Tuesday, March 25, 2014


in which we see a teacher discuss the only thing more private than his sex life

The Secret Life of Teaching, #9

By Horace Dewey

I stare at the calculator: $281.92. That’s what I have to work with in terms of a monthly car payment. My wife, a soccer mom who totes three kids (a fourth is in college) and a couple dogs all over metropolitan New York about 2,000 miles a month, drives too much to lease one. We’ll have to buy—hopefully new, maybe used. But 281.92 a month for five years will only get us about halfway there.  She and I have been doing extra work—summer classes, SAT II prep, etc. to make up the difference (and pay for a looming set of braces on our youngest).
I find all this exhausting, even depressing, to contemplate. I shouldn’t.  My salary has gone up substantially over the course of the last decade, thanks a series of good contracts and my recent promotion to department chair. I now make more than double what I did when I started at the school a dozen years earlier, and recently broke through the sixth figure in my salary, putting me at the top of the profession. I am—by most measures of most jobs—well paid. Alas, I seem to have found ways to deploy my assets as soon as they’ve appeared. A big chunk of my take-home pay, roughly $6500/month, or $78,000 annually, goes to cover the schooling expenses of my children; even with a substantial staff discount, tuition for the two currently in the school takes up about 40%, or $32,000, of it. The rest of it goes to pay our $2300 monthly mortgage payment and about $1500 a month in property taxes, which I gladly pay since I have a learning-disabled child in a good public school system. That leaves the salary of my wife, an associate professor at a nearby liberal arts college who makes a little less, to cover everything else, with the significant exception of my eldest child’s college tuition, covered thanks to the generosity and foresight of my in-laws. We spend too much on takeout, and too little on things like home maintenance (our house steadily becomes more shabby—cracks in the driveway, fingerprints on the walls, a running battle against mildew in our bathrooms). And we don’t give enough to charity. A new minivan has already been deferred a couple times, and waiting much longer is asking for a harrowing breakdown on the highway with kids and or dogs in the old one.
I tell you these fairly quotidian details about my financial situation in part because it’s the kind of thing my peers just don’t talk about—I sometimes think people in my demographic are much more willing talk about the tenor of their orgasms than the tenor of the their finances—but also quite curious about. I also believe my circumstances—and, more importantly, my attitudes—are typical of an educator of my generation and point in the life cycle. (The proportion of my income that goes to my children’s schooling, for example, is an amount most people in other lines of work would consider absurd. I reckon we all have our indulgences, mine typical of my profession.) Like a great many Americans, I consider myself middle class, whether or not the facts—in my case, a gross family income of about $200,000 in lower Westchester County—warrant such a designation. I do think, with the support of some expert opinion I find in the business section of the New York Times and other publications that I regularly graze, that supporting such a lifestyle is relatively more expensive than it used to be. I live better than my parents, a housewife and a New York City firefighter, did. But the rate of improvement has been slowed by the rate of inflation for things like housing and education. And having four kids? Financially speaking, that’s just plain dumb.
Whatever the pay scale, few jobs seem more thoroughly middle class than teaching. No one ever gets rich as a teacher. Still, while it’s relatively low on the professional ladder, teaching is a bona fide career in a society where the middle is being whittled out of existence. Teachers are still generally on the right side of a jagged economic divide in that we receive salaries (not hourly wages), health care benefits, and paid vacation. Teaching has been an actual profession for a little over a century now, a development spurred by a series of convergent phenomena: a Progressive movement that spurred professionalization in many occupations; the emergence of education schools offering graduate degrees; and an influx of men taking what has often been considered “women’s work.”
Teaching has never had the prestige associated with law or medicine (though that of both has deteriorated in recent years), or the excitement associated with journalism (less professionally structured and not especially remunerative for most of its history, but alluring for its access to power and/or the spotlight). Nor does primary- or secondary school teaching enjoy the sense of stature associated with college or university instruction, which has generally placed much more emphasis on producing original scholarship than actively fostering the art of pedagogy. In terms of social cachet, primary and secondary education has a relationship with the professoriate that can be compared with that of medicine and nursing: as nurses are to doctors, teachers are to professors. The former are generalists who take care of what are perceived as the less complicated cases, often knowing and doing more than they get credit for, while the latter enjoy greater stature rooted in their analytic skills. (Again there are gender echoes here, as teaching and nursing have long been regarded as feminine “helping” professions).
I speak as a failed academic. I went to graduate school in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I got a Ph.D. in American Studies. I held on for almost a decade in adjunct positions—a couple very attractive ones, but all of them dead ends. I might have held on longer had not the arrival of children (among them unexpected set of twins and even more medically surprising daughter) rendered the long-distance commute I’d been doing untenable. It was time to grow up and think seriously about making money. Lacking the credentials to teach in public school, I was lucky to land a position at my current post, believing from the start that it would likely be the first and last real job I’d ever be offered. White, male, old, and overpriced in a market that prizes youth and diversity, I’m probably now unemployable were I try to teach anywhere else.
My gaze shifts back to the $281.92 on my calculator. Multiplied by 12, that’s $3383.04 a year; over the course of a five-year loan it adds of up to $16,902.20. What about interest? How much would depend on the rate. I’m getting close to the edge of my numeric competency in any case. I figure I’ll need about $15,000 as a down payment. Damn. For thirty grand I could probably get a pretty nice sports car. Not this time.
 I remember joke a cousin of mine once cracked: “When a pretty girl smiles at you when you pull up at a traffic light while driving a minivan, that’s all you, man.” I’m not in the market for pretty girls anymore. I’m just trying to get the job done—or, I should say, to do one job well enough and long enough to get another one—that of family man—done. Then, surely, I’ll be on easy street ….

