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The last chapter


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After her 44-minute long preparation period, Mrs. Marvin walks outside her classroom at the end of the hall and watches the flood of students pass by.

One thing is always on her mind as she stands by her door.

“I think about what kind of day the students are having,” Mrs. Marvin says.

Right before the bell rings for third period, the students perform a ritual.

One by one, and sometimes two by two, they file into the classroom, pick up notebooks, slide into seats, place jumbo-sized binders on top of their desks and prepare to learn.

Once the bell beckons, a petite blonde woman with glasses at the tip of her nose walks from outside her classroom door and steps into what has been her arena, her niche, her warzone for the past 41 years — the classroom.

Studies show the transition from sixth grade to middle school can be the toughest one a child faces, but Patricia Marvin is an expert at handling the distracted, puberty-stricken, disorganized children.

She’s been teaching English to seventh and eighth graders at Tri-North Middle School since some of her students’ parents were their age.

This year, Mrs. Marvin is one of 41 teachers in the Monroe County Community School Corporation who are retiring.

She’s not worn out. As a matter of fact, 63-year-old Mrs. Marvin wouldn’t mind teaching a few more years.

But 41 years of teaching, including 30 years at Tri-North, is enough for her. She has four grandchildren, with two more on the way, and she wants to be able to spoil them with her husband while she’s still alive. Her parents weren’t granted that luck with her children.

Year after year, Mrs. Marvin has been on a seemingly eternal mission to prepare her middle school students for the dog-eat-dog world that is high school, the next chapter of their life.

When Mrs. Marvin was in seventh grade, she studied ballet under world-renowned professional ballet dancers like Andre Eglevsky. She was well on her way to becoming a professional ballet dancer in New York. She danced at the Joffrey Ballet dance company.

Her dreams to live out her passion for dancing came to a halt after a sudden injury the summer following her high school graduation.

The doctor told her it would take at least three years for her to heal. At 18 years old, Mrs. Marvin realized she would be missing out on the most crucial time for a professional dancer.

The Long Island native, who had moved with her parents to Lafayette between her freshman and sophomore year of high school, decided to stay in Lafayette and attend Purdue University.

While at Purdue, she taught ballet at the YMCA, worked for a horticulture professor and wrote for the Purdue Exponent for two years. She still did not know what she wanted to do after college.

Her mother encouraged her to get a teaching degree, just in case.

“I said, ‘I don’t want to teach,’” Mrs. Marvin said. “My mother said, ‘Well, just do it for me.’ I said, ‘All right,’ so I got my education classes done and I student taught. I fell in love with it.”

After graduation, she taught high school in Monon, Ind., for four-and-a-half years. She said it was the hardest period of her teaching career because the students were so far behind.

After teaching there and getting married to a teacher who taught fourth grade at the school, Mrs. Marvin taught at North Newton High School in Morocco, Ind., for two-and-a-half years. She then took a six-year break from teaching to take care of her four children at home before transitioning to Tri-North Middle School, where she has taught for 30 years.

“I got a job here teaching seventh and eighth grade thinking I’ll get a job in high school because I always thought I wanted to be a high school teacher,” Mrs. Marvin said. “I never wanted to leave middle school.”

***

On another day, in another seventh-grade class, the students are louder than usual, especially the boys. Mrs. Marvin said it was because of all the candy and sugar the students had during Easter.

As soon as the bell rings, one student shushes his peers and the room full of seventh graders gets a little quieter.

Mrs. Marvin walks in.

Sam raises his hand.

“I think I forgot my brain at my house. I don’t know if I can do this.”

Mrs. Marvin walks toward the student and lifts up a section of his hair.

“Well, I don’t see any holes,” Mrs. Marvin says as she examines his head.

“No?” Sam says.

She walks back to the center of the classroom.

“OK! Notebook! Get that notebook open, we are going to talk about ‘Lawn Boy.’”

