Friday, August 12, 2011

The Student And The Teacher

I've come home, gotten something to eat and washed my face.  Took out my contacts and stuck on my nerd glasses. Thought about my week.  Thought about what I want to write.  Thought some more.  Now that I've had some time to get used to my new environment, it's important to reflect on my experiences so that I can respond within acceptable parameters rather than going off half cocked about something without thinking about it.

In public school, there are three basic components that a teacher has to deal with: the students, the curriculum and the administration.  I guess these components are present anywhere you go, but as a college teacher, I had much more control in both the student area and the curriculum area.  After awhile the administration trusts you with the curriculum and you do your own thing.  In public school, you have file lesson plans.  I doubt anyone *looks* at them, but for whatever reason, teachers still have to file them electronically.  Also, if a student annoys me enough in college, I don't have to put up with them.  People pay to go to college and generally want to be there.  Children in 7th and 8th grade in a poverty-ridden area might not necessarily think that this is the most important place to spend their time- as opposed to hanging out with friends or working.  So part of my job is to convince them of the importance of education.  I do that through the environment that I create, the routine that I establish and the values I emphasize in the classroom.

In any case, the curriculum in question here is the easy part.  It's one the district bought and the teachers follow, though how closely is anyone's guess.  My guess is that many of the teachers in my school try to follow along.  The script is actually a daily one, down to what words students need to learn and how to approach lessons.  I'm just a little taken aback with the assumptions of a corporation (Pearson) attempting to enter into my classroom and tell me what students need and what to say to them.  You know what? I can figure that part out since I'm a human being with eyes and ears and the capability to interact with my kids.  So I'm adapting the curriculum.  I'm accomplishing the same goals, which I am tying to the core curriculum standards recently adopted by the state, but it's more tailored to my own students.  I think it's ok.  I am new and teaching seventh and eighth grade English, the sixth/seventh grade English teacher and the eighth grade teacher are both new to this school.  We do not have a department chair as she is out sick until December and the only other person in the equation with any experience teaches the remedial classes.  Nobody around us has any experience with this curriculum.

And really, I don't mind.  I like looking at the materials and making up my mind what I want to do.  There is a thing called the Scope and Sequence and it gives a general overview and order of the units I have to teach.  For the first year in this school, I'm not going to do anything fancy or get all crazy on curriculum development.  That's what summer is for.  Don't worry, I won't break any kids.  This week, a representative from the curriculum provider came by the school.  She remembered me from the half day of training (the last of three days of training) that I received and wanted to check on me.  I gave her a three-minute tour of what I was doing and she seemed pretty positive, saying that from what she could tell I went beyond the required stuff.  I guess she will come back some other time.

The students are quite a tricky bit to the job.  These are middle school kids, so everything is extra dramatic.  They are also quite tough from an exterior point of view.  But I know they are just kids.  They are 12, 13 and 14 years old.  Hell, my cat is older than any of them.  I can't be specific of course, but I can speak in generalities about the students I serve .There is always that requisite kid who is way bigger than everyone, has to shave by noon and tends bar down the street at night.  He's there too, but he's not in my class.   I teach some very full classes.  If you don't know how Oklahoma public school runs, our hours and obligations are negotiated in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and we are in the building at 8:40 a.m. and out by 4:20.  That's the contractual obligation.  So far, I haven't gotten there any later than about 8:15 and I don't leave sometimes until 5.  Last Tuesday was Open House, and I left work at 7:15 p.m. I also came in days before school started and on the weekend before, to set up my classroom and figure out the first days of school.  Anyway, I teach five sections of class and have (theoretically) two planning periods.  Those plan periods are used to catch up my grade book, talk to administrators and attend meetings for my department and grade level.

Last week, I used two of those time slots to attend disciplinary hearings for kids. The first one was a kid who really has nothing- a home, parents (jail) or much of a future.  Just a lot of pain.  I have reported defensive bruising on his arms and  his eyes have the wildness of a child too long unloved. He won't stay seated in the classroom for long and is very sensitive about how I speak to him. I take too much class time to help him and explain lessons for him again.  I know he doesn't need it because he is not academically deficient in any way.  He just needs attention.  He earned a disciplinary hearing by annoying the shit out of a less sympathetic teacher.  The way she spoke to him, belittling him, bothered me.  When it was my turn, I praised him for his efforts to make improvement in my class and left out the parts where he took inappropriate actions.  Of course he did inappropriate things.  After the hearing I had to go into the ladies room and cry for a minute.

