Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Look on the Bright Side

"You can't stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you.  You have to go get them sometimes". ~A.A. Milne

As a little girl, I spent the majority of my time being babysat by my sisters.  I was still in diapers and they didn't want to change them, so until I was potty trained, I spent a fair amount of time in the bathroom, sitting on a toilet, swinging my legs, with my sisters reading me Winnie the Pooh books.  They always called me Pooh Bear and hopefully the name has instilled in me a bit of optimism that eventually, everything is going to be ok.

I've been preparing since last week for my new job.  I've been hired by the Oklahoma City Public School system to teach 7th grade English at one of the middle schools. I start tomorrow and the students come back from summer break on Monday, August 1st.  It's a Title I school, meaning that the majority of the students are on free or reduced lunch.  The population of this middle school, which houses about 500 students in grades 6, 7, and 8, is mainly children of Hispanic heritage.  This is the first time that the district has tried year-round schooling.

A myriad of questions have swirled around in my head.  How many English teachers are there? How many students will be in each of my classes? How many classes will I teach of what and what's the schedule like? Do they have a curriculum? Because I'm great at curriculum.  I've spent the last week chatting with teacher friends over lunch and coffee and reading the books they gave me. Thanks, Shelly and Alicia; I needed that! I met with one of my committee members about teaching in an inner-city public school and he gave me advice too.  Everyone has great advice.  Which I need.  Despite having been a teacher for the greater part of a decade, I have never taught in this situation before, in a public school where I have to play by someone else's rules.  Frankly, it's disconcerting.

My friend Bonner called me today too.  He's taught in the same district and he loved what he did.  He gave me some rules to play by; advice that he was given, discovered or read about and implemented into his teaching world.  Much of what he said echoed from Shelly, Alicia and my professor's words too.
1. Leave at lunch.  Every day.  Get away from campus.
2. Be a hard ass.  These kids are going to be tough.  Being the kind sweet person I want to be will only get me eaten alive. Pushing kids to succeed will help them in the long run.
3. Attend student functions and volunteer to help.  They will notice and it will help.
4. When you go home, as you walk out the door, say out loud "I am leaving work now."  Leave your work at work for fear that it will consume your life.
5.  Your life will be changed. These children will change you forever. You will change them too.

The last time my life changed forever, it was from teaching in the prison.  I felt bitter and frightened after dealing with a large institution which sought to oppress an entire group of people- many of whom probably wouldn't have been there if they could afford a decent attorney.  I'm a little older and perhaps a little wiser and I'm certainly not alone in this endeavor.  But oh, my, oh my.  These are the same rules I lived by in the prison system. Alicia, Shelly and Bonner also said this would be worth it and that I would love what I do.  I'm holding on to that hope.  In fact, I am certain that my fears are unfounded and that hope will win out. Yes, hope will win. What would Winnie the Pooh do? Find some hunny, that's what.

So friends, as I contemplate- as I begin- this new journey, I will keep writing.  We will work it out together.  Maybe you can read me a book and I will swing my feet.  Do me a favor though, and leave me a little comment today. Give me your favorite teaching tip.  I would like to have what my friend Britton Gildersleeve calls a beginners heart.  If you're not a teacher, tell me your best coping tip- how you deal with stress and how you stay positive.

"Those who are clever, who have a brain, never understand anything" ~A.A. Milne

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Jobs and Life and All That Stuff

In the end, all it took was a conversation with my next-door-neighbor.

Since February, I have been looking for a job.  My teaching job at a small regional university was not being renewed and I am nearing the end of my doctoral program.  Time to reassess my options.  I don't really feel tied to Oklahoma anymore, given the extremely low pay for teachers- even with PhD's.  The heat on teacher unions, doing away with tenure and the malicious and oppressive testing environment bullshit that comes with the territory makes public school less attractive than it used to be.

I did a nationwide search.  Ok, I did a "Western half of the U.S." search.  Put out resumes, applied for positions, held my breath, published some stuff, went on a couple of insulting interviews and received around 50 rejection emails.  The rest of the 200 or so positions didn't bother to reply at all.

