I've had a great school year, so it's disappointing to get to the end and see everyone just want to get the hell out, to a far greater degree than is customary. I understand, though, because when I say the year was great it is a commentary on my classroom and the young people I've been fortunate enough to teach.
If I were to dwell upon the grinding nature of state regulation, compliance to building and district improvement protocol, the albatross of the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System, the insistence of elected officials that they're listening to educators as they promote policy that is contradictory to sound educational practice and research, then my assessment of the year would differ.
I spend a lot of time on this blog worrying aloud about the graduation crisis, the intrusive nature of state assessments, their inability to measure much beyond socio-economic status, and the absurdity of state official's insistence that a battery of tests can measure college and career readiness, or high stakes outcomes tied to those assessments somehow improve educational opportunity. These things are a threat to the well being of students, and the quality of their education. They make the task of providing a meaningful educational experience far more difficult.
On a very basic level, I am an Elyria kid who now has the good fortune to teach American History to Elyria kids, and these policy issues feel like an attack on all of us. I'm not cool with that or any other threat, and appreciate the opportunity to stand up for these kids that I have come to know, regardless of the circumstances. We help each other out. It's what you do.
Now if I add to these issues a few bomb threats in a few weeks and a short-term police occupation of my school, then it's easy to see why everyone has begun looking at their watches. I get it. It's been exhausting, and that's only my perspective, a teacher with a bit part. I can't imagine the toll this takes on administrators, police, and others who deal more directly with the threats, or the toll this takes on students, who often have enough going on in their own lives personally, economically, environmentally, or otherwise, to make school a challenge.
So, admitting that I cannot fully understand the depth of another's experience, I'll speak for myself and perhaps you'll agree. I'm not going to let a few misguided individuals ruin my perception of an entire year, any more than I'm going to let a handful of misguided politicians ruin my career as a teacher.
It's been a more than a week since the lockdown at school, since a half dozen heavily armed officers entered my classroom looking for a student who was targeted for some absurd internet revenge. A kid who, a few moments prior, had told me he believed the whole thing was just a threat based on some information he'd received.
By that time we knew the building was occupied by local police, sheriffs, highway patrol, and 3 or 4 ambulances had assembled outside. Four officers with rifles had come to the door of my classroom with a student who'd been stranded in the hall. They had us let her in, and with all seriousness, instructed me to lock it back up.. Based on what we'd seen, along with info from student cell phones, one kid listening to the police scanner, online news, other hearsay and rumor, we believed there was the possibility of multiple gunmen. Preparations had been made for mass casualties. It was an unsettling situation to say the least.
Twenty minutes earlier the class was wrapping up a film on the counterculture, film footage of San Francisco circa 1967, Janis Joplin, peace love dope. We were supposed to be wrapping up the year tying the anti-war movement to these cultural elements. The next thing we knew, we're crowded out of the door's line of sight, standing around in pools of Monday afternoon sunlight, trying to figure out what the hell is going on. It is easy in those situations to let your mind wander into a worst case scenario, and I know that there were many who went there. I guess those things crossed my mind, but as a teacher in the classroom I've experienced other stressful situations, and have felt more helpless than I did in that moment.
The bottom line was, we hadn't heard anything. That is to say, no gunshots, explosions, or otherwise. I kept thinking, let's not freak out until it is absolutely necessary. As a teacher I have learned that there are so many variables involved in a kid's education, you control what you can, provide support appropriate to the circumstances, then hope for the best. As for variables, this one was a mess, but it didn't change my approach to treating the people in my classroom as humanely as possible.
Naive as it is, I also kept thinking about how this couldn't possibly happen. We've got a week to go, man. These have been some of the best classes I've ever had, no bullshit (and no offense to previous years which were lovely in their own right). There is no way this is going down with some of the most pleasant people I've ever encountered. I know, my thought process was literally "bad things can't happen to good people."
I'm an idiot.
As my students and I hid in our classroom, one of the few 3rd floor rooms, I joked that no one, threat or not, wants to climb all those stairs. There is safety in isolation and elevation. We talked quietly about who had heard what, what news crews were on the scene, who had contacted their parents. We controlled our situation with small conversations. I told a few students about the time years ago when, in a lengthy practice lockdown during my study hall, two surly girls threatened to kick my ass if I didn't let them use the restroom. Ultimately the girls agreed to wait, and spared me the beating. I was a little afraid that humor might do a disservice to the gravity of our situation, but humor is often all I've got.
When the cops came in to take our classmate, that most difficult moment when the crisis came to us, our seriousness returned. After which, everybody took a breath and responsibility for one another. Even having been there, I am unable to satisfactorily articulate the manner in which these young people, often without words, were able to maintain their composure and provide the actions appropriate to the situation. Like many achievements in education, these are impossible to objectively measure.
After several hours in all, we were released, everyone searched by police in the interest of our safety. Then we filed out into sunlight on Middle Avenue, and down 6th Street where our friends, parents, police, and the media waited. It was warm and strange and expansive to be outside. Everyone started to quietly tell their stories about being unsettled or afraid or inconvenienced, maybe all of the above, as they made sense of the situation. We'd learn later that there were no guns, no bombs, no threat at all. It was just as the quiet of the 3rd floor suggested, just as we had suspected all along.
I'm an Elyria kid who has the good fortune to teach Elyria kids. All in all I couldn't have dealt with this difficult situation with a better group of people.
The school year ends this week. My students and I will part ways. If anything, I find that more upsetting than the lockdown. Even though the end comes every year, it is always bittersweet.
If my students learned some American History, something that the state intends to attempt to measure as a determinant for their career and college readiness, I'm happy.
If they've learned something about the importance of empathy and compassion, the ability to communicate with people with whom they have differences, the medicinal value of humor, how to manage challenging situations, the importance of standing up for yourself, how to be a decent human being, or something new about their place in the world, and how they can act to better their community, so much the better.
As we walk out into a world that is often frightening, or strange and expansive, let's go with the knowledge that we've done it right. Though it has had its challenges, it's been a great year.