“You’re Irritating:” Reflections on Anger and Patience

I remember an instance freshman year of high school where a peer was asking me a question. I don’t remember the question or why it caught me in the way it did. But I distinctly remember turning around and snapping at him, my face turning red. I can remember the heat on my face and the way the anger kind of bubbled up from my stomach and seemed to wrap itself around my heart like a tiny, evil, hate-filled dragon.

High school for me was characterized by sporadic instances of these outbursts. To do this day, I’m not entirely sure where they came from. But it was almost always a result of impatience.

I can count on one hand, though, my run-ins with anger in college. I thought this was because I am mostly an easy-going person–I am someone who is easy to get along with, I thought. I am someone that can see other view points with ease, I thought. I am someone who understands others’ problems, I thought.

And then I began to teach.

What I thought was the result of a good character was actually the result of a lack of conflict. For four years, I worked hard at a place where very little was demanded of me, where (even when I was in leadership roles) I managed very few people. I lived and studied in an environment where often my biggest conflict on any given day was if I was going to ask a girl on a date that weekend. And so when people talked to me about patience and humility and optimism, I thought well yeah, I have those.

What I’m learning now is that I was wrong about basically everything I once thought about myself. I am not naturally patient. I am not naturally optimistic. I am not naturally humble.

A student complained to me today about how I’m always angry. And I have been angry a lot lately. That tiny dragon is taking up permanent roots in my chest. I can feel him breathing fire into all the other parts of my life.

And the more I reflect on that, the more I recognize it as a problem. I don’t think I would listen to someone who was always angry. In fact, I don’t. Even if a person has interests and opinions similar to mine, it’s hard for me to take something valuable from him or her if s/he is angry. For my students, I’m some strange angry man whom they barely know who is teaching a subject matter with which they are frustrated. Of course they don’t want to listen. Of course they start tuning me out. Of course.

I’ve been waiting for my students. “I would be less angry,” I tell myself, “if my students were better behaved.”

But, my students argue, they would be better behaved if I was less angry.

My students sometimes hit each other (playfully) in the halls. It’s something I don’t get. I don’t remember so much physical contact in high school. The other day, I was talking with my class with which I have the best relationship, and a girl was complaining about how someone had playfully hit her and how she should seek retribution, and I drew a diagram on the board showing how this process was necessarily infinitely cyclical. My students thought about it carefully, and considered how always wanting revenge leads to more and more of the playful hitting, which none of them seem to really appreciate (unless they are doing the hitting).

I’m glad I could share this moment with my students, but I don’t follow this in my own daily life.  I am angry far too often. And my anger leads my students to want to be frustrated with me. And their frustration leads me to want to be frustrated and so on. If their frustration and discontent was always met with love and peacefulness and patience and humility, I think they might start thinking twice of their disruptions. Why be so mean to a person who is so nice?

Some days I think I need to teach my students how to be kind. But really, they are the ones teaching me. Their hearts are big; their memories small. I can kick a student out of class and by the end of the day, that student is able to have a productive, loving conversation with me. That’s a testament to the student, not to me. My heart is too small; my memories too big. MY memories, MY experiences, MY ego: I spend so much time thinking about these things. I never really understood how Jesus says you need to die to yourself to follow Him. I am starting to understand.

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What Assistant Coaching Has Taught Me About Teaching

I’ve become the Assistant Coach for my school’s Debate Team, which basically means I let the team practice in my room after school and drive them to their meets on the weekends. Every once in a while, I supplement one of their arguments with some piece of the ol’ college learning. It’s a good arrangement. I enjoy being around a group of intellectual students who enjoy discussing black feminism and highly theoretical concepts like “the view from nowhere.” And they teach me things.

Students and teachers are at their best when students have something specific that they know they want to learn.

I don’t interrupt my team’s practices or post-meet discussions often, but when I do, all six members of my team will stop whatever they are doing and listen. I don’t have to call for attention. I don’t have to lecture them about being quiet. They know that if I’m opening my mouth it’s for something important and they respect me enough to know that I actually know what I’m talking about when it comes to theory. There have been several instances where I’ve been shocked by this power. It’s so contrary to what I experience in the classroom.