Monday, March 17, 2014

Smart Board, Dumb Teacher

in which we see the advantages of technology (and its discontents)

The Secret Life of Teaching, #8
By Horace Dewey

Mid-morning, mid-March. Outside, it’s frigid. Inside, the radiator heat makes me woozy. A few history teachers have gathered here in my classroom, at the behest of Hannah, our department principal, for training on the Smart Boards we’ve all received as part of the school’s latest technology upgrade. One more round of being nudged to learn things we never want know and will be incompetent with when we try. I’ve made my peace with Smart Boards as a matter of using them as glorified projectors. But now we’re being nudged to use them for classroom note-taking and other tasks. So it is that the rising waters of technological innovation still manage to reach us. Now we get to be the confused, bored, and resentful students.
Our technology maven, Jessica, an impressively competent outside consultant who’s clearly younger than her salt-and-pepper mane would suggest, is chatting away about all the tools and applications that are now at our disposal with the new software that can be easily downloaded at . . . I didn’t quite hear and don’t want to ask. My colleague Tony Snowden, who’s always been an early-adopter—he had an iPhone on day one—is querying her closely on how to access the feature she had been showing us before she moved on to whatever it is that she’s now doing. “You just go and adjust the settings on the system preferences menu,” she says, and Tony nods with satisfaction. “Just be sure you have it on the default settings option,” she adds.
Oh,” Ed Vinateri says sarcastically. “The system preferences menu. “Naturally.”
“Of course,” Tony says in a tone of good-natured ribbing, “your default setting is permanently set to off, Ed.”
Absolutely,” he replies, happy to be the butt of a joke.
Our maven renders a thin smile. I have a fleeting sense of sympathy for her: it must be tedious to talk to idiots all day. I glance up at the clock. I’m missing a workout on the Stairmaster; the gym is usually empty this period.
Actually, there had been a point when I was looking forward to this session. At last year’s professional day, I had watched in amazement as one of my colleagues in the science department wrote with a virtual marker on a whiteboard and then instantly turned the words into type. Given the complaints and queries I constantly get whenever I write on the blackboard, this was something I was truly interested in learning about. Despite a twinge of unease to see those slate boards go—I was surprised when picking up my daughter from a recent playdate to see that her host had a huge blackboard in his kitchen, surely a sign that what was once a commonplace object was well on its way to becoming an antique—I was ready to finish stepping into the 21st century. Though of course many of the skills I was most eager to learn were ones I could have picked up years ago.
I note that our maven is just now beginning to demonstrate the latest aspects of the handwriting-to-text feature, and raise my hand. “Could we use a real-life example?” I ask. She’s reluctant, I can see from the fleeting expression of irritation that almost imperceptibly crosses her face. But I leap to the front of the room, grab a green virtual marker, and start writing some points I plan to use in class that very day. “You might want to go a little slower,” she says from behind me, having adjusted to my imposition. I try to write:

• Land (farming)
• Mining
• Ranching

It quickly becomes apparent, however, that my handwriting on the Smart Board is even worse than it is on a blackboard—smears of green sludge.
“You have to learn to write differently,” our maven says.
“Is that all?” Ed asks.
She ignores him. “You have to write more with your shoulder.” She demonstrates the motion. I nod as if I understand and grab the virtual eraser, dismayed that my sludge doesn’t disappear.
“You have to put the marker down first before you can erase.”
I do so. Now the eraser works, more or less. When I put it down, she comes over, takes the red marker and models how I should actually write. It of course looks perfectly legible.
“Now,” she explains as I take my seat again, “in order to turn this into type you must first turn it into an object.” She moves her index finger across her text and a box forms. She moves her finger to a small square on the upper-right hand corner of the box and a string of suggested words appears: “Sources of welts/Sources of welfare/Sources of wealth” and a few more I can’t quite take in. She selects “Sources of wealth” and voila: handwriting becomes type.
“Now you turned ‘sources of wealth’ into what you call an object,” I observe. But do you have to make a separate object for each line of the Smart Board?”
Now I’m truly discouraged. It all seems like so much work: making sure you have the right settings; making sure you don’t pick up the eraser while you still have a marker; making sure you write the right way; drawing boxes around the objects; hoping you’ll get the right option for turning it into text: surely it’s simpler just to pick up a piece of chalk, no?
“I gotta run,” says Tony. This session has probably been pitched too low for him. He likes to tinker anyway. I look up at the clock again, and see that if I leave now I can squeeze in that workout after all. I see Ed is also motioning to go. He’s saying something to the maven that makes her break into a broad smile: a divide has been bridged. But not a technological divide: He and I have learned little useful information. We probably needed a day, not an hour. But a day would just be too much with everything else we have going on.
That night as I brush my teeth it occurs to me that some of my students must feel the way I did earlier that day—probably not about technology, which they seem to take to instinctively, but some of the academic work they’re asked to do. They find it hard but pretend they don’t or try to laugh it off. They fake their way for a while, maybe get the hang of aspects of a subject, and try to keep moving. It’s the improvising that ends up being the skill that gets developed—the bluffing, faking, and ad-hoc adaptation.
Three days later, a canceled meeting unexpectedly gives me a half hour, and I walk into my empty classroom. I turn on the computer and Smart Board, and begin stumbling around. A half-hour later, I’ve managed to write “Tomorrow’s class will meet in the library” and turn it into text. A triumph. I have no clear idea how facile I’ll ever be on this thing; I suspect I’ll settle into some simple routines that I won’t wander from very much. But I know I have to do this. There’s some part of me that will die less quickly if I do. Truth be told, I'm a little surprised, and more than a little pleased, that I'm not quite ready to be erased.

