Posts Tagged 'Claudia Felske'

Teach·er ˈtēCHər/: 1. Instigator of Truth.  2. Agitator of Critical Thinking. 3. Provocateur of Free Thought.

By Claudia Felske

Ah, predictable me. If you’ve at all been a reader of my blog, you can probably predict my dilemma right now. These days, I suspect I am hardly alone in this quandary. I’ve written about it in the past: the push and pull between the public school teacher me and private citizen me.

SO here’s my (utterly predictable) dilemma: How does one teach in these politically-charged, complicated times when “fake news” masquerades as the truth, when “real news” is labeled “fake news,” when Orwellian terms such as “post truth” and “alternative facts” are no longer the stuff of Dystopian novels, but mainstream discourse?

fake-stampAnd to those of you who are about to call me out for bringing politics into my classroom, let me say this:  When language itself is being altered and manipulated, when knowledge itself is being distorted and undermined by the highest offices in this country, politics has clearly forced its way into our classrooms, not vice versa.  

Let’s take English class, for example. In English class, we talk about words: what they mean, what impact they have, their origins, their connotations. In English, we research and write. We teach students to be skeptical readers, to find reliable sources, to verify facts, to examine multiple sides of an issue or topic. We do this so our students become good readers and critical thinkers capable of making credible arguments and discerning reliable information in their post-secondary studies, in the workplace, and in the larger world. We do it so they become effective communicators and responsible citizens.

Enter “post-truth,” “fake news,” “alternative facts”; enter a presidential administration which openly disputes easily verifiable facts, which calls the media “the opposition party,” which maligns and berates those who question and attempt to fact-check.

If we are truly “teachers” is it not our responsibility to “teach” students to examine, to question, to discern the truth, to navigate through the complex world of politics, the media, the blogosphere, and propaganda?  

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It seems to me (I’m primarily speaking of English teachers and Social Studies teachers here) we have three options:  

  1. Do nothing. (Welcome to the path of least resistance and least responsibility).  
  2. Go for it. Lay out the evidence: let videoclips of Spicer, Conway, and Trump speak for themselves (And be prepared for the fall-out).
  3. Navigate somewhere between 1 & 2. (Provide a path for students to investigate this critical topic for themselves).   

Last week, I attempted #3.  I amended our Debate unit in Freshman English to include a few days examining Fake News and what has become the murkiness surrounding “the truth.”

Full disclosure here: Designing these lessons was cause for much anxiety and reflection. I teach in a predominantly conservative community which, like much of his country, is deeply divided and deliberately silent in public on many critical issues that matter to us all.  

Long story short, here’s what I did and why. If you feel so inclined to use any of this in your own classroom, please steal it outright:

Day 1: Students reflected on their own experience with Fake News and examined how its created.  

  1. Small groups of students discussed examples of fake news they’ve encountered on social media or elsewhere.
  2. Students shared out with the class.
  3. Assignment: Students researched the concept of “Fake News”

Day 2: Students participated in a class discussion on the making of Fake news and its impact on Democracy and “Truth.”

  1. Students shared their thoughts about From Headline to Photograph: A Fake News Masterpiece.
  2. Students reflected on (wrote and then discussed) James Madison’s quote: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
  3. Students then reflected on (wrote and then discussed) Serina Taverse’s quote: Fake news, and the proliferation of raw opinion that passes for news, is creating confusion, punching holes in what is true, causing a kind of fun-house effect that leaves the reader doubting everything, including real news.” – New York Times

Day 3: I took dictation in a class K-W-L (Know, Want-to-Know, Learn) exploring the terms “Post-Truth” and “Alternative Facts,” and I introduced the “Triple-Washed Facts” process.

  1. With a KWL chart on the Smart Board, I presented the terms “post-truth” and “alternative facts.” For each, I asked what we “Know.” I typed as they spoke. Then I asked what we “Want to Know” and I typed out their questions. Then, I had them use their Chromebooks to answer those questions. Finally, I typed as they told me what they “Learned.”
  2. I introduced the “Triple Wash” Process. This is the process they  would use for researching all facts used in this debate unit. 1) Check the Source: reputation, experience, respect 2) Check for “Fishiness: (use your BS detector) Is it too surprising? Is it too fantastic? Is it too convenient?  3) Verify it Elsewhere with that “elsewhere” being a separate reliable source.