I have an interesting conundrum.  My education prepares me to do teacher education- that is to say that I can teach teachers to teach English.  My teaching experience is in teaching English on the college level (plus a stint teaching chemistry and one in the prison teaching GED classes).  I've never taught in a public school before.  In order to do teacher education, you have to teach in public school.  That's one part of it.

The other part is that I teach freshman composition courses.  It's a great part time job and you can string together a lot of part-time work to make a living.  It just doesn't pay as well as say, selling drugs on a street corner, or petty theft. I'd love to teach full time for a community college, but these days the colleges are sometimes 80% or more comprised of adjunct instructors.  To be competitive, I would need an advanced degree in straight up English, not in *teaching* English.  Only my bachelor's degree is in English.  My master's and doctoral degrees are in English Education.  See the difficulty here? Yeah, me neither, especially since I can get all of the part time work I can handle.  Alternatively, I could do an advanced degree plus eighteen graduate hours of English.  I have nine hours right now.

So that's the small and frustrating hell that I've lived in for the last few months.  Public schools look at me like I've lost my mind and colleges and universities think I'm a dime a dozen.  Until last night, when I talked to my neighbor, Janet.
"Oh, you're looking for a public school job!?"
"Are you certified?"
"Alternatively.  Well, almost. I'm waiting on the State Department to push it through."
"We're looking for someone at my middle school.  Can you send me your resume?"

Half an hour later she walks out to me in the yard with the phone in her hand.
"Can you be at the school tomorrow by 10?"
"Cuz I have the principal on the phone and he wants to talk to you."
"Oh.  Ok."
They hired me on the spot.  The principal and vice principal seemed really nice and enthusiastic.  They both looked at me like I was crazy, but listened to what I had to say.  I get talkative when I'm nervous so I'm sure I rambled, but I remember asking the vice principal to not judge me by my education.  "I'm still teachable!" I exclaimed.  She laughed as though that was what she was waiting to hear.  Janet and I did our happy dance outside of the cafeteria, by a sagging chain link fence that half surrounded an overgrown basketball court.  I think I will really enjoy working at a Title I school, teaching English to seventh grade kids. The pay is terrible and the location is in the ghetto, right where my skills might do some good.  And right where I might learn the most.

I'm not sure if there is a great philosophical lesson from this.  Maybe it's just "be nice to your awesome neighbor".  Maybe, as Booker T. Washington exhorted in the Atlanta Compromise speech, I should have just cast down my bucket where I stood.  Either way, the rodeo starts next week.  Wish me luck!

Friday, July 8, 2011

How the Other Half Lives

I'm on vacation in the Pacific Northwest.  I tell my Oklahoma friends that it's "the Seattle area", because that just seems easiest. In truth, I got up at 4 am Oklahoma time, flew all day and got into the Seatac airport at 11:30 in the morning.  My sister picked me up and we drove a couple of hours out West on the peninsula, across the Hood Canal Bridge and past Chimacum to Coyle road.  Then it was another 11 miles out in the middle of nowhere and nine acres of blueberries.  And a house and a shop and a really cool terraced garden. And quiet.  Lots and lots of quiet time.  Except that I downloaded the Angry Birds app on my iPad for my nephew.  All I can hear right now is the keyboard keys and the sound of electronic slingshotting of ostensibly angry birds.  Every once in awhile, I hear "Cool!"  That's too funny, if a little distracting. 

It was 54 degrees today, and a little drizzly.  I made arrangements to see two of my old friends from elementary school.  From fourth through sixth grades, I attended the local elementary school.  While my family moved away, one of my sisters still lives here and I've been lucky to keep in touch and occasionally rediscover other old friends.  Today was one of those rare days where there were no demands on my time.  I could sleep in, drink coffee and do my hair.  I painted my toenails and put on my cute flipflops and a pretty tank top with a light sweater in case it was chilly.  I left 104 degree heat for this and packed a little light. 

