanish-speaking cultures, because I was able to build positive relationships with students and families, and because I truly believed in the importance and value of what I was doing.  But my very perceptive daughter commented that I probably felt like I’d been teaching for sixty years instead of thirty because it was so hard for me to fit my personality into the extroverted teaching profession ideal.   I tried hard throughout my career to strike a balance in my life, to take care of myself and my family, to focus on what was really important, and to accept that I was probably more often than not  going to be only “good enough” for most students.  However, “good enough” is no longer acceptable, and striving to meet the increasing expectations heaped on our teachers was, I suspected, literally killing me.   I felt it was time to let a younger, healthier, more idealistic teacher move into my position.  It’s what our young people deserve.

And, finally, after thirty years…

I want to explore other interests and passions.  I’ve defined myself as a Spanish teacher for over half my life.  I’ve worked hard and saved, and now it’s time to “pay myself” to do other things.  I don’t know for sure where the next months or years will take me, but I’m beyond excited about the possibilities!  Travel when and where it’s cheaper?  Read and write about books?  Sell Brad’s artwork?  Re-decorate and spruce up my house?  Volunteer with a variety of organizations?  Become a docent at the Denver Art Museum?  Spend more time and help out with my family and friends?   Hike and exercise more?  Wherever this new journey takes me, I plan to use this blog to reflect on my experiences!



Some books I was thinking about while I wrote this:

Hope Against Hope:  Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children, by Sarah Carr.

Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain.

 

 

 

 

Going into the blogging business…

Well, here I go…trying out the blogging business!  I’ve always enjoyed writing, and have thought for a while that after retiring I would try my hand at this.  We’ll see how it goes!  I’m envisioning a bit of everything that interests me:  reading, travel, history, art, yoga, camping, pet guardianship, education, empty nests, retirement…who knows?

For sure I’ll be posting book reviews, since the impetus for this is that I’ve signed up for “Blogging for Books” with Crown publishers. But I’m thinking my next post will be “Why this teacher has chosen to take early retirement”, since so many people have commented on how young I am to have taken this step.  I definitely have some strong opinions about the state of education in this country!