Light a Candle in the Window

Teacher-friend, here is my New Year’s offering to you. I’ve got no long lists of self-care or resolutions or easy technology tricks. I just have one thing.
It’s a candle for your window.

By Adrin Fisher

Let me be honest: I’m getting a little tired of living through history. Pandemic teaching. Insurrection. Racism. COVID variants. A magical quick-change school map. The supreme elevation of opinion over truth. Fear and violence and doubling down on hate. 2021 is shaping up to be a lot.

To add insult to injury, just as back in the before-time, there are the losses that come with living on this circling planet. Just before Christmas, my high school art teacher, Russ Neptune, passed away. Mr. Neptune taught for close to forty years in a huge room with fifteen-foot windows, radiators on the brick walls, and big zinc sinks stained with years of paint splatter. My favorite memory of his class is how he would build an incredible hodgepodge structure out of found objects: old bicycles, rocking chairs, chandeliers, terra cotta pots and bricks, American flags and antique mirrors. He put it up on tables in the middle of the room, and we would sit all around it, scouting out sections for our still-life projects—line drawing, colored pencils, water colors.

But that’s not all we did. He taught us things I’d never heard of, like batik, linoleum printing, and etching zinc plates with acid. I paid tribute to artist Andrew Wyeth. I water-colored the doors of our local mansion, built by a coal baron when the Titanic was new. I mashed up my parents’ 1960s album covers. I drew my Converse sneakers. I took Mr. Neptune’s class for three years, and many years later, when I returned home, I became his colleague.

When he passed in the plague time, his family asked that former students post pictures of their artwork with the tag #UncleRuss. It took me almost fifteen minutes to find my work. Fifteen minutes to locate a garbage bag full of art I made almost 30 years ago—after four moves across two states. Fifteen minutes.

Why have I carried my bag of art all these years? It’s because, like any great teacher, Mr. Neptune taught his art students more than techniques or terms. He taught us to trust our eye, to think outside the box, to experiment. He gave us freedom and autonomy and a chance at self-expression.

He made me feel like an ARTIST.

In past times, people would put a candle in their windows. Maybe it was a sign of good news. Maybe it was a beacon to a family member journeying home. Maybe it was a sign of a friendly welcome for a traveler. In all cases, it was a sign of hope. It reminds me of a song by Creedence Clearwater Revival (from one of my parents’ old albums): “But I won’t, won’t / Be losing my way, no, no / Long as I can see the light.”

So, teacher-friend, here is my New Year’s offering to you. I’ve got no lists of self-care ideas or teacher resolutions or easy technology tricks. I just have one thing.

It’s a candle for your window. Make it your goal to make your students feel like a—

Well, whatever it is you’re teaching this year.

I want my students to feel like WRITERS.

I want them to feel like READERS.

Maybe you want your students to feel like ATHELETES or MATHLETES or LINGUISTS or SINGERS.

I want them to feel welcomed and competent and confident. I want to point the direction and then set them free. I want them to find their voices and their motivation. I want to remind them to hope.

This is a hard time for an educator. It’s tough for students and parents, too.

Basically, it’s a challenging time to be a human.

But, in the words of Mikey in the 1985 film The Goonies, “This is our time.”

So, instead of giving up or hunkering down or shutting off, I challenge you to light the candles in your windows. Cultivate the good and open your heart to hope. Remember that your passion and your effort (especially in the plague year) are not lost. Remember that some day, even if it’s thirty years down the road, some former student will remember you fondly—for how you made them feel—for what you taught them they could be.

Take it seriously, because it’s a serious charge.

As my parting gift this month, I invite you to share in the hope offered by British indie-rocker Frank Turner in “The Next Storm.”

“So open the shutters, raise up the mast.
Rejoice, rebuild, the storm has passed!
Cast off the crutches, cut off the cast,
Rejoice, rebuild, the storm has passed,
Rejoice, rebuild, the storm has passed…

“I’m gonna step out, and face the next storm.”

Now, go light some candles in your windows. Courage, dear-heart!

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you light and hope on your journey. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher, an Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award Winner, and a finalist for WV State Teacher of the Year. She teaches College English, AP Lit & Comp, and English 12 at Fairmont Senior High School. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

An Open Letter to the Beleaguered

Teaching in 2020 is nothing less than surreal. Consider seven imperatives to prevent yourself from being swallowed up by this school year.

by Adrin Fisher

Dear Teacher-Friend,

I’ve been thinking a lot about my situation, teaching high school English in a plague year. I’ve polished up a little sentence to describe it.

