Saturday, August 6, 2011

The First Week

I've put in my first week of teaching public school. It was pretty much what I thought it would be.  In trying to process the deluge of information, I thought I'd give an overview of what went down and some of my reactions to it.

The important part is the students.  I have about 130 right now.  Some of my classes have 18 students and others have up to 29.  On the first day I had 37 students in one class.  "They won't all come", said the scheduling person.  She was right; two didn't show up.  I protested strenuously.  I didn't have enough teaching resources, let along chairs, for that many students.  It's not teaching at that point- it becomes babysitting.  Most of the kids are cooperative; many are quite bright and capable. Most do not cause problems. I have to protect their time with me from the loud, obnoxious, needy and disruptive other students.  I swear that sometimes my disruptive students just want attention and that even negative attention will do. I took the advice of multiple friends who said to not take any sass and that the first few weeks I shouldn't even crack a smile.  Thus far I have concentrated on routine in the classroom and in getting students used to reading and writing every day, right from day 1.  I am being consistent and hopefully, fair.

I could go on and on about the cool things my students are doing.  Some have read two and three smaller books this week.  Some have surprised me with their willingness to even open a book- that's a real gain in my school. One students is on the third book in the Twilight series. She drew me a picture for my bulletin board. Fortunately, there is a big push by the administration for every student to read 25 books this semester.  We have gone to the library, chosen our own vocabulary words and defined them, figured out how to choose a good book and what genres we like to read.  There will be a test on Monday over their weekend reading- 20 minutes per day each day.  I'm not sure how I'm going to do that part yet but it will come to me.

And there are students who break my heart.  I have one in a group home who came to class with defensive bruising on his arms.  I have one student who got hit with a baseball bat.  I have another with a child and another who tells me he doesn't want to eat in the cafeteria because the kids are all mean to him for being white.  That one I could do something about, at least.  Everywhere one looks in this school, there is poverty and difficulties and sometimes gangs.  Several of my students are in gangs, which act as their surrogate families while their real parents are in Mexico.  I don't think it's because it is cool to do so, but more for survival and self-esteem and a group to identify with and feel pride in.  I have a big 8th grade kid who cannot for the life of him stop his backtalk and attitude.  He won't make it at my school, though I think he really is trying.  He just can't shut up.  I took him out in the hallway twice this week to discuss his behavior.

With my other highly disruptive students, I handle it one of two ways.  The first way is when I know a kid is just fronting, trying to get attention and be the class clown.  I say "If you cannot do what the rest of the class is doing and if you cannot be polite and productive, then you cannot be in our class". That one works pretty well.  I had one student say "I ain't going to read no books". "Well, I guess you can't be in this class.  I will talk to the Principal. We'll find you another place." "Ayyy, ayy, I'll read." And he did.

My second method is to ask the student what their mother was going to say when I called her.  They get real scared and frankly, I'm bluffing.  I really, really don't want to call anyone's mother.  I really, really, just want to help with their literacy.  The calling home threat is super effective, for now. I usually make a deal that if they are good for the rest of the hour, I will forgo the doom and gloom of a call home. Eventually, I'm going to have to call someone's mom.  I'm dreading that.

I have yet to talk to the young ladies about overt behavior, though I have spoken to several for instigating behaviors.  Make no mistake: Just because my students are not particularly booksmart does not mean that they are dumb.  One of my students earned herself a week of ISS (in school suspension) for instigating a fight on the playground.  I just shook my head and gave her her assignments.

For now, I am happy that in the hallways I am greeted by students, and I greet them back by name if I can. I know about half of their names now.  I have bus duty at the end of the day.  I wanted to see everyone off for home and wish them a good evening.  I'm also not much of a yeller.  I am ok with raising my voice to get everyone's attention, but I don't scream at people. Especially in my classroom.  I can do more with a silent stare than I ever could do by yelling.  I'm sure my kids hear it all of the time and have learned to become deaf.  However, I walk amongst students during lessons and silent reading time, to ensure (at least for now) that they are indeed focusing and training their attention on their studies.  They hate it when I catch them slacking off.

The curriculum that I was initially against seems to allow for a good bit of... adjustment.  I don't have a login for the system yet so I don't have to file my own lesson plans.  In the meantime, I'm doing pretty much what I need to. I'm following along, sorta.  More or less.  The curriculum creators have some pretty good ideas and so I'm willing to follow them in spirit. It would have been better if I had gotten my materials prior to the start of school, or even during the first few days.  But whatever, I have everything I need for the year as of now.

Speaking of login difficulties, I still don't have a contract.

After the new State Superintendent stepped in, there was some sort of clearing out of personnel in the State Department of Education, and in the certification office, I am stuck with a new person.  My problem is that I have taken and passed all of my tests.  I have given my money, fingerprints and statements.  During my vacation to Washington, my Competency Review came up and I missed it.  This is the only barrier between me and my alternative certification.  Without my certification, I cannot get a signed contract.

So I called the Alternative Certification person.  She never calls back.  I called again.  My principal called her.  There is such a thing as a Letter of Intent, stating that all I need is the Competency Review and I'm good to go.  School districts can issue a contract on that letter.

But she won't write it.  She has never heard of such a thing.  Her supervisor won't be back until Monday.

But she can give the confirmation over the phone.  All I have to do is get the Superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools to call her. My superintendent has 86 schools and a thousand employees with layers of management between us.  And she thinks he's going to take it upon himself to call her?


My principal asked me to go see the Alt. Cert. lady this afternoon. I camped out in her office for awhile and treated her professionally, explaining my position.  She looked through the stack of phone messages by her phone, selected my three and two from my principal and told me the same thing she has told me before.  Then she said "I have been her since March.  I've never heard of such a thing as a Letter of Intent."
"Did they start a new school year since March?"
"Yes, just now."
"School just started and contracts are being issued this month. So why would anyone need one until now?"
She looked at me, dumbfounded.  I believe she had no idea what I was talking about.
I took her supervisors name and number.  She warned me that he would be busy on Monday morning.  I assured her that I would keep calling until I got his attention and left.

If this does not get cleared up by next Friday, I will be switched from a teaching contract to a long term substitute contract, thereby cutting my pay to less than half and making me very unhappy.  Do you know what teachers make in Oklahoma?  Less than 34k per year.  Half of that is food stamp land.

Me at Starbucks, contemplating poverty
I left and went to Starbucks for the coffee and a bit of free wi-fi.  Got directions to my friend Jackie's house because I was invited to a get together with her, Cathy and Mandy to celebrate our first week back in the classroom.  On the way a friend called and told me she couldn't make it.
"Couldn't make what?" I asked.
"Your classwarming party."
"Oh." I said. "It's a party for me?"
"Oh shit.  You didn't know?"
Some of my girlfriends surprised me with a "Classwarming party", wherein we talked about our first week in the classroom and ate too much yummy and fattening food. They gave me gifts and advice and we talked and laughed for quite a few hours.  I think with all of us we went through maybe 2.5 bottles of wine. Jackie's husband, Darren, watched the kids- three spirited little girls who had him wrapped around their little fingers. He is great with kids.  I couldn't help but think of it as the women's equivalent of a Superbowl party, only with better food and just as much discussion of flatulence and other base topics.  I know other people were invited and couldn't come due to all of the normal reasons that life gets in the way.  That's ok with me- I know that even if not in person, they were with us in spirit. I have had the luxury of having a hell of a lot of moral, and even physical support along the way.

I feel connected to my community of women and men, teachers and friends, and that each of them help me be a good teacher.  The kind of teacher who makes the right decisions and sometimes the tough decisions in the best interest of the children.  The kind of teacher my students deserve.  Each of these people make a spiritual contribution that translates into the courage to teach. And that is one heck of a way to start a school year.


  1. Thank you for sharing this :)

  2. Hi - I got to your blog through Roger Ebert. No lie! He tweeted about Smart Ass Cripple recently. The name intrigued me so I looked at his blog and noticed that he followed Wild Okie which, as a transplanted Okie, caught my eye. I thoroughly enjoyed your recent posts and as a product of the Oklahoma public education system, I am thrilled that students will have such an exuberant, committed teacher as yourself. I received a wonderful education in Oklahoma and am proud of my public school roots. I also know it takes commitment because Oklahoma has never been good about recognizing the importance of the teaching profession as reflected by its abysmal pay. Anyway - good luck with your school year!

  3. I love Ebert AND Smart Ass Cripple!
    Thanks for reading!