Monday, March 10, 2014


in which a walk in the woods leads to a fishing expedition

The Secret Life of Teaching, #7

By Horace Dewey

            "OK kids, listen up!" Denise Richardson bellows to the crowd of students on the edge of Walden Pond. "I'm going to go over the assignment one more time. You must follow the directions ...."
            I’m stunned by how beautiful the pond is on this autumnal morning. The foliage shimmers on the still water and bursts against the crystalline sky. Dubious about this part of the overnight field trip—instructing students to go into the woods and have a Transcendental moment strikes me as a contradiction in terms—I’m nevertheless delighted to be here. In the afternoon, I’ll be one of a set of teachers leading classes along the Freedom Trail. I’m looking forward to indulging with a cannoli at Quincy Market.
            I’m jostled back into attentiveness by an unexpected moment of silence that is apparently the result of Denise looking at her watch. "You will have fifty minutes," she tells the students. "That's enough time to walk around the whole perimeter if you want to, but you'll have to keep a good pace. She turns and points to her left. "If you simply want to see the site where Thoreau had his cabin, walk straight this way. It will take you about ten minutes. Whatever you decide, you have to be back on the bus at 11 sharp. Hey! Alan!" Denise claps twice and points at a sleepy student I don’t know (which is most of this batch). "To be awake is to be alive!" Some chuckles; I wonder if they get the allusion or are simply amused by the contrast between Denise’s no-nonsense energy and Alan's torpor. "All right then," she concludes. "Go!"
            The students stand around dumbly for a moment, but begin to disperse with growing momentum. "I'm going over to the gift shop," Denise tells me. "I have to make some phone calls. I'll be over in a little while to help round up this herd of cats." I nod and begin walking around the pond, beginning at the far side from the cabin site.
            I have ambivalent feelings about Thoreau. I’ve no patience for the cranky misfit of "Civil Disobedience," who thought he could simply opt out of paying taxes he didn't like. And no man who has his mother and sister do his laundry can call himself self-reliant. But for all his prickliness, I sense an inner struggle to live the words, and know that dismissing him as a phony is a little like complaining that sinning churchgoers are hypocrites: it's missing the point. I’m intrigued that Walden Pond is not—was not—the wilderness, in fact within easy walking distance from the village of Concord. I read that a railroad ran near the actual site of the celebrated cabin in Thoreau’s time, and apparently still does. Looking ahead I see a cluster of students, and evidence of a rail bed off to the left. I veer away from it so I can continue to savor my solitude.
            I haven’t gone far off the main trail when I see two still figures lying side by side in a bed of pine about 100 feet away. They are not engaged in an overt sex act, but the sense of intimacy is unmistakable. From the angle of my approach I can only see sneaker bottoms clearly; the rest is partially hidden in evergreens. One kid apparently has his hands behind his head; the other appears nestled beside him. I don't recognize them, but either or both could be my students. Though I feel obligated to break up this idyll, I’m charmed by it. Years from now, long after Denise Richardson’s (undone?) assignment is forgotten, this will be what these two remember from this trip. Surely even a loner like Thoreau would, or should, approve.
            I hear a voice shouting off far to her right. "Horace? Is that you?" It's Denise, motioning a cluster of students to keep moving toward the group's starting point. "Yes!" I respond forcefully. As I do, the two students scramble to their feet and begin running away, presumably to circle behind the cabin site and rejoin the group there. As they do, I see that they're both boys.
            "Will you backtrack a bit and round up any slackers?" Denise asks.
            "Sure,” I say, turning around and walking in the opposite direction. While I scrunch my eyes, trying to determine if I recognize either boy, I’m approached by my favorite student, Wilhelmina Sperry, notebook in hand, clearly running to make up lost time and ground.
            "It's OK, Willie," I say reassuringly. "Is there anybody else back there?"
            "No. I’m the last one," she says as she slows to a walk and adjusts her glasses, clearly out of breath. "I wanted to take a few more minutes to make some notes about a spider web I found. I guess I lost track of time."
            "Good for you." Willie and I are now walking toward the bus at exactly the same pace.
            "I love it here," she says. "That was a good assignment. Now that I've actually seen the pond, I need to re-read the parts of Walden we discussed in class."
            "Sounds like a good idea."
            A pause. And then: "Mr. Dewey, would you call Thoreau a Romantic writer?"
            "Well, not exactly. Not in what I think of in the classic sense of the term, like Wordsworth or Emerson. But I'm sure a lot of people would."
            "I just love him."
            "Fair enough. But remember, Willie: it's a big world out there. There are lots of fish in the pond."
            Willie turns her head at me, smiling. "You're not talking about how they restock the pond with fish."
            "No, Willie, I am not."
            Willie’s smile breaks into a chuckle. "OK, Mr. Dewey. I'll keep my standards up.”
            "Thatta girl, Willie. Any writer would be lucky to catch you. Any non-writer, too."