Last week, the students were learning about inferences. This week, they are learning about themes and are reading chapter 13 from “Lawn Boy” by Gary Paulsen.

As Mrs. Marvin reads, she stops every so often to make sure the students understand the difficult words.

“‘Expertise,’ what does that word mean?” Mrs. Marvin asks. “Drew?”

“What you’re an expert at,” Drew said.

The students listen to Mrs. Marvin read the rest of the story attentively as she walks back and forth, looking at the students from time to time. After she finishes reading the chapter all the way through, she tells her seventh graders to open their notebooks and make inferences about what will happen in the next chapter.

***

Mrs. Marvin’s teaching career at MCCSC began in 1984, the same year that Tri-North became a middle school in MCCSC.

Throughout the time span of three decades, some things have changed and some have stayed the same. She still sees kids that don’t pay attention and kids that don’t bring their materials.

“That frustrates me a little bit, but it’s annoyed me for the past 41 years,” Mrs. Marvin said.

But kids didn’t have cell phones in the 1980s. Mrs. Marvin said the advances in technology have caused students’ focus to shift.

“I think kids are so used to instant gratification,” Mrs. Marvin said. “For example, an instant response to a text message, or an instant score on a video game or instant information over the Internet. They’re not willing to wait, and they’re not willing to take time to work through things like the way people used to when they had to no matter what the subject is.”

Years ago, Mrs. Marvin said, there wasn’t collaborative networking between teachers. Now, Mrs. Marvin loves the meetings with her co-workers in the morning.

The two classrooms to the left of Mrs. Marvin’s belong to two other English teachers, Lisa Riggins and Myra Farmer.

During Mrs. Riggins’ and Mrs. Farmer’s prep period, they talk in Mrs. Riggins’ classroom. Mrs. Marvin was one of the people that hired Mrs. Riggins in 1984.

“She’s somebody who’s pumped up, ready to do whatever we need to have done or she’s ready to try new things,” Mrs. Riggins said.

They call themselves the “Three Musketeers” because of the tight-knit community they established together throughout the years. They know each other’s children. They spend time outside of the school together.

“We understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses and celebrations,” Riggins said. “It’s not just about coming to work. We’re a family here.”

Both Mrs. Riggins and Mrs. Farmer believe there will be a void when Mrs. Marvin leaves.

“In this profession, no one can just slip in,” Mrs. Farmer said. “We all know we’re replaceable, but replaceable doesn’t mean the same quality.”

All three of the English teachers said there are many misconceptions about their lives as teachers.

“That we work 180 days a year,” Mrs. Farmer said.

Mrs. Marvin prepares during the summer.

“That we leave at 2:30 in the afternoon,” Mrs. Farmer said.

Mrs. Marvin has never left earlier than 4 p.m. and sometimes stays at school until 6 p.m. to finish grading papers and work on lesson plans.

“That we check in and check out everyday,” Mrs. Farmer said. “That this is a job, not a profession.”

Mrs. Marvin wakes up at 4:45 a.m. to start her day and leaves around 6:30 to prepare for school.

“Nowadays, change is rapid fire,” Mrs. Farmer said. “It’s a reaction to symptoms.”

Mrs. Farmer referred to the evolving policy actions that have been enacted since she, Mrs. Riggins and Mrs. Marvin started teaching. 

With the increasing reliance of standardized testing being used to assess, reward and penalize those in the classroom and in schools, all three teachers feel like there isn’t enough beneficial and thorough assessment from the federal and state government.

“I don’t remember when I first started teaching people on the outside telling you how to do your job as much, like legislatures,” Mrs. Marvin said. “We are legislated so much
today.”

The other English teachers look at Mrs. Marvin’s retirement as the beginning of the end of an era in the ever-evolving education reform.

During the past 13 years, national education initiatives, like the No Child Left Behind Act and the Common Core State Standards, have drastically changed the way the nation assesses school, teacher and student performance.

