Losing Mary Anne

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I suffered a shock in the copy room last week. I was standing in the line of waiting teachers, half-listening to the drone of complaints as I waited my turn. “Mary Anne” was ahead of me, feeding papers into one of the machines.

“It’s this () place,” she said, a note of deep disgust in her voice.

I’m not even sure what people were complaining about, but that comment woke me up immediately. Mary Anne?!?? I stared at this stalwart defender of educational best practices, this nearly-perfect, attractive, young teacher who coaches various sports in the afternoons and joins committees without caring if she will be paid. Mary Anne has always supported her Principal. She has always been true to her school.

We are in deep trouble. No school can afford to lose its Mary Annes. The Mary Annes keep our schools running. They are the boots on the ground in American education.

I am no Mary Anne. I remain deeply suspicious of educational “best practices,” hewing to the views of African-American author and economist Thomas Sowell, who once said, “Much of the social history of the Western world over the past three decades has involved replacing what worked with what sounded good.” Many best practices fall into that category as far as I am concerned, starting with the indiscriminate inclusion that now regularly places students who are six or even more years apart in academic understanding into the same classroom. But this post is not about me.

Mary Annes hold up our schools. They cut out giraffes and monkeys into the wee hours of the night. They run the school store before and after school. They volunteer for extra, unpaid cafeteria duty. They stand shivering outside at the end of the school day, shepherding students safely into parent cars while directing driveway traffic. They prepare clever hallway decorations using student handprints as turkeys on Thanksgiving. At Christmas, they organize and set-up the toy drive. They chaperone Valentine’s Day Dances in gyms filled with red and pink crepe paper that they themselves had hung up hours earlier, before setting out the red and white cupcakes and cookies. They store Pop Tarts in their desks for hungry students. They take Spanish classes to learn to talk with their students’ parents. They diligently review YouTube videos on symmetry, reflections and rotations when these skills are added to the curriculum. They religiously attend professional development activities. Afterwards, they write up their insights to share with the whole staff, recommending the new cross-curricular XYZ Vocabulary Game in fervent emails, as they zealously prepare extra XYZ Boards for other teachers to use. Mary Annes don’t doubt their colleagues will benefit from the new XYZ game.

Mary Annes are painfully sincere. I saw “The Fugitive” some years back with a cousin who has deep streak of Mary Anne in her. At one point, when Richard Kimball was inside a charity hospital in his search for the one-armed man, my cousin leaned to me and said, “It must be so hard for him to be in that hospital with all those people who need help when he can’t help them.” That thought would never, ever have come to the forefront of my mind.

So my planet tilted ever so slightly in its orbit when Mary Anne put down her own school. I have taken multicultural awareness with this woman, who found my slightly cynical viewpoint sometimes unappetizing. Mary Annes tend to believe that efforts can always improve bad situations. The fact that current efforts to raise test scores might be having the opposite effect, might be doing irreparable harm to the self-esteem of some of the kids at the bottom of the test pool, has escaped many Mary Annes. These are the teachers who believe what they are told about best practices, who believe what the state representative says about the need for higher accountability, who trust that their leaders are making decisions to provide long-term gains, even if evidence for this future improvement seems to be lacking in the short-run. Mary-Annes often read the summary of the research study, or the distilled summary in popular magazines. They hardly ever investigate the methodology behind a study. They trust people.

If an authority figure in a professional development meeting states that large numbers of green plants combined with nature sounds and lavender incense will improve student performance, the next time I walk into Mary Anne’s classroom I may find myself ducking around overabundant greenery while listening to chimpanzees and elephants as I gag on the residue from lavender smoke. Data walls improve performance? Mary Anne will have data all over the walls. Red pens harm self-esteem? All of Mary Anne’s corrections will be done in a cheery, purple Sharpie possibly with encouraging side notes added to even the sloppiest work.

I gave my own Mary Anne a hug a few minutes later, after listening to her frustrations.

Hugs R Me. I am making a conscious effort to try to hold up friends and colleagues. I added my Mary Anne to the list of people around me who need support. I also shifted my view of district reform efforts. When reform alienates the Mary Annes of a school, reform can’t be going well.

Eduhonesty: Mary Annes are the backbone of America’s educational system. I am being slight unfair to my colleague who has spoken up in the past, offering a number of insightful moments. She’s sharper than I have made her out to be. But that sincere belief in the goodness of people and in the expertise of administrators? My Mary Anne has always exuded that belief, that sense of being a solid team player.

Mary Anne matters. She is a woman who will coach for a pittance and work on projects for free. She keeps up on best practices. She tries to deliver what administration wants, whether those demands are feasible or not. She works endlessly. Will she be here next year? I’d say the odds are good that this energetic, dedicated, young woman will find another post. Our loss will be some less-frantic school’s gain.

I’d also give admin somewhere close to that proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of replacing Mary Anne with anyone capable of filling her boots.