Teachers need a rebirth between school years

Last week, a friend said, “with the majority of women now in the work force, schools will probably move to a year round model, don’t you think?”

Year-round school. When I really let that sink in, it makes me queasy… the same queasy I get on one of  those spinning rides at a small-town pop-up carnival. It starts off as a little gurgle, then progresses into more of a dizzy, green, sweating, ear-ringing cry. Teachers do not get in to the profession because of summer, yet, once we are in, these precious eight weeks become our necessary rebirth each year.

I use the term rebirth with purpose. No matter how bad a school year is, the summer has a way of washing away the memories of the difficult days, weeks, and months spent with those out of control students, those hundreds of punctuation-less essays, and that annoying, self-promoting co-worker. A mother, for instance, can suffer for hours and hours in excruciating childbirth pain, but the smile of her offspring washes away most memory of the suffering. (If it didn’t, women would never have multiple children!) Summer does this for teachers. It allows us to forget the bad and focus on the hope of the future. We forget the perpetual eleven hour days, mandatory state testing, and stacks of essays. We sleep. We remember moments of laughter and inspiration. We are reborn and ready for the new year.

Teachers need summer. Yes, I said NEED. I say this not because I don’t enjoy my job- quite the contrary!  My students and co-workers are truly remarkable. I anticipate these breaks because teaching is, honestly, an exhausting profession. The only people who truly understand this need for the eight week respite are teachers themselves. Often times, a teacher is shunned when they refer to a “needed break”. Naysayers roll their eyes and utter “must be nice” comments about “getting the whole summer off.”  Make no mistake, we often do not “get the whole summer off”. We are asked to return to school for staff development, new teacher orientations, coaching responsibilities, summer school, and meetings to plan for the coming year, a year in which we inevitably teach something new. Most teachers bring home a bin of books and materials to read in preparing for the next year. These aren’t your average beach reads- these are books about content and curriculum.

If summer break was to become a mere memory, the teacher retention crisis would be elevated to the catastrophe level. I already see young teachers leaving the profession in droves because they don’t get enough time with their families. The workload doesn’t just end when the bell rings. In fact, I work longer hours in the current educational arena than I did 22 years ago, mostly because of the 3 D’s: documentation, differentiation, and disruptions. The 3 D’s require time, energy, and a constant ability to recreate the proverbial wheel, and I’m not sure any other professions require this kind of after-hours time. In essence, we get paid in the summer for all the extra hours we work during the school year. (Our summer pay is not some sort of additional bonus, by the way. Our contractual, yearly salary is simply divided by twelve months.)

As I look to the months of “unnecessary” laundry that never made it to the top of the priority basket, I realize that I do have some time now to complete these tasks. This is time I am owed, since I donated that time earlier in my year. I plan to spend a big chunk of my summer hours creating a new class, reading some potential literature that might encourage my students to enjoy something other than twitter, and looking at my pacing charts and calendars for the fall. Of course, I’ll also clean out the garage, a few closets, and the laundry room. I refuse, however, to feel guilty when I just sit and stare peacefully at the rising tide. Summer is the time to collect for hours already worked.

The idea of year-round school needs to go away. I understand that teachers would still get several weeks of vacation sprinkled throughout the year, but a couple weeks is not enough time for teachers to wash the previous year out of their hair. We need the time to plan, prepare, and forget.

Maybe another day I’ll write a part two to this titled: “Students need summer, too”.

Remember the time we lost our 12 year old in the Swiss Alps?

Remember the time we lost our 12 year old in the Swiss Alps?

Zermatt, Switzerland: the alps most famous, carless ski town

We left our Paris hotel early, and opted to utilize Uber, once again, to get us to the rental car company at Orly. While we had all eagerly wheeled our baggage on the train from the airport to the hotel, we were not as eager to do that first thing in the morning during rush hour!

I decided months ago that I’d rather take off in a car for the French countryside from the airport and not from the city center. We reserved a minivan for our seven hour journey to Zermatt, but, as our luck would have it, they were out of mini vans. They were apologetic, and assured us that all five of us and our five suitcases (filled with our normal clothes AND ski gear) and our carry-on bags would all fit in the Ford Mendeo station wagon… the modern, low riding, wood-panel-free version of the station wagons of the road tripping 1970s. It was touch and go and a lot of cramming, but the car rental people were right- everything fit. It was a tight fit, with no view out the back and only foot room for the feet of an imp, but it all fit! I explained to the kids how lucky they were to spend the next 7 hours snuggled up together in the backseat, we took the discount they offered us for our downgrade, and off we zoomed! We were bound for the Swiss Alps!

