Thursday, June 28, 2012


A week after moving to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to take up a teaching post, I visited the Sunday night Walking Street Market. The market bisects the ancient city with vendors peddling everything from brilliant red Thai silk scarves to knitted bumblebee-colored dog sweaters to egg-parceled Pad Thai.  As a young teacher with meager pocket change I attempted to haggle with the merchants: “A little bit less please, I am a teacher, I don’t have much money.” They shook their heads and laughed in disbelief that a teacher could claim to be poor. 

And then, they nodded with gratitude.

To be a teacher in Thailand is to be respected and, comparatively speaking, well paid.  As it is in much of Asia, teacher is an honored title.  My very first week in Thailand coincided with Wai Kru – the national Teacher’s Day, when students and families put on elaborate performances to honor their teachers. I found myself on a stage along with the rest of the English department before hundreds of students who had prepared speeches and elaborate flower offerings in our honor.

A year later, when I returned to the US, I entered a very different kind of school system.

“Oh you teach 6th grade?!”  “That’s a really tough age.” “I wouldn’t be able to do that.”  “We need more young people like you.”  These are the kinds of responses I receive on telling people I teach inner-city middle school.  They are impressed, and often disbelieving that I would take such a job.

Fifty years ago it was fashionable for young Americans to enter the Peace Corp, packing their bags for the dusty cities of Tanzania and the rural slopes of Chile, giving up creature comforts to devote two years to spreading democracy and education.

Today, teaching has become a domestic Peace Corps.  Last year more than 50,000 recent college graduates applied to Teach For America (TFA), Citizen Schools and other similar programs. More than 8,000 are chosen.  They pack their bags not for international hubs, but for the inner cities of New York and Baltimore and Boston, or the rural river towns along the Mississippi Delta, ready, like their predecessors, to devote two years of service.

My friends and I, in cities across the country, have exchanged college parties for late nights grading papers and planning lessons.  We balance small checkbooks and, to make ends meet, some of my colleagues rely on food stamps. We arrive at school early to proctor exams and devote time on the weekends to calling students’ parents.

In educational organizations, teaching is described in the language of service.  In the 2010 documentary “Waiting For Superman”, director Davis Guggenheim likens classrooms to trenches in a war. Teaching is akin to military service.

The attitude is commendable. But the situation is not sustainable.

Looking just at TFA, a recent study showed that 50% leave the classrooms as soon as their two-year fellowship concludes.  By year three, 80% have left for other jobs, other professions. 

These statistics do not phase organizations like TFA, whose stated goal is not necessarily to train a teacher corps, but rather a cohort of young professionals who will carry lessons learned in the public schools to the power worlds of Wall Street and politics.

But when teaching is marketed to college graduates as community service and an honorable sacrifice, does teaching cease to be considered a respectable career profession?

While we as a nation respect the sacrifice college graduates are making by devoting two years in the classroom, our nation’s prevailing policies, budgets and support systems do not send the message that teaching should be considered a respected profession worth devoting a life to.

Once last year, when returning through Thai customs in Bangkok, the agent stamping my passport discovered that I was a teacher.  As he handed me back my passport, he thanked me for being a teacher. 

In Thailand teachers are not only respected for their service.  The profession itself is considered a respected and prestigious choice for a life-long career.  

As a recent college graduate myself, I see friends accept Wall Street consulting positions, secure places at law schools and medical schools in the country.  And even though I am secure in my desire to continue a career in education, a tiny voice remains: “Is teaching enough? Should I be striving for a more powerful, a more esteemed profession?”

Last year my Thai students asked me to teach them a bit about America. So, I slipped in – between units on grammar and pronunciation – a lesson on American city slang.  

Two weeks ago, as the school year in Boston came to a close, I taught my middle schoolers a little about the Kingdom of Thailand.  We discussed the monarchy (including that the Thai King was born in Cambridge). We talked about Thai food and learned a few words of the Thai language. I then decided to teach my students how to bow: a half bow to friends, thumb to the chin for teachers, thumb to the nose for the principal. 

