first fortnight

volcano was born on october 14, two weeks overdue, perfect except for her unwillingness to be birthed. at first, with both of us swollen and dazed from the ordeal, she just looked like a generic baby to me — an adorable and adored baby, with a charming cleft chin and invisibly blonde eyebrows — but on the morning of the second day when I picked her up from her bassinet, I was startled to find my own infant self in my arms. it wasn’t just that volcano had my nose or my lips, it was that she suddenly resembled my baby pictures so exactly that I may as well have woken up 32 years and 70 days in the past. it would have been a shift almost entirely in time: volcano and I were born in the same hospital, and from our postpartum room we could see the front door of my childhood apartment building, the rooftop where my mother strung up clotheslines of my diapers to dry in the sun, the same hudson river I remember watching from our sixth-floor windows.

the first days of parenthood are surely overwhelming no matter what, but caring for my doppelgänger made my sense of immense responsibility all the more surreal and extreme. I held my sleeping self in the corner of my arm, tilting my head away from the tapes and tubes of the hep lock. I fed my hungry, gawping self, pulling my rosebud baby lips into the right shape. I watched my husband read myself a board book. I watched the nurses take my tiny six-and-a-half-pound self away to be given a hepatitis B vaccine, and returned with a bandaid that wrapped around my entire thigh. it was as if I had accidentally stumbled into a time loop, and the only way out unscathed was to take perfect care of this child who would grow up to become me. if I didn’t, it seemed reasonable to assume that I would cease to exist in adulthood.

two weeks later, volcano still looks a lot like me, but I’ve gotten used to thinking of her as my daughter, not myself. it helps that the variations in her hairline are clearer now, and that sometimes she lifts the inside edges of her eyebrows in the exact same way that her father does.

what is there to say about becoming a mother that hasn’t been said before? it is almost embarrassingly easy: hold the baby; feed the baby; kiss the baby; instinct makes all the decisions for you. it is almost devastatingly difficult: a walk around the block is a staggering accomplishment; you will continue caring this much about another human’s wellbeing for the rest of your life. it is simultaneously obvious and impossible. the truth is I don’t feel particularly different. I have no sense of being truly changed by the birth of my child. she arrived into a space in my identity that had existed for years, and having it finally filled feels, so far, more inevitable than transformative. and yet, and yet… everything is different now forever.

one hundred percent gestation

today is volcano’s duedate, though apparently not her birthday (unless something truly dramatic happens in the next twelve hours).  I had thought that I was supposed to be physically miserable at this point, but I haven’t once found myself thinking “I am SO SICK of being pregnant.” my feet aren’t even swollen! as much as I am looking forward lying on my stomach again, I can stick it out a little longer.

still. I am ready. the funny thing is that we’re actually not ready, not the way most people seem to be before they have a full-term baby. there is no lovingly decorated nursery for volcano, although she has diapers, clothes, and a minicrib more or less ready to go. (I have to move the mickey mouse ears out of the crib, among other things.) there’s a carseat still wrapped in its plastic, hanging out in her yiayia’s closet, since we don’t have a car, or an empty closet. I’ve crossed off about half of the pre-baby to-do list, watched some youtube videos about hip-safe swaddling techniques, and officially stopped teaching until january. I’m shocked at myself for feeling this way, but that really seems good enough to me.

the other funny thing is that suddenly everyone seems compelled to tell me, “you look great!” I’m pretty sure that’s code for either “you look really pregnant!” or “are you sure you’re actually nine months already?”  depending on whether they know what I used to look like. (last year’s students saw me in the hallway in september and said, “you’re so big!” this year’s students, upon learning that my duedate was less than a month after the start of the year, said, “no! you’re too small!”) I feel like I got pretty lucky with my pregnant body, but I still think the swallowed-a-basketball look is more peculiar-looking than anything else. I haven’t really taken any deliberate belly shots, but I guess today is as good a day as any for a volcano portrait:


see, I’m trying to be chill.

I’m very grateful that, even though I am on the small side, all hand-wringing over the size of my baby has ceased. with pharmaceutical help and a lot of effort, I’ve gained a perfectly respectable amount of weight (27 pounds!), and at our forty-week appointment today the midwife leaned over my belly and said, “you’re a big girl now! time to come out!”

ready when you are, volcano.

thoughts on career teaching

there is an article in yesterday’s new york times titled “at charter schools, short careers by choice.” this phenomenon is not news to anyone who works in education, nor is it completely unique to charter schools. my own teaching career, now at the very beginning of its second decade, still feels relatively short to me, but it has been long enough to make me one of the most senior teachers at my school, and to see me through some significant changes in perspective. being a first- or second-year teacher, especially when you are 23 years old and only beginning to understand the world of adulthood, is in many ways a completely different experience from what my job is now. the most consistent part of that experience for me has been that teaching is always interesting, often fun, and more rewarding than it is demoralizing (though it’s both, on a regular basis). most everything else has changed.

when I started teaching, I understood on an academic level that my more grown-up colleagues, the ones with mortgages and families,  had different priorities from my own. I grasped the reasons that they might be less willing than I was to spend thirteen hours straight in the school building, or more reluctant to answer weekend phone calls from students. but at that point, I have to admit that I couldn’t really imagine why I would want to dedicate less than 80% of my waking life to my job. it felt good to fully immerse myself, because teaching truly and honestly was the most important thing in my life and I liked it that way. now, even though I don’t really want to be separated from my classroom or my leadership roles at school for an entire year, I am already dreading the thought of leaving my twelve-week-old baby, and I can’t imagine that feeling will become any less intense once she is actually born. teaching is never really easy, on the whole, but there were times when it was easier to do something so hard. (and I don’t mean to imply that parenthood is the only thing that is significant enough to be more important, either. everyone’s life expands, whether or not it is because of babies.)

so as someone who truly wants to be a career teacher — to retire from the classroom, not to resign from it — of course I am offended by the idea that my job can be done just as effectively by newbies, and of course I am worried about the aspects of it that feel less than sustainable. but those thoughts and feelings are old hat by now, and don’t really need to be hashed out any more. instead, here are a few less navel-gazey reactions I had to the times article and its accompanying avalanche of comments.

1. wendy kopp is just wrong. this is what she said: “Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers… The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”  this idea is borderline delusional. can you become a good teacher in two years? yes, and I think all schools should make a point of “developing their teachers tremendously.” but if greatness means reaching your full potential — or at least approaching the vertical edge of that asymptote — then you can absolutely not become great in the classroom in two years. I’m not really sure you can do it in ten years. I know I haven’t plateaued yet. when I read this quotation to spider, he said, “no. people who just became great at something don’t quit doing it right away.” I think he has a point. 

2. the alternative is not 30 years of mediocrity (or worse). you see this argument in the comments a lot, or sometimes from educators themselves: better to have someone young and talented for two years than leave a terrible teacher in the classroom for thirty years! or my high school teachers were all old and burned out, I wish I’d had somebody who actually cared. I agree with those statements, at least in the sense that I think teachers who are perpetually unsuccessful or unhappy should stop teaching. the idea that teaching is something you can’t be passionate about or good at for more than a few years, though, is both sad and wrong. professional development for young teachers should be designed to help them become good, quickly, but not to the point that they are completely spent by the time they are 25. we should build their capacity, not overflow it. more veteran teachers like me also need support to continue to develop, because I think the feeling that I am still getting better at my job is one of the things that makes me want to keep going. (and if you haven’t seen it, here’s a report from TNTP about retention of the most effective teachers.)

3. there’s nothing wrong with remaining a teacher. the article mentions a 27-year-old principal who oversees a (small) staff where more than 50% of the teachers are in their first year. being an administrator is undoubtedly a very different job from teaching — honestly, I would leave education altogether before I would take an admin position — and I believe that young principals can be good at their jobs. but truthfully, there is something weird about being evaluated and counseled by people who have significantly less experience than you do. obviously, basic math dictates that this will eventually happen to any veteran teacher who stays in the classroom until retirement, but I’m not sure it should happen so frequently to teachers in their first ten  years. the idea that there is something bigger and better out there than “just” teaching is based either on an undervaluation of what teachers do or an overestimation of what everyone else does. I’m not saying teachers matter the most, but they absolutely don’t matter any less than principals, chancellors, or superintendents. (or doctors. we lose a lot of our young science teachers to medical school.)

4. teacher turnover affects more than just student achievement levels. it’s frustrating to be constantly trying to hire new teachers. it can feel futile to pour two years of support and collaborative work into a new teacher only to have to start again when that person leaves. it’s been harder for me to improve as a department leader than as a teacher because I feel like I keep starting over. of course, none of that is as important as how it affects the students. they notice when teachers leave, and they often express a sense of abandonment when reminiscing about the teachers they had in 9th grade who are gone by the time they graduate. that matters, and it’s something that no amount of intensive preservice preparation, natural teaching talent, or high test scores is going to make up for.