it’s all takin’ and no givin’.


Recently, I sat at a faculty meeting concerning the upcoming school year (though we’ve just reached the halfway threshold of this one), and a colleague of mine said, “Folks, we’ve got rigor.”

Yep.  There it was again.  Academic rigor.  And though it’s been an education buzzword for years, our teacher-ears perk up every time we hear it. We take it as a compliment.  We give it a positive connotation.  That’s a good school; it has a rigorous curriculum.

But after that meeting, I went back to my classroom wondering if I really knew the true definition of the word.  Because we’ve been studying so much Sylvia Plath in my classes, a copy of The American Heritage High School Dictionary sat nearby on a student desk, and out of curiosity, I took a look.

Here’s what I found.

Rigor, n:  1. Strictness or severity, as in temperament, action, or judgment.  2. A harsh or trying circumstance; hardship.  3.  A cruel act.  4. Shivering or trembling, as caused by a chill. 5. A state of rigidity in living tissues or organs that prevents response to stimuli.

This is a word we use to describe a student’s school experience?  This is a word we use to describe learning?

What’s even worse, I think, is that we’ve transformed an already unpleasant term (rigor mortis, anyone?) into something else entirely.  We’ve determined that the simplest interpretation of the concept is this:  rigor=work.  We think that by giving them more to do, we are making the curriculum more challenging.  It doesn’t take higher level thinking to determine that more work doesn’t necessarily provide higher level thinking.

I started a dialogue with my students about their own learning.  One of them said, “At some point, I think it was around sixth grade, school became a big pile of work.”  And he motioned with his hands to show the size of the pile; it was almost as tall as he was.  And it continues to grow.  They feel like they will never reach the bottom. They wonder if the bottom even exists.


We’ve decided that if they can, they should.  They should read before they leave pre-K. They should have nightly homework in kindergarten.  In first grade, they should have independent reading goals that require them to read forty books at a fourth-grade reading level in a nine-week quarter.  If the curriculum is rigorous enough, by high school, they should be having nervous breakdowns.  (If it were an exaggeration, it might be funny.)

Rigor isn’t making our kids smarter.  It’s not turning them into thinkers.  It’s turning them into machines.  They work.  They ingest.  They regurgitate.  And we are concerned only with what they produce:  standardized test scores and, subsequently, school grades.

But they do not learn.  They do not think.  And they do not learn to think.  So what are we really teaching them?  This:  education is a cruel act that causes shivering and trembling and prevents a response to stimuli.

The second part of my colleague’s statement at the meeting that day was something like this:  “We need fun.”

We do.  And we need to give them back all of the things we’ve taken away.  Recess. Field trips.  Art, music, physical education, library time.  Pats on the back.  Empathy.

When my first-grader climbed into the car after school this week, she told me that her favorite part of the day was “Brain Break,” when her teacher turned on music and the students were allowed to leave their seats and move their bodies.

Maybe that needs to be part of the curriculum.






that’s what you taught me

thank you, meg.I never meant to be a teacher.

Fifteen years ago, I sat in an interview with the head of the English Department of a large public high school in an elite suburban district south of Boston for a job I knew I wouldn’t secure.  At the end of our meeting, she said that she felt I was a “natural teacher,” but that she couldn’t hire me because I hadn’t had any formal training.  She was right.  I had worked as a Starbucks barista.  My undergraduate degree was in Creative Writing.  What did I know about teaching?

It’s been more than thirteen years since someone hired me to stand in front of a classroom of students and act like a teacher. I’m still learning.

In August, I started over.  After seven years at the same school, I left, only to become “the new teacher” again. I gave up the comfort and stability of teaching the third and fourth sibling in a single family, or sometimes even the same students three years in a row. My campus of 200 became one of 2,000.  I’m no longer in Room 24, I’m in room 0-9-1-0-something.  And, unless it’s to the cafeteria, the media center, or the office, I rarely have any idea where I’m going.

But something recognizable arrived with the students.

oh, connor.

After the first day, their faces were familiar.  I felt like I knew them, but didn’t know why. I watched as they interacted with each other and with me and suddenly I understood:  they were showing me tiny parts and pieces of the past.

Jared’s voice reminds me of Chandler.  Alex is so similar to my other Alex (but not quite as tall). Riley’s running makes me miss Emily. I almost call Amanda “Grace” almost every day. When Nevada reads Horatio’s lines in his not-exactly-Scottish accent, I remember Adam battling Myra at the end of Macbeth.  (It was an epic cardboard-sword duel that started inside the classroom, then went outside, then came back in.)

That’s not to say that my students are not individuals, or that I see them as the same.  That’s not it at all.  But it is to say that many of my new students connect me, through some barely noticeable and unintentional attribute, to former ones from two or ten or thirteen years ago. There’s a kind of comfort that I find in that, and I’m grateful for it.

Dr. James Comer said it, and every teacher has heard it (most likely in one of those new-teacher trainings like the one I attended this summer): “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship based on mutual respect.”  I scribbled some version of it down in the margin on one of the pages of my how-to-be-a-good-teacher manual.  But what I’ve learned so far is that it’s absolutely true.

I don’t know if I’ll ever have the “good teacher” thing down.  And I don’t know what a “natural teacher” is.  But I know where I fall short and I know where I suffice.  And sometimes, I’m surprised by the things they learn, the things I didn’t know that I was teaching. This past week, a former student of mine, who was in the midst of a devastating tragedy, found a way and a reason to tell me what I taught her.

I haven’t yet found the student who reminds me of her, but I’ll keep looking.

Because what she taught me, what I learned from her, is that maybe, after thirteen years, I’m starting to understand what it takes to make a significant relationship — something that’s bigger than formal training, and can’t be measured in numbers or percentages.  And yet, it’s the most significant part.



teach your children well

Not too long ago, a student I have taught for three out his almost-four-year high school career said to me, “Ms. Lavelle, didn’t you have higher aspirations than becoming a teacher?”

I put down the papers I had been collecting and looked at him.  I couldn’t find the words.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t answer the question.  It was that I couldn’t believe he had asked it.  It was clear to me that he thought of me as a disappointment, as someone who had, somehow, fallen short.

It’s true:  I never intended to be a high school teacher, perhaps because I saw how tirelessly my mother had worked.  And, in certain social circles, when I’m asked what I do, I respond with, “I’m just a teacher.”  Because somehow, in our great history, we decided that teaching is a profession that doesn’t warrant the same respect as other professions.  I think the motto goes something like this:  He who can, does.  He who can’t, teaches.   (Really, George Bernard Shaw?  Really?  From this moment on, I’m swearing off Pygmalion.)

Sure, I could blame politicans and legislators, NCLB and high-stakes testing.  But the root of the problem hits much closer to home, whether we care to admit it or not.  I mean, my own father winced (not quite cringed) when I mentioned that I was considering the idea of becoming a teacher.  And if we’re not willing to teach our children to respect the profession, then we shouldn’t expect things to change any time soon.

We wait in an examination room with an ailing toddler.  In walks a woman dressed in a white coat or scrubs, wearing a stethoscope around her neck.  We believe she’s a doctor.  Or we get rear-ended on Highway 98, and a man shows up wearing a blue uniform with shiney boots and a gun on his hip; we assume he’s a police officer.

But when a woman stands with a textbook at the front of her classroom (that she, most likely, decorated entirely with her own money), we need more evidence.  We need to be convinced.  This seems strange, considering that most young pupils love their teachers, most young pupils fully trust their teachers.  They haven’t yet learned to be cynical.

In August of this year, I attended Parent Night at my daughter’s elementary school.  We sat in miniature desks as the teacher introduced herself and explained her expectations for the year.  I squirmed in my seat as she addressed a barrage of raised hands, as she was pushed into describing (defending) her teaching practices.  I chewed on my fingernails, wishing I could jump in front of her to deflect the bullets, to tell these all-knowing parents they had no idea how good they had it.  I wanted to remind them that it was pushing nine o’clock at night, and she had been there since shortly after six that morning. (A teacher friend once told me, “Teaching is the only profession where, when you work overtime, you actually get paid less.”)

They didn’t smile back at her when she smiled; the corners of their mouths forced themselves downward.  Their brows furrowed with skepticism.  This woman that stood before her Smartboard looked like a teacher, but was she one?  A real one?

I’ve had similar experiences at our Back to School night during the first week of classes each year.  More than once, I’ve stood at that podium, undergoing a kind of  interrogation concerning my mixed-abilty sophomore class:  How do you propose you’re going to teach honors and regular simultaneously?  (Ha!  As if I had anything to with scheduling.)  Or, concerning my Advanced Placement class:  What has been your passing rate on the AP Exam since you’ve taught here? And how many years have you taught AP? 

And, more than once, other parents have felt the need to come to my defense.  One even got up out of her seat, saying, “Ms. Lavelle has taught all three of my kids; she knows what she’s doing.”

But that’s not my point.  My point is this:  I understand that there are bad teachers, just like there are bad doctors, bad cops and bad directors of the CIA.  And, of course, if your child has been mistreated, that situation should certainly be addressed. But we’re not all bad.  We’re not all out to get you (or your kids).  Please don’t sit in a parent conference and verbally abuse and berate us when you’ve been willing only to hear one side of the story.

Because, truly, there’s only so much we can do.  Education is not only a teacher’s job; it’s a parent’s job, too.  Did you know that we assign reading and your kids don’t do it?  (You should have known it was assigned because we posted it on Edline.)  And the zero they received on that quiz (which you knew of because we post EVERY grade for EVERY assignment on Edline) was because they hadn’t read?  If you asked them first, they might have told you that.  But instead, you emailed me.  You assumed that I had done something wrong.

Did you know that, during homeroom, they copy each other’s homework and call it “teamwork?” That they call it “sharing?”

Did you know that while I’m teaching, they have their phones out on their desks, and they’re busy tweeting?  (They’re not on Facebook anymore because you are.  You might want to think about following them on Twitter.)  And then they ask me to explain, again, what I’ve already explained.  Twice.

Did you know that, even though they’ve disrupted my class, I’ve written them glowing college recommendations?  That I’ve spent my evenings revising multiple drafts of their college essays?

I never disrespected a teacher because my mother was one.  And I’m almost certain that my daughter will never disrespect a teacher because I’m one.  I just hope she doesn’t want to become one. Not because it’s not a high aspiration (it is), but because I don’t want her to work that hard only to be abused by the very people she’s working for.

Parents and teachers should be on the same side.  We should want the same thing.  Why is the divide so deep and so wide?