In the cafeteria the next day I was waylaid by a group of my students.  “Ms. Lander, Ms. Lander” Hands together, thumbs at their chin they all bowed.  Smiling, I put my own hands together and bowed back at them in return. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Training Wheels

Sixth grade is a transitional year. 

Our students enter in September with fifth-grade enthusiasm and baby fat still rounding their cheeks.  At the cafeteria tables talk is subdued, friendships yet to be established.  Our classes that first month have a honeymoon quality, as students adjust to new classrooms, new teachers, new expectations, new friends. 

By midyear – December leading into January – our students grow comfortable, and then uncomfortable as they start pushing boundaries, talking back.  They try on and discard personas – the nerd, the day-dreamer, the punk, the cool girl, the trouble maker, the class clown. 

My classroom is on same floor as the seventh and eighth grade. When we walk up to class through the scrum of older students, it is hard to remember that my students are only just a year younger.  The older students are tall, sometimes by a foot or more.  They are loud: they bang on doors in passing and walk in packs, with arms linked across shoulders.   My students watch these giants with keen interest, and slowly they begin to mimic.

By April an epidemic of puberty has broken out. Suddenly the cafeteria is all gossip and sixth-grade flirtation.

May slumps in amidst the shadows of multi-hour MCAS tests, and my students want nothing more to do with classes and work.  They talk of summer or boys, and they poke each other or steal one another’s pencils in our muggy top-floor classroom.

By the time we reach June everyone is exhausted.

I had completely lost track of my students’ younger selves until I began selecting pictures for our class yearbook and came across photos taken way back in September.

This Friday, the last Friday of the school year, we took half of our sixth-graders roller-skating: a hundred kids in all.

We unloaded en masse into a dark and less-than-promising skating rink in Mattapan.  The air was soggy with mildew and the lights flickered dimly as students rushed to exchange backpacks for fraying leather roller skates.

And then they were on the rink. It was as if time had been rewound.

Our students became kids again.  They were no longer proto-teenagers, mini-adults.  They were unsteady on their feet, they were falling over, they were hesitant.  A few zipped around the rink in grand concentric circles, but most started the afternoon clutching the side rails or scooting tentatively across the wood flooring.  School attitudes, social cliques, affected aloofness, all were abandoned with the sneakers and sandals under the sideline benches. When a student fell, which was often, multiple hands reached out to help them back up.  Divisions that often crop up between mainstream students, Chinese SEI (Sheltered English Immersion) students, Spanish SEI students and Special Ed students dissipated – everyone was skating, laughing, and, yes, falling down with everyone else.

My sideline observations were interrupted when one of the boys from a Special Ed class asked if I had skated before.  “Not for ten years at least,” I admitted.  “That’s ok, I’ll help you.” And with that, he took my hand and led me out onto the rink. 

It quickly became apparent that he was no more confident than I when it came to roller-skating, and a minute later we ended up on the floor in a heap, whereupon another student, unsure on stopping procedures, bowled into us.

I noticed that, whatever their skill level, skating gave students the confidence to become teachers.  One boy, an experienced hockey player, took me under his wing and set me to doing drills.  “So are you right handed or left handed?  Ok right, that’s what I thought. You should try this. Lean more with your left foot.  Cut with the side of the skate. Try it again. Nope, one more time.”  

There are few opportunities in the classroom that allow for such an authentic and empowering role reversal.

Skating also allowed students to discard their school personas.  While some became confident teachers (and a few, show-offs), many who were less comfortable with the gliding motion eagerly reached out to us for support.  They clutched our hands and nervously let go of the rail.  We formed wobbly chains of novice skaters. 

But, because the learning curve is shallow, I had the pleasure of seeing many of these same students – only ten minutes later – skating confidently past me on their own.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Recycling Redux

“The recycling battle will commence on May 3rd! Paper only! No candy, no bottles, only paper! The homeroom that wins gets a pizza party!” announced hand-drawn posters in the hallways of our school.

In the cafeteria, bins of recycled paper begat bragging rights.  “Our homeroom has recycled seven bins of paper!” “Ours has recycled ten!” Fellow teachers tell me that, when they attempt to recycle paper, hands shoot up as students beg to relieve them of the sheets so they can recycle it in their particular homerooms.

