Let’s Play Pretend

Let’s play pretend.

Imagine you just got a new job. You’re straight out of school, so you have no experience in the workforce. The company that just hired you has a way of doing business, and you don’t have enough experience to question it. You simply wanted a job, and now you have this one.

Every day you are going to go to a big office complex where a thousand other people work. The person from HR who hires you, and who you will never see again, explains that your responsibility is to watch two movies each day and take a little test about each one. That’s it. That’s your new job.


But when you new boss shows up and pops in the first movie, it’s Part 3 of a trilogy. All the questions on the quiz require knowledge of the first two movies. You do your best to guess. It’s exhausting. You are not told how well you guessed on the test. The boss pops in the next movies. It’s also Part 3, but of a completely different trilogy you haven’t seen. You take another quiz. You don’t know how you’re doing. You go home.

The next day, the boss pops in another Part 3. Then another.

The next day, the movies are still a Part 3s, but they’re in a foreign languages with subtitles.

The next day they’re in a foreign language with subtitles … that are in a different foreign language.

The next day the movies are still in a foreign language with a different foreign language’s subtitles, but now  the movies are set on fast forward. Now you watch three of them, all still Part 3s of trilogies you haven’t seen. You take three quizzes that you don’t understand.

How many days would it take before you’d start to put your head down, or zone out, or look at your phone during the movies?

“Um, excuse me,” you ask your boss one day. “Could I maybe see Part 1 this time so I do better on the quiz?”

“Sorry,” she says. “I know this is a difficult job you have, but I’m not allowed to let you do anything else. The folks at corporate headquarters decided this was the best way.”

“But what good does it do them to make me do it this way?” you ask.

“Oh, trust me, I sent them a thousand memos about that. I’ve emails members of the company’s board. I even called the CEO. He said he supported me and told me to tell you he cares about you, too, but this is all we’re allowed to do.”

Then she hits play, and you start watching another movie. Part 3. In a foreign language. With foreign subtitles. On fast forward.

You keep working there. You are so depressed that when you get home, you just lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling. It’s amazing that you even get up and go to work each day. At work, you’re tempted to punch somebody in the break room just to feel … anything.

Regardless of your attentiveness, payday rolls around. You were never told how much you would be paid. You work up the courage to ask your new boss. She says, “Oh, didn’t HR mention this? You get paid in a lump sum in 13 years, but only if you do well enough on the quizes.”

What would you do? How many of you would want to quit?

“Also,” the boss explains, “you aren’t allowed to quit for 11 years. Then you can choose to quit, but if you do, you won’t get paid anything. It will be like you were never here. Actually, it will be worse than that, because you’ll get nothing and I’ll get a pay cut.”

Crazy, right?


This is what school FEELS like to a student who is a couple years behind. Maybe he came into the school behind due to poverty. Maybe he was neglected or abused at home. Maybe his parents are great, but they’re working three jobs to make ends meet and didn’t have the means and time and skills to read to him and nurture him get him fully prepared. And English isn’t his first language. And he has a learning disability. If he can keep his phone in his pocket, keep his head off the desk, and guess well enough on the state tests, in thirteen years he gets a diploma, and the school isn’t punished for having a high dropout rate.

So what would you want if you had that job? My guess? You’d want the boss to start popping in Part 1 instead of Part 3. You’d want to get to watch the movie a couple times before taking a quiz on it, if you didn’t feel like you understood it the first time. You’d want it to be in your own language until you learned enough of another one that you could at least read the subtitles, and you’d want to have those subtitles in that new language kept there until you had mastered that language. You’d want the movie to be slowed down. You would want a boss who cared about you enough to change your working conditions. You might even need the healthcare plan to include mental health coverage to deal with your depression. And you’d want to feel rewarded regularly and not just with a ceremony and a certificate at the end.

In educational-ese, you want ESL services, Special Ed. services, school counselors, differentiated instruction, and a teacher who views students through a trauma-informed lens with the autonomy to teach students at their level rather than a level mandated by someone who doesn’t know anything about individual students. That’s what you would want for yourself, so certainly it’s what you want for your community’s kids.

I’m lucky to work in a school that has ESL services, SpEd services, counselors, differentiation, and which is in the process of becoming a trauma informed school. I’m glad that we care about how our students feel and not just the scores they get on a test or the number of them that hold on until graduation. It’s not like that at every school. I’m lucky. But I still need to remember that the kid in my classroom who is putting her head down or pulling out her cellphone or simply not showing up each day might not be doing those things out of a lack of respect for me or a lack of motivation. In fact, if I’m doing my job right and providing her with interesting and challenging lessons, and if she’s still doing one or all of those things, instead of getting angry with her, I need to figure out how to meet her where she’s at so she can feel successful on a regular basis. As one of my colleagues, Nikki Hansen, said to me today, “Sometimes you have to say, ‘The needs of the group and the lesson are not going to merge.’” That’s true for the whole class, and it’s also true for the individual student. Sometimes the needs of the kid and the needs of the lesson aren’t going to merge, and I need to change what I’m doing for the sake of the kid, not ignore the kid for the sake of the lesson.

Sounds like an easy fix, right? If so, you’ve never taught 150 kids a day.


So this is how you can help:

When you hear politicians or talking heads pretending they support teachers and students but then cutting the very things you would want if you were that employee at that imaginary company, call them on it.

When you hear them talk about test scores and drop out rates, ask them what services they want to provide to help those students.

When those politicians say they want to give me a gun but also want to shorten the school year and increase the size of classes, point out that they are not making kids safe; kids are safer in school than they are at home, so shortening the school year is a safety issue, and the absolute best way to reduce the number of school shootings is to reduce class sizes and train teachers in trauma informed  approaches so that we spot and connect with that scared, lonely, angry kid before he becomes a mass shooter. That’s how we keep our kids safe. Not by shooting that kid and the kids on the other side of the drywall behind him.

And when some billionaires want to cut their own taxes at the expense of kids and promise to kick a little bit of that tax cut down to you if you’ll agree to decimate your local school, point out that this is a really bad deal for everyone but them. Increased investments in schools are just good math. Would you rather pay a little less for a kid’s education now and then pay for that kid’s drug problem because he was so depressed he decided to self-medicate? Or worse, pay $1000 less now for his education each year and pay $80,000 a year for his stay in a for-profit prison? (Hint: The billionaire wants you to take that deal. He holds shares in that for-profit prison.)  Or would you rather pay a little more in taxes now so that kid gets a good job and can pay that back himself? Maybe he’ll be the police officer who protects your house. Maybe he’ll be the plumber who comes to your rescue when the pipes freeze on Christmas day. Maybe he’ll be the nurse who lifts you out of bed and gets you to the toilet when you’re in a nursing home. Yes, maybe that very kid who was behind in school and didn’t speak English and had a learning disability and a history of abuse will become the oncologist who removes the cancer that was going to kill your spouse. It is possible. With the right support, kids can overcome just about anything. Make sure the people you vote for are aware you see through their talking points and want to support that kid.

Oh, and one more thing: Sometimes my lessons aren’t Citizen Kane or The Godfather or Black Panther. There are a lot of days when my lessons are The Godfather 3, or Transformers 3, or Jaws 3, and I admit I’ve had some that turned out to be Pluto Nash and Ishtar and Planet Nine from Outer Space. Making a major motion picture that everybody likes is really hard, and teaching a lesson that works for every kid is a little bit harder. So give your kid’s teacher some grace and the same supports you would want for yourself.