As I’ve contemplated on my debaters willingness to listen, I’ve thought about what makes this relationship different than the one that I have with most of my students. I think there are three differences. First, my debaters are great kids. They are all great students, many of whom are staring down scholarship offers to go debate at the college level. Some of their ability to learn from other people is probably a natural or learned talent that has nothing to do with me.

Second, my debaters know that I have knowledge that they want. Whether that knowledge is about theory or about college applications, my input is seen as important. In my classroom, when I’m standing in front of twenty ninth graders to whom I’m trying to teach algebraic equations, that desire for my knowledge is basically nonexistent. This is a place I need to improve for sure. It’s not about making algebra fun (although fun can be important sometimes), nor about making sure every single one of my concepts has a problem with money in it (although money is a great way to make concepts relevant). It’s about getting students hooked on algebra in a way that they get hooked on sports or music or technology.  It’s about getting them to a place where they demand my knowledge about how to solve equations with variables on both sides from me, where they are anticipating my next-day’s lessons with their questions.

I’m beginning to attempt strategies for creating this effect. I’ve noticed that students are much more curious when studying material that is just above their current ability level. I’m going to start designating a day every week where students can work on whatever that one thing right above their ability level is. This is going to require an elaborate system and tight organization but as I’ve started planning it I’m positive I can pull it off.

The last half this problem is orienting the math around something more than “here are a bunch of numbers.” I’m not sure yet how I’m going to do that. I’d like to orient each week, or unit, around a specific real-world problem that that unit can solve. But this is still something that requires more research and planning. Not something that I can implement immediately.

Third, my debaters get to see me as something more than just a teacher. They get to see me as a flawed human being who often has questions of his own, but who knows more than just math. One-hour-and-a-half van rides is plenty of time to sing along to popular songs on the radio, to contribute to conversations surrounding social lives, and to discover that we have interests that overlap. To add to these experiences, they are part of rather than in contrast to my goal with them. These conversations about interests happen naturally as we discuss debate topics.

For my algebra students, they sometimes see me outside of the classroom (in the hallway, at a school-wide carnival, at football games), but they don’t necessarily connect my behaviors at those places to my persona in the classroom. My algebra students, then, see two Mr. Smith’s. The one that is trying to teach them math and the one that has fun. They are not the same. And this affects their willingness to learn from me.

The Trouble with Gaps

There was a moment this summer, while I was teaching a room full of high-achieving, and in my mind, at-risk students, where I faltered. I don’t remember the lesson or what made me privately freak out in my mind, but I remember the feeling… the American dream is a lie, “at-risk” is a stupid term, students are students are students, and teaching students so they can live up to a white, wealthy ideal is pointless.

But I didn’t let the feeling take hold of me. I pushed it away. It got lost in the stress of lesson plans and grading papers.

Several weeks later I returned to Ohio University, where my main extracurricular commitment revolved around education reform, a nebulous term that means many things to many different people. And because I am someone who enjoys a good discussion, I made sure I was immersed in the literature of people who are critical of the reform movement.

It is within this literature, that I first read Dr. Camika Royal’s argument against the use of the term “achievement gap.” A term I had used countless times myself, achievement gap had become, for me and many of my peers, a shorthand way of articulating the problem we saw in education. Upon my first reading of Dr. Royal’s piece, I thought this was the problem with the term–that achievement gap did not accurately portray the complexity of the problem.

And organizations I am a part of changed; instead of using achievement gap, both Students for Education Reform and Teach for America have adopted “opportunity gap” as part of their lexicons. Dr. Royal suggested the term in her first piece about the achievement gap on Good.

Several days ago, however, Dr. Royal began suggesting that this simple substitution of the terms is insufficient.

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At first, I was taken aback by this. It seemed like organizations were listening to Dr. Royal. Why was she still frustrated?

And then I thought about her piece, again. This time, though, I thought about my summer experience, specifically the feeling I had had one day in class and ignored, and then some things clicked.

Dr. Royal is not frustrated about the term with a linguistic concern. She is frustrated with the power struggle that gets buried in language.

