Saturday, October 30, 2010

Reflections on the First Nine Weeks

Yesterday marked the end of my first 9 weeks of teaching, which means I am now 25% finished with the school year!  The next 9 weeks should be a bit easier with Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays breaking it up.  It has gone by so quickly, yet as I reflect on it, I have come so far. 

The first thing that I have realized is that I really need to give myself a break.  I am still very green.  However, I have had reasonable success with these kids, both academically and personally.  I was just speaking with my mom (who, along with my sister are the most devoted members of the MizNilknarf Fan Club) about how sometimes I wonder what it would be like to work with a different population.  What would it be like to assign elaborate projects and know they would actually do them?  What would it be like to have a group of eager young minds who all want to get into the best colleges?  Then I realized that I went into teaching for reasons beyond my love of English.  There was a human component that I wanted to have an impact on.  I am not just interested in helping my kids to be successful readers and writers.  I want to help them understand their potential, recognize their self-worth, help them survive.  No one is a social worker for ten years who doesn't have a little bit of the "save the world" mentality.

Something happened to me this week that gets to the heart of why I teach and why I believe the Universe put me at this school, with these students.  I have a group of girls who come see me regularly for study hall.  These girls are not my best behaved, nor are they my best students, but for some reason, they have really connected with me.  One of them had surgery last weekend and I called to check up on her.  Her mother told me, "I am so happy you called!  She has been waiting to hear from you!  I have never heard her talk about a teacher the way she talks about you!"  WOW!  Ok, so that was encouraging.

What happened next, however, reached me in a totally different way.  A different girl from that group was in my study hall on Wednesday when I noticed an injury.  Out of respect for her privacy, I will not go into detail, however it was made clear that this injury was inflicted by a parent in retaliation for the girl's "disrespectful behavior".  I had to explain to this poor child that no matter what she did, it is not acceptable for her parents to hurt her. This was apparently a foreign concept to her.  I am what is called a "Mandatory Reporter"--meaning, if someone tells me something like that I am legally bound to report it immediately.  I went to an administrator, then to guidance.  The girl was furious and attempted to recant her story.  I knew she was just scared.  I was worried of the repercussions for this girl at home, and on a smaller scale, what this would do to our relationship.  I did not want her to feel betrayed.  I saw her the next day and it was business as usual.  We both knew what happened, but beyond that, she now knows that I care and I see her as a person of value.  She's not a great student and I have to fuss at her in class.  I've even had to remove her from class.  Yet, she still comes to see me.  She still wants to be around me.  What is that all about?

Its why I am there.  Because for every ungrateful little monster, who makes my life miserable, who doesn't seem to care, who is going to fight me every step of the way, there is a child inside who wants to feel loved and valued and is trying to figure it all out.  Far beyond the lesson plans I spend hours on that may or may not have any impact, I am there to teach life lessons.  In some cases, I may be the only one--and that is why I can't see myself working with a different population.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Cure for a Challenging Day

As a new teacher, I am already learning about the importance of monitoring my stress level.  I've had a very challenging week personally and both my classes plucked my last nerve on Friday.  I don't know if it was because it was Friday or somehow they picked up on my tension or if I just was in no place to be patient, but it was all I could to not just walk out of that school and never came back.  I ended up writing one referral (after all other strategies in the previous post failed) and then called the student's mother. For me, there is no satisfaction in writing a referral.  Even though sometimes it is unavoidable, it makes me feel disheartened for a student to have gotten to that level.

So, as I sat at my desk Friday afternoon, I made two decisions that radically improved my mood.  The first thing I did, was to type up sub plans and I'm calling in sick on Monday--a much needed "mental health day".  I have been assured by other teachers that these days are essential and that is why we get so many of them (10 per year, plus 2 personal days).  

The other thing I did, was more immediately satisfying and really goes back to the heart of why I want to teach in the first place.  After hanging up with the parent of the child who I referred, I called the parents of four kids in my classes who really work hard and do not create trouble.  I told their parents how much I appreciated them, how proud they should be and thanked them for doing such a good job.  It was awesome and I've decided to make these calls more often.  The bottom line is, the ones who work hard often are overlooked in the drama created by the ones who do not.  In teaching, just as in life, it is important to not let the dark cloud of the negative shadow the brilliantly shining sun of the positive. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Alternative to Referrals

While the referrals I have made were totally justified, apparently there are so many of them at our school, its about all the administrators can do all day.  I have made a very close friend at work, a much older, seasoned, male teacher, who has great classroom management skills.  He made the comment that administrators don't like doing the paperwork, bottom line.  So anything you can do to keep them out of it, is preferred.  His first suggestion was that I put them in another classroom. 