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Gingerly Revising

in which a student and a teacher confront their limits

The Secret Life of Teaching, #6

By Horace Dewey

            Ginger has come to see me to talk about her latest essay. This is a meeting neither one of us particularly wants to have—she’s surely dreads it; I’m knee-deep in the middle of recalibrating my spring semester syllabus when she arrives. But now that our unplanned encounter, largely orchestrated by others, is happening, we’re both doing our best to make it worthwhile.
            I’ve known for weeks now that Ginger is a weak student. Utterly silent in class, she never handed in her first essay of the new semester, and when I asked her about it a couple days after it was due, she said that she had a bad Internet connection. That’s fine, I said. Just give me a hard copy tomorrow. When that didn’t happen, she said she was having printer problems, and would drop it off later that day. When that didn’t happen, I sent an email to her parents. The essay materialized the next day, along with apologies for the delays from them and her. Minimally acceptable in terms of content and structure, I decided that this was not a good time to tell her to do it again—I inferred I’d already caused some tumult in her household, and establishing a reputation as a remorseless academic stalker would not be the best way to promote a working relationship. But clearly, I was going to have to keep an eye on her.
Her next essay, handed in on time, was even weaker. In my comments, I beat around the bush a bit, commending her for her evident engagement and willingness to grapple with the question, but finally confessed that I found it—hesitating to use the word, but deciding it was best—“incoherent.” I asked her to come and see me so that we could plot a course for revision. I felt both justified and guilty for this approach. Justified, because I felt it important to both be willing to help as well as ask her to take responsibility for her work, and guilty because I was asking her to demonstrate a level of maturity she’d already shown she lacked. I always feel a tug between trying to nudge my students along and protecting my time, and at some level I knew that if I wasn’t more proactive with Ginger, she’d slip my mind. As indeed she did.
            It was her parents who pushed the process along, sending around group emails to her teachers asking for feedback about her work a couple weeks later. A flurry of email exchanges with her advisor followed, which culminated in a phone call from the school learning specialist telling me that she happened to be with Ginger as we spoke and wondering if she could send her my way. Yes, I said, turning back to my work with the added fervor of knowing it was going to be interrupted momentarily.
Now she’s here at my desk, backpack at her feet, awaiting her fate. Dark hair, dark eyes, she’s pretty, maybe even striking, but her sense of vulnerability is so palpable that it overrides any other attribute. I try to set her at her ease. Where do you live, Ginger (uptown), what do you your folks do (they’re both on the business side of the television industry), do you have any siblings (an older half-sister from her father's previous marriage). Her answers are direct, earnest, and dead ends. This is not a conversation.
“What do you do for fun, Ginger?”
“I dunno,” she replies. “Nothing, really.” Then, brightly, as if she’s suddenly realized the solution to an algebra problem that’s been posed to her: “I decided this week to work on sets for the spring musical!”
“That’s great,” I say, wishing I could make that ember flare. But I don’t have the presence of mind to ask her what she’s making, how the show is going, or something to keep the momentum going. The only thought that comes to mind is that she'll have one more reason to put off grappling with her academic difficulties. And I think, not for the first time, that I have a worse track record with girls than boys when it comes to dealing with struggling students.
We proceed to talk about her course work. Usually math and science are harder than history and English, but this year it seems to be the other way around. Last semester’s history teacher was different, she tells me. More facts and dates and smaller, more manageable, assignments. From another kid, this would be barely veiled criticism. I don’t think she means it that way, though perhaps she should. But we need to get down to the business at hand.
“So what did you understand my message to you to be in my comments?” I ask. This is a standard gambit of mine; it’s helpful for students to interpret what I said in their own words, and for me to be prompted, dozens of essays and days later, about what I said to one kid in particular.
“That I was incoherent,” she replies. Ugh. She got that message, all right.
I prompt her to tell me what she was thinking about when she was writing the essay, and once she gets launched on a little soliloquy, things get easier. I jot down some notes as she talks, structuring her various points into a simple outline. The essay she’s narrating is rudimentary, and doesn’t quite answer the question I ask. But if she can actually execute what she’s saying on paper, we’ll be making a discrete step forward.
I show her the outline. “Does this make sense to you?”
She looks at it intently. “Yes,” she says. “I had a pretty clear idea when I sat down, but I felt like I had so many ideas in my head, and I have attention deficit issues, and I dunno . . . .” her voice trails off. I don’t think she wanted to surrender the fact of a learning disability to me. But this is apparently what she’s supposed to do, and she’s going to play her part.
“I sort of understand,” I tell her. “I have a kid with learning disabilities. I won’t tell you I know what that’s like, but I think I have some notion of the issues.” She looks me in the eye for the first time. She understands my gesture for what it is, and her acknowledgment feels like one in its own right.
My problem now is that I don’t know where to go with this. I know it’s very easy to say the wrong thing—promise too much, offer too little. Our silence is awkward. Ginger pulls together the two sides of the unzipped hoodie she’s wearing over her scoop-necked shirt, something she’ll do repeatedly in the remainder of our meeting. This saddens me.
Back to the task at hand. She’s going to work off this blueprint. She asks when I want the revised version. I ask when’s good for her. She tells me to tell her. How’s Friday. All right, then. We agree to meet again before an upcoming test. “This is going to work out fine,” I tell her. “I know it’s hard—it’s hard for everyone, no one writes effortlessly—but it’s going to be fine.” She smiles at me, hopefully and doubtfully, as she returns her papers to her backpack and zips it up. Our meeting is over.
Mom will follow up with an email; I promise to read multiple drafts. But it's been a few weeks now, and nothing has happened. Ginger avoids eye contact again whenever possible. Maybe she'll pull things together on my watch, or someone else's. She has the good fortune—if at times she surely regards it as a mixed blessing—of people looking after her. But for me the whole encounter is a reminder of the limited ability of teachers generally, and this teacher in particular, to fill the unaccountable holes that riddle our lives.