We stopped for a fabulous lunch in a town called Poligny. We ate in a wonderful historic restaurant, called La Sergenterie, which is built into a cave! We enjoyed dinner, and Noah, not to be outdone by his old man, ordered and finished his steak tartar. I enjoyed my first of three days of cheese fondue! After what proved to be our “big meal” for the day, we continued our journey to Zermatt, Switzerland.


It is important to realize that you cannot reach Zermatt by car- visitors must park in Tasche and take a train into Zermatt. After parking in the train station parking deck, we purchased round trip tickets on the Matterhorn Glacier Express. The ride up was little more than fifteen minutes and the train dropped us in the middle of a bustling Swiss alpine town.


We rolled our luggage down the car-less streets to our hotel- the Best Western Alpen resort, where we had reserved a family style room. We checked in and we’re thrilled with the accommodations. Our room had two twins and a pullout downstairs and a loft with two twins. The best part was the balcony, which offered us a view of the peak that makes Zermatt famous: the Matterhorn!


We awoke the next morning eager to hit the slopes! We opted for a shop next to the gondola, “Intersport Rent”and were impressed with the friendliness of the staff. With gear ready, and lift tickets in our pockets (the left tickets were magnetic cards that let you through the lifts by scanning them through your jacket pockets), we loaded into the “Matterhorn Express” gondola and rode up the mountain.



It took two gondolas and a five-person chair lift to reach the top. We skied off the lift and around the building before we truly beheld the snow capped Alps around us, all lapping the snowy sides of the iconic Matterhorn. It didn’t even look real, if I’m being honest- it looked like a backdrop painted by the most talented painter in the world. I tried to snap as many photos as I could, but none of the photos captured the absolute majesty of that scene. I could have sat and stared at that backdrop forever.


We spent the day skiing the Gorgenaut side of Zermatt- happily exploring the long, powdery runs. All the trails were clearly marked by level, and most were delightfully wide and uncrowded. In fact, many times I was alone on the run- as my family raced to the bottom!


We stopped for lunch at a buffet on the mountain called the buffet and bar Riffelberg, before realizing we lost Noah!  Jim and Hannah skied back to the chairlift, and I waited with Molly in case he might find his way to the restaurant. Hannah and Jim found Noah- he had no idea we were stoping for lunch so he had gone up to the top again- by himself- and come back down- not the least bit concerned. Boys!


The buffet offered plenty of hot and cold options, but they charge for everything- including ketchup packets and NAPKINS!? Use your sleeve, kids!

We skied until the 4:30pm closing forced us from the slopes! My forty-five year old muscles were burning and pulsating, and I cursed them for not being better sports! Given my aching body, and Molly’s overall lackluster feelings about skiing (she was an excellent sport about this adventure however), she and I decided we would spend the next day exploring Zermatt. We returned our equipment to the rental store and felt excited to take on the morrow!

The evening ended with a dip in the hotel hot tub and a visit to the sauna!

Molly and I slept in the next morning to a glorious 10:00am. The other three were out early- headed for their adventure- skiing down into Italy! As soon a I got out of bed, my muscles assured me that I’d made the right decision in not skiing another day…

We wandered the streets of Zermatt, exploring shops and eateries, and talking with local shopkeepers about everything from Swiss Army knives to cuckoo clocks. I quickly realized that my name is quite popular in the Swiss Alps- and lots of products bare my moniker!

By early evening, the rest of the family returned from their day on the slopes. They were eager to share the adventure stories of their days- their faces ruddy from the wind and sun of the Alps.

We shared experiences at a neat little restaurant in Zermatt called the Restaurant du Pont, where I enjoyed my final cheese fondue.


The next morning, Saturday, we were packed and headed to the train station by 7:00am. Our flight was leaving Orly at 7pm, so we traveled back to the city.

We flew from Orly to Heathrow, and checked into the Heathrow Marriott for one final evening. We ate a late dinner of fish and chips- maintaining the mantra of “when in Rome”… and hit the proverbial hay! The final morning, we opted to Uber to Hyde Park, where we wandered in and out, then walked up the side of Green Park all the way to Buckingham Palace, where we waited with the crowds to see the Changing of the Guards!  From there, we went to Westminster Abbey and Big Ben before heading back to the hotel to check out.


We made it back to Heathrow with time to spare. Our flight took off for Atlanta at 3:55pm. I will say, the flight back to reality never offers the same excitement as the flight that sweeps you off on an adventure…

Fear and loathing on the essay trail…

I’ve been teaching English for almost 23 years, and I’ve recently self-diagnosed myself with a serious case of EGADD. This is no joke- it is real, and it threatens to ruin me as an English teacher. Essay Grading Attention Deficit Disorder is something most teachers are ashamed to speak of, for fear of being chastised by their Shakespeare quoting peers! “Oh, some strange commotion is in his brain!” (Henry VIII).