In 2011, then-Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed legislation that included the implementation and regulation of charter schools, turnaround schools, private school vouchers and teacher evaluations.

In the past few months, Indiana became the first state to drop out of Common Core and released similar academic standards.

This year was the first time the Indiana Department of Education released the new, standardized teacher evaluations, which rates teachers from highly effective to ineffective. The ratings are tied to when teachers can get raises.

After the results came in, many people questioned the validity of the teacher evaluation results. According to the data provided by the Indiana Department of Education, 88 percent of teachers and administrators were assessed as being effective or highly effective in the classroom.

About 2 percent needed improvement and less than half a percent were seen as ineffective teachers. Some schools with “D” and “F” ratings didn’t have educators with a rating less than effective.

MCCSC did not offer its information this year because of a contract agreement with teachers that ends after the 2014-15 school year.

These teachers will be given fewer salary benefits once this new teacher evaluation initiative is enacted.

“After that time, there will be a base salary and then the only way you can get a raise will be based on this new teacher evaluation system that the state is putting in place,” Mrs. Marvin said.

“There are people that we have talked to in other corporations that are already under it that say even if you are deemed highly effective, depending on how much your corporation has, it could be just $250.”

Mrs. Marvin said she is concerned about the ratings not for herself, but for teachers coming after her.

“It’s kind of a good time for me to get out,” Mrs. Marvin said. “Not because I’m worried about where I’ll be rated. I think I’ll be fine. It’s going to be very hard to keep good young teachers in the profession.”

Mrs. Marvin doesn’t think there is anything wrong with standardized testing in itself. The problem, Mrs. Marvin said, lies in the high-stakes value in standardized testing. 

“If that one test is so important and the kid has the flu that week, they’re not going to do that well. They need to look more at how (students) are really doing in the classroom.”

Teacher and student assessment needs to be more realistic, Mrs. Marvin said. She suggested that asking students to write in descriptive language would be a better way to assess what they are learning, instead of multiple choice questions.

“When in life, unless you become an editor, are you going be asked to pick adjectives and adverbs out of a sentence?” she said. “That’s something kids ask me all the time. And that’s a very good point.”

***

Mrs. Marvin often dreams of her students at night. She hopes for the best for them.
In one corner of her classroom, she has a board filled with post-it notes with inspirational messages, written by her eighth graders to the incoming class. There are post-it notes that say, “Don’t procrastinate” and “Always pay attention in class.”

Two years ago, one of her students, Schuyler Barnes, handed her a note he got from his mother, Hannah Bolte.

A line from the note read, “May your dreams come true — you have the ability to make that happen!”

“It was a note that I had written to her when she was leaving eighth grade just telling her that I felt that she was going to be really successful,” Mrs. Marvin said. “It was kind of an inspirational thing.”

Mrs. Marvin said she wrote it because she saw that Bolte was going through a tough time. Still, she is surprised that she kept it for so long. The date on the note says June 4, 1990 — 24 years ago.

“It bought tears to my eyes,” Mrs. Marvin said as she recalled the time she saw the note for the first time in more than 20 years.

It had a lasting effect on 37-year-old Bolte, who had trouble in English class.
“It provided me self-esteem that carried all throughout high school and my career,” Bolte said.

Bolte, a master’s graduate student and a professor, now works as an editor in her own independent sole proprietorship for university academic writing services. She said she hopes to inspire her students like Mrs. Marvin inspired her.

“It really makes a difference to have an advocate, someone who you regularly interact with who enforces that you’re good enough,” Bolte said. “That makes all the difference.”

***

After the bell rings, Mrs. Marvin sighs. It’s still a challenge to teach 150 students after all these years.

At the end of the day, at the end of her career, she still wonders about the effect she has on her students.

“It just makes you feel good to know that they’re able to follow some of their dreams or what they think they’re going to do or what they wind up doing,” Mrs. Marvin said. “I would hope that people look at me as caring, because I care deeply about my students and my family. That’s pretty much been my life.”

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