Eight weeks earlier, while planning a ten-week curriculum on social entrepreneurship, I decided that environmental stewardship should be our focus.  

I am just as guilty as the next teacher: Most days I printed out extra math packets and English worksheets.  I’d bring home some paper each night to recycle, but still the school’s trash bins were heavy with reams.

Every year our school buys approximately 300 boxes of printing paper.  That is 2,400 reams, or 1.2 million sheets of paper a year – the raw materials for tests, reading packets, mathematical worksheets and writing prompts.

This was my second semester co-teaching a class together with Youth Venture, a youth-focused organization-arm of the global non-profit Ashoka.  Youth Venture focuses on supporting student lead social initiatives.

It was my hope that we might get a recycling initiative started.

Five years ago, Mayor Menino supported a Boston Public School system-wide paper recycling competition.  Dubbed “RecycleMania,” the contest challenged schools to recycle paper over the course of three months.  Almost four hundred thousand pounds of paper were recycled (the weight of sixteen bull elephants) in twelve weeks – a two hundred-fold increase from the previous year.

The contest was lauded as a huge success and the Boston School Superintendent optimistically declared, “The momentum generated by this contest will help us as we continue to accelerate our efforts to reduce waste and increase school-based recycling.”

But, by the next year, the private recycling company that had partnered with the program stopped its collection, and no alternative company was found to step in.  The green and yellow dumpsters distributed to the schools were converted into canvases for graffiti artists and laboratories for teenage pyrotechnic experiments. The citywide effort has yet to be repeated.

Our school has attempted paper-recycling programs twice.  Both efforts were quickly trashed. The first program, part of the original ill-fated citywide effort, disintegrated under arguments about where to place the large dumpsters to satisfy both the collecting trucks and the neighbors.  A second attempt saw students ferrying boxes of paper to a neighboring school six blocks away. The effort expired from impracticality.

From the outset we sent the students out into the school to question their classmates and their teachers:  “In what ways is the school not green?” “How could the school be more eco-friendly?”  Reading over the responses the following week, recycling, or the lack thereof, was the dominant theme.  So, our students set out to create a recycling program.

In the classroom, our students counted how much paper on average fit in a classroom-recycling bin.  With calculators and equations they determined the total quantity of paper it would take to save a tree (8,000 sheets or twelve classroom sized bins).

Our students set a goal of saving four trees in three weeks.

On an overcast afternoon we walked to the shipping yards near our school to learn how our paper was recycled. We took a tour with the founder of the local recycling plant, the same company that had agreed to pick up our school’s paper.

Back at school, with hand-decorated bins in each 6th grade classroom and colorful posters in the halls, we began the competition.

Three weeks later our fourteen students stood on stage in front of their peers, their teachers and a few parents to present their results:

In just three weeks, with our 6th grade recyclers led the school to recycle 186 classroom-sized bins worth of paper.  By my students reckoning, that’s roughly 135,000 sheets of paper, or about fifteen trees saved.

In the audience, unbeknownst to our students, was a special guest. She came on behalf of the City of Boston. Her role is to revitalize the city’s commitment to greening the Public School system.

At the end of our students’ presentation, she jumped on stage with a certificate in hand.  She explained how she was leading the City’s renewed efforts to bring recycling into the public schools.  With family, teachers and peers watching, she dubbed the class “Recycling Leaders of Boston”.

Back at school, the students proudly passed around the certificate and discussed challenges to continuing our recycling program.

We needed more recycling bins for the 7th and 8th grade.  We needed more posters. We needed to teach the incoming class of 6th graders what to and not to recycle.  Our students drafted letters to the principal, letters to the teachers with step-by step guides to recycling.  They rewrote their letters to make them neat and centered, and they passed them around so the entire class could sign their name. 

When the bell rang at the end of the day, the students gathered up their books and their pencils and their bags. And, they gathered up their first drafts and, while walking out the door, quietly tossed them in the blue recycling bins.