I have used this strategy several times this week.  It apparently humiliates them and more importantly, takes away all their power.  They want to irritate me, be the center of attention and get out of doing their work.  They can't do any of that if they are in another classroom.

The second is the "making them leave last" strategy.  This seems simple almost to pointlessness, but I assure you it is effective.  Basically, you say "Jamal, please remain seated and I will excuse you after everyone else has left."  Depending on the situation I either give them a little speech to make them even more late or I just let them go after everyone else has left the room.  This is particularly effective before lunch and at the end of the day, but no matter what, it works really well.   I even confirmed this with my high school aged daughter who said "Oh, I would hate that!" 

What I like most about these strategies is the feeling of control that I get when using them.  I feel like once I call an administrator, I have lost control.  These strategies make the problem begin and end with me. Sometimes it is necessary--the kid who asked to go to the bathroom, disappeared for 15 minutes, then was located walking leisurely down the hall texting on his cell phone and then refused to turn it over?  I had him removed from my room and taken to ISD (in school detention) for the remainder of the day.  BUT--I didn't fill out a referral form.  No paperwork for the administrators.  Win/Win.

Friday, October 15, 2010

"A Bear Walks Into a Bar..." and Other Things I do to Annoy My Students...

"A bear walks into a bar, sits down and says to the bartender 'I'll have a vodka and................................tonic.' The bartender says 'Why the big pause?' and he says 'Because I'm a bear!"

Get it?? Pause?  Paws?  Oh my god, I am so hilarious!

When I laugh hysterically at my own jokes, my students look at me like I'm nuts.

Another example:

Student:  Ms Johnston, when is the report due?
Me: Well, the draft is due on Tuesday.
Student:  But when is it DUE, DUE.
Me:  You said, doo doo.  BAHAHAHAHAHA! <Student rolls eyes as if I to say that I am completely immature.>

Another one:

Me:  Hey XXXXXX, can I talk to you for a second?.....Listen, I was wondering.  Am I your favorite teacher?

To Silence Them:

I sing an opera entitled "I wish you guys would be quiet!"

To the Hispanic Kids:

"Um, when you guys speak Spanish, it makes me paranoid that you are talking about me."

When they aren't doing their work:
"I know you don't want to waste one minute of class time, so let me give you another worksheet to do"

When they are talking while I am giving directions:
I start whispering the directions so they  miss them and then I refuse to repeat them.

The ones that are especially annoying:
I greet with great delight in the hall "HEEEEEY XXXX, how are you?  I missed you so much this weekend!  Where are ya going?  How is your day going?  Where'd you get that shirt?"

And my favorite--if someone wastes my time during class, my new technique is making them leave class last.  I wait til everyone else has walked out and then I go over to them and just sit there staring at them and then I go "Well you wasted my time, so now I'm just going to waste yours...wasting, wasting, wasting...<then I break into song about it.>"

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Referrals for Everyone!

7th Period has been my biggest challenge since the first week of school.  Its a perfect storm of sorts--my biggest class in a small room, its right after lunch, its the last period of the day, and then there is this lethal combo of talkative kids, obnoxious kids, unmotivated kids and generally annoying kids.  They all feed off of each other and truthfully, many days I want to slap them...

On "odd days" I have 3 sections of 10th grade English (we follow and odd day/even day block schedule).  My first two sections are no problem.  Sure they chat, get off task, occasionally give me an attitude but its manageable.  It takes an average of 50% longer to get through things in 7th period as it does 3rd or 5th.  I also have a larger group of students with D and F averages in 7th period.  I am certain the amount of talking and interrupting of instruction that goes on contributes to that.  The stickers at times help keep it down to a dull roar, but there are other days when I want to just go sit down at my desk and give up.

