Sunday, October 21, 2007

New Home

I just wanted everyone to know that I still write this blog. It moved to the:

Most of my posts are for friends only so feel free to add me.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What is the impact that this experience has had on your life?

I like this question. It is sufficiently broad enough where I could say anything I wanted and it would still fall within the bounds of having answered it.

In one sense, the experience was the equivalent to an earthquake hitting my life. In a short period of time I found myself in a new city that I didn't understand. My only friends were teachers placed in the same area. I was teaching school before I figured out where my bank was and where to get some good Chinese food.

The were a few aspects of the year that were difficult to handle. One was the perpetual feeling of being alone. I never really saw my roommate since she had a life outside of teaching. My friends were all teachers so they were spending their free time doing teaching-related things. THere were a few reprieves, occasional weekends and Wednesday night margaritas at the Mexican restaurant, but they seemed few and far between.

The other aspect that got to me was the lack of of control I felt over my own life. I would be treated like a child by my administrators. I was held hostage my the demands of my job. I would come home each day exhausted and still have 50 things to do for the week. The needs of the parents, students, and administrators (who had to look out for the district) took precedence over my own. At stretches it felt like I didn't matter.

The toughest part of this experience was watching my friends leave the program. Over the course of the year, three of my best friends left. After each one left I had to question why I was still here. Most of them were having the same problems I was but I was still teaching. What was wrong with them? What was wrong with me?

I find that this program has changed how I few poverty. Working in close proximity with students with so little makes one realize how preventable their situation is. It also made me a little hardened. I became more aware of the stakes that each child faced and had to become unemotional or risk feeling sorry for my students instead of pushing them.

The good experiences were surprising in many ways. I honestly didn't expect them to happen at all. When I got my classroom under control, I felt better. When students who I thought had no hope started getting it together, I felt better. When I actually started to like my job despite its awful aspects, I felt better.

The impact teaching has had on my life is more appreciable in the summer. I found that I had changed as a person. I am calmer in public, more accepting of my own numerous flaws, and more willing to be honest to the point of being a little confrontational. I like myself more. I believe I can make it through anything because I survived the fire.

Monday, June 25, 2007

My Performance as a Teacher

As a teacher, summer school was a major point of reflection. It was a chance to redo all the things I wish I had done better last year. I got a new first day of school. I got a new chance to be consistent on the first day and every day thereafter. I got a new chance to interact with the students in a way that I felt more comfortable.

I was going to be humble but I am just going to say it: my class is reeking of success. The very small environment and the abundance of capable teachers makes it work surprisingly well. My partner and I got control of the class early and created a very strong work ethic. The kids are responding and working hard.

The main areas we honed in on instructionally were the parts of speech (with an emphasis on verb usage). We (particularly the other second year and myself) worked on it early and often. Additionally, the experience we as second-years was reflected in the instruction. We had a ton of resources available and knew what the students needed to know. We also had this seriousness about us that forced the kids to do their work. On the test we gave, the students seem to have picked up things they didn’t know. There is already progress since the pre-test. Whoo!

The area where they were weakest was sentence structure. It is kind of this ambiguous entity. I mainly worked with the rules of subject-verb agreement. It is necessary to give them the rules to frame so many other lessons (particularly simple and compound sentences) that illustrate them in effect. The weakness was the approach. I have yet to figure out the right way to teach all this stuff. All of the content I am teaching relies on other content I am teaching and it is hard to figure out what should go first. Talking about how subjects and verbs agree in statements with phrase is slightly confusing if we haven’t gone over phrases yet. At the same time it would be silly to go over phrases without having fully covered the more basic parts of the sentence, the subject and verb, I never really realized how complex English is until I attempted to teach it.

Procedurally, the instruction was strong. The students were listening and working hard. The assessments that have been given look pretty good. There are a few problems here and there, but nothing that indicates that they aren’t “getting it”. I was lucky enough to be in a classroom environment where I have the luxury of working with other teachers that have different perspectives about the problems that the class is experiencing and the gains that the class is making. With five kids, it is VERY EASY to differentiate instruction. I can simply hand out five different sheets that are suited to the student’s problems. I can pull a kid out while another teacher is providing instruction. It is amazing.

In the future I want to focus more on delivering a cohesive educational product to my students. I want them to engage more with the content. Way too many lessons were teacher-centered and required very little of the students other than to learn and practice proper grammar. The very nature of summer school required us to move from item to item whether or not the students understood the topic fully. If I were doing this again, I would find a way to work on those aspects and make the class a more polished product.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Summer School Goals

Discuss the learning goals and instructional decisions made during the planning of your lessons.

