Of ants and orchids

18 Sep

South Florida defines transition. Its very nature is ever-shifting and wild. This makes it the perfect place to rip yourself from comfort.

It is a collision of things you would never expect to find together in one place—condominiums and panthers and raw wood and hypermarkets and Monkey Jungles and strip malls and superhighways and groves of carnivorous plants and theme parks and royal palms and hibiscus trees and those hot swamps with acres and acres that no one has ever seen—all toasting together under the same sunny vault of Florida sky.

….

Sometimes I think I’ve figured out some order in the universe, but then I find myself in Florida, swamped by incongruity and paradox, and I have to start all over again.

-Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief

We have four species of ants living in our house, including giant carpenter ants and the invasive, persistent white-footed ants who form super colonies. As in multiple queens fed by foraging workers who serve more than one mother. The lines between colonies become invisible  since they all share a communal stomach. This means the same amount of bait toxicant that would normally eliminate a colony invading your house is just a drop in the ocean. Since the super colony can extend at least a football field’s length away from wherever you happen to observe it, you need more than a drop to stop the ants from marching like, well, ants.

In this kind of environment, you adjust to having ants around. It’s weird to brush your teeth in the morning and watch them crawling into a Terro bait inside your medicine cabinet, sure. But they aren’t actually stopping me from good dental hygiene. Do they occasionally crawl inside the water glass? Yes. I’ve learned to keep the glass on the bedside table and take it with me to the sink. Adaptations.

I’ve turned a new corner in my transition this year. Last year, I fixated on the ants. I felt them crawling on me even when they weren’t touching me. When I saw them on the kitchen counter, I worried about my food being contaminated. I obsessed over how to expel the current ants and stop future ones from coming in. Every new place I found an ant, I alerted my entomologist husband, as if to say: “Isn’t it your job to control this?” I could have this many ants on my own!

My professional life felt like it was spinning out of control: I had questioned my identity as a teacher all the way down to its ugly, seedy core. For the first time in my life, I was honestly investigating other careers. The merit pay system instituted in Florida that set out to dismiss poor teachers and reward the good ones had given ineffective administrators tools to micromanage and inflict doubt upon those who already practiced heavy introspection. The others learned to get all the surface things shiny.

There is an argument that strong teachers shouldn’t worry about this system, as it’s set out to codify just where they excel. Let me be clear: I have no worries about losing my job due to this evaluation. I’ll keep being “effective.” But what I’m already seeing is mediocre teachers performing to get these marks. They give the kids scripts and follow principals’ fixations on surface elements to ensure that data mark gets checked. I also see excellent teachers who cannot tolerate less than “innovative” ratings because they know they are highly effective and want the paperwork to back it up. While I understand the former’s insecurities leading them to performance AND the latter’s need to have evaluations that reflect their master teaching, I had to withdraw from this battle in order to stay in the profession.

Last year I read obsessively about what was happening to teachers all over the country; I became impassioned; I formed discussion groups; I wrote things. Then I spent too much of last year in misery because I kept trying to stop the ants from getting in. I needed to make sense of it. I needed rational voices leading my people. They weren’t to be found in any capacity that controlled my reality. It started to feel like more than just a bad year to get through, and more like a culture change that was here to stay. The more I educated myself on this culture, the more I decided I was ready to leave teaching.

Those thoughts were so foreign to me that I often felt like a stranger to myself. Thankfully, I had colleagues I respected who saw me through one of toughest years in my career, one so riddled with self-doubt that I nearly crumbled at one point. I had not until last year been treated as anything but a professional. I saw my administrators as my support system, not people working against me and my fellow teachers. Now I am in an environment where from the school-level to the district to the state, I am to be micromanaged. I cannot be trusted to educate myself on the best teaching methods or to constantly perfect my craft a little each year. I need to be mandated down to a script on how to get my students to be critical thinkers. This irony escapes no teachers, but most education policy makers.

The blessings of not having been micromanaged my entire career made me ill-prepared to be treated as a factory worker instead of a teacher. I worked a few temp jobs during the summers in factories in my formerly-industrial hometown. I expected to be micromanaged there; I was inspecting air-conditioner parts–I needed black and white directions on what to do in order to be successful on the job. As much as educational reformists want to make the art of teaching an industrialized matter, teachers all over this country know it’s gray matter. We help mold that matter of our students into useable skills; we help them become bigger thinkers and better writers. Unfortunately, the people who are data-marking us do not always have the ability to recognize it even when they see it because it doesn’t look like the blueprint a standardized testing company passed down to them.

I chose to stop listening to all the noise and listen only to my respected colleagues and my own voice. That voice told me to focus on what’s best for the students. I will take the advice of my superiors when it makes me a better teacher (I am not obstinate), but when it feels like a performance for an adult versus a better lesson for my students, I will go my own way. I will always be rated “effective,” though likely not “highly effective” for this refusal to play the game. I’m okay with that; it frees me up to actually be innovative.

If this system somehow rates me as “ineffective,” then I’ll know it’s my time to leave. Not because I haven’t done ineffective things in my classroom; I have and will again as I continue to try new things that challenge both my students and me. I will learn from those failures and turn them into future successes. Any system that determines that process isn’t “successful” is not a place for me.

Here’s what “reformers” miss: If you’re busy trying not to look bad, you miss the chance to get good. I’m old enough to not be content with looking good; I want to BE good. That’s the same I want for my students.

For now, I’ve found a way to ignore the noise that made me start to hate teaching last year. I know this won’t last forever, but at least for now I’m enjoying being in the classroom again. I have twice the students and half the planning time this year, but compared to my outlook last year, I’m still happier.

Florida has transformed me into a person who appreciates the ants as much as the orchids. It’s impossible to board out nature down here: you have to embrace it. Grass grows inside our screened porch during rainy season; the moat that forms around our house leaks into the guest room. We have to wait until it dries out completely before we can paint the sealant on the house, but it keeps on raining.

Before the swale drains out, the ants seek refuge inside our house again. They eat the bait and feed it to another inch’s worth of the colony’s trajectory; a few more drops in the ocean. We learn to accept the ants as temporary residents and go on about our day. I barely notice them now, as they are much reduced since the initial invasion. It’s the moment I stopped focusing on them that I stopped viewing them as obstacles to my happiness. I finally stepped back to take it all in.

It was in the nature of Florida, this kind of abundance, the overrichness of living things–so many of everything that all of it blurs together and you have to decide whether to be part of the blur or to be a distinct and separate being.

-Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief

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2 Responses to “Of ants and orchids”

  1. Eleanor Chadwell September 18, 2012 at 7:58 pm #

    Excellent writing…you should move to a journalist profession and get out of teaching!! Proud of you though!!!

  2. Ida September 26, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    “Here’s what ‘reformers’ miss: If you’re busy trying not to look bad, you miss the chance to get good. I’m old enough to not be content with looking good; I want to BE good. That’s the same I want for my students.” <== I love this! Beautiful post, Kara! Has Patty read it? She would like it too.
    :)

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