Last week after I yelled "SHUT UP!!!!!" in frustration, I knew it was war.  I need to get control.  The first thing I did was email an administrator and told him to expect a flurry of referrals.  I also invited him to come sit in on class (so far this has not happened).  My mentor offered to come sit it on my class and that was actually very effective.  I basically started out by saying, "We have quite a bit of work to do, so I've invited Ms. B to come sit in and write referrals so I don't have to interrupt my teaching."  There was just one referral that day.

Today though, it started again.  Same culprits as always.  Same kids I've warned. At the suggestion of  a teacher, I gave them a shot at redemption by saying "Ok, Susie, I'm putting your name on this referral form, if you shape up for the rest of class, I'll throw it away."  Of four referrals written, none of them pulled it together by the end of class.  They all deserved it.  One girl I really like--she's actually a great kid and we've connected--but SHE HAS GOT TO SHUT UP!  She was in complete shock when she saw the referral "Oh no!  Please don't!  Give me detention instead!"  In the end, she got a referral.  The time for accommodating is over.  They can be mad.  They can hate me. They can think I'm unfair.  They can talk sh*t about me to the administrator.

As long as they SHUT UP.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Stages of Grief

When I first heard about one of our students dying tragically, I was in shock.  I would say it took a good 10 minutes before it sank in and then I started to cry. I cried those awful, deep, racking sobs that make you think you may never get ahold of yourself.  I felt so sad not just for the loss of such a nice young man, but for all my kids who I knew would be devastated.  For two nights I have not slept, knowing that today I would have to walk in our school and futilely attempt to be some comfort to students who are not only grief-stricken, but traumatized and asking, perhaps for the first time in their lives, the Big Questions:  Why?  Why would God do this?  How am I going to get through this?  Is life ever going to be the same? 

I have planning my first period, so my job was basically to walk the English hall and escort students to the counseling center as needed.  A door would open up, a sobbing student would be escorted out into the hall, and suddenly there we were.  I wasn't sure what to do....most of the kids, I don't even know.  Finally, I decided to gently take the arm of a 6' tall, 200 lb. young man.  He turned to me, put his arms around me, and sobbed, hugging me like I was his mother.  This happened over and over for the next hour. I finally just wrapped an arm around each child and not one pulled away. It was just so....raw.  I realized how much these students need us.  It doesn't matter if they know who we are necessarily--we represent security to them.

The next 3 periods, I was in class. My normally chatty 10th graders were silent.  Many sat at their desks and cried quietly.  I tried to pull them out into the hall, give them a chance to go to counseling, asked friends to sit with them and comfort them--and then in desperation, offered them peanut butter cups (that usually got a smile).  The good news is that this was a bonding experience for my students and me.  They know I care.  With that in mind, I am going to the candlelight vigil tonight.  I feel that I must be there for them.

With this group in particular, its not enough to just say you care. They have heard so many empty words. You have to put your money where your mouth is.  One of my students wailed to me how he never had a father, had lost his mother at a young age, and had been raised by his grandmother, who also died.  The boy who died was his cousin and it was another unimaginable loss to someone who at 16 has experienced more loss than I have at 42. 

I actually had a teacher tell me that tomorrow may be worse than today.  God help us all. I'm definitely going to need more peanut butter cups.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

What a Long Strange Trip Its Been

At 39, I found everything changing about my life.  My 17 year marriage was ending, my father had passed away, my dog had died and suddenly I was having to make some major decisions about how I was going to take care of my family.  My days as stay at home mom with a part time job were over.  I decided to go through a local fast track to licensure program and teach.  What I didn't realize was that this was absolutely the worst time to go into teaching.  I despaired that I would never find a job, but finally I did, teaching English at an urban school.  So here I am starting Week 6 and this is what I have learned so far:

1.  My school is safe.  First of all, don't call my school, "ghetto".  Just because my kids are minorities living in a lower income area, doesn't mean harm is lurking around every corner.  The first week of school before the kids arrived, I cornered the SRO (School Resource Officer) and said "Give it to me straight, am I in any danger?"  He assured me I was not.  They are just kids--kids with quite a few challenges, but still kids.   By and large they are all talk and respond well to anyone who seems to actually care. 

