Dear Fifth-Grade Teacher, 

I know we haven’t met. In fact, we won’t learn your name till the end of the summer, and even then, chances are I won’t know who you are. However, as my daughter’s teacher for the next school year, there are some things I’d like you to know.

My daughter was never one of those children who cried on their first day of school, not even in the early years when she was dropped off at Pre-K. She’s always been eager to learn, eager to play, and eager to please. Every day when I would pick her up and ask her how her day was, she would tell me, Great! Amazing! Awesome!

Even if she couldn’t articulate why, her enthusiasm spoke for itself.

This last year, however, things changed. Many a day I would hear her describe school as boring. While she still never complained about going, come morning, it was a little tougher to get her out of bed.

On the return from Spring Break, a glorious two-week reprieve from school, we sat in the car at 7 am outside in the parking lot as I prepared to drop her off.

“Are you excited to go back?” I asked. “To see your friends?”

“I’m excited to see my friends,” she said, “but not to go back.”

“Why not?” I asked. “I thought you loved school.”

“I used to, but now all we do is test.”

Oh, Fifth-Grade Teacher, I watched as she walked away with her backpack slung over her shoulder and my heart sank.

Believe me when I say that I don’t blame her fourth-grade teacher. I blame the system. It’s a system that I know needs to be changed, and as an educator myself, I also know that in many ways, we are powerless to change it.

Still, there is hope, and that hope lies with the teachers who decide, every day, to teach students, not standards. Teachers who focus on creating relationships, who really get to know their kids, and who use that knowledge to make them love learning.

So, as you tackle the enormous task of taking on another class of students this next school year, these are the things I want you to know about my daughter:

Should there ever be a thunderstorm, you will find us sitting on the front porch to watch the sky; she’s been known to bring in facts about lightning that she’s researched and written down to share with the class. This is a girl who talks of one day becoming a meteorologist (that is, if she doesn’t become a veterinarian or a preschool teacher or an artist who lives on a farm). Her dreams stretch wider than the horizon, and I want nothing more than for her to continue dreaming.

When given the chance, my daughter still creates things out of Play-Doh and when she gets a Lego set, she doesn’t stop building till it is complete. She won’t let me sell her Lincoln Logs at a yard sale either, and it’s not uncommon for her to bring home treasures she’s found on the ground—a broken pen or scrap of metal—for what purpose, I’m not sure, but she collects them all the same.

I want you to know that she is good at math, but she doesn’t think she enjoys it. She’s been given packet after packet and she has told me, that when she has one, she stares at the clock and wishes time would speed up so she can go to lunch. Yet when she and her sister organized their Beanie Boos alphabetically by name, they created a graph of the data, and from her time spent in the kitchen with me, she understands fractions and units of measure, and she can tell you firsthand what happens to a sticky toffee cake when you mistake a tsp of baking soda for a TBSP.

If you take my daughter to the swing set, I know she could learn physics. If you allow her to build a bird house, she will learn about angles, but if you put another worksheet in front of her, I fear she could lose math forever.

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My daughter will tell you that she doesn’t like reading, but when a graphic novel is placed in her hands, she will devour it in one day, yet from the time she was little, she’s preferred non-fiction. Many a night we sat on her bed reading What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? As the child of an English teacher, my daughter will never want for books. Still, when I’ve tried to read the classics with her, beloved titles from my own childhood like Where the Red Fern Grows, we both gave up, and we only made it through the first of Harry Potter.

When my daughter began school, she was eager to learn about bones and bugs, and over the years, we’ve watched every nature documentary available on Netflix. When she asks a question we don’t know the answer to, like what makes a cat purr, we look it up. When we’ve had nothing but clear Nevadan skies, she searches for lightning storms on YouTube.

You see, in this world of technology, there’s another thing we will never want for, so it’s no wonder why she tires of writing her spelling words in ABC order week after week.

The other evening, we sat on the back deck and I asked her, “If you could learn about anything you wanted in the fifth grade, what would you want to study?”

I’d just finished reading What School Could Be by Ted Dintersmith, a book I believe every teacher should read.

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{via Goodreads}

She thought seriously about my question for a few minutes before she answered.

“Animals,” she finally said. “Like the human body, only animal bodies.”

We talked at length about which animals she’d study and what she hoped to learn before she asked, “Wait. Do you know who my fifth-grade teacher is going to be?”

I didn’t.

“So how do you know I am getting to learn about whatever I want?”

I spoke honestly. “I don’t.”

“So that’s not what I’m doing next year?”

Disappointment shadowed her face. “Oh man, you had me all excited.”

This. This is what I want you to know.  