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Over the course of these three days, I never told  them what to think. This was very much by design. I orchestrated their own exploration and examination of Fake News and its fallout. I was pleased with the depth of their skepticism, interest, and connection-making. And I was pleased that none of their conclusions came from me.

So now, I’m requiring my students to triple-wash every fact they use in our debate unit and beyond, and I’m imploring them to employ similar rigor to the greater network of information and social media streams in which they live.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Charlie Sykes, former WISN conservative radio host, articulated the necessity of such scrutiny: “The real danger,” he asserted, “is that, inundated with ‘alternative facts,’ many…will simply shrug, asking, ‘What is truth?’ — and not wait for an answer.”

That’s where educators enter the picture. We must be instigators of truth, agitators of critical thinking, provocateurs of free thought.

We must teach students to hold everyone accountable, to relentlessly seek the truth, to look for the larger narrative.  As citizens in a democracy, it is our job and theirs to hold none above such scrutiny.

Election 2016 & Cinnamon Toast Crunch

-By Claudia Felske

How many of us woke up this past week feeling unnerved, fearful, distraught?

If the media (social or otherwise) has any remaining credibility, about 50% of Americans heard the trumpet of doom this past week. Half of this country is experiencing a crisis of consciousness, engaging in some serious soul searching, lumbering through the stages of grief.

I need not state the obvious reasons why because, well, they are obvious…and because regardless of whether you’re on the mourning side of that 50% or the elated side of that 50%, I believe you could benefit from three words:

Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Seriously? What does Cinnamon Toast Crunch have to do with this…or anything?1001029_016000275072_a_400

Everything.

See, a couple weeks ago, I received an unexpected email at school:

Subject Line: Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

It was an email sent by a former student of mine Let’s call her Alison. We hadn’t crossed paths for 9 years, yet when I saw the email’s subject line, a smile of recognition snuck across my face. I knew immediately what this was about.

Alison began the email with some context: “You might remember that you once purchased a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch for me. You also took the time after school to listen to my paper about my mom’s mental health issues since I wasn’t comfortable reading it in front of the class.”

She continued, “One day in class I was complaining about being hungry and never being able to eat breakfast since one of my parents always ate all of the Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Then, I remember coming to class one day and you gave me a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. I was SO grateful, happy, and shocked that someone cared. I know I didn’t express much emotion when you did that for me but I cried later that day knowing that someone cared enough about me to do that. Back then I wasn’t very good at expressing my emotions and I’m pretty sure I did my best to avoid you from that point on because I just wasn’t used to that.

“Years later, especially after I graduated high school, I started to feel regretful about never really thanking you for that act of kindness and there were many times I started writing an email to you but would exit out. However, I couldn’t forget that day and how much that impacted me even years later. Thank you so much Mrs. Felske for the Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I will never forget that! I went through a lot while in high school and every act of kindness that I received really mattered.”

Okay, THAT’S Part I of this blogpost, and here’s Part II (bear with me, it’ll all tie together, I promise).

A week ago (pre-election Nov. 4th) the Dalai Lama wrote an editorial in the New York Times. He discussed the global anxiety running throughout the US and across Europe, and suggested a solution. He said we must do good for others; we must “be of use.”

He cited research showing that people who feel useful are three times less likely to die prematurely as those who don’t. “Americans who prioritize doing good for others are almost twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives. In Germany, people who seek to serve society are five times likelier to say they are very happy than those who do not view service as important.”

This makes sense to me.

Buying that box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch for Alison years ago was a small act. At the time, what she had said in class reminded of the time I received a jar of applesauce for my birthday. Being one of eight children in my family, that jar of applesauce (my favorite food and a whole jar to myself!) was, for me, sheer jubilation. And it was that childhood memory that landed me in the cereal aisle grabbing a box of cereal for Alison, knowing that she’d appreciate it, but not giving it much thought beyond that.

What I now know is how much that box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch meant to Alison. Her email reminded me what all of those seemingly small moments we have with our students can potentially mean to them both in the moment and years later.

It’s what the Dalai Lama calls a “compassionate society” where ‘selflessness and joy are intertwined. The more we are one with the rest of humanity, the better we feel.”

dalailama_blogImportantly, he reminds us that this is not a liberal or conservative cause:  “What unites us…is not shared politics or the same religion. It is something simpler: a shared belief in compassion, in human dignity, in the intrinsic usefulness of every person to contribute positively for a better and more meaningful world.”

His solution for our anxiety and feelings of disconnectedness? Begin each day by consciously asking ourselves how we can be of use.

Like buying that box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Or one of a million other small acts of kindness there for the doing. For educators, there are countless such opportunities. For all human beings there are countless such opportunities.

The take-away here, pretty obvious. We need to remember the words of the Dalai Lama, to remember Alison’s email, to remember Cinnamon Toast Crunch…as a verb—the antidote to resentment, anxiety, and despair by “being of use” to those we encounter in and out of the classroom.

Now, back to Alison. Perhaps you are wondering what she’s up to these days? She is a Behavioral Health Social Worker, paying it forward, distributing her own metaphorical boxes of Cinnamon Toast Crunch to those in need.  

As the Dalai Lama says, “The answer is not systematic; it’s personal.”

Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Great Teachers, Mediocre Shoes

no-heels-2Would you rather have a great teacher with mediocre shoes or a mediocre teacher with great shoes?

I’m thinking (hoping) nearly 100% would choose the former.

Admittedly, the question is not quite fair: it’s not an either/or. One can, after all, be a great teacher with great shoes (I would offer my friend Kristin as a prime example). And, I would like to think that for much of my career, I too was a great teacher with great shoes.

Now, however, as I begin my 24th year in the classroom, I strive to be a great teacher with mediocre shoes. I am no longer in the business of donning spectacular shoes at school.  

You see, last year mid-December, I was at an out-of-town conference when my feet retaliated against 22 ½ years of daily heel wearing. For no reason clear to me at the time, by the end of the day, I  literally hopped back to my hotel room, my left foot painful to the touch.  Anti-inflammatories were my short term cure; sensible shoes have been my long term solution.

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My former workwear (no longer in my life): high heels and low support.

My teaching tip this month? Wear sensible shoes!

Why?

  1. Your feet are your foundation. The average teacher takes 4,726 steps per day at school, the equivalent of climbing the staircase in the Empire State Building three times! The realization that I made that trip, in heels, for 20+ years makes me feel more than a bit foolish.
  2. Girl Power: We know that becoming good at anything is the result of hard work, reflection, and incremental improvement, not great shoes. Let’s model for our female students that we are more than just our footwear. Astonishingly, the American Podiatric Medical Association found that 42% of women say they will wear a shoe they like even if it causes them pain. To that, we must say “Yikes!” and “Never again!”
  3. Be Good to Yourself. We try to drink more water, eat less processed foods, exercise, floss…why not also wear shoes that won’t hurt our long-term mobility?  
  4. K.I.S.S.: Keep it Simple Stupid. Throwing on comfortable outfit and sensible shoes in the morning will get you to work fifteen minutes earlier which will make you more effective all day long.
  5. As educators, we are always looking at data to learn about student achievement and student needs. Why aren’t we also “data-driven” about ourselves. Data shows that the angle a high heel nullifies our natural shock absorbing abilities, stiffens our achilles tendons, shortens  ankle and calf tendons, and changes our natural gait (Women’s Health).  Dr. Sajid Surve of the American Osteopath Association writes “The effects aren’t limited to the feet; it’s not unusual for people who spend lots of time in high heels to have low back, neck and shoulder pain because the shoes disrupt the natural form of the body.” The data is clear: down with high heels, up with arch support.
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My new-and-improved school shoes: low heal, high support.

This is why, educators far and wide, I implore you to be a great teacher with mediocre shoes.

 

Confessions of a Secret Montessorian

By Claudia Felske

I’ll be sharing a right of passage with my son this year: he’ll be entering high school, and in a few short weeks, I’ll be his teacher. (I suspect you’ll be reading a post or two about how that goes!)  He’ll also face another transition as he leaves behind his 11 years of Montessori and takes his first step into public education, a slew of new beginnings for mother and son.  

Wait, did you catch that? You might want to re-read the previous paragraph because couched among some fairly cliche sentiments about rights of passage was a raw admission. Did you detect the hypocrisy? Did you smell the sacrilege? A public school teacher blogging all this time about public education while sending her own child to a Montessori school! The shame!

ncm group

I remember the first time I tried to explain it to someone. I was on lunch duty, standing next to a colleague and friend of mine who asked where Eliot would be going to school. He was maybe 5 at the time. “He’ll keep going to Nature’s Classroom Montessori for now,” I remarked, going on to explain how we had never planned on sending him to a private school, but that because Montessori had been such a perfect fit for him, we couldn’t imagine pulling him from a place that had become home. I explained how I felt hypocritical about it as a public school teacher who believes in public education. I added, hoping for redemption, that he would likely be coming to our high school when the time came. She laughed at my very long and defensive answer. “Sounds like the perfect place for him,” she said and meant it. I exhaled.   

It’s true that Eliot has the questionable fortune of being born to two public school teachers. It’s true that we never planned on going the Montessori route. It’s also true that initially we felt like traders sending him to Montessori over our local school district. See, here’s what happened: when Eliot was 3, counting ceiling tiles when we picked him from daycare, it was clear he was ready for a more challenging environment. When a friend told us about Nature’s Classroom Montessori, we went for an observation and never left.
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That day, we observed Miss Erin’s room, which we quickly dubbed “The Zen Room.” It was an amazing sight: 3, 4 and 5-year-olds manipulating objects to learn numeric concepts, tracing and placing alphabetical letters into stories, preparing their own snacks, cleaning their work spaces. The level of independence and engagement was astounding. It was an environment in which Eliot soon thrived.

As parents and as teachers, what we saw that day was what we both had struggled to create in our own classrooms: independent learners fully engaged and invested in their own learning. And what we saw wasn’t the doing of an individual teacher; it was the systemic use of Montessori methods in the Montessori environment. We were in awe.  
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We watched Eliot’s first class concert later that year. As his classmates proudly belted out their songs, some clapping, some waving to their parents, there stood Eliot, not saying or singing a word. When we talked to his teacher afterwards, she was not at all concerned. He’ll come around when he’s ready, and she was right. And that’s what it his Montessori experience has been like: we’ve watched him grow through the years from a non-singer to concert emcee his final year. This was a school where his social-emotional well being was as important as his academics: through the years we all worked (teacher, parents, and Eliot) on his ability to work in groups, take responsibility for his actions, and organize his work.

How could we pull him from Montessori? We couldn’t, and didn’t. It was simply the best place for him. Maria Montessori said “One test of the correctness of educational procedure is the happiness of the child.” And by that measure, he wasn’t going anywhere.

You may be asking yourself What exactly is Montessori? Here’s a crash course: In the early 1900’s Maria Montessori, an Italian physician studied children who had been deemed non-learners.  Through careful observation, she created an environment in which they thrived. Her method, now known as Montessori, provides flexible and carefully constructed work space and materials, utilizing a constructivist philosophy where children engage in “practical play,” learning through discovery with teacher guidance rather than direct teacher instruction.

7I asked Eliot today what Montessori did for him. “It made me, me,” he said, with an implied “duh!” (he is 14 after all). Details that stick for him? Journaling in nature. Being farm manager. Playing William Shakespeare. Studying marine biology in the Florida Keys, and indigenous cultures in New Mexico. Explaining the cube of quadrinomials. Historical simulations. Writing and acting in plays. His magnum opus paper.

So here’s the weird part, where past meets present; alternative meets traditional; mother meets son.  Any teacher or administrator in education today will recognize the following buzzwords (causing some perhaps to shudder a bit): personalization, student-centered classroom, problem-based learning, standards-based grading. Open any educational journal or attend any educational conference, and these words will dominate the articles written and the sessions offered. These concepts—here’s the weird part—are and always have been evident, in mastery form, in the Montessori classroom. They are the pmf-wordle-largerreasons my husband and I were in awe that day when we observed “the zen room.”

The truth is Montessori has much to teach us. As a teacher, It is my hope that as personalization, student-centered classrooms, and problem-based learning continue to be examined, the best of Montessori will trickle into the public school realm. As a mother, it is my hope that they will continue to be part of Eliot’s high school  experience in my classroom and others. 

Ready or not, Eliot, here we go.

 

Fel’s Regret List: my attempt to live vicariously through my students as they head off to college

Graduation-HatsThe last day of class with my AP English Seniors is always an emotional one. I’ve come to adore these scholars over the course of their high school careers. As I bid them farewell, I leave them with two final handouts: a reading list: Fel’s Kicking and Screaming List and a list of college advice, the content of my blogpost this month:

Fel’s Regret List: Wisdom in Hindsight from a College Grad

  1. Foreign Language. The more, the better. My do-over would include Latin (for a solid knowledge of roots and etymology). Never again will you have an opportunity to REALLY Learn foreign languages, and doing so will vastly improve your language and vocabulary facility in deep and authentic ways.
  2. Travel. Even though you will inevitably be broke in college, never again will it be as cheap to travel, nor will you ever be able to immerse yourself in a foreign culture for a prolonged period of time as you will if you study abroad in college. Trust me on this one.
  3. Don’t work too much. During the school year, work for petty cash, but not for tuition. College debt is both the best debt you will ever accrue and the best investment you’ll ever make. Dive in head first. Don’t spend all of your time studying and working (see #8 below).
  4. Take some weird, interesting classes, making yourself a little more weird and interesting in the process—consider judo, basic drawing, African literature, art history, Japanese, fencing, music theory, ballroom dancing…you get the idea. And (this is a beautiful thing) you can audit classes, so you can simply enjoy them without the stress of credits or grades.
  5. Cavort with your profs. Use their office hours. Most are pretty brilliant and fascinating creatures who love talking with their students one-on-one. Get help thinking through a paper you’re writing, ask for clarification of a concept in class, or just ask them their views on your latest ponderance about the universe. I have ALWAYS left professors’ offices glad that I had made the effort, and I saw almost all of my prof’s during their office hours at least once.
  6. Set an artificial deadline for your papers (1-2 days before they’re actually due). If you stick to that deadline, allowing yourself a day to polish, you’ll receive a higher grade, and more importantly, your paper will be significantly more focussed and eloquent, cementing the impression that you are a good thinker and an effective communicator.
  7. Pursue a scandalous love affair with your University Library. Need I say that these palaces of wisdom are oozing with morsels of knowledge yet unknown to your noggin? I’m talking about millions of books; thousands of magazines. So rummage around; shake up your thinking: humble your ego; get lost in the stacks! Play Fel by spending a couple hours in the library on Friday afternoons perusing magazines and journals you never knew existed.
  8. Read and heed kiosks! (the free-standing bulletin-board-like things with about 10,000 staples in each, located all over campus). They will alert you to the notable, the cool, the quirky—the campus goings on. Carve time out of your life to experience some of these things—never again will there be so much going on around you, and most of it’s free. This is your chance to become even more interesting, cultured, and worldly than you already are: musicians, foreign film festivals, poets, radical thinkers, foreign dignitaries, etc…they show up on college campuses. Take advantage of this phenomenon!
  9. Check out the local arts scene: repertory theatres, symphonies, art museums, etc…Most have obscenely reduced ticket prices for students. You’ll never have a cheaper opportunity for high culture!
  10. Disco on Fridays, climb a tree and stay there for a while, drop your backpack mid-campus and do a cartwheel, travel via pogo stick, have a stare down with a stranger…you get the idea. A direct correlation between the intellectual and the irreverent makes for a happy, balanced scholar.
  11. Keep a notebook of all the things you want to do, use, or remember (and start now!): striking quotes, “to-read” book titles, irresistible words, phrases, descriptions, facts, jokes, goals, anecdotes, anything, everything. The alternative is to forget many unforgettable things and/or spend countless minutes of your life searching in vain for little scraps of paper you jotted things down on. When you add to your notebook, read what was written before, massaging the dendrites. When  you fill one notebook, start another, and keep them all (and use the Evernote App if you’d rather be paper-free).
  12. Socrates says, “Know Thyself”; Fel says, “Challenge Thyself. Take control of your intellectual destiny, scholars! If you’re at school or in a program that isn’t adequately challenging or beneficial, make a change!  You are at the helm of your own boat, dear scholars, steer accordingly!
  13. Lastly, and most importantly: that little voice inside you? Listen to it! Call it what you will—your conscience, your soul, your deep-down gut instinct. It’s there, and if you really listen to it, it will lead you to the right place. Though I sometimes ignored it when convenient, ultimately, I did listen, and it led me to you, oh scholarly ones (a.k.a. a fulfilling career), my husband (the soulmate thing) and other unmentionables (that Fel, so mysterious).

A Teacher’s Reflection on Mother’s Day

By Claudia Felske – Today was a bizarre day for me – my first Mother’s Day as a mother without my son around. No, he’s not studying abroad; no he doesn’t have a career halfway across the country. Lucky for me, he’s still a teenager and still a member of our household, but he’s on a class trip this week, and Mother’s Day feels more than a bit strange without him. No breakfast-in-bed, no handmade card.

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I missed breakfast in bed this year!

And my Mother’s Day malaise is doubled this year with my husband one day out of ankle surgery, non-ambulatory and sleeping most of the day.

I remember feeling this way at an earlier time in my life: mid-to-late June during my first few years of teaching. After school let out, a certain melancholy took over – life was a little too quiet, too calm, to unharried. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the feeling of not having stacks of essays, tests, and lesson plans looming, but I missed my students: their energy, their goofiness, their joie de vivre.

I can practically hear the response of some reading this (“Are you SERIOUS?! Summer means you survived! It’s the game-winning shot, the final touch down, the hole-in-one!”) But yes I am serious, which I suppose, makes me one of two things: a loser (“Get a Life!”) or a person whose identity is deeply tied to teaching, not unlike motherhood to a mother.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Mother’s Day comes at the tail end of Teacher Appreciation Week as now that I think about it, motherhood and teaching have much in common:

Love.  Sit down with a teacher and ask them why they teach. Knowing the formidable challenges in education today, this is a fair question. If it were for money, benefits, status, or respect, we’d have left the profession years ago (and some have). The only logical reason to stay is that we love our students, not unlike the unconditional love celebrated on Mother’s Day. When everything else is stripped away, love of students and love of teaching are what remain.  

Heartache.  The flip side of love is heartache, and any educator worth his/her salt feels it. I don’t know of any teacher who hasn’t lost sleep worrying about students—their home lives, their challenges, their choices. That sick-to-your-stomach feeling you have at 3 a.m. as a mother? Imagine having 125 kids and you’ll have a sense of how difficult it is to “leave-it-at-work.”

Commitment.  No such thing as part-time parenting, right? Welcome to teaching. Students spend more of their waking hours at school than any other place, and so do teachers. We invest our lives in the lives of our students. This commitment bleeds into our nights and weekends. And the commitment of teachers who also advise and coach is exponential as they help students develop a positive future. Sound a bit like parenthood?

Identity: I’ve been asked why I haven’t become an administrator, and the answer is easy, I’m a teacher. As sure as I’m a daughter, sister, wife, and mother, I’m a teacher. And just as I couldn’t drop any of those other titles, I couldn’t simply drop my identity as a teacher. Unthinkable.  

Value: We know what happens to kids when parents check out. We know what happens to classrooms when teachers check out. Likewise, we know what happens to kids when parents and teachers and schools are fully invested them. It is an awesome responsibility and honor to play that role in students’ lives.  

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Interesting that since becoming a mother, my June blues have faded – that withdrawal I felt when school let out? My summers as a mother have enough teaching in them to quell the melancholy.

And when Eliot leaves for college in 5 years, I suspect the reverse will also happen and the fact that I’m still teaching will mitigate my empty nesthood. For what teacher’s nest is ever truly empty?

Henceforth, I shall celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week and Mother’s Day together, a natural pairing.  

Being a teacher has made me a better mother, and being a mother has made me a better teacher.

And both have made me a better person and brought value to my life.

Double bonus. Lucky me.  

Are Teachers Real People? Life Inside and Outside the Classroom

By Claudia Felske – The age old question persists: Are teachers real people?

I remember one morning in high school when Mr. Yach’s wife stopped in to drop off his V8 during Freshman English. I was amazed that he had a wife and that he drank V8! I was dizzy with this insider info: It felt like Teacher TMZ.  

Another oft’ repeated story in my family is when one of my sisters saw our kindergarten teacher…wait for it…wait for it…smoking a cigarette!

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She was not on school property, she was not at a school event, and it was years after we’d had her as a teacher, but none of that made the bite any less venomous. Mrs. Hintzman was smoking a cigarette! Our blood ran cold, our memories had just been sold. It was at least as bad as J. Geiles discovering the fate of his childhood girlfriend.

And so, becoming a teacher, I was well aware of the importance of reputation and the odd fascination that can surround teachers’ personal lives.  

Case in point: I am a resident of the small community in which I teach. So although I’ve lived here almost 20 years, I’ve never stepped foot into the legendary annual ETBT (East Troy Beer Tent) because…I’m a resident of the small town in which I teach.

Those types of decisions are no brainers.

The harder ones involve things that matter more – my beliefs, my opinions, my values.

In my younger years, this was not a problem. I grew up in a family that had dinner-table debates, intense ones which often included the use of dictionaries and encyclopedias and occasionally featured my dad’s fist hitting the table, spilling our glasses of milk.  We were raised to speak our minds and to back up our opinions.

High school and college provided similar opportunities. As an editorial writer for The Mustang Express and The Marquette Tribune, I became accustomed to using the written word to speak my peace and to challenge conventional thinking.

Public education, though, is a slightly more complicated arena.   

One of my first years teaching, our local library referendum was overwhelmingly defeated on the same day the US Congress allocated billions of additional funding for the war in Iraq (Part I, that is). My hot little fingers (mimicking my hot little temper) pounded out a letter to the editor singing the injustice of it all.

Version 1 was no holds bar. Then, I had my husband–Mike Felske a.k.a. My Filter–read it and help me tone it down, making my liberalness a tad less flaming. Then, and only then–or so I thought–did I send it off to the East Troy Times.

Not until one of my students, jubilantly quoting me, entered my classroom the next week (one who would regularly don a homemade T-shirt reading “Books Not Bombs!”) did I realize it was the pre-edited version of my letter that had somehow made it to the paper.  A deep crimson crawled down my face as I realized my untamed message was now community-wide.

Backlash included a few weeks of ugly gazes (some legit, others just my paranoia, I’m sure) at the grocery store and post office. Soon enough, though, things were back to normal but with a slightly more savvy me.

But back to our question: Are teachers real people? Or, less hyperbolically, as a public school teacher, to what extent can I be true to myself and my beliefs in and outside the classroom?

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Enter another teacher story (surprise, surprise). After high school, I learned that one of my favorite teachers held political views diametrically opposed to mine. This surprised me for two reasons: 1) I never would have guessed that she held those particular views  2) Though she taught me history for two years, those views had never surfaced in her classroom.

The lesson I gleaned from all of this was the importance of keeping one’s personal views out of the classroom. I learned so effectively from Mrs. Rice because she didn’t teach me what to think, but how to think. She never risked alienating her students by telling them her views. Teaching them to think for themselves is what was most important.

And so, it has always been my position to keep my political views out of my classroom. Yes, we talk about controversial issues in debate and persuasive writing, in our discussions of nonfiction and fiction alike, but I don’t state my opinions; rather I ask questions, I nudge, I play both pro and con. My mission is to get my students to think, to weigh, to investigate, to support.

Okay, that’s all well and good, but we still haven’t answered the question: Can teachers be authentic and “real” people, true to themselves? I am a teacher, but I am also a citizen, a voter, a human being. Just because I don’t express my opinions in my classroom doesn’t mean they’re not important to me. The 10 year old at my parents’ dinner table still dwells within. The editorial writer in me still has a row of sharpened pencils on her desk.   

As a public school teacher and an opinionated human being, here’s my imperfect solution:

I DON’T:

  • Tell students who I’m voting for
  • Keep one shred of political affiliation on my body or in my classroom
  • Take sides on political issues in class

I DO:

  • Write a monthly blog expressing my views on educational issues
  • Put bumper stickers on my car when I feel the urge
  • Attend protests when I am so inclined
  • Speak when interviewed (as a private citizen, not as a public school teacher)

Though these do’s and don’ts delineate between my public and private spheres, they don’t come without soul searching. Not being 100% myself in the classroom means not being fully authentic while (here comes the hypocrisy) trying todownload help my students become their fully authentic selves.

Like anything that matters, it’s cloudy, imperfect, and complicated.

A year ago, my do and don’t lists were further tested when I wrote an Open Letter to Governor Walker.  What I thought was a routine blogpost on educational issues turned into a public declaration of my political views to the nation. My blogpost went viral (I’m used to a readership of about 30, not 300,000). This was, to say the least, new territory for me.

I don’t regret the letter; I’m proud of the attention it received and the conversations it engendered.  

There were SO many lessons it taught me as a writer and as a teacher of writing: the power of words, the intricacies and speed of social media, the “new” layered world the internet, social media, politics and news, the interconnected web of bloggers, vloggers, and online newsmakers. There were so many practical and ethical facets to that experience. When I stop to think about it, my mind is still reeling.

But here’s the weirdest part: All of those lessons—authentic, real-life, unscripted, powerful lessons about the written word—will never make it into my classroom.

Bringing those “lessons” into my classroom would be crossing the “don’t” line: it would be bringing my politics into my classroom; it would be taking a side; teaching the “what” instead of the “how.” It would be violating the Mrs. Rice Rule.

And so, the whole ordeal will remain The Best Lesson I Can Never Teach.

Meanwhile, both sides of me–the conscientious teacher and the opinionated citizen, though not in complete unity–will coexist imperfectly.


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