Saturday, May 7, 2016

Out of Context

Writers and readers love words.  We collect them. We hoard them.  We savor them on our tongues. We dole them out like tiny treasures.  While I have always viewed myself as a reader, I have never viewed myself as a writer.   A few short years ago, I took a class on teaching writing from a gifted teacher and poet.  At the beginning of the course, she handed out paper and told us to write for fifteen minutes.  Truly, it was the longest fifteen minutes of my life.  I told her that I could not write.  I stated that I was there to learn to teach writing, not to learn how to write.  She was wonderful and by the end of the course, I felt that I had made a new friend.  She gently encouraged me to try writing on my own.  For the first time, I started to understand the connection between being a writer and teaching writing.  When my first piece of writing was published I sent it to her immediately.  I was so excited and proud to share it with her.

Since then, I have started to write in earnest.  I find it cathartic.  I write and revise often.  I choose words carefully knowing that my words are being read by others.  Often when a blog post is finished, I feel exhausted, drained and exhilarated all at the same time.  Publishing a blog post feels a bit like watching your child hop on the bus for Kindergarten for the first time.  You are thrilled to see them go, but sad at the same time because you realize that a little piece of your heart just went with them.  As a teacher, every day I pour my heart and soul into my classroom. When the frustrations or the joy spills over, it often ends up becoming a piece of writing.  Teaching writing to my students has become better as a result.  I understand their challenges and accomplishments on a different level.

Teachers know the power of words.  We know that our choice of words and our tone can have tremendous impact.  We know how important it is to verbally praise a child, choosing words that will create lasting change.  Teaching children to write as a form of self-expression is crucial to their success in school.  We instruct vocabulary to help increase and expand a child's language.  Lessons on word choice and contextual framework are integral parts of writing instruction.  Additionally, Teachers understand that our words are often used by children as they play, experiment with writing and converse with others.

However, as I am learning, once you publish your words, they are no longer your own.  Adversaries attempt to parse your words, turning and twisting them, taking them out of context as a strategy to embarrass, control or silence the writer.  Those same words, meant to convey a message of hope or joy or awareness, become a landmine of hurt.  Your words are intentionally misinterpreted to fit a narrative that was not of your own creation.  This is nothing new, as it is tactic that has been used for centuries.  Recently, I discovered there is a special name for this when it pertains to blogging.  It is called Gap Hunting.  According to the author of this blog post:

Unfortunately, Gap Hunting is becoming a very common phenomenon in the world of blogging. Often, “The Gap Hunter” will twist your words, and therefore your message, and will do so by letting you know this in public (usually in your comments section). Gap Hunting is usually not a typical, respectful disagreement between bloggers, but it is more of a systematic, personal attack on you, using your own words, so that The Gap Hunter cannot be disproved.  Often, there is no other point or purpose behind “gap hunting” other than to grab attention and to discredit you.

Gap Hunting is not just limited to the comment section, but also to having a blog combed over to find reasons to paint the writer in a different and often negative light.  Gap Hunting is being used by more than just internet trolls.  It is being used by anyone who wants to find a reason to discredit, bully, harass or menace someone whose opinion is different than theirs.

Teachers, as we all know, are often held to a higher standard.  It is a common perception amongst many that teachers should be okay with lower pay and challenging work environments because what we do is a "higher calling" and we are "in it for the kids".  Elementary teachers are portrayed as a bizarre combination of June Cleaver, Mary Poppins and the weird hostess from Romper Room.  God forbid we enjoy an adult beverage or swear outside the workplace on our own time.  Having an opinion, or being sarcastic is not tolerated.  Because we spend our working hours with children, we are often treated like we are the age of the children we teach.  Like our students, we are given more and more to do and less and less control over how we do it.  We are told how to behave and called out when our behavior is not to someone else's liking.  When we express strong opinions, we are told that our words, or even facial expressions, are "aggressive", "disruptive" and "upsetting".  Amusingly, this often does not happen to middle or high school teachers.  Certainly not to college professors.

In reality,  those of us who teach Elementary School have held our tongues for too long.  We have watched our words.  We've played nice.  We've been polite.  We've been quiet.  We've closed our doors.  We've kept saying, "It can't get worse." and "the pendulum will swing back".  We buried our heads in the sand.  We didn't want to upset anyone, much less parents, colleagues and students.  All the while, our rights were being chipped away and our workload was being increased.  Still, we stayed silent.  We did more with less.  We followed the rules.  We were careful not to be controversial out of a combination of fear and our dedication to our students.  We still are.  This is how and why we have found ourselves in the situation we are now in as educators.

I, for one, am not staying silent.  I refuse to allow my words to be used against me.  I refuse to pretend that it will get better, when it is not.  I won't accept promises.  I won't bury my head in the sand.  We are making gains by making noise.  I apologize if I have offended some by my words, but I will not take them back.  I believe in the right to free speech.  I believe that we need to stand up and speak out so that our voices may be heard.  I believe that the only way we will create change is to demand it.  I will continue to choose my words.  They are powerful.  They are important.  They are mine.


  1. Spot on! I've noticed the gap between personality expectations for elementary and secondary teachers. Elementary teachers get dumped on, and if they speak their truth to power about their rights, they get scapegoated and/or shamed as being lazy. Colleagues distance themselves from the assertive, 'dangerous' one. Our silence has permitted a culture of top-down authoritarianism with passive-aggressive behavior as our survival coping mechanism.

    1. I completely agree. I guess "admitting the problem is the first step to solving it"!

  2. THANK YOU for this statement of self-knowledge and self-intent. I need to hear that others feel as strongly as I do that there simply is no more excuse for staying silent and keeping our words to ourselves out of fearing the response of others. I remember all too well that in the last year or two before I was pushed completely out of my teaching assignment for speaking out against test-score abuses that so many of my peers would only advise me to stay silent, to keep my mouth shut and "go along." How sad that since that time the world of public education has only gotten much, much WORSE.