There are a hundred embers burning in my child. I’m trusting you to kindle them. Ignite her imagination. Watch as they turn into sparks that jump into flames. Make school a place where she can be on fire.

Between the tests, between the things we cannot change, make sure there’s enough oxygen to keep them aglow. Do whatever it takes to not let them die.

My daughter is counting on you.

We all are.

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What They Don’t Teach Teachers

Recently, I administered the writing portion of the End-of-Course Exam for my Sophomores. A few weeks later, I stood before a room of Juniors to proctor the ACT. If you haven’t guessed, we’ve entered that fun time of the school year where one attempts to teach in between all the testing that takes place.

When you are training to become a teacher, proctoring exams is not something they teach you. You don’t practice reading aloud mind-numbing scripts or circulating a room for hours ensuring that kids are bubbling in the right section, that their number two pencils are sharp, and that nobody barfs on his exam.

There are many things they don’t teach future teachers—things that, if they did, might make them reconsider the profession long before they start posting their paychecks on social media.

And maybe that’s why. Still, I can’t help thinking that novice teachers might benefit from some realistic preparation for the career they’re about to embark on.

Here’s what else they don’t teach teachers:

They don’t teach you how to breathe through your mouth when you are stuck in a windowless classroom that reeks of B.O. and where the use of scented fragrance items like Glade Plug-ins and perfumed sprays have been banned by the district because it might trigger a student’s allergic reaction.

You know what I’m allergic to? Overactive pubescent sweat glands and a lack of deodorant, and you might be too. Better to find out now while there’s still time.

They don’t teach you how to pee on a strict schedule. Much like Pavlov’s dogs salivated at the sound of a bell, teachers hear a bell and it signals their full bladders that it’s time to go, so it would make sense that during any teacher preparation program, future educators were not allowed to use the restroom from 7:30 AM till 3 in the afternoon.

A fun side-effect to this kind of rigorous urinary training is how often you’ll exercise your right to pee at free will when you aren’t at school.

This feast-or-famine mentality isn’t just confined to the water closet though. Follow a herd of hungry teachers to the local Port-of-Subs on a professional development day, and you’ll see what I mean.

They don’t teach you how to pack your lunch. Every. Damn. Day.

If you thought living off PB&J and Top Ramen ended in college, you were mistaken. There will be weeks when you survive on half a package of saltine crackers and dried out baby carrots—and not because it is a new diet trend.

In the week leading up to payday, teacher lunches get very, very sad.

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{via sad desk lunch}

I’m sure there’s a few wanna-be teachers out there who naively think they’ll just go down to the cafeteria for the hot lunch special. But with only thirty minutes, you’ve got to make sure you call that parent; answer that email; run a few copies; explain to those five kids who just walked in what they’ll be missing this afternoon as they leave early for their baseball game, track meet, or dentist appointment— And make sure you get a chance to use the restroom.

Shit. Was that the bell already?

On the flip side though, consuming that expired yogurt from that back of your mini-fridge might help you ward off whatever flu/virus has been circulating the school for the past six months straight.

Or… it might give you diarrhea.

If I was in charge of preparing teachers for the job, I’d make sure that each time they were about to teach, none of the technology worked.

I love sitting in on interviews where the applicant shows a sample lesson plan they developed in their undergrad program.

“It says here that each student gets out his or her Chromebook. Can you tell me what this lesson would look like with a dried out Expo marker and a copy of Huck Finn where the last 30 pages have fallen out?”

But just to be sure that they knew what they were getting into, if I was working to prepare teachers for the job, I’d make it like that one episode of The Cosby Show where Cliff Huxtable tries to teach Theo a lesson in financial responsibility by giving him Monopoly money and charging him rent. I’d make sure that rookie teachers knew how they’d live on that first-year salary once the student loans started rolling in. It wouldn’t take long before they realized why I ate a brown banana for breakfast and have a hole in  my shoe.

Of course, not everything would be designed to discourage teachers from the profession. There are many perks to working in education.

Shoot, it isn’t every job where you still get to take those awkward school photos straight into your fifties. Year after year, you can collect proof of how this job has aged you.

And let’s not forget summers off! You know, the summers that every non-educator wants to remind you of each time you mention your career.

Summer sure does come in handy for working a second job, lesson planning for the next year, taking professional development classes, and getting rid of that relentless twitch that developed after putting in the average 10 hours a day that most teachers do.

With a return date of July 31st this year though, I might still be twitching.

Now that I think about it, maybe they should leave teacher preparation programs alone. I guess there’s plenty of time to learn how to break up fights and prom grind sessions whilst on-the-job.

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