by Kate Flowers, Denver, CO (in town for Heinemann Fellows Meeting)
My journey to becoming an empowered teacher–which I like to call a badass teacher–is, like most journeys, long and winding. But let me just tell you about one moment that captures the excitement, hope, and fear that teachers feel when they start to own their power.
Fittingly, this story starts in an airport. And it starts with books. And writing. Three big themes of my life, and, if you are an English teacher like me, you know to pay attention to things that come in threes.
It was November 18, 2015, and after a frantic twenty-four hours involving writing lesson plans, packing, and preparing for my first ever round table, I readied to board my plane in San Jose. I was on my way to my first ever Annual Meeting of the National Writing Project and my second National Council of Teachers of English conference in Minneapolis
The truth is, I was feeling as far away from being a badass as possible. I felt like a fraud. I was going to the Mecca of English teachers questioning if I could find a completely different way to do my job. I was still shell-shocked from spending hours and hours at Panera grading painful essays I inflicted on my students in order to prepare them for the upcoming mandatory district timed writing assessment. I knew how to teach writing, but this kind of writing, and the teaching it required in order to help students meet the district’s performance expectations, violated everything I believed about teaching and writing from my years in the San Jose Area Writing Project. But I was a team player, a good soldier, and hey, who the hell did I think I was, any way?
As my flight started to board, I made a horrifying realization. That extra carry on that the gate agent offered to check for free held all my reading material for the flight. (This happened again this year, too.) For a bibliophile like me, hours on a plane with nothing to read equates to torture. So desperately, as bored travelers filed onto our flight, I ran to the nearest news stand, which only had one small stand of business, inspirational, and religious books.
Scanning the titles, I grabbed a yellow book with an embarrassing title: You are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life. I was so horrified by the in-your-face title that after I had settled into my window seat, I stuck post-its all over the cover so none of my fellow passengers would think that I had the gall to think that I was a badass. Because, really, who do I think I am?
An hour later, five chapters in, I had laughed, cringed and cried as Jen Sincero took me through the first part of the book, which she titles “How You Got This Way.” Another hour in, and I finished Part 2, “How to Embrace Your Inner Badass.” At that point, I started to wonder if maybe I really could be, maybe even already was, a badass.
I dug in my purse for a pen, and lacking any notebooks, which were also in the checked bag, I scribbled the following in the back of the book:
What if I never graded an essay again? What if we stopped the practice of single work summative writing grades? How would you give a writing grade then? Portfolios? Process?
Here’s the thing: I’d be a completely, blissfully happy English teacher if I just didn’t have to grade essays. What’s the purpose of grading an essay? It doesn’t make a person a better writer–it often hurts more than it helps. But effort grades seem fraudulent.
As I closed the book, almost breathless with this crazy idea, my chest hummed with hope. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just made my first foray into the land of empowered teaching. I was discovering my inner badass.