I am teaching 7th grade English in Mississippi. My work was cut out for me. My partner and I came the planning process assuming that students would be suffering from huge difficulties in the basics. As a result we laid out our lesson plans to emphasize the following areas: grammar, mechanics, and reading comprehension. The overall learning goal of the students was to rapidly get them to pick up those skills on the MCT and the state curriculum. Seeing as that goal was an impossible one to accomplish in two and a half weeks, my partner I am put an increased emphasis on exposure and mastery of a smaller set of skills within the realm of grammar and mechanics. We agreed that mastery of the parts speech is the most important.

The instructional methods we decided upon were going to be as basic as the classroom curriculum. The preferred method of instruction was direct, with a heavy emphasis on taking notes for the first few days (because you can’t do anything with grammar unless you know the rules) followed by the rollout of activities and inductive work that played upon the knowledge.

For the first week especially, we wanted to control the environment. The room had to be an environment where the teacher can easily exert control of everything and everybody. I think that a silent classroom is the most desirable one. I want a place where the students are going to be listening to me by default (no other distractions are available) and where I am the visual centerpiece of the room.

The danger of the approach is that our approach became incredibly centered on the second-years in our group. I think that we became the sheriffs very quickly and that students became dependednt on us to be worked incredibly hard and to have an incredbily tough structure, something that our first-years did not offer out of the gate. I am hoping that after the first week ends, the first-years adapt to our hard standards and our desire to pound the basics into these kids before they walk out of the door, something they both need and deserve.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


One of my three best friends in MTC is quitting the program. I feel this combination of sadness and anger aimed at about 10 different directions, including the program itself. Unlike the last two times my friends have left the program, I don't feel jealous. I think that is progress.

This has been an awful week. I am tired. Summer school sucks. The only thing that is going OK is the teaching, mainly because the kids are awesome. The adults are less so.

There is a chance that I will be known this week by my Indian name, "boy that can't stop crying".

Saturday, June 09, 2007

A Note to the New Blood

I am no longer a first-year teacher. I knew that for a few days (the contract only ended on May 30) but it didn't become clear until the new first-years arrived on the scene. They reminded me how idealistic and open-minded I was before I entered my own classroom. Let's just say I have changed a bit since the time my video was recorded.

I could see them nervously shifting during the video. I notice that because I did the same thing one year ago. Now, I rarely seem to shift around when people are focused on me. My handshake has gotten stiffer and more prone to do any one of the 20 shakes my students have with me. I move around less and notice such movement in others. I know when people are giving me their full and undivided attention and only use it to my advantage during the rare moments I actually have something important to say.

In short, this year has turned my idealism into realism. It has turned nervous energy into focused, mechanical behavior the moment I step inside the school building.

It is disturbing that in conversations, I become the experienced one. I am sharing stories but at some level I still have no idea what I am doing at any given moment.

The biggest problem I am having is not coming off as too negative when I have casual conversations with first-years. When I describe my experience in the classroom, it comes out horribly. I talk about the problems I faced on a daily basis and the situation in the school that forced me to leave.

If any first-years are actually reading this (and know who I am), I need to assure you that this experience has a high for every low. It is just that the highs are harder to put into words. The feeling of a child that has not done a thing coming around is a high. The feeling you get when a student tells you that they "get it" is a high. The feeling when a class previously in chaos is now in order is a high. The feeling that you are clicking on all cylinders in the midst of chaos is a high. The feeling that you are part of changing a child's life, just one of out the maybe 130 or more you will teach, is an overwhelming high.

You don't get to feel those highs right away. You will, in all likelihood, slave away at least one semester before you start reaping the smallest of rewards. For me the reward was respect. It was one of my students getting their business together. It was kids picking my brain after school about life decisions. It was the moment where I could entertain the possibility that I was not wasting my life away trudging as an unappreciated idiot.

The biggest highs in some ways were bittersweet. I got some of the best compliments when I told students I was leaving. I almost cried during the last week of school because I was losing my children. That is something you might not see coming but in time it will.

Teaching is both the most painful, wretched jobs in the world and one of the greatest.

What you will find is that nobody in your school building will say "thank you for doing a good job" for a really long time.

I would like to take a moment to thank you.

Thank you for coming to Mississippi. It was a huge gamble to move across the country to do something you have never done before and then be expected to do it well.

Thank you for working in some of the nation's worst schools.

Thank you for helping us teach summer school.

Thank you for helping to change the world.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Five Pieces of Advice

After a year of teaching, I have many lessons to offer. I summed up what I know into five points. These are very broad lessons that are more useful to expectation setting than anything else. At a later point this summer I will be offering more useful day-to-day advice for the new teacher.

That having been said, this is what I know and what I found out.

1) You can lead a horse to water...

I was going to put this last since it is the most important but I don't want anyone to miss out on this piece of wisdom that becomes your life as a teacher.

You can razzle and dazzle them all-day with your lessons but little Johnny still has to be woken up five times during class. It is sometimes hard to concede that some kids don't care about your class. Most of them have particularly daunting issues at home and could not care less about the rules of subject-verb agreement.

There are just going to be kids you can't reach. There are going to be parents who can't grasp that their child is anything other than perfect. There are going to be administrators that won't listen. There are going to be situations that make you want to beat your head into the wall.

I might get attacked for this one, but I honestly believe that sometimes the best thing a teacher can do is teach the students that want to be taught and hope that you can spark interest in others as the year goes on. I won't let students who don't care disrupt my lesson, but at the same time I have to prioritize my time and resources.

You need to decide very early in the year how much of a coach/motivator teacher you can be without burning out. If operating at that level doesn't reach all your students by the time May rolls around, know that you did all you could and move on.

2) Communication is key to everything that happens in that classroom

Make sure students know what they should be doing at every moment of your class. That means you should know what classroom environment you want, make rules and procedures to create that classroom, and then TELL THE KIDS. If a kid is talking because he had no idea that he needed to be doing a "do now", that is partially your fault as a teacher. Saying it once is not enough, make sure that it is clear. I suggest giving students a test on rules and procedures during the first two weeks of school.

My failure this year was not communicating well enough about procedures. It led to needless confusion and many problems. I eventually had to stop teaching and go over them again in the middle of the year. Magically, many management problems disappeared. You should avoid my mistake and do it right the first time.

3) Protect Yourself

This one is short because it is so straightforward.

Document everything that comes your way. Build a system for keeping track of behavioral problems and consequences. Keep track of who needs rewards. have a system for making sure all parents get called during the first two weeks of school and then having their numbers in one place in case future contact is needed.

You don't actually need to completely organized as long you appear to be. You just need to know where everything is and be able to find it in about 30 seconds. I functioned using six clipboards and about five massive stacks of papers. I knew what I was doing and where everything was and nobody knew how chaotic things actually were.

4) Never allow your integrity to be questioned

You are the moral leader of the classroom. Always use that power for good. If you are consistently implementing fair rules and procedures, you are over halfway there.

As an extension of that idea, ALWAYS DO THE RIGHT THING!!!

I would like to add the following observations about passing classes. Most of the schools with MTC teaches are those where students get used to be passed on to the next grade regardless of their performance. I beg you not to be one of those teachers that moves on warm bodies to the next course. Teachers with integrity make it clear that passing is based on academic performance only.

Don't pass students for the following reasons:
- You like them
- You feel bad for them
- You don't want to see them next year

Students learn that hard work doesn't matter and that they can do whatever they want and get away with it. Make a stand against this. If you expect more, you will get some more. If you stand up, maybe other teachers will take notice.

It isn't easy to do the right thing. I have been forced into meetings with my administrators because too many students were failing my class. Stand up to up to them. It won't be hard if you are right. As long as you are respectful and conscious of your situation, you will know how to pick your battles. In m heart, grades are the battle I will fight. They were the ditch I picked to die. Anyway, fight for what is right.If you don't, you will be seen as weak. I'll go more into that with lesson five.

If you do the wrong thing, it will usually catch up to you. It will almost always catch up to your students. If nothing else you will feel guilty about it for a long time.

5) It is your classroom. You are always right.

If you are properly implementing lesson four, stand by it. Be adamant about everything you are doing, will do, and have done. Parents might complain but tell them your decisions are final.

Let's get this straight. You won't actually be right 100 percent of the time. For the first few weeks you might be wrong more than your are right. It doesn't actually matter. Stand by your wrongness while simultaneously learning from it.

For example, if you thought you heard profanity in the back of the room and give a student a consequence accordingly, stand by it. If the kid protests that he said something else, ignore it. Even if other student(s) claim credit, leave the initial consequence alone. If you desire, give consequences to the other student(s). If parents makes it an issue, tell them what you heard and the consequence. End it there. If the administration brings it into questions, do the same thing. Don't start doubting yourself. Don't change your mind. If you do, it will lead to bigger and more dramatic failures.

If you concede mistakes others, they will sense weakness. It's like blood in the water. The sharks will close in. If you work at a bad school, administrators will prey on you. If there are problem students, they will become emboldened. Depending on the circumstances, parents will jump in and attack, often with administrative backing. I can't say this enough. DON'T LOOK WEAK!!! DON'T EVER PUT YOURSELF IN A SITUATION WHERE YOU ALLOW YOURSELF TO SCRUTINIZED!!!