The second disciplinary hearing was one that I called.  Just a kid thinking he is tough and that the rules don't apply to him.  It's not ok to listen to an iPod at school, nor is it acceptable behavior to chew gum in class.  Last week, he was doing both.  Normally, I'd ask for him to spit out his gum and to hand over the iPod.  I am supposed to turn them in to the office, but usually on the first offense I give the phone or electronic equipment back at the end of the hour as long as the kid doesn't get into more trouble.  This guy said that he would do neither, so I took him to the Assistant Principal.  Same response.  We both had to write up reports on him.  This week, he wouldn't stop with the outbursts, interrupting others and bothering students.  I held him after class and talked to him (for something like the third time that week).  No change in attitude.  So I took him to the office.  As I was looking for the Assistant Principal, he cussed at the secretary and that was all she wrote.  At his hearing, he looked like a prisoner at sentencing. Since it was my meeting, I opened by telling him that I think he is very bright and a good reader when he focuses on his work.  That I thought he could do well in my class.  He looked surprised but it's an age-old tactic: praise the person and address the behavior.  Once he didn't feel so threatened, I think he could at least hear what we had to say.  He will have a week to contemplate his choices.  I'm not certain if he just doesn't want to be in school or if he's just acting out.  I may never know and perhaps it's better that way.  On the way in to the meeting, I asked a friendly teacher to come to the meeting for moral support.  She sent me a text that night that said "You kicked ass today!".  It made me feel really good after an exhausting day.

The truly tricky students are my female students.  Last Wednesday in my first hour eighth grade class, a table of girls asked me if I had gotten ready quickly that morning.  Did I have to drive far? Did I get enough sleep at night?  I thought they were sort of being catty and ignored the questions.  The girls seemed to shut down and lose their enthusiasm for the writing exercise we were doing.  Then they seemed to become just a bit hostile.  Very subtle, with the eye rolls and the looks they exchanged.  Boys will throw stuff or protest loudly. Girls will kill you by glaring daggers into your back.  The situation puzzled me, so I had dinner with my friend Charlotte.  Charlotte is retired. She was an elementary school principal and worked with me at the community college for some time.  She's the one who decorated my room and bought my supplies and vocalized some of my fears.  She's my Oklahoma mom.

Over dinner I asked what she thought I could do.  "Oh", she laughed, "Those girls want to know about you.  They admire you and want to be like you."
I've never been one to attempt to be a role model.  "I mean, are you sure?"
"Yeah.  Just be honest with them.  They'll take the good parts and leave the rest."
I had to think about it for awhile. The students so far have asked why I wear heels, why I cut six inches off of my hair, how far I drive to get to school and if my eyes are really blue.  And what TV I watch.  Hmm.

So the next day, I wore my best zebra print flip flops.  I am one of the only teachers who wears something besides flip flops and I'm pretty proud of it.  But these students do need to think of me as a person and not just as some standoffish white lady who punishes them with reading and writing and never cracks a smile.  It just so happened that one of my first hour girls had on a zebra hair bow.  She loved my shoes and I complimented her on her bow.  Before class began, they asked me small questions and I answered.  Yes, I love teaching here. I love to wear heels because they make me taller, even though I'm already tall. I don't watch television. And even if I did, I wouldn't watch Jersey Shore. I read books. Sometimes I feel very white.

The rest of the week, those smiles returned and they more or less concentrated on their work.  Thank you, Charlotte.

For the most part, I'm still instilling routines into my students' brains.  Routines of what to expect from me and what I expect from them.  And hopefully, what they can expect from themselves.  My favorite part of the day is "Duty".  I go to the auditorium and stay with the kids while they wait for their buses to arrive to take them home.  I get to ask kids how their day was, offer some encouragement, a smile and a wish for them to have a good evening.  It's a nice feeling to walk into the room and be greeted by students and to feel a part of a small community.  My students are teaching me how to teach them.

My administration is having a learning curve too.
I still do not have a contract and until yesterday, there was no way to sign on to the web portal for attendance and grades.  I am not getting paid yet and probably won't until the end of the month.  There was no internet access in my classroom until today when I pirated the right cable and fixed it.  And I won't get to do my "Competency Hearing" with the state department until September because for August, they couldn't get their shit together.  This is probably the least tangible and most distressing detail of the job. Technically, I could be said to be either "volunteering" or "wasting my time".  I have verbal assurances that I will get paid, even if my contract is still sideways.  I don't have much choice but to wait and see what happens.

So yes, a week of processing and of reflection.  I love having to adapt to a new environment.  Not everything is going well and that's ok.  It's a challenge to figure everything out.  And now I must change gears and move in a different, more familiar direction.  Monday my dissertation is due to my adviser and I simply must spend the weekend in revisions.  Thank God the topic is infinitely fascinating. But that's a post for another time...


  1. It's always hard for me to feel a connection to a new group...I'm not trustful, and I think I close down because I don't want to get hurt/rejected. And by not opening up/trusting them, of course they don't bring me in, thus creating my own little self fulfilling prophecy. :) I'm glad Charlotte helped you frame the girls a little differently...I know you'll do great. You're too good and care too much not to.

  2. Sounds a lot like my experiences substitute teaching - but I never tried to control the class at all unless the teacher left them something constructive to do. If it was busy work I figured there was no point trying to force them into being schooled.

  3. I love you Min! I'm very proud of you!, using all! your skills as an educator to help the kids entrusted to you!