Blair Mishleau

Blair Mishleau portrait

Blair Mishleau came to Minneapolis by way of Chicago after earning a degree in digital journalism and American Sign Language at Columbia College Chicago. He teaches English language learners, and is still getting his sea legs as a 2012 Teach For America corps member. His educational passions include teaching conventional usage, media fluency, and grammatical symbols like the ampersand. 

All Posts by Blair

(Photo Credit:  Renee Barron


Next week, I begin year three in the classroom. This was a choice I had been planning on since before I joined the ’12 corps. I knew I would teach at least three years. It was one of the only things I was very sure of, for some unknown reason.

(Photo: Flickr)

I’ve always wondered how much I work a week as a teacher. Last week, I sat down with six other teachers (at different schools, different grade levels, etc.) and asked them to track their hours worked.

Two things shocked me.

So often, my students view poetry as something removed from their lives. It’s for old people in dusty books. As one of my students put it, “Mr. Mishleau, I’m not a poetry kind of guy.”

What they (and I) didn’t realize, was that some of the best poetry is in them, waiting to come out. Perhaps not in the traditional prose of the old, dead white people Language Arts curriculum tends to emphasize, but in a relevant, modern and uniquely sophisticated style all their own.

Earlier this year, I took a group of five kiddos from my middle school in Minneapolis to Chicago for three full days of writing and educational workshops, regional and national performances and opportunities to network and collaborate with students from across the nation.

Louder Than A Bomb, the youth spoken word competition, offers a unique space for students to cultivate and present their own stories.

(Photo: 401(K)2013, flickr)

You’d likely never know. I live in a hip neighborhood. I wear (often thrifted) suit coats. But I have something to tell you: I’m one of the many, many teachers who are underpaid. In terms of hours worked vs. pay, my actual hourly wage is pretty abysmal.

Most conversations I have with strangers or family members eventually come around to this little elephant in the room. The inevitable point it seems they must make is “teachers don’t get paid enough.” It’s as if, if they didn’t say that, I had assumed that they were among the type who’d like to see me living out a daily struggle to survive.

These comments come from all over the landscape of our country: from my uber-liberal friends to my Scott Walker-loving Grandpa. There’s also always a clear or subtle undertone of “hardworking teachers like you should get paid more, but those other, lazy teachers shouldn’t.” Whichever “lazy” teacher they may be thinking of, I haven’t met many. In fact, a growing number of us are working second jobs to make ends meet.

When I started my first teaching role, I was ecstatic to know that two of my classes would be “technology” courses. This excitement became frustration as my students and I struggled to have access to a quarter of what I freely enjoyed in high school. I had no curriculum, and the “technology” was Windows XP on some virus-ladden, ominously humming machines. These students were cheated out of experiences I (and many) expect from a K-12 education.

Technology fluency is an assumed trait most colleges have for their incoming students. That, of course, includes basic keyboarding and Internet skills, but there are also many assumptions about understanding more complex Internet database searches, MLA formatting and ability to navigate a variety of other systems of varying complexities.

As a teacher, and as a gay man, I oftentimes feel a need to “choose” a camp that I’m more “devoted” to. Do I care more about my kids or the state of my community? It’s typically a choice that I have to actively make.

While I did feel a bit of guilt for leaving my kids, last week I had the opportunity to attend the National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change. I was impressed by how well the conference integrated my identities as both a gay dude and a teacher.

It’s no secret that bullying (be it at school, on the playground, or online) is a huge barrier to kids’ wellness and achievement. The data is grim, particularly for LGBT students of color or from low-income backgrounds.

The problem is clear, but the solution is murky. One big step in the right direction, however, is talking about it—more than once, and in a way that’s accessible and engaging to students. I know, I know, small task, right?

As a teacher, I’ve observed too many examples of bullying without having the tools needed to discuss and unpack this behavior with students. As my kiddos’ teacher, nothing hurts more than to be at a loss when one student causes hurt to another.

The GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network) and its national partners are helping remedy this with No Name-Calling Week, running Jan. 20-24.

“Every bulletin board, every binder, every sign you make, should be thought of with student success in mind.”

As I attended my first staff-training weekend for Teach For America institute in Tulsa, one of my supervisors emphasized the intense focus on student achievement, and I was reminded of just how much responsibility I had gotten myself into for the summer. If I chose the wrong bulletin-board color, student learning could slide! (OK, maybe not—but there was still a lot of pressure!)

Yet I felt almost guilty, knowing that I was about to get the strongest form of professional development out there.

Photo via Teach For AmericaTwin Cities Facebook page

Growing up, suppertime was my student teaching. I learned what an IEP* was as an 8-year-old, delved into differentiated instruction** as a middle-schooler, and by high school, knew what a manifestation meeting*** was.

This jargon, and endless knowledge, came from my mom. She’s a career teacher. Years before I even knew what Teach For America was, she provided me with (often unsolicited) guidance about education.

What I wouldn’t do to have her at my school today. I’m at my second charter school in one year (my first laid me off), and in both schools, I see very few educators with anywhere near the 15 years of teaching experience that my mom has. With these years comes the type of knowledge that only time can provide.

Photo by Gabe Leland via via Wikimedia Commons

When I was laid off from my charter school in the twin cities for financial reasons, my family first blamed, of all people, the president of the United States.

“I thought Obama was supposed to support schools?” my cousin, a Romney supporter, asked me in an angry tone when my news broke.

The past semester has been ridiculously enlightening to the complex and sometimes-unpredictable state of charter school finances. It has been among the most poignant lessons I’ve learned in my Teach For America experience.

Photo by Ildar Sagdejev via WikiCommons

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