MARY ANGIONE - METZGER FELLOWSHIP ESSAY

TRUE GRIT

 

I thought I knew what I was doing.  Ten years into my teaching career I even thought I might be pretty good at it.  Certainly I’ve come a long way from my first year of teaching when it took me much too long to realize that every time I turned around to write on the board a kid was standing up and pretending to hump the desk.  That year, the infamous “year one,” I was humbled to realize how hard it was going to be to become a reasonably competent teacher.  This past year, my tenth, it was humbling to take on my ideals, and feel like I fell short. 

 Like the town of Brookline I believe in educational equity.  To paraphrase: “We are committed to providing educational opportunities to ensure that every student, regardless of race, color, religion, gender, disability, or economic status, meets our standards for achievement, participation and growth.”

The disability part is especially personal to me. My older brother is dyslexic and school was not fun for him.   Somewhere around first grade, he put his fist through a window because he was so frustrated trying to learn to read.  In high school he would spend hours at home typing his notes from class, translating his atrocious handwriting before he totally forgot what those notes meant.  He worked ridiculously hard.  His rewards were average grades and too many teachers who implied that he didn’t study hard enough.  I, on the other hand, loved school.  I worked hard and was rewarded with A’s, praise from impressed teachers, and the valedictory speech at graduation.  Frankly, it all seemed fraudulent to me. Hard work is easy when success consistently follows.  Hard work is hard when success is elusive.  I knew my brother was a very smart guy. I suspected that I might have given up long ago if I’d had to work that hard just to do okay.  My brother had grit.  I wasn’t so sure about me.

Grit has become something of a thing these days in education circles.  So I want to be clear that I don’t think one personal attribute is a panacea for poverty, institutional racism, or any of the other real societal problems that may impede a person’s success.  Neither is Grit an excuse to demand the impossible from teachers.  My brother came from a well­educated family with means.  He went to good schools and had emotional support.  But still, my brother had (and still has) a remarkable ability to “keep on keeping on” when the going gets tough and success is far from certain.

In spring of 2014, toward the end of my maternity leave, I was asked if I would co­-teach chemistry.  Thinking about my commitment to educational equity, and feeling invincible after surviving the first eight months with my twin boys, I said yes. About half of my students were required by their Individual Education Plans, or IEPs, to be in a classroom with both a regular ed teacher and a special ed teacher. Our task was to provide them with support, based on their often long lists of accommodations, while still providing high­level content.  The other half of the class consisted of some additional students with IEPs, some English Language Learners, and finally what we call “mainstream” students--a catchall for a wide variety of kids with varying needs.  This co­teaching construct stems from what Education Law calls the “least restrictive environment.”  Instead of isolating students with learning disabilities in sub­separate classrooms, everyone is mixed in together with an additional teacher.  Ideologically I believe this inclusion model is the right vision for education.  But in practice I find it difficult, messy, and really hard to feel successful.

Jake Barrett was my wonderful special ed co-­teacher.  Outside visitors to the classroom were impressed by our co­teaching, calling it seamless, and asking how long we had been co­-teaching together.  We found this both amusing and comforting.  Jake planned with me twice a week in addition to planning with his physics co-­teacher twice a week.  He brought great insight about our students with learning disabilities, as well as an established rapport with many of them.  He was an indispensable partner in the classroom and I think we made a good team.  But neither one of us felt sure that we were getting co-­teaching right or that we were serving everyone in the classroom as well as we hoped.

It was painful to see sharply divided test and quiz averages.  Some students experienced consistent success, go-­to lessons still reliable, challenging, and fun.  Others consistently experienced mediocre to poor grades.  Go­-to lessons flopped. The energy of the room often felt flat, like the air had been sucked out.  Some students were bored by a slow pace, trying to surreptitiously organize their binder or study for next period’s math quiz, while others were struggling to apply what we learned yesterday to the topic at hand today.  Successful differentiation felt impossible.  The right balance seemed out of reach.  I felt a lot like a first year teacher again.

It was also hard to feel the vast chasm of confidence in the room.  Many students would willingly raise their hands and venture an answer.  But just as many did not trust school, or themselves particularly.  They did not want to offer an answer, to risk getting it wrong again; tired of trying and falling short.  Students like this, like Tina, wore me down.  Tina’s general body language radiated such a strong energy of resistance that I sometimes felt that I just couldn’t deal with it again today.  I suspect that was her general strategy though ­--to communicate “stay away, leave me alone!’’ And then if you did, decide that you really didn’t care much about her after all.  Her mother and I insisted that she come to my office hours.  She would show up after school, take out an earbud, lean on the doorframe, and say begrudgingly (as only a teenager can) “I’m heeere.” 

“Okay,” I would say, straining for patience, “Why don’t you sit down and take out  your chemistry stuff and we can go over the homework from last night and see what questions you have about today’s work?”  We’d make some progress then.  Tina would grip her pen with her many­ringed fingers, the pink highlight in her hair dangling in her face.  Pretty quickly, we would clear up most of the questions she adamantly refused to ask in class.  Tina often proved herself more capable than she believed herself to be.  Fairly soon her itchiness to leave became apparent.  “My friend is waiting for me.”  Or “Okay, okay, I get it. Can I go?” or “Can I do that part at home?”  This scenario went on for most of the year.  Tina complained that she  “didn’t get it,” refused to ask questions in class, and resisted help that cut into her non­school time.

On some level I get where Tina and students who struggle with school come from. She was trying.   She did come to see me after school.  But her best and most sustained efforts did not generate A’s or B’s, the badges of success at Brookline High. She understood that some other kids get better grades and that they struggle less.  It reminds me how I admired that my brother wouldn’t quit, how he soldiered on through a Bachelor’s degree.  I ask myself to this day if I would have had the same perseverance to get through school if I had been him.  And maybe herein lies the irony.  I worked hard last year and struggled to do okay just like many of my students, and it makes me doubt myself too.

I’ve been trying to put a finger on the touchstone of my frustration.  Maybe it is just as simple as that I wanted to do this well, thought I could do this well, but it was really hard.  Like Tina, I tried and I felt unsuccessful.  It would be easy for me to decide that an inclusion model like this is too difficult, so why do it again?  Or resign myself into accepting the deep classroom divide.  Maybe the question to ask myself is: Do I have “grit?”  Can I keep making adjustments, believing that my hard work and caring matters, and carry on even when it feels like a slog?  Can I celebrate and be encouraged by small victories? Like Tina approaching me two weeks before the end of a very long, snow-­filled year, her hair freshly blond with highlights but no pink, and saying very sincerely “I looked at the review guide and it was, um, hard. I was wondering if you could give me something different or if I could come study with you.” 

Writing this summer has been helpful.  Reflecting on it, ideals are not easily accomplished.  If they were, the world would already be the way we want it to be.  I am co­teaching two chemistry sections again this year with greater compassion for myself and my students, and better perspective.  I will not discount small triumphs and I will remember that I am part of rethinking and changing teaching practice.  I should not expect to have it all figured out. Have I got grit? Turns out I think I do.

And if you are curious about my brother these days.... he is the chief technology officer at a startup tech company in the aviation industry.  Ideally, the company will make it big.  Right now though, I know he would say that grit is paying the bills.

Mary Angione teaches chemistry at Brookline High School.