My boss made a promise that I can’t keep.

I’m fond of that sentence. It feels to me like a short, pithy Sherman Alexie sentence in the story I read to my College English classes last week. Zinger, I called it. A gut punch, I said. A sentence that perfectly encapsulates a situation.

Teachers have been told to get on with it. Assess students—both blended and distance learners simultaneously—meet them in the gap, and then work your miracle-worker magic.

But, that’s not what we had planned for. Or, more accurately, that’s not what was planned for us. The promised technology has not yet arrived. Our provided training was “a lick and a promise”—the lick part being the shock of being exposed to a dozen new programs in nine hours in September. Broadband is spotty and rain interrupts satellite internet and kids are sharing devices, so also send home packets and books. And also benchmark…and also do this test training…and also create videos…and also receive meaningful contact…and also join these Teams meetings…and also…

Before you internalize the chorus of armchair experts singing, “Teachers always rise to the challenge!” and “Mr. Rogers taught virtually!” let me pause to address those claims. As anyone with any longevity in a field that chews up and spits out 50% of new teachers within the first five years can tell you: what we’re being asked to do now? It’s not the same.

Magical thinking only works magic in the realm of thought.

Mr. Rogers didn’t assess anyone, didn’t teach more than one thirty-minute lesson per day, didn’t manage IEPs or 504s, didn’t field parent calls, didn’t connect with more than one hundred separate personalities with one hundred separate (sometimes fluid) identities, backstories, and sets of conflicts, issues, and emotions. And that’s what teachers do in a regular school year. Mr. Rogers didn’t have to spend precious lunch minutes to discern whether the person really has never grasped the concept of “downloading” or whether the student (and/or parent/grandparent) considers distance learning in the fall of 2020 a Get-Out-of-School-Free card. Mr. Rogers didn’t have to teach himself a learning management platform in public or thoughtfully respond to electronic messages on four different platforms. Hourly.

Mr. Rogers was a saint, to be sure.

But try to explain to me that this has all been done before? Tell me that if I can’t do it, it’s a personal failing? Spare me.

To stop myself—and possibly you—from spiraling into the recitation of woes—none of which we caused and none of which we can eliminate—I will share with you my second sentence, my second zinger.

This could be the year that school swallows me up.

I know that doesn’t sound particularly cheerful. But stay with me.

Every year of my career I have sacrificed many, many hours outside my contract. I work hard. I feel weird saying that out loud, but it’s true. I correct essays, design lessons, prepare, make photocopies, read, write recommendations—I do all things we all do. In fact, I’ll do it again this weekend. Sometimes I feel really guilty, choosing between time with my family and time with my job. Sometimes I wonder what ELSE I am if my life is consumed by my job.

But now, I pour my energy into this monumental task: to be all things to all students in both 84 minutes per week and no minutes per week, on three different schedules and with precious little time or training. I’ve taught myself to be proficient in a program I’d only heard of before July. I’m planning and creating content on Sunday afternoon for Monday morning. I haven’t found time to grade much yet—even though a stack of essays and summer work and paragraphs and mission statements are traveling back and forth to school with me every day while their brothers and cousins quietly wait in virtual classrooms.

However, guilt and misery make no kind of life.

Therefore, I am choosing to adjust my expectations for myself. I’m deciding what I own and what I don’t.

So, because I can’t offer you time or money, teacher-friend, I offer you seven imperatives.

Be intentional.  

In these fluid times with these unrealistic demands, the only way forward is with intention.  When my sons were younger and stopped by the dining room table to tell me about a Pokémon evolution or a YouTube video while my pink pen hovered over an essay, I had to train myself to listen. I clasped my hands and looked into their eyes and forced myself to stop. I still do it, actually. That’s my model. I will intentionally not get swallowed up. I choose to stop, fold my hands, and listen.

Stop comparing.  

Even though we try to educate our students about how fake social media is, sometimes it’s hard for us to remember: not everything praiseworthy is Pinterest-worthy. Value function over form.

Less is good. 

