DIANNE MUENDEL - METZGER FELLOWSHIP ESSAY

 MONOLOGUES

The story I have written is about the monologues that go on in my head when I coach teachers on reading and writing instruction. I have come to believe in certain truths as a literacy coach: planning rigorously, reaching all students and making each word in each lesson matter. These truths are at the tip of all my coaching conversations.

But underneath my coaching story is a more familiar story; it’s about my life as a classroom teacher. There’s the beginning of the story, which I loved, and there’s the middle, which was weighted with details and tensions. And then there’s the ending I avoided. The monologues that go on inmy head when I coach teachers remind me who I was during those classroom years. Because before I took on my role as a literacy coach, I was an eighth grade English teacher at the Amos A. Lawrence School.

“God bless you,” said my Aunt Theresa over and over again,“I don’t know how you can manage it.” Countless acquaintances agreed with her.  But I thought 13 and 14 year olds were magical. Once when I chaperoned an eighth grade dance a student approached me in a shadowy cornerof the dance floor.  “Ms. Muendel,” she asked shyly, “could you teach us any of the latest dances, you know, from the clubs?” And even though I couldn’t, I loved being asked; it meant that I was a part of them.

For those of you who haven’t spent a lot of time in an eighth grade classroom, there is nothing quite like talking about books and poetry with young teenagers.  It’s a 42-­minute moment. You take them away from their world of distractions, and watch them engage with words and ideas. But these moments are rarely spontaneous; they work best when you are ready for them.  All those hours I sat at my kitchen table and planned lessons­ Of Mice and MenRomeo and Juliet, Harlem Renaissance poets­ - I wouldn’t take them back.  Planning lessons for them was my joy.

This monologue in my head is humming along when I sit down to coach the beginning teacher. I loved my beginning,and I can use who I was then to coach teachers in their first five years with ease. The teacher’s brow furrows as she talks to me about her discouragingly bad day.  She asks question after question. How to plan? What to plan? What happens when the plan fails? Does every student fit into the plan? My mind wanders back to school dances and kitchen tables filled with lessons; the joy and hard work go hand in hand. 

I tell her my first truth: plan each lesson with a beginning, middle and end. We tell, they do, we chew over. If she is not immediately smitten with my ode to instructional predictability, she is kind and she is willing. Afterwards, I watch, month by month, as she wrestles with my truth, and then makes it her own. In the world of coaching, this is as close to the joy of my first years as it gets.

Somewhere after the first five years of teaching English I left my beginning and found myself in the middle of my career. And though I still loved my job in the middle years, I also hated how I could never contain it.  During my middle, I became a mother, smitten and harried, to one and then twochildren.  Being a working parent is hard regardless of profession, but there is something about taking care of other people’s children all day long and then coming home to taking care of your own children that is particularly challenging.

There were demands at school as well. Lesson planning, always my joy, continued to sustain me, but grading became my bottomless pit. There were years of using rubrics and one year when I experimented with a point­based merit system. It didn’t matter; constant grading wore me down.

“Remember in the beginning, when you used to tell me stories,” said my husband, “like the one where you did a cartwheel in the hallway, just to show that teenager girl you could.” I tried to remember her, but I was preoccupied with another student and how he wasn’t doing his work. When Ithink of the students in my middle years, there are a myriad of faces, but that one boy remains fleshy and real, while the others pale away.

His parents were not in the picture, but some deal was struck between the guidance counselor and me. We agreed the boy would pass if he turned in one final assignment­-his original poems.  They were intimate poems, a piece to his puzzle, but they were late.  It was just one assignment, but this is the monologue I go back to... When I handed him the poems, his original poems, the assignment he decided to do, it was in his eyes. I failed him.  I wrote a long comment on the top of the paper, praising him for getting the work done, but his eyes went right to the grade. He put the paper in my trashcan and slipped away.

This monologue in my head, the one about my difficulties and my demons, is persistent and loud when I sit down tocoach the teacher in his middle years. How can I use who I was then to talk to him now? He is worried about a girl who can’t seem to find her narrative voice or even her pencil. He tells me about the form he has read with the six things he has tried to make the situation better. And we talk with the ease of two teachers who are roughly the same age or have roughly the same amount of experience.

But before the teacher leaves to go home to his family, we talk about my second truth: reaching all students. There is so much tension in the middle, with all that we know and how little we think we can do. The goal has to be keeping the middle years about hope, not naiveté, about critical thinking, not cynicism. So I ask him, my middle­-years peer: What do you think the priority is here? Can you ignore the paperwork?  Can you ignore the squeaky wheel, at home or at school?  Can you just focus on one child who really needs you?

By year fifteen or so, the uneasy feeling of never doing the job as it should be done changed me.  But it was a few extraordinary student teachers who caused me to leave. As they sharpened my skills and reminded me about passion and vulnerability in the classroom, they also made me missmy beginning.

I continued teaching English, but went back to school at night and during summers to become a reading specialist, and went back to school a little more and became a literacy coach.  I left the classroom, full of the joy of my beginning and the sobering realities of my middle, but without an ending.

That is why when I talk to the teachers who stuck with their endings, the monologues in my head come to a halt. The veteran teacher sits down next to me, waiting for the coaching conversation to begin. I look at her and for one long, painful moment, I have nothing to say. Her eyes stray to the clock. 

She wants to talk about something practical, the nuts and bolts of a lesson on personal narratives. But I have precision of language, the third of my truths, on my mind. Figure out what exactly you want to say in your lesson, I tell her, and then write it down. Make each word matter.

Then the monologue in my head kicks in again. This time, the words are borrowed from the very end of Louis Malle’s1981 classic film My Dinner with Andre. It’s the only film, the critic Roger Ebert describes, as being entirely devoid of clichés. Malle has something to say about relationships and work and I hear it playing in my head as I sit with this teacher. Maybe because they are mostly Malle’s words and not mine, I decide to be brave. I say what I really want to say to this veteran teacher out loud:

“You see, that’s why I think teachers leave the classroom,” I say to her.  “I mean, you know, in teaching, if you get good reviews you feel for a moment that you've got your hands on something. You know what I mean? It's a good feeling. But then that feeling goes very quickly. And once again you don’t know quite what you should do next.  What’ll happen?  Well, change your job and up to a certain point you can really feel like you’re on firm ground.  There’s a conquest to be made. There are different questions. 

But have a classroom career that goes on for years—well, that's completely unpredictable. Then, you've cut off all your ties to the land, and you're sailing into the unknown, into uncharted seas.”

Except that this veteran teacher is not going to let me get away with a monologue. “You wanted something predictable,” she interrupts, “so you went back to the beginning and became a coach. But you haven’t avoided anything; you’re still sailing.  The school year will finish up. The student will move on or graduate.  The colleague will retire, even if she changes her job in the school.”

The veteran teacher is determined to have the last word here and I let her. She tells me, “you can never be more or less that the experiences that shaped you. Bring all of you to this conversation ­ beginning, middle, even the abandoned first ending ­ without regret, for as long as it lasts. Then say goodbye. All stories have to end, whether we want them to or not.”   

Dianne Muendel is a Literacy Coach at Lawrence School.