2.  90% of them really do want to learn and have goals.  Does that mean they behave in class all the time?  No.  Do they always get their work done, bring their books to class, or study?  Absolutely not.  But many do, and truly out of 140 students I can really only think of about 3 who have no chance of passing.

3.   I liken teaching a class to writing, producing and starring in a one woman show each day.  The difference is the audience didn't willingly buy a ticket!  I have to sell, sell, sell it and even that's not enough.  Its hard not to take it personally when my lesson plans, which are the result of hours of research and creative brain power, go over like a turd in a punch bowl.   

4.  Kids will do anything for stickers and candy.  My 3rd week of school after one too many classes where I felt like Ben Stein saying "Bueller?  Bueller?  Anyone??" I told my students to get out a piece of notebook paper and write "Extra Credit" on it.  That got their attention.  Basically, they get a sticker for participation, good behavior, or whatever else they are DOING RIGHT.  At test time, they will turn their paper in for extra credit points.  I also give candy out at the end of the day to the student with the "Extraordinary Contribution of the Day".  Suddenly, my half-asleep students became competitive little monsters vying for stupid little stickers like they were gold dubloons.  That said, some days, even that doesn't work!

5.  C.Y.A. In particular at my school, it is very important to document everything.  Document phone calls, letters home, poor behavior, work that wasn't turned in but that you gave them 5 chances to come in and make it up...all so that when Mama calls demanding to know why her little darling isn't passing, your butt is covered.  Another teacher clued me into a system she created through our Edline (school computer system).  Its beautiful in its simplicity.  I created a series of codes for what each child is doing in class that day. I printed out a class roster with multiple columns, put down the date at the start of class and as I walk around, I make notes (which I later enter into the system) as I observe my students.  SLP= sleeping, DIS=Disruptive, REF= Refusal to Work, GP= Good Participation, PA=Positive Attitude.  It takes all of one minute tops to enter into the Edline system and it goes directly to their grade report.  In addition to seeing their test grades, parents and students see details of the student's behavior each day.  

6.  Beware of Bitching  I learned back during student teaching that the teacher lunch room is ripe for all kinds of complaining and general venting.  I get it, but I'm not participating in it--and after about a week of teaching, I realized that listening to it only depressed me.  Sure, I am still in the--as my Department Head gently told me last week-- "Idealistic Phase of Teaching" (although I would argue that all fantasies of me being like Michelle Pfeiffer in "Dangerous Minds" went out the window the first week).  That said, I save my bitching for my husband, my friends (especially my teacher friends in different districts) and my sister.   Week 4, while in my cubby during planning, another teacher was venting about her frustration with the principal, only to have the principal WALK BY RIGHT AS SHE WAS TALKING.  I know he must have been standing on the other side of the file cabinets listening for quite awhile.  I almost threw up! Nope, my attitude is "happy to be here; happy to have a job" and my only complaining comes in the form of "This is what I am experiencing, how would you handle this?"

7.  Damn, my feet hurt!  As usual in life, everything that my Type A personality obsessed about prior to teaching, ended up not really being an issue.  I bring work home, but rarely and not that much (I am a master of using my planning time effectively), I am doing pretty well with lesson planning, classroom management is a challenge, but not impossible, I love my colleagues, and to be honest, I love my kids, even the one who looked me in the eye last week and said "I really can't stand you" (my response?  "Well, you have a B in this class, so I'm ok with that.").  No, the biggest issue is fatigue, especially my feet.  Getting up at 5:45 is no picnic, although I am getting used to (somewhat). The cute little ballet flats I bought before school started are no good.  My ankles ache and I have done something where I can't put my left foot down flat until I am up for about half an hour.  This is why I spent over $400 on 3 pair of shoes at The Walking Company last week.  I love my Danskos!  I felt like angels were kissing my feet the first day I wore them.  I felt significantly less tired after 3 days in good shoes. 

I want to end this post by saying that these opinions are mine and in no way a reflection of my county, the school, or the school's faculty or staff.  It is meant to be an anonymous vent and an outlet (see #6), and maybe along the way I can help some other teacher who will think "Wow, I'm not the only one!" or "Maybe I will try that!".  Beyond that, if you know who I am and are offended, I apologize-- and if I work with/for you, please don't get me fired. Thanks.