I asked my friend the other day how I can avoid a white savior complex. And he told me I had already fallen prey to it just by believing there was a group of people, categorically different than me, who needed my help. By dividing the world into white and black, I had already named difference, and by naming difference, I had already committed oppression.

This, I think, is what we do when we talk about gaps. Because when we acknowledge a gap, we set up a situation where things are better. And it’s not necessarily racial. Like we assume that wealth is better than poverty, that a Princeton degree is better than a GED, or that scoring in the 99th percentile is better than scoring in the 61st.

But here’s the rub. Oppressors have always chosen the grading stick. Oppressors have always been the ones who get to decide what we test, how we test it, and what background knowledge we test. Oppressors have always been the ones who decide what is better. And that is the issue.

If we ignore this problem, we risk, at the very least, pretension–the kind that claims you are not allowed to talk about a problem because you aren’t well-informed enough.

I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to talk abut the issues we need to talk about. But I know that lumping entire of populations of students into one “at-risk” category is trouble. And that’s exactly what gaps do.

I Will Teach: A Promissory Note to a Future Student

Note: Unlike most of the things I write, this is not based on one factual occurrence. Instead, it is a composite of many experiences.

I have been given the instructions to mentor you. I have been given neat little packets that tell me the words to say.

“What do you want to be?”

“A mechanical engineer,” you answer.

“Great! Write that down!”

I glimpse at your sheet and see the words “megin engineer.”

You are in tenth grade. You are pimply, bright, optimistic, witty, and beautiful. But you can’t spell “mechanical.” I wouldn’t be bothered by it–“mechanical” is a hard word–except that word you spelled isn’t even phonetically close. And that’s when the gravity of the situation comes crashing down on me.

The neat little packets don’t know you.

I realize that you don’t need a mentor. You need a leader. You don’t need to be asked “What do you want to be?” You need to be asked “What combination of letters put together can also make the “k” sound?” Both questions are important, and you will get to both. You can even ask the first while you are asking the second, but the second should be present, too. You need someone to tell you each and every step for a while. Eventually, you will grow out of that. But right now, you need someone to help you.

You are everywhere. You are always in my head. You are perpetually getting off the bus that I’m stopped behind. You are in the group of kids sitting in the local coffee shop. You are on the playground when I walk by at lunch time.

You are everywhere. Today you were in Detroit. And I had a mini panic attack when I woke up because I thought I should get on an airplane and fly to you immediately. Yesterday you were in Appalachia, and I could have driven to you. The day before that you were in Atlanta, and I was afraid of the culture shock. Tomorrow you will be in New Mexico, and the arid heat will feel new and foreign against my skin.

Sometimes you jump across the ocean, where, the experts tell me, you know how to spell “mechanical,” but you can’t think critically about whether becoming a mechanical engineer will be a good occupation for you.

All this to say that you are constantly living in the back of my mind. I’m often guilty that I’m not with you.

When I go to being the mentor, I know how little it is. How it’s hardly anything at all. But right now, it’s all I can do.

I’m coming, wherever you are, I’m coming.

I promise.

Why I SFER

Recently, there has been a lot of alarm about an organization I am a part of – Students for Education Reform. I think this alarm mostly started with this post by a really smart girl from Rutgers named Stephanie Rivera. Diane Ravitch, a prominent player in the education reform conversation, then got hold of  Rivera’s post, and applauded her and took a stance against SFER. And next thing I knew, my Twitter feed was blowing up. I have been thinking about this the past week or so, and I think it would be helpful to explain why I, a student, started a chapter of Students for Education Reform at Ohio University. This is going to be a long post so I thank you in advance for your patience.

My name is Spencer Smith. And I SFER because I think that every child deserves a great education right now.

I went to school K-12 in Springboro, OH. Springboro is the ninth richest school district in Ohio. Our graduation rate is over 97%. Of those 97%, most go on to college. I tell you this knowing full well that if critics want to throw the privileged spear at me, they can do it now. But better I come out and say it then someone think they are digging up the information. 