Let’s move toward sustainability. This is not a normal year, not for curriculum, not for the SATs, not for special education referrals, not for anyone or anything. You are not a continuous miner or a perpetual motion machine. Choose the essential. Save the rest.

Be organized.  

Although I am not yet to the point where I can anticipate unit time-tables or plan for more than the following week, I have made it a priority to plan those five days. On Monday (or Thursday, depending on the cohort), I release the plans in the form of a slide, which I project at the beginning of each class, every day. I set it up as Day 1, Day 2, rather than Monday, Tuesday, so that I can use one slide for all schedules. I learned from a social media page how to “publish to the web” which allows me to make changes on the original and have those changes pushed out to all locations. I allow myself to correct typos, clarify, or add resources, but NOT to add assignments after that initial rollout—I realized last Monday afternoon that I’d forgotten to leave time to talk about a story I’d assigned in AP Lit last Day 3. That discussion will still be valid next week.

In a webinar in July, I learned a visual trick to help students organize. I have a different emoji for each topic (my utilitarian topics are Week 1, Week 2, etc.) and each assignment or resource for that week has the matching emoji. Students thank me for these two tricks.

Practice empathy. 

Students are stressed. They’re oddly quiet underneath their masks, but their eyes reveal a constant low-grade panic. Good students who’ve succeeded in past years are being tested—because as it turns out, they’ve relied on memory instead of a planner. But now? That won’t work. They’ve mostly never had to manage their unsupervised time at home. They must choose to close Tik-Tok and pick up school. We have to have lines, late points, rules, assignments—of course, teacher-friend.  But we should also have empathy.

Take refuge. 

Take refuge in nature. It’s beautiful out there.

Take refuge from social media. News flash: the “us” against “them” fighting is going to continue, whether you observe it or not.

Take refuge in texts. Billy Collins, one of my favorites, has done a Poetry Broadcast every weekday night since April. Maybe you have sacred texts. Maybe you will carry around a poem in your pocket through these long days (here’s what I’m asking my AP kids to do next week). Maybe you have an old standby, some delightful novel or biography that you loved once. Pull it out again.

Finally, remember who you are.

You are a teacher. But that’s not all. You win, not this school year. Don’t let yourself be swallowed up. Courage, dear heart.

Sincerely,
A Multi-Faceted Person Doing Her Best to Teach Through a Pandemic

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. What imperative would you add to the list? Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook.

 Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you light. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher, an Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award Winner, and a finalist for WV State Teacher of the Year. She is currently teaching College English, AP Lit & Comp, and English 12. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

Refusing the New Normal

We are teaching through a global crisis, but this too shall pass. We can use this experience to reflect on our own lives. What lessons will you take with you into your future classroom?

By Adrin Fisher

Thirty-two days ago, on March 13, 2020, my world changed. 

Your world did too.  That was the day that our governor closed schools. If you were like me, you made a trip to the grocery store, got a pair of duck boots at the mall, filled up the gas tank. You checked email and watched the news obsessively. You didn’t sleep. Effective Monday, teachers and administrators, cooks and bus drivers, custodians and secretaries—parents and students—were thrown into the deep end of remote learning. 

In the weeks since that change, our world has contracted. Policies and procedures have changed and changed again, and then again. Parties, conferences, and appointments have evaporated. Stores now have tape arrows marking the one-way path through the aisle. Many shelves in our favorite supermarket are empty, and typed notices limit our purchases. People are jumpy; you can almost see hackles rise if you venture too close. A face mask is not just a prop for a bank robber.

If you were like me, the first couple of weeks were full of anxiety and grief. I call it the panic-time. It shocked me, really, how sad I am to not be at school. This is not normal, this COVID-19 interlude. In a normal summer break, I don’t feel much responsibility to my students: I start planning and prepping for the fall, but I am not overly concerned about my students’ welfare. I haven’t even met most of them.  Today’s situation is the opposite. I know my students pretty well, all one hundred fourteen of them. I know what kind of music they like and what kinds of things they do in their free time. I know what I can reasonably expect them to do without me as their guide and coach, without me to check and prod. And I know they’re not all doing well. I haven’t heard from some at all. I sit in front of the computer and cry sometimes, when I finally hear back from a kid—just relieved that they’re still with me, somehow. 

Well, I could go on and on in this vein, but we’re all tired of this whole mess. 

So, instead, I will tell you some things that I have learned in the Pandemic of 2020.

