Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Hand Your Dealt, or Blaming Entropy Is My Way Of Shirking Responsibility

One of my friends commented that she wished she had my energy. I worked all week at my job, taught at my second, part-time adjunct job, and this morning I worked on my online class. I found time to work out a few times this week and helped a friend move last night.  This afternoon, after I work out, I will begin the revisions to chapter 3 of my dissertation and send them to one of my committee members who is an expert in qualitative research design. But this is not about energy. It's about holding shit together and fighting entropy.

Yes, I'm blaming entropy this week.  I declare that entropy is responsible for my fears that my boobs are going to sag- something which does not keep me up at night but which sometimes nags the back of my head.  I say that entropy is what makes everything break on a house once I have purchased it.  Entropy is responsible for the bill I forgot to pay, the one workout I missed (and therefore the possible expansion of my butt circumference), my decision to not attend an awesome workshop this morning so that I could sleep in for once, the lightning-fast way my kitten has turned into an old lady cat in only 15 years, the loss of offspring because I was too busy to conceive them, forgetfulness in general, laziness, and the need to sleep.  These things are what make the world fall apart and it's entropy's fault.  

I'm using all of my energy to hold body and soul together.  Next week I get to move back into my house.  I have been storing the majority of my stuff and staying here and there for the last three months, but now it's time to go home.  The lease is up and my tenants will move out.  Besides, I am not easy to live with and I'm sure that I will be a much nicer person to everyone once I get back to my own homestead.  My cousin offered to come help me fix any damage and to repaint. I'm not certain if he knows he offered to help repaint but you know.. Anyway, things are pretty good on the homefront. 

I started teaching night classes again last week. I've got an online and an in-person Composition course through my favorite two year college. I'm trying all sorts of new stuff in the online course, using suggestions from past students and technology that I've got available at home.  I do love my iPad 2, though I wish it would be able to send bigger videos. My in-person class had everyone I wanted, from non-traditional to traditional students and from all ages and walks of life.  Very excited about that class because their collective attitude is a positive one. Also, I get to teach right next door and at the same time as my good friend Bonner Slayton.  He was there for my first day of graduate school in 2002 and we have always gotten along so well. Bonner is one of those people who doesn't mind telling me that I'm full of shit and that it's time to rethink what I'm doing when I get all full of myself.  Bonner doesn't mind that I'm arrogant; he just metaphorically smacks me in the head like a big brother ought to. Then I come to my senses and we go on. I'm blaming my own arrogance on entropy too, if you wondered. So life is good there too. 

I met with my advisor this week and he gave me revisions for Chapters 1, 3, and 5.  I'm excited and hope I can defend this semester. He seemed positive. 

In fact, life is good in many ways. I am beginning to really enjoy my students.  They have learned what to expect in my classroom and we hold to the structures.  They are reading independently and I am also reading a book called "Hatchet" with them.  My friend Cathy lent me the classroom set and I already had the audio book, so there we are. It's a book that tends to draw in even the reluctant boys.  Some of my students have already read it and announce that in class.  The others say "Don't tell us what happens!", which I take for a good sign.  In the auditorium, I go to say goodbye to the kids at the end of the day.  I walked in on Wednesday and one of my kids nudged his friend. "Do you have her?" he asked. "Nah". "She's my English teacher.  She's funny".  I had no idea that I was funny.  "Hey!" I said sharply. "Stop ruining my rep!" Without missing a beat, he turned to his friend, put his head down and said "She makes me cry!" 

So the only thing that's still bothersome is the state and district.  I had to take two afternoons off this week and missed my 6th hour class both days.  I love that class. The first afternoon was my competency review for the State of Oklahoma.  I waited for one and a half hours for an interview that took five minutes.  The reviewer asked me why I was even there since I had so much education, training and experience. I had no answer for him.  I sent an email the next day to the Director of Certification to confirm that I had passed and would indeed be a certified teacher.  He confirmed. 

I took that confirmation down to the district office.  We conference-called the Director. The HR department would not accept either written or verbal confirmation so that I could sign a contract.  Why not? Because there is a little box to fill in with a certificate number.  Nevermind anything else, we must fill in a little box.  Without that box, I have no contract, no way of getting paid, no insurance, no legal recourse. 

Yes, I have no way of getting paid. Yes, I have been there since the last two weeks of July. 

The district does not want to put me on as a long-term substitute teacher. First and foremost because it's minimum wage.  Secondly because I could only have 20 working days in the classroom with my students.  Friday was my 20th day.  Still no certificate number from the state. Still no contract. Still not getting paid. I won't get paid on this next payday either.  I probably won't get paid until the middle of September. I have never, in my entire life, had to wait two months to get paid for what I do. This is beyond ridiculous.  I have no idea if they will let me into my classes on Monday. Thank God I have my adjunct job, because otherwise I couldn't pay my mortgage.  Mortgage companies can't eat promises either.  