I didn’t get into my top choice universities. I landed at a great honors program at the very public Ohio University. OU is routinely ranked as the number one party school in America. When I would tell my high school friends where I was going, they would wrinkle their noses. But really, OU is a relatively good school. It holds its own against the much bigger Ohio State University and the slightly more prestigious (maybe) Miami University. The middle fifty percent of admitted freshman are a good bunch. They are good students. Not great students. But good students. Probably B students, most of them. Additionally, because of its location in Appalachia and its middle-of-the-line tuition, it’s home to many first generation college students.

For my first two years at Ohio University, I didn’t think much about education. I had made it to college. I figured that everyone who wanted to be at college was there. It was a done deal for me. I grew a beard, and started thinking about things like racism, sexism, and heteronormativity the way only a white straight dude from the ‘burbs can – theoretically. Then, at the end of my sophomore year, Teach for America invited me to be part of a series of leadership seminars. I heard about the achievement gap for the first time. My world was rocked. There were places where only 8% of students graduated from college? This was huge news for a kid coming from a place where it seemed like 80% of students were going to graduate from college. (This is probably an exaggeration, but that’s what it felt like).

I stayed in contact with Teach for America. I participated in a summer book club. One night, I was on a call discussing Mike Johnston‘s In The Deep Heart’s Core. Mike Johnston was on the call and he offhandedly mentioned Students for Education Reform. I sent an e-mail to Alexis Morin that night. Because she was listed as a co-founder on the website, I didn’t expect to hear back from her. But I heard back almost immediately. That summer I learned a lot about the organization. I learned how it started in a dorm room with e-mail blasts between the early members. I learned how it was infectious. And certainly, Alexis’s and Catharine Bellinger‘s enthusiasm and optimism is infectious. They come from a tradition of thought that says when you believe something, you do something. You don’t sit on the sidelines. You get up and say something. I wanted to do something, too.

So I did. And for the past year I’ve been the Chapter Leader at Ohio University. In that year, my knowledge of the education crisis in this country has grown more nuanced. I used to think that there was someone to blame for the whole thing. And that wasn’t anything SFER taught me. That was just me being a dumb college student. Thanks to SFER and other opportunities, I had the chance to study ed policy more in depth. Through Chapter Leader training and the weekly discussion series our chapter held on campus, I was able to approach issues from multiple angles. A lot of the members of our chapter are future teachers. (I’m a future teacher, too!) We aren’t calling for the abolition of teacher unions or the privatization of education. What we are calling for is conversation. We want to put everything on the table. We want options.

Because of SFER, I have done and seen things that I would have otherwise never done or seen. I organized a school visit to KIPP Journey in Columbus. I learned that whether or not you agree with charter schools, there are kids who are benefiting from them. And those kids can articulate that. They know that they are going to college. And they know that precisely because of the school they are going to. I was so impressed that I interned with them for a while.

SFER hosted a national summit for all the chapter leaders. By the time the summit rolled around, there were almost 100 chapters. I was struck by our diversity. Sure, I was a dude from the ‘burbs. And sure, there were Ivy League schools represented. But there were also chapter leaders who were mini-miracle stories. They had beat the odds in low-performing school districts, made it to college, and were now working to make sure that more students had that same opportunity.

Additionally, because of the SFER national summit, I learned about the Breakthrough Collaborative. I applied to Breakthrough, got accepted, and spent my summer teaching ninth grade English. I learned that 30 high school and college students can alleviate summer drain for over 100 middle schoolers.

Because of SFER, I believe that education reform is not just a conservative thing, a liberal thing, a union thing, a student thing, a teacher thing, a parent thing. Education reform is all of those things. We aren’t going to get anywhere by eliminating each other from the conversation. Maybe you don’t agree with SFER or Teach for America or Democrats for Education Reform. That’s fine. You don’t have to. But don’t be against them. Be against the achievement gap. Be against the failing education system. I promise you we can work together.

Come Back Next Year

Come back next year.

Four simple words. Four simple life-changing words.

When I was in eighth grade, I told a girl that I would die for her. “Well that’s not healthy,” she responded.

In eighth grade, I was certain that my self-worth was tied to whether or not this girl could ever like me back as much as I liked her. I spent nights obsessing over it, lunches plotting about it with my friends, and many an AIM conversation trying to figure out how she really felt about me.

I think I read too many books for my own good. The large majority of young adult literature uses the romance subplot. It’s sexy. It’s interesting. It’s a lie.

Come back next year.

It’s summer. A lot of my friends from high school are getting married. Other friends are getting engaged. At least half a dozen of my Facebook friends entered into a FB official relationship in the past week.

It seems that my obsession from eighth grade has become a cultural one.

If you are semi-active on-line and you are in your twenties, chances are you will see an article or a blog post at least once a day that lets you know that it’s okay if you are single. Or maybe it helps you survive wedding season. Or maybe it tells you how to find a partner.

It’s sad that we need articles about how being single and being lonely are two different things. But we do need them. Desperately. Because everyone is telling us that being single is the worst thing that can possibly befall us. If we are religious, we are supposed to pray every night for a mate. If we aren’t, we are supposed to date as much as possible. Go get ’em tiger.

Come back next year.

The trouble with the culture of coupling is that we are complex people. I think almost everyone is single by choice. If you really didn’t want to be single, you would put everything else on hold and find someone. At least that’s what I would do. But there are other things that we devote our time to. Other important things.

For a lot of us, I think the myth that you are either a family-oriented wonderful person or a career-oriented cold-blooded bastard is completely misguided. If you do something that fulfills you and maybe makes a difference, why is that any worse than spending a life in a quaint suburb with a 2.5-kids-family?

Come back next year.

Love is not just a thing between two consenting adults. Defining it that way already limits it. Love is so much bigger than that. We should be practicing love with our coworkers, our friends, our neighbors, our parents, our children, our bosses, our teachers, and our students.

Come back next year.

Almost eight years after telling a girl that I would die for her, I taught a group of ninth graders for a summer. My conceptions of love were tested. I loved my students with a teacher-ly parental love. It was different than romantic love. I didn’t care if they loved me back. I cared if they grew. If they hated me but were learning and growing, I was happy.

And somehow, this was all-encompassing. It was fulfilling. It made me happy everyday to wake up and love something the way I loved my students. I was content with this.

Then the last day came. And it was hard. And I hated it. They passed out yearbooks of the summer. Students rushed around, getting their peers to sign; others found teachers and asked us to sign. I stood in a corner, letting the students interact with one another for the last time.

An eighth-grade girl came up to me. She politely asked if I would sign her yearbook. I hadn’t taught her. I barely knew her. We had interacted once or twice. I had told her and her friends to be quiet during assemblies and told her to walk in the hallway. But she knew I taught ninth-grade English. I asked if she would sign my yearbook as well. She did. She wrote a simple message, and it changed everything.

Come back next year.

When I was in eighth grade, no one told me that those four words would mean more to me than “I would die for you, too.”

How to Teach Ninth Graders

Forget that you are cool. You are necessarily lame. You are the father with bad puns. You are the mother who asks too many questions. Don’t feel bad about this. It’s a role you must play. And it will make it much better when your students are pleasantly surprised when you know who Frank Ocean is or when you can dance beyond the few “white-boy” dance moves.

Forget that you have opinions. When your students talk about abortion or same-sex marriage, remember you are there only to make sure they are supporting their arguments. You want them to be skilled free-thinkers, not brain-washed automatons. Remember that now you are capable of brain-washing, too.

Remember you are not their friend in a ninth-grade sense, but also remember you love them dearly. When you get angry, remember to tell them it’s because you want to best support them.

Remember every student is capable of success. Sometimes, it will seem like many of them aren’t. Sometimes, it will seem like many are doomed for failure. But keep teaching. Keep providing extra help. Keep going over comma splices. Eventually, the unwanted commas will disappear from their writing.

Remember to always be excited. There will be days when you don’t like your lesson. There will be days when the kids are so hopped up on hormones that you almost feel like you are going through puberty again. There will be days when every kid in your class is mad at you. Be excited. Especially on those days. Jump around the room. Yell and scream. Make them yell and scream, too. Remind them that learning is always fun.

And when you go home at night and are thinking about the day, forget you were the teacher. Instead, be a student with fifteen teachers. Remember what they taught you about forgiveness and love and knowledge.

Be inspired.