My EGADD kicks in as soon as I gaze down at the stacks of papers in my school bag. I feel the more alarming side effects begin- increased heartbeat, sweating, and heightened anxiety. I think about the time will need to “create” in my spare time, and my head begins to spin. I start planning how and when I might squeeze these essays in to my very busy life outside of school. I try to start grading them the moment I get home from my regular 10- hour day, but EGADD strikes almost immediately.

I sit down at my home desk, at the front of the house, away from the family. It is nearly 5:00pm. I clear a space and try to figure out if I should begin with the “better writers” or those needing more “help”. I notice that I don’t have a drink of water, and I suddenly feel as parched as if I just scaled the side of a mountain in the middle of July. I tell myself to just grade one essay and then go get the water, but my thirst overcomes me. It drags me to the kitchen.

In the kitchen, I realize that my tumbler is upstairs by my bed. I am vigilant about reusing the same cup- rather than continually washing cups- so I dash upstairs to retrieve it. Unfortunately, it isn’t by my bed; it is in my bathroom. I pick it up and realize that it sat  atop a sticker I bought for my suitcase. My brain is at once in an EGADD turmoil: I should go back down to those essays, but I run the risk of misplacing the sticker before it ever makes it to my favorite suitcase. I pick up the sticker and put it in my back pocket while I pull down the attic stairs. I climb up  and attach the sticker in just the right spot. I smile, because the sticker reminds me of my last trip.

I go back to my bathroom, grab my tumbler, and head back downstairs. I glance at my essay-laden desk on my way to the kitchen, reminding myself of where my focus needs to be. I manage to put ice in my cup before scanning the counter for the day’s mail. I don’t see it and wonder if anyone got it. I also note that the dog food bowls have been licked clean. “EGADD,” I think.”I really need to get to those essays, but these poor pups have no food.” I swiftly move to fill the bowls, only to realize we are completely out of dog food. A trip to the local Kroger is imminent.

When I finally return home, after getting sustenance for my two four-legged babies, I note the time- 6:00pm… time to cook dinner. I run to my front desk to get a stack of essays, confident that I can grade a few whilst the water boils. Two of my three kids make their way down to the kitchen to inquire about dinner. I look at them, and think to myself, “Jeez, they are getting so big. I need to really cherish these days with them.” Forgetting the essays on the counter, I engage in family talk while I cook.

After dinner, I announce that I will not be joining the family for any TV time; I’ve got to grade papers… for at least a couple hours. I finally return to my desk, determined to get through half a class worth.I read through the first one, and it is pretty good. I note some comma errors and suggest smoother transitions. I comment that the “vignette” about the dog eating the turkey cracked me up. EGADD jabs me when I start thinking of the time I caught my own dog up on the table licking the spills.

It takes me 8 minutes to grade that one essay, and that is a good one. It received a 92. In typical EGADD style, I stop and think about those 8 minutes. A paper with more errors and more content issues might take me upwards of 13-15 minutes. I have 120 of them. If I average 12 minutes per essay, that’s 1440 minutes, which is 24 hours. EGADD has brought me to the edge: I’m practicing math computation. I feel my illness creeping into my throat. I open my calendar to look at what I have going for the week ahead. Each day has me booked with family responsibilities, which I enjoy to the max. I tell myself I just have to plug along. Take a deep breath. Practice relaxation breathing.

I look to the next essay. I know this writer; he practices the “anti-punctuation” religion. I force my eyes on the page, my pen armed and ready to make sense of unintentional stream of consciousness. I get through it, but it is torturous. A week passes and I’ve graded 23 essays. My ears ring with the chirp of students asking for these essays. Mine is the plight of English teachers across the map. Perhaps there’s a support group for fellow EGADD sufferers?

EGADD,” I think. “How will I finish before the next batch of essays come in?”

And then I start thinking of summer. And cool weather. And lobsters… EGADD!

-HC

Life without drive-thru windows may just be Nirvana.

It is nearly New Year’s Resolution season, and, if I may put it in baseball terms, my resolution is on deck. This year, I’m straying from the typical resolutions. There will be no weight loss, no organizing, no watching my language. My resolution will be unique and long overdue. 2016 is the year I quit the convenience of drive-thru windows. These windows have had more than three strikes in my life, and they are OUT. I resolve to go in or go home.

I can’t remember the last time I went through a drive-thru and left with peace and harmony in my soul.  There is always something that bludgeons peace… a missing burrito, a spilled soup, or a botched “special order”. There are, of late, quite a few gripes that have gotten my proverbial goat, but the top offenders have so jaded my spirit that I must purge them before they permanently corrupt my ability to chill.

