I recently delivered a talk about why I teach my students to be brave at the University of Washington as a part of the Seattle Times’ Why I Teach event. I was grateful to be included, to have the chance to share out about a moment during my Spoken Word summer camp last July that a fifteen-year-old girl stood up in front of a microphone and led our class of misfits to cheers and tears and reminded me why I stay in education despite that is it is hardest work I have ever loved.
As a middle school classroom teacher, it is my job to stand in front of audiences in the most judgmental phases of their development, their attention spans sugar-saturated and delirious on YouTube, their faces unimpressed yet expectant, five days a week starting at 7:40 every morning. When I am tired, or feeling introverted, or worse—frumpy, I pull back the performance side of my teacher self in an effort to try to conserve some of my energy to make it through sixth period on Friday. But then I panic. Even when I reel it in just a little, I feel them slipping away instantly. Doodling in a notebook. A cell phone lighted up in a lap. The glazed look of a tween staring back at me who is thinking about something else, anything else, than what I am trying to fit into their brain before the end of June. And we have a written assessment next week. A standardized test looming. High school and its analytical writing expectations creeping up on us all the time.
So fake it ’til I make it. I perform despite the introversion I expertly hide. And I pretend that the performances that teaching requires doesn’t still make me nervous even after five years in the classroom. And on Friday evenings I am exhausted but proud of my students and myself. We survived again. And like every week, we were all in, pretending to be brave until we actually became brave.
I make my students perform in almost every class. We become analytical paragraphs. We debate. We sing out our vocabulary quiz corrections. And when they try that mumbling, face-in-their-papers, hair-in-their-face, legs-crossed, tween thing, I implore them to say it out again, like they mean it. And they do. We cheer for the bravest and the shyest among us. We often end our classes with atta ways, celebrating specific moments of awesomeness.
For the students who elect to enroll in my spoken word workshops, performance is an obvious requirement. But it’s my Humanities students, especially my sixth graders fresh out of primary school, who arrive unsuspecting and terrified in the fall who stun me the most in their transformation into declarative and articulate leaders over the course of the school year.
Teaching students not to flinch away from the sound of their own voice is why I teach. I believe that if a teenager can stand in front of a jury of her peers with her hair out of her face, her shoulders back and declare out even one sentence—even if it is just to read someone else’s words aloud—then she can participate more actively in all of her classes, she can communicate better with her parents, she can speak up for herself and for others in the world. I believe that performance leads to understanding in so many different ways.
The Common Core and emerging teacher evaluation systems like TPEP aim to guide curriculum planning and classroom management. Although those frameworks can feel like a relief (finally, a map!), those same systems also loom over teachers with pressure. I try to remember that the pressure, like I tell my students all the time, is good for us.
But how though to evaluate teachers on all of the unquantifiable, invisible ways we infuse our classrooms with empathy and leadership? How to give teachers credit for the parts of our jobs that keep us in this work despite its constant challenges?
The Common Core ELA guidelines outline expectations that students acknowledge, analyze, and evaluate. Danielson’s TPEP framework marks teachers as Distinguished for creating a classroom environment where students initiate, contribute, and question.
Students ask all the time, incredulous, How will we ever use this in real life? And perhaps they will never be required to recite Mercutio’s manic monologue from Romeo and Juliet at a staff meeting. Perhaps their performance reviews at work will never evaluate them on their ability to create a Venn Diagram comparing Scout Finch to Rachel from Sandra Cisneros’ Eleven. Perhaps no one at a dinner party will ever ask them if they think Ponyboy’s voice felt authentic.
But real life? Yes. We are doing real life all the time. And although the Common Core might recommend specific texts and TPEP rubrics score teachers on our ability to keep organized records, it’s the big picture stuff woven into these frameworks that are teaching students the most valuable lesson of all: the goal is lifelong learning. For students, teachers, anyone interested in growing up curious and engaged in the world.
So I practice what I teach. I show my students that believing that we have something to say is just the first step to actually saying it. And it’s okay that we’re afraid. Because we are all afraid. Because saying it—loud and clear, looking right into the faces of our impatient audiences—and sharing whatever our truth is despite that we are all just faking it ’til we make it, is the bravest and most human thing we can help each other learn to do.
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