That last one I do not blame on entropy.  I blame human stupidity... my own.  Why am I putting up with this? Either way, I've dealt my hand for this semester. Most of the cards are good, though I seem to have a 2 of spades and a 4 of diamonds. The only other thing to do is to play it to the best of my ability and hope I come out ahead in the end. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Week 3 - Bucking at the County Fair

This morning driving to work, I felt beat up, like I'd been bronco busting and zigged when I should have zagged.  My whole body hurt.  I didn't realize how much anxiety I would feel being in a public school. It's not because of the kids or the work, but because of the frightening similarities to prison that I feel panic sometimes coming on.  Only I didn't realize it until my friend Elissa pointed it out, and I almost got into some emotional trouble.

It's two week until I can move home, to my own house.  The lease is up on August 31 and then I can get back to my regular life.  I had had a rough day at school, with oppositional girls, and boys who could not for the life of them keep their hands and feet and hormones to themselves.  I had gotten into a stupid argument with my roommate and was driving to the dog park to go for a walk to clear my head when I got pulled over. Expired tags.  Couldn't find my insurance tag either.  Hadn't gotten the notice on my tags because I haven't been anywhere regularly since March.  I got a ticket, and as the officer walked away- after lecturing me- I rolled up my window and heaved great sobs over the sound of the audio version of "Hatchet" by Gary Paulsen.  Too strong a reaction, losing it like that.  I was just having a bad day and was going to clear my head with a walk when *wham* a bee sting in the form of Officer Stellar and his magic ticket-writing tablet.

It was a pain, a fresh pain I could identify, something I could point to and say "Life is unfair!" In retrospect, I can probably get that ticket reduced when I take my tag receipt in to pay the fine. But I needed to let off some of that steam that for some inexplicable reason I had been holding in. I had a good cry and felt heartily sorry for myself for about five minutes.  Then I went for my walk and went home.

The next day, I drove in to work by 7:30 a.m., and didn't get out of everything I needed to that was school and teaching related until 8 p.m.  I was dog tired and had been busier than a one-armed paper hanger. I stopped by Walmart and you know, the neatest thing happened.  I was walking into the store and a car stopped to let me pass.  I waved and smiled- it's how we Okie's do things. Courteous like that.  The two girls in the car pulled up alongside me and said "Hey, you look so cute! We like your outfit!" and I really appreciated that.  The greeter flirted with me; cute guy in a wheelchair.  I gave him my ten dollar smile. I love being flirted with by good looking men.  I was in a groove, digging through the produce like a champ.  I saw a big-ass bald and tall police officer in the store and had a passing thought: what if he saw my tags when he went outside?  Nobody is that unlucky. Sure as shit, I get out of the Walmart lot and the flashing blues bent my night backwards.

He walked up and said "License and insurance." I handed him my license and ticket.  I used my teacher voice too, telling him that I'd been working for 12 hours today and I would go to the tag agency just as soon as I could but since I'm a public school teacher this is the best I could do today.  I did not use my nice, sweet Okie smile.  I used my "I have taught in a fucking prison and am in a bad fucking mood. Back off" voice.  It does not have any sweetness or honey in it.  I may have scared him a little bit.  He looked sheepish and a little apologetic. And tears welled up in my eyes again.  He took off.  Didn't even run my license. I might have also come across as a little /crazy/ scary.

I posted this on Google+, and that's when Elissa pointed out that I was probably reacting to the stress of working with an oppressed population and that it would take time to adjust.  She knows this shit. She's a teacher too.

Of course.  I was just feeling a little crazy and stressed out. Recognition is big key to alleviating this kind of stress and thanks to my friend, I'm feeling much better already.

I'm going running more to take care of my body and reading and writing  to take care of my brains.  And tonight at the craft store where I went to buy school supplies, they gave me a 15% teacher discount.  I found some good deals for my classroom and a few crafty things to do myself.  I also got word yesterday that the state department will go ahead and do my Competency Review for my teaching certificate. I might even get paid this month. That would be nice.  I've been engaged working since late July and won't get paid at all until the end of August.  Who knows how that's going to go down? More anxiety, but for now, there is nothing I can do about it but hope it turns out alright.

I think my biggest challenge is taking care of myself emotionally.  I care about the crap that kids in poverty have to deal with and wish fervently that these things weren't happening to them.  I'm limited in the scope of what I can do and need to remember to also give myself a break. Public middle school is a lot like bull riding at the county fair.  You hold on for eight second, the ride is wild and there is a trick to it.  Whether you stay on or get bucked off, you're going to be sore at the end of the day.  If you aren't, you probably aren't doing it right.

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...