  1. Spring unfolds slowly. I saw my peonies emerge red and crinkly from the bare dirt. They’ll bloom in May. I can tell you the date that Eastern Redbuds bloomed (it was last Wednesday). Springtime colors in the forest trees are not the pinks and whites of orchards, but red and orange and pale yellow. I learned this because my kids and I walk in nearby woods every single day.
  2. Food delivery has become one of the most important functions of public schools. My husband is riding the bus to deliver food to his elementary students. He’s knocking on apartment doors to make sure kids get the food they would eat on a school day. He’s talking to parents who are without paychecks and without options.
  3. Technology must become more central in my classroom. When I began teaching, I was married to my overhead projector. Prior to March 13, I was in a committed relationship with my document camera. But now I see that my early panic could have been checked by a different, online system. I invented a system at 3:21 am on March 18, and it’s functioning, but it’s not flawless.
  4. I must make some personal changes in my teaching—specifically about the way I give feedback on essays and written work. I’ve been advised for years by other English teachers (and my husband) to not spend 15-20 minutes correcting each essay, but I’ve always felt that my feedback was invaluable. Now that I have a stack of essays, which I marked during the panic-time, that I may or may not be able to give back to my students for revision, I get it. It’s not invaluable; it’s arrogance.
  5. My expectations for myself must bend. Every day I have to get up and say, this is not what I would do, but it’s ok. And it’s ok to feel this feeling. It’s enough to do this thing. To give a photo of a reading log 20 points out of 20 and shoot an email back to say I’ve read that same book. To ask students to peer edit in post-panic Teams. To not get all the grades put in the grade book today. To spend four hours preparing a YouTube video for each class. To get out for a walk. These changes don’t say I’ve given up. They don’t say I’m a bad teacher or a lazy person. They simply say I’m working the best, most compassionate way I can during a world-wide crisis.
  6. And, finally, I must improve my work-life balance. I overheard my teenager tell his out-of-state grandparents, “Mom hasn’t had any time to help me because she’s working all the time.” My kids pick up on my worry and they see me frustrated and exhausted and on the hamster wheel. Pre-pandemic, I normally spent a whole weekend day on school work, plus some early mornings and evenings during the week. What if I can be a good teacher and still have some time for myself and my family? What if I can manage my expectations of myself? What if I can breathe a little slower and walk in the woods a little more?

I’m sure that this experience is teaching you as well. Please write it down.

In March 2020, I wrote this blog about three challenges that our students face: motivation to learn, unrealistic expectations demanded by social media, and positive mental health. In a way I could never have predicted, those challenges have multiplied and magnified.

Some students have been sick. Some have lost loved ones, and had to bury them without a funeral. Some have been alone and scared. Some have been the adult to younger children or older grandparents. Some have fallen into the lobster trap of social media. Some have worked hard to study and keep learning. Some have decided not to bother. Some couldn’t do school even if they wanted to because they lack access or equity or Wi-Fi.

For this time, we practice social distance. We move family dinners to “drive-and-drop” and watch each other eat on Skype. We don’t hug grandparents and nieces, even though it hurts. We forsake the fellowship of believers. We wave at strangers we pass in the park. We obey the orders; we follow the rules. We do the best we can for our families. And we bear it with tears and TV and puzzles and prayers for those alone, those suffering, those working, those worrying, those hungering.

But I refuse to accept this situation as the “new normal.”

My Great-Aunt Francis always said, “This too shall pass.”

And it will. It may pass slowly—the way spring comes to West Virginia—but it will pass.

When we eventually return to school, our students will be bringing their baggage from the COVID-19 break. And so will the adults. It will be our challenge to support each other in learning content and re-learning how to do school—as expected—but also in grace, and in compassion, and in empathy.

So, teacher-friend, maybe we can be a little softer on ourselves. Maybe we can remember the lessons we’ve learned here and now, at great cost. And maybe the world will be just a little better when we get back.

Courage, dear heart.

Words of encouragement we write and then leave in the woods.

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook.

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you light and courage. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher in the middle of a global crisis and currently working with seniors in co-teaches and dual-credit classes, and honors-level sophomores. When she’s not planning her next career as a YouTuber, you can find her calling “Hello!” to strangers, tree bathing in the woods with her kids, or writing in drips and drabs. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin