Reality TV, Reimagined

By Mary Tarashuk

October 2021

Seven years ago this month, I wrote an article about an idea for a reality television show. Okay, it was more of a frustrated teacher rant than an actual television show pitch, but I was having an emotionally allergic reaction to standardized testing at the time. 

Ever since then, I’ve been fantasizing about this idea, especially when I am sitting on the couch in a state of dull videocy, television remote in hand, clicking through options and hoping against hope that the emergency alert system will interrupt to inform me that the world I am observing on the screen is, in reality, a freakishly elaborate episode of Punk’d

Politics and misinformation about education and the teaching profession has spread like the virus, across the airwaves and into our communities. This is all too real. Its long-term effects are unknowable. Its short-term impact on our classrooms, our neighborhoods, and our collective psyche as a country, however, is palpable. Just tune into your favorite news source and watch in horror at the state of our union (pun intended).

Perhaps more reality television is the solution. 

Oh, I just heard your eyes roll. But please indulge me for a minute. I’m not talking about finding true love in a bikini. I’m talking about a show that will focus the camera lens on what is really happening in schools across America, a show that will capture, for ourselves and our posterity, the nitty gritty of what teachers and students actually do, each and every day. Maybe it’s time for a new breed of reality TV.

Welcome to Survivor Classroom. If you actually survive, perhaps you’ll leave with a different perspective than the one you walked in with. 

Here’s how it works:

We invite elected government officials, school board members, district administrators, and parents into the classroom to serve as teachers for one month. Contestants will spend six hours a day in a room that has an area of approximately 600 square feet with twenty-five kids. 

And we film it.

The first episode will begin three days prior to our real-life students arriving for their first day of school. At that time, contestants will be granted full-access to their classrooms to unpack supplies, familiarize themselves with the curriculum content, review the Teaching Editions provided by the district, create bulletin boards that will be useful and engaging to students, create a class website, memorize the names on their class lists (and read all related IEP’s), complete lesson plans for the first week of learning, and review the  master teaching schedule containing the exact times they are expected to teach each content area (scheduled times can be expected to change without notice).

During this four week, My Classroom: Survivor Pedagogy challenge, participants must complete all of the following tasks:

  • Administer a formal pre-assessment to each class member that identifies their individual abilities in reading, writing, and mathematics (no substitute coverage will be available while the contestants work to gather this data from each of their individual learners). 
  • Design a plan of action to ensure every single child in the class will be successful “at all times” (See the requirements for a teacher rating of Highly Effective according to the The Marshall Plan).
  • Create a method of tracking individual student progress.
  • Host Back-to-School Night
  • Prepare for and facilitate twenty-five Parent-Teacher conferences (contestants must make themselves available for evening conferences to accommodate working parents).
  • Practice fire drills, evacuation drills, and shooter drills with class
  • Create a website for helpful home~school connection
  • Read all novels, picture books, and articles suggested as mentor texts by the district
  • Complete one day of self-guided PD using district-provided materials about the newest initiative that has been identified as a goal for the year
  • Watch and sign off on all videos related to blood-borne pathogens, allergies, and student safety protocols
  •  Respond to all district and parent emails and communications within 48 hours.  
  • Oh…and teach the kids…we don’t want to forget that, right?

These courageous contestants will spend the entire month in a school located within their own district or constituency. A panel of education professionals will select the school that will become each policy maker’s home for the duration of the show. 

Participants may be lucky enough to be placed in a school like mine, with plenty of supplies. They may, on the other hand, be placed in a school that does not have textbooks, Chromebooks, Ipads, or paper for that matter. Our scholastic survivors may find themselves in an urban, suburban, or rural setting, or in a school that welcomes refugees in an ESL environment. There may be parents picketing in front of the building. There may not be. 

You get the idea.

In addition to their school assignment, each contestant must complete all related paperwork required by the district within district-determined deadlines. This may include spreadsheets that assign numeric percentages and values that identify reading fluency, accuracy, comprehension, and reading rate, writing capability and grasp of mathematical ideas and concepts

*If contestants don’t know how to create or use a spreadsheet, or any other tech-related requirements, they will be encouraged to look for a tutorial online.

A show like this would definitely involve the signing of multiple waivers. I’m not an expert in that area. I’m a teacher. I’ll leave that to the experts in the field and stay in my lane.

Unlike the original Survivor, however, there will be no elimination process. Contestants can’t leave until the month is over, barring a medical emergency or a death in the family. Six days absence from the show will be granted if the deceased is a close family member.

The evaluation criteria will be based on what our viewers see when they tune in each week. I’m sure some of us could also work together to create a rubric to evaluate our contestants’ performance. Maybe the audience could vote for their favorites from home? 

Here’s the thing. If I’m going to ask another to step into my shoes, I better be willing to do the same. I am.

My students and I have often discussed strategies we can use to try to better understand the characters we read about in class, whether we are exploring a fictional novel, reading a non-fiction excerpt from our social studies textbooks or scrolling through an article online. Exploring a character’s views about the world and trying to understand their individual reactions to it allows us to apply that old ideal of putting ourselves in another’s shoes. It sure would be nice if the grown-ups of today could apply some of these simple wisdoms of youth.

So if the loudest voices in education reform really want to evoke positive change, perhaps they need to be brave enough to step into the classroom for a month. And if those in government are not willing to volunteer to be a contestant on the show, maybe they shouldn’t be afforded the privilege of running for public office.

ABC? CBS? NBC? FOX?…SNL? Anyone interested in some reality, reality TV? Have your guy call my guy. We’ll set up a meet. 

Stay tuned.

When In the Course of Human Events…and Cheese

July 2021

As a self-proclaimed wordsmith, I appreciate the forensics involved in finding the roots of words, their backstory, if you will. When I can take a word or phrase and break it down, find its origins, and analyze how its meaning has changed throughout the course of history, I feel smarter somehow. 

Let’s take the phrase, “the course of history” for example. According to Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, there are five basic meanings for the word, course. It can be defined as: the act or action of moving in a path from point to point; the path over which something moves; an accustomed procedure or normal action; a number of lectures or other material dealing with a subject; or a part of a meal, served one at a time. My personal definition of the word  history is simple. History is the history of the past. 

As a teacher, my job is to present the stories of the past through multiple perspectives. I’m not there to teach my opinions. I’m there to help my students inform themselves and, in due course, form their own opinions. Being an American grants me the freedom to share my opinions out loud, but I try to keep my personal thoughts on some of the more divisive topics out of the classroom. In the classroom, my role is to support, engage, and facilitate learning and curiosity.

In Redefining the Role of Teacher: It’s a Multifaceted Profession, an article published in Edutopia‘s issue celebrating The George Lucas Educational Foundation, Judith Taack Lanier credits Mark Ulriksen in her discussion of how America is redefining my job.

In 1997, when this article was written, I was just beginning my career as a classroom teacher. Lanier writes that there were many teaching professionals at that time who were rethinking every part of their jobs. I wasn’t one of them.

In 1997, I was brand-new to the profession and trying to figure out how “the system” even worked. Back then, I didn’t have much history as a teacher, no timeline to reflect on or to learn from. I came to teaching from a marketing job in New York City, a job in what people refer to as “Big Business.” To me, working in education held the promise of a different life, tucked safely away from the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing of Corporate America.

Today, twenty-four years after Lanier’s article was published, I most certainly am one of those teachers who is constantly re-thinking things. But today, teaching and I have a long history behind us. We had an amazing, change-the-world honeymoon period. It lasted for over a decade. The main course of middle-age, however, has now been served. And the food is getting cold. Education is Big Business, no matter where I am seated. And that fact is leaving a really bad taste in my mouth.

Looking back, my dream of putting the rat race behind me was quite naive. According to the Grammarist, the expression rat race refers to “a group of laboratory rats racing through a maze. In this case, the rats are at the mercy of the experimenter and the degree of difficulty designed into the maze.​​” 

I feel like that rat sometimes. And it seems like the people who designed the maze have never actually tried to find their way through it (I could definitely go off on a tangent about plexiglass right now, but I’ll choose not to).

At the end of the maze is the prize…the cheese. Good cheese is expensive, and it can take years to age and curate properly. It is aged in two main ways; by surface ripening, which focuses on treating the visible, outside surface of the cheese, and by interior ripening, aging the cheese from the outside in, so the magic is somehow processed through the cheese. Different aging processes, different cheese. 

Surprisingly, life at school has a lot in common with the art of making cheese. Like teachers, “Cheese-makers can make subtle tweaks to the aging process that have a big impact on the final flavor of their cheese.” Just ask the experts in Wisconsin. 

Maybe we need to start at the surface of Big Education and chart a new course. We can use the quantitative data presented to the pubic at its surface-level and meticulously analyze how all the money bookmarked for our children is actually being spent.

If I had the money to hire a forensics accountant years ago, when I was going through a divorce, I would have hired one. The top forensic accountants in New Jersey are paid about $55 an hour. The average teacher in New Jersey is paid between $16 and $21 an hour, depending on the number of years they’ve been teaching. I didn’t have that kind of  money to spend.

It seems public school systems are in a similar predicament. There is no money to pay for an objective analyst, an educational forensics accountant, to make sense of the flawed data. 

If we ever want to get out of this mess, we need to find creative, alternative solutions. Maybe starting at the surface is a good place to begin. And let’s get the kids involved. Let’s show them what a forensic accountant does in real life. They can earn college credits for their work in the field, and we won’t have to pay anybody $55 an hour!

The course materials will be free, consisting of unrestrained access to every single piece of documentation that reflects current school spending. Course materials will include, but are not limited to, all budgeting spreadsheets, bidding contracts, receipts for all accounts payable and receivable, copies of all written checks or on-line transactions and bank statements, philanthropic donation information, and printed versions of all public communications regarding the financial state of the school district or municipality in which the student is currently enrolled…and a calculator.

We can put S.T.E.A.M. into action, inviting state-run high schools, colleges, and universities, to offer all students access to this specialized, collaborative course in Educational Forensic Accounting 101. 

S ~ Forensics, the scientific analysis of physical evidence 

T ~ Access to on-line data, related articles, and latest research 

E ~ Application of science and mathematics in the design and manufacture of complex products (school systems are pretty complex!)

A ~ Artists of the everyday responding to trends or discrepancies found within course content

M ~ Do the numbers add up? Are there more fiscally responsible ways to spend tax dollars? 

It’s a simple idea on the surface. Money in. Money out.

Our students will enlarge their critical thinking skills, working collaboratively to identify some of the disparities and trends that are currently sucking the system dry. 

They won’t be paid to analyze and submit their final analysis of Big Education’s best practices. Our forensic accountants in training will earn credits as they use primary documents to dissect the current state of affairs. Maybe they could even earn dual credits from their school’s Criminal Justice Department if they discover anything that looks really questionable or is worth noting in the books.

Kids are quite amazing when they are given the chance. Perhaps they can help us navigate the maze, while simultaneously becoming vested in their own future. One thing’s for sure. The next generation would bring fresh eyes and a very different skill-set to the table. When in the course of human events, they are the ones who are uniquely qualified to see things more objectively, more creatively than whomever is currently in charge of checks and balances. 

Cheese needs to be aged properly. Big Education doesn’t make a habit of giving progress the time it needs to ripen. It just keeps changing the course of the maze.

It’s been almost a quarter of a century since Redefining the Role of Teacher: It’s a Multifaceted Profession was written. Where the hell is the cheese?

To Retire or Not to Retire?…That is the Question

July 2021

It’s only been a few weeks since the last dismissal bell rang, a little over two weeks since packing up our belongings, walking out our classroom door, and putting this crazy school year behind us. All things considered, this year’s crew and I had a great year. I’m not kidding. It was really hard, but we got through it together. And I got innumerable reminders of this from my students and their families, in the form of generous gift cards, heartfelt notes and letters, and a seven minute video tribute that brought tears to my eyes. But boy, was I exhausted. 

After treading water for far too long, I made a conscious decision to carve out a little time for myself, to get out of the water, take a breath, and consider the future. The beach has a way of helping me put things into perspective. And I have a really big decision to make. To retire or not to retire?…that is the question. 

It’s a question I hear many talented and dedicated educators asking themselves these days. My own, personal answer is completely dependent upon which horizon I find myself gazing into, which future I can imagine myself walking toward. I’ve been a classroom teacher for a long time. But there’s a restlessness inside that’s telling me it’s time for change.

I’m lucky to have options. Many teachers aren’t that lucky. I can decide to continue to teach, for one more year, at a school that’s been my home for close to a quarter of a century. I can wait it out for a few more years, to see what the tide of education looks like a little further down the shoreline. Or I can walk away, toward a horizon that I can’t quite form a clear picture of just yet. 

Driving into the entrance gate of Island Beach State Park, pondering possibilities and searching for a little wisdom, my thoughts were interrupted by a sudden and unexpected flash of anger. It was the sharp voice of an old resentment, popping into the passenger seat to weigh in on the situation. As I pulled away from the guard booth, taking a deep breath and inhaling the fresh, salty air, her familiar voice broke the silence. “Isn’t the Governor’s mansion somewhere around here?” she asked nonchalantly. 

With one simple question, I was back to a summer day in 2017. My mind quickly retrieved the image of our then Governor, sitting with his family on a private beach, far away and detached from the public he served. That picture had been taken somewhere around here, somewhere over the dunes to my left. That year, the governor had closed our state parks and other “non-essential state services” for the Fourth of July weekend during a long-standing pissing contest with our state legislature. The fate of my future health coverage as a state employee hadn’t been resolved by the people who were in charge of making the rules and, as a result, our public parks and beaches had been closed…to anyone who wasn’t the governor or a member of his inner circle.

“Where were you that weekend?” the voice continued to probe. I tried to ignore her and focus on the beauty of the dunes, covered with tall sea grass, welcoming me to my day of scheduled rest and relaxation. The voice knew exactly where we were back in July of 2017. She was just poking at me, trying to rile me up.  She’s a sneaky little bitch sometimes. We’d been in my car that day too, trying to get past a barricade set-up at Liberty Island State Park. My friend and fellow teacher had scheduled his wedding for the July 4th weekend. He’d planned this summer shindig so as not to disrupt the school year. 

That’s the kind of thing most teachers I know do. They allow their professional lives to mandate their personal lives, even if it means having an outdoor wedding in temperatures expected to reach close to one hundred degrees. This isn’t a complaint. It’s a fact, an unspoken part of the deal you sign up for when you decide to become a teacher, whether you realize it or not at the time.  I made it through the barricade that day. It was a beautiful wedding.

A few miles down the road, after recovering from this festering resentment against Chris Christie and all things political, I found a parking spot and headed to the beach. Sitting there, gazing out at the horizon, watching the waves crash against the shore, questions I’ve been asking myself over and over for months kept crashing into my thoughts. “Can you really leave it all behind, Mary? The kids? The read aloud rug? Can you even afford to retire?”

Sitting by the ocean always reminds me that, in the grand scheme of things, I am really quite small. I’m a middle-aged, single mom, sitting alone on a beach in New Jersey, trying to decide if she still wants to be a teacher. In the classroom, I may appear larger than life to many of my students, but from an aerial photo taken off of Island Beach State Park, I am but a dot on the sand.

Retiring from my life as a classroom teacher won’t change the tides or the course of history. It won’t affect people in Montana…or China…or Russia…or Catmandoo for that matter. It won’t have any significant impact on the people sitting right down the beach from me. But leaving a career, a school, and a community I love is a huge decision. When I am faced with a big decision, it helps to lay out the pros and cons. My son and daughter call this process, “Mom making her nutty list.” 

There are pros and cons to all life’s choices. Knowing which one is a pro and which is a con often eludes me, especially when I am caught up in the current, but seeing my thinking out loud, in writing, helps me begin.

There are many reasons to stay in the classroom. Spending the day in a room full of kids is at the top of Mom’s nutty list. There are no words to fully capture what it’s like to marinate in child-like wonder all day. The kids help my jaded, world-weary self take a back seat, and forget about what’s going on outside our door for a little while. Whether I’m sitting on the floor of our classroom or sitting around an oversized ottoman with my own two children, getting lost in the moment with kids is pure, untarnished joy. I’m really afraid of what a future without that will look like.

I love my job. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about school, designing activities and planning lessons on my bedroom ceiling. This either shows a deep passion for my craft or a deep-seeded psychosis that doesn’t allow me to see myself, and my true impact on the world, in proper perspective. But it is a completely different world when the classroom door closes and we explore topics and ideas together, tucked safely away from the grinding wheels of Big Education, where politics and bureaucracy have kept us in a never-ending cycle of blame. That’s a riptide I just don’t want to be caught up in anymore.

Who knows? Maybe a new year and a new group of kids is all I’ll need to reboot and find inspiration. Maybe it’s time to pass the gauntlet to the next generation of teachers. Maybe it’s time to look back and be grateful for the lives that I did touch…and smile, as I walk toward a different and unfamiliar horizon. 

When I began my teaching career, so long ago, I set out to change the world. Now, almost a quarter of a century later, the realist in me knows that, in my own small way, I already have.

To retire or not to retire? That is the question.

Helicopter Moms, Snow Plow Parents, and a New Vernacular to Ponder…

March 27, 2021

The term Helicopter Mom has become cliche. This once, behind-the-doors descriptive, whispered amongst teachers in the hallways and in that mysterious Teachers Room, has found its way into the mainstream vernacular.

For the past several years, one of my favorite slides to present at Back-to-School Night contains absolutely no words. I simply click and watch, as my “Welcome to 4T” presentation advances to the next slide, and the enlarged graphic of a helicopter slowly appears on screen. Then I pause for effect, turning back to my audience before admitting without shame, “My name is Mary, and I’m a reformed Helicopter Mom.”

The parents who laugh out loud at this point are the ones who’ve been able to own their own, hovering tendencies. Thankfully, these faces make up the vast majority of the crowd. The ones who chuckle uncomfortably when this image appears, however, are the ones who are still coming to terms with it.

By the beginning of each school year, I have a pretty good idea of which parents helicopter and which ones snow plow, a more recent and lesser-known parental descriptive, more well-known in areas that experience harsh, cold, winter weather with high levels of snow accumulation. Snow plow parents take the aerodynamics out of the equation and bring it back to earth. Envision a large, metal plow, churning through the neighborhood, spreading salt and scraping its heavy blade across the asphalt. It’s goal is to remove any snow-related obstacle standing in the way.

Snow Plow parents jump behind the wheel to aptly remove any academic, social, or emotional obstacle their child may be facing. Forget about the liturgy of the playground and real-life problem-solving. At the first sign of struggle, these parents put the plow in gear and get to work.

Many children of Snow Plow parents are not given the opportunity to develop self-esteem through the acquisition of academic independence, to open themselves up to trial and error, or to build an inherent confidence gained only through hard work and dedication, or after solving an age-appropriate, peer-related dilemma. Snow plow parents do not allow their children to fail. Failure, one of life’s greatest teachers, is considered unacceptable in their homes. Mom or Dad is there to quickly remove any accumulation of real life that may be blocking the path, be it a bully on the playground or a little trouble remembering that math algorithm for long division. And the streets they are clearing remove valuable life-lessons and opportunities for growth.

Parents often wonder if teachers talk about them at school. The answer is, “Of course we do!” Don’t you talk about us? Who’s too tough. Who’s not tough enough. Who gives too much homework. Who gives too little. Who’s a nut-job. Who truly inspires your child. You bet we talk about you!

Knowing a family has a reputation for being supportive of their child’s education, receptive to professional feedback, and has a seemingly-solid grasp of what life is really like (inside and outside of the classroom), helps a lot. It opens the door for an honest, open, home-school connection.

But there is always that handful of parents, the ones who drive us nuts, the ones who have no idea that a world exists outside their cocoon of unrealistic expectations. The stories I’ve heard from educators across the country give us the chance to combine mutual experiences into a few, generalized categories of outlandish behaviors at home.

Let’s extend our thinking beyond the helicopter or the plow…and poke a little fun at some of the real-life caricatures that come into our classrooms every few years:

  • WARNING: If you read any of these and are offended, perhaps you need to take a closer look at how you help (or hinder) your child’s life at school. Teachers aren’t superhuman. We’re just regular people, doing the best we can, dedicated to our craft…and to our kids.

The Armchair Academic ~ This is the parent who has no degree in education, yet on screen or off, they just know better than you do how to be a teacher. This parent sends frequent emails, short notes to suggest a better way to do your job. They critique your performance to anyone on the playground who will listen, before or after school, or worse, to their child. Do they question their accountant about what tax code is being used? Do they offer an alternative prognosis to their physician after the test results are in? Do they look up from the dental chair and suggest a different tool be used for their bi-annual teeth cleaning?…or do they assume the trained professionals know what they’re doing? The teachers I know and respect are quite adept at their craft.

The Virtual Voyeur ~ This is a new breed of Covid parenting. You know they’re there. Every few moments, their child’s eyes flicker to a spot just slightly above the computer screen. They give an almost imperceptible nod to whomever is lurking out of sight. It’s the Virtual Voyeur. Given the opportunity, would this perpetually peeping prompter be sitting at the desk next to their child in a physical classroom?…taking notes, whispering directives?

The Homework Hypocrite ~ This parent continuously apologizes for being uninvolved in their child’s life. By the upper elementary grades, parents needn’t hover over their child as homework is being completed. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, working at home without supervision is considered a healthy stage of academic, social, and emotional development. Ironically, The Homework Hypocrite’s child is often the learner who needs a little more back-up at home, the student who struggles with organization, often losing assignments or forgetting to complete them. These children need help to develop a system that works for them at home. Apologies from the Homework Hypocrite don’t help…but they certainly do teach their little ones the art of making excuses!

The Digital Demander ~ These academic aggravators are either incredibly tech-savvy, or they haven’t a clue about what it actually takes to manage a digital-hybrid-in-person-sometimes-cohort-quarantine classroom. Nor do they express any observable consideration for the hours that have already been spent watching tutorials in an effort to become more fluent with the ever-changing-world-is-in-crisis-so-jump-in methods of teaching currently being implemented in classrooms across the world.

The Email Eficianado ~ Related to the Armchair Academic and the Digital Demander, this parent is relentless. They must email you every time their child farts…or doesn’t like an assignment…or needs work to take with them on a last-minute family vacation (even though there are only 15 minutes left in the school day and you are in the middle of teaching a whole-class lesson). Upon return, the Email Eficianado often reaches out to ask when you will be able to find time to help their child catch up on what was missed.

The Doctor Appointapologist ~ It’s a pain in the neck to schedule doctor appointments these days, but the Appointapologist has been around for decades. As a mother of two, there have been innumerable trips to the pediatrician, the dentist, and the oral surgeon, as well as various and sundry other specialist appointments. In addition, there have been a slew of medical professionals to meet with as my rapidly aging mother became less and less able to live independently. I can only think of a handful of times that I was actually forced to schedule an appointment during school hours. Appointapologist don’t show their children that school matters, that other people’s time and efforts matter. They pull them out of class when they really don’t need to…because it’s easier for them.

The Could-You-Just-ifier ~ “Could you just…?”

NO! Plate is full.

I can see pieces of myself in each of these descriptives. Maybe the circumstances are different, but the behaviors and grasp for control are familiar. And when I recognize my own version of crazy in someone else’s, I know I am heading in the right direction.

My name is Mary, and I’m a recovering judgmental cow.

The Voice in My Head…and the Mask on the Screen

January 24, 2021

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For the past three months or so, I’ve been writing this article to launch Behind the Doors of the Teacher’s Room, a personal goal I’ve had for quite a few years. I have been doing all of this writing in my head, mind you, stepping in time to that familiar dance of avoiding anything in the vicinity of my personal laptop. To date, nothing has been committed to paper.

The noise between my ears these last ten months has been deafening at times; COVID teaching, COVID mothering, COVID politics, COVID fatigue; a cacophony of COVID echoing around, bouncing off my cerebral walls, creating a good deal of uninvited chaos.

And amidst all this uncertainty, the angel on my right shoulder and the devil on my left haven’t stopped arguing long enough for me to make any real sense of it all, much less write about it. Each voice makes a strong argument, perched righteously on either side of the swirling chatter, sitting in judgement over the state of education, the state of my classroom, the state of the Union and the state of my own mind.

Something’s gotta’ give.

The angel and the devil on my shoulders need to stop interrupting each other. Their bickering is interfering with my ability to stay focused on what is truly important. Yet here I am, sitting in the middle of their incessant clamor to be right…to control the situation…to point fingers.

Perhaps giving each voice an opportunity to speak without interruption will help, to look at the halo and the horns and explore each of these opposing forces, in an effort to organize the mess with some sense of diplomacy. And since I am the only Speaker of this House, I get to preside over both formal and informal sessions of this internal cranial congress. Whether the angel or the devil has been granted the floor is entirely up to me.

I am well aware that the voice of reason and kindness is the one in white, the one with the halo, the one I use to define myself as a good person. And the one with the horns? Well, she’s in there too…and her voice needs to be heard. Somewhere in between is the real me. Congress is bicameral, right?

And the voice I use in our virtual classroom isn’t always the voice that is currently speaking in my head. I may be mask-less and teaching from home, but the mask I choose to put on during the course of any given day stops a very different kind of virus from spreading.

The voice in my head and the voice I use after the unmute button has been clicked are not always in sync. Curbing my language on the screen is a no-brainer. Controlling the thoughts in my head is beyond my human ability. But what comes out of my mouth is up to me. Thankfully, more often than not, it’s the angel of restraint who is granted the floor.

Let’s look at a few examples:

Scenario #1: It’s about three weeks into the virtual school year. By this time, we are set-up up for learning. Our notebooks, focusing on various subjects across the curriculum, are ready to go. Several classroom routines have been established, and a few class jokes have found their way into our vernacular, both on and off the screen.

“Okay, gang. Let’s take out our Science Notebooks,” I urge with an overly enthusiastic chirp. “Hold them up, so I can see them!”

This is ridiculous,” the voice in my head begins. “Are they seriously expecting us to teach like this?

In one rectangle on-screen, I see the kids who are physically in the classroom, arms extended high overhead, each set of hands proudly displaying a one-subject, spiral notebook with the words “Science Seekers” written in big, bold marker on each cover. In the other rectangles on screen, most faces at home have been replaced with notebooks in a variety of vivid colors. Some of my chuckleheads are zooming their notebooks in and out, exploring the camera feature on their devices with glee.

They have no idea I’m still trying to figure out how to juggle this impossible situation we’ve all been thrown into. But It’s my job to keep them engaged, to keep them excited about learning (The chirp was a bit much, but I’d rather err on the side of positivity).

It becomes clear that we all haven’t mastered the mute button when I hear a stern, adult voice coming from somewhere off screen. “Hold it up before she yells at you!” it commands.

The Voice in my head: What the…? Who is that? Are you kidding me? Why is someone intentionally striking fear of me into their child? Why are you even in the room, lady? Get out of here and let me do my job!

The Voice on the Screen: “Nobody is in trouble, gang. I just want to make sure everybody has what they need before we jump into Science today,” it assures everyone in the room (on or off the screen).

Question: Is it possible for a modified chirp to drip with sarcasm?

Scenario #2: We are doing a spot check, making sure everybody is able to find (and open) an assignment in our virtual classroom. Most of the kids are navigating the clicking quite well, but a few are having some trouble.

“If you were able to get into the assignment, go ahead and begin while I help some of our friends click around to see what’s glitching out on them.”

As my more tech savvy learners begin, I notice something strange at the bottom of one of the screens at home. It takes a moment before I realize what it is.

The Voice in my head: Oh my God. That’s somebody’s forehead! Are you kidding me? Who is crawling around on the floor under their child trying to do the clicking? Why are you in the room? That poor kid. Holy shit. You’ve gotta’ be kidding me. Your kid is already in the assignment and doing just fineGrrrr.

The Voice on the Screen: “You’ve got it, _______. Go ahead and keep going while I check to make sure everyone else is all-set too.”

Scenario #3: We are now over three months into the school year. We have become a thriving community of learners…glitches and all. Virtual learning has now offered me a much deeper sense of what my students are living with at home. COVID-19 has given us all a front row seat into each other’s lives, reaching far beyond the boundaries of our physical classroom.

It’s late. It’s been a long day. I click open an email from a parent and read the request. “Can you tell me how to check the assignments again? I stumble upon them from time to time, but I can never remember how to get in there to check on how things are going.”

The Voice in my head: How hard can it be, lady? It’s two clicks. I worked so hard to develop a Virtual Back-to-School Night presentation that you clearly ignored. I’ve sent five updates home, each containing important information and links to all of the resources you need to stay aware of what’s going on at school. If I can juggle single motherhood and still keep all of these kids engaged and enthusiastic about learning, why can’t you get your shit together?

The angel in my head is suddenly requesting time on the floor.

“Shhhh, Mary,” she soothes. “Calm down. Maybe she has a lot of stuff going on in her life too. Maybe she’s just overwhelmed right now. You know exactly what overwhelmed feels like,” her soft, feathery voice reminds me. “Are you forgetting all of the incredible support and generosity you’ve been given this year from the other parents? Remember, you only see glimpses of her world. You don’t know the whole backstory…and she doesn’t know yours.”

Damn, I hate when that angel is right.

I ask my students to step into the character’s shoes when they read. I tell them stories about my life, my children, my family, my friends. And I ask them to look for their own text-to-life connections, to try to empathize while they read, to think about what is happening in the story, in an effort to understand why characters do what they do, think what they think, and see the world the way they see it.

Maybe it’s time to take a lesson from my own plan book. Maybe I just need to embrace the halo and the horns and wait for the plot to unfold.