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.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The First Days of School

Monday (yesterday) was my first day teaching in a public school.  Sunday night I had to grade papers for the online course I'm teaching.  The grades were due the next day and students were just turning in their final papers.  So I did that and got to bed around 1:30.  Got up at 6 a.m., not enough sleep for me. I'm a total zombie when I don't get enough zzzz's.  And I'm also a little bit cranky.  So I got up, got ready and went to work, arriving at 8:20.  It's a hike to the city and it also takes me awhile to wake up.  I immediately found my schedule and realized that not only am I teaching 7th grade, but 8th grade also.  It would have been nice if someone had noticed, let me know ahead of time or prepared me in any way.  

After having a mild freak-out attack, I scrambled to get together some materials with which to greet 8th graders rather than 7th grade.  Nothing.  Both of the Assistant Principals and the Principal are new.  They were busy anyway, running students like cattle through the scanners and sorting everyone into classrooms.  There was a lot of bustling and a little hustling.  I went to my classroom and had a mild freak out attack.  Seriously, who tells you that you're teaching one grade and then sticks you with two different classes with absolutely no preparation?  But there was little time for rumination as I had half an hour before I met my first class, which incidentally was eighth grade.  They were a quiet group and full of stony looks.  I watched them and asked them to do some writing.  Cancel that- I made them do some writing.  One of my students made insulting comments when she thought I couldn't hear.  They mumbled on their way out the door.  

My second hour class of 7th graders were just giddy by comparison.  They talked easily and didn't seem to mind the writing.  Nobody is overly excited about English but they are willing.  My other classes are about average- poor kids, lots of potential, just becoming full fledged teenagers. A few of my students are parents.  Yes, 13 and 14 year old kids.  I didn't register any shock.  After all, this is not the culture I'm accustomed to and I have no right to judge.  I have to get my bearings and look around, see what normal is.  See what kids these days do in this neighborhood.  One of my classes had 37 students registered into it.  Not all showed up, but we had to borrow chairs from the teacher next door.  In my last hour class, one of the kids farted loudly and others swore in Spanish.  I ignored the swearing and made the perpetrator sit still.  My overall first impression was that either the kids have to improve their attitudes or the administration needed to step up their game where newbie teachers were concerned.  Several on faculty noted that they had never had such a poor first day.  It made me less cranky to know I wasn't the only one.  As I was leaving, a co-worker handed me a copy of the curriculum that I would be teaching.  So at least I had some curricular materials. 

I went home and crashed at 7:30.  At night.  I have, to the best of my knowledge, never, ever done that.  I've awakened at 7:30 p.m., but never gone to bed at that hour. And I slept until 5:30 this morning, when I made my lesson plan and got ready for work.  

Today, Tuesday, was day two.  It was much better.  My first hour class decided not to do a group participation exercise so we did some writing instead.  Next time I ask for students to raise their hands, I expect there will be more people volunteering.  They talked today too.  My second hour class came up with their own glossary words, which was way ahead of the other classes.  My teacher heart did a happy dance since that was all their own idea.  They sometimes seem upset that I walk around and talk to them, instead of hanging out at my desk.  My butt only  hits that chair during lunch or plan period.  I had even more kids register into my large class- 40 according to my paperwork, though I am assured that ten were dropped.  I wonder then why we had to borrow more chairs.  I was assured that my class is back down to 30, though I find that number to be exceptionally large. I asked for that number to shrink.  "It will", came the answer.  I will wait and see.  At least two of my students do not speak enough English to be in my class but I will have to wait for them to be moved too.  In the meantime, since most of my students are bilingual, someone translates for them.  On the balance, today was much better than yesterday.  I met with my fellow English teachers to confer on our plans for this week.  I gave a little emotional support to other new teachers and hung out in the hallway with the kids between classes.  They are beginning to greet me back.  Someday soon, they may even crack a smile.  But don't get me wrong; I'm a hardcase as a teacher. Today I corrected the cursing in Spanish, thereby admitting that I knew what they were saying and prohibiting cross talk in a language they thought I didn't understand.  Ah well, we play the cards we are dealt. 

This inner city school is much different than a suburban or rural school. I still have to rely on my wits and problem solving skills.  And as early as I get there, there are dedicated teachers who arrive an hour before me and who stay later.  Many of my students write and read below grade level.  They don't know what to make of a teacher who uses big words and takes time to explain what those words mean.  Some look at me and see "outsider" and I look in at them and wonder how long it will take to change their minds. Some have behavioral disorders and others just cannot sit still for the life of them.  I know they are trying.  I know it takes something just for them to make it in the door in the morning.  Yet still I am keeping my standards high.  This will be a challenge.  I have to somehow raise test scores and still teach what children need to know.  They are children, too.  And for the most part, they are well behaved.  Not one has openly defied me, nor been disrespectful to my face.  All of my instructions have been followed, if only half-heartedly by some.  

Tomorrow is another day, and I am sleepy.  It takes a tremendous amount of energy to teach, run up and down stairs twenty times a day and find things to enjoy.  Because I will enjoy this.  I can feel it. I am going to get attached to the kid that I pulled aside and talked to today about keeping himself in check.  I later saw him in the principals