I met my friends, C and B, down at Linger Longer Bay.  They brought their children with them.  C has one little girl, and B has three little girls.  It was a gaggle of girls between the ages of 8 and 13.  We walked onto the beach, where it was chilly and windy, and I stuck a toe in the water.  Long ago, when we were girls, we swam on days like this.  The water felt warm by comparison.  If the air temperature was 54, then water must have been about 60 degrees.  All but the littlest kid jumped right in, splashing and screaming while the rest of us sat on the rocky shore and caught up on old times. 

B works at the local store, in our little seaside town.  The population is about 350, and since it's on the major road, a lot of traffic comes through in the summer to camp, enjoy the scenery and most importantly, drive on through.  "People ask me what we do around here for fun," said B.
C answered, "You told them about hiking in your yard, or playing in the bay or fishing or gardening and such, right?"
"Yeah," said B, "But it seemed to confuse them more.  They say 'but what about going out and having fun?' They just don't get it. This is fun."
I was trying to listen, to keep up, but I'd lost feeling in my pretty painted toes. I was shivering uncontrollably.  After twenty years of being gone, two in Las Vegas and twelve in Oklahoma, it's safe to assume that I am no longer acclimated to the cooler climate. Eventually, the chattering coming from my teeth scared the bald eagle that was flying overhead.  B asked if we'd like to just move our party to her house.  Yes, I'd love to come over to your indoor, not freezing and seasalty home.  Yes, please. The girls continued the high spirited, high pitched noise level. 

B and C are both life-long residents of our tiny town.  Usually, when someone thinks of the Northwest, they think of log homes and multi-millionaires, giant and sparkling houses built into hillsides with water views and pristine vistas, with yacts in the harbor.  They might think of Bill Gates, the Seattle Symphony, and Pike Place Market. Sophisticated stuff.  These days, the Northwest invokes images of that annoying, sparkling vampire. I don't know anyone who has one of those gorgeous homes or even one with a yact and I sure as hell would shoot any vampires that sparkle or otherwise go emo on my ass. 

B and C and all of the people we knew lived in houses exactly like the one I lived in- older and cluttered with barely controlled happy chaos.  There was powdered lemonade in the cupboard and popcorn and the kids knew where to get something to eat and something to drink.  And there was plenty of stuff to do.  I climbed trees and went swimming at Linger Longer Bay even when it was raining sometimes.  At B's house, it was the most welcome sight I have seen for some time.  It looked like three princesses lived there.  Three princesses who played dress-up and camped on the lawn in their tents and worked on a race car with their dad.  The oldest showed me her knife collection.  Two of the other girls practiced using a straw to make farting noises under their armpits.  Then everyone drug out B's big box of clothes and showed me all of the beautiful things she had made or bought for them to wear and play in.  A dog named Rocky meandered by from time to time and two cats made themselves known.  There was talk of a mouse living in one of the closets and a cat was set in front of the door.  There was none of this perfect brand-new furniture and museum-quality housekeeping.  How do you live in a house you have to fret over, anyway? I looked out the big picture window at the farm down the road and the bay a quarter of a mile off.  From my vantage, I could see the neighbors chickens and goats and occasionally, a car driving by.  A treehouse stood ready for playtime, the plants owned the place and I had to pry myself from my seat when it came time for me to leave.   C and B and their families are wonderful people, kind and thoughtful and I am so lucky to know them and to be their friend. 

I went home and we had leftover spaghetti for dinner.  I had to put on a wool vest and drank hot tea to keep warm.  My sister, brother-in-law and nephew talked about fishing and camping and what we did with our days.  They teased me about my cold toes and frozen hands.  I guess tomorrow we will have a seafood dinner- whatever my brother-in-law caught and smoked, and some crabs and oysters.  The tourists who come through town, who ask what there is to do- they just don't understand.  It's not their fault that they lack the experience of real living on the coast.  How do you explain how the other half lives?        

This is my vacation face