Here are the top 3 reasons I am giving up drive-thru convenience for 2016:

  1. They often use improper bag sizes for packing the order. Perhaps the boss issues a challenge for the employees: if you can fit that massive order into that teeny bag, you get a free hot fudge sundae. I get the bag. The bag bulges; it cannot close. I place the bag on the seat. The bagged contents shift with discomfort, and the items on top shiver. The bag stands tall, like a tower of blocks- one wrong move and it topples. And it always topples. Even in the most seemingly secure stance, it topples. And, on the rare occasions that it doesn’t flop, the bag reaches its limit and rips. I may practice a BYOB (bring your own bag) routine for future visits to the tiny-bag mecca.
  2. 95% of the time, my order has a mistake. Something is missing. Even the times when I’ve counted items to make sure it matches the receipt, there is a mistake. There’s beef in the vegetarian burrito, there’s no side salad- instead I find some sort of raisin carrot atrocity- or there is mayo on the plain burger.  I am on to these mistakes, and have since tried to quickly check the contents. The window worker at one establishment recently quipped, “We can’t be waiting for you to check the order, ma’am. Please pull forward.” Oy.
  3. “Please pull forward.” They push me into the dreaded “pull ahead” spot nearly every time. This occurs even when there is no one behind me…This spot requires that I wait an eternity for someone to rush out, hand off the bag, and dart back in. They rush back because they know. They know the order is wrong. This happened last week. They left out a a side salad. At this point, I’m forced to drive back through the window lane because I’m likely in my pajama pants.  As TomPetty aptly croons, “…and the waiting, is the hardest part…”

I look forward to peace and harmony in 2016! I will purge these oxymoronic drive-thru windows from my life.  Designed for convenience, they are plagued with torment. I will enter these establishments on two feet, armed with my own bags, and be ready to ensure accuracy. I shall enjoy the non-cooking nights of 2016 with my joie de vivre intact.

A modest proposal for a digital world…

Each day, at any given moment across American High Schools, students sneak a text on their cellular devices. They hide their phones in pockets, under their thighs, inside their bras, and along the tops of their book bags. I am a teacher, and, as entertaining as I like to think I am in my classroom, I cannot compete with the allure of these devices. I have spent hours pondering the possible ways to thwart the sneaky methods of in-class texting, and I have finally hit pay dirt!  I have the foolproof solution to the problem of cell phones; I just need medical backing and an educational referendum.

My plan will allow teachers of cellphone-aged children to ensure that cell phones are “up” at a glance. By “up”, I mean that cell phones, under my simple plan, will find a natural resting spot on the tops of the heads of students. Indeed, a teacher will be able to look out to her attentive pupils and see them sitting upright, eager to learn, their cell phones resting comfortably atop their craniums.

Now, my eventual plan does require the reshaping of the human skull, and it must begin with the current newborns. We must mold the very skulls of infants, when they are most pliable. Doctors can easily create this “mold” using any available rectangular block. Actually, a small book would be best, since no one reads them anymore- it would be a great way to use up these antiquated dust collectors. Using the book, the doctor, who would certainly be adequately trained, would only need to press for a matter of minutes, and the indention would be set. Parents would then take the book with them, upon leaving the hospital with their new babes, and continue “book press therapy” throughout the child’s first year, to ensure that the bones set correctly. Parents will undoubtedly pack these books away with other sentimental baby items- first cups, bibs, and locks of hair.

Once a child hits the age of 7,  which I render the age at which most children will have their first cell phones, his or her skull indention would be mature enough to house a phone. It will be imperative that students sit still while resting their cell phones on their indented heads, so as not to wiggle and have the cell phones fall to the floor. Obviously, this would be distracting and costly to families. The necessity of stillness in elementary schools, so not to “tip” the cell phones,  will do away with the need for classes that require movement, which will, in turn, save money in district budgets.

For the kids who are too old for the infantile head reshaping, schools will need to provide each student with my patent-pending “Cell Phone Cap”, which shall be worn by all students, every day. This cap will be fashioned after a painter’s cap and made from the cheapest burlap, so as not to infringe on local budgets or anger governors who try their best to adequately pay teachers. The caps will have a Velcro belt system at the top, so students may easily secure their cell phones. These caps can be made in China for under $2.00 each, which will only be necessary until the book-pressed infants matriculate into the schools; upon which time manufacturing of the hats may cease.

Any educator will agree that this cell phone plan is truly the only solution to the digital disease inflicting our schools. It will ensure that students pay attention to their teachers, rather than their devices.  They will sit still, face forward, and be completely engaged. I’ve already spoken to a doctor who is excited about it, especially considering there is little to no pain involved. I have a more detailed proposal ready to present at the next area board meeting.  I hope that my caps will be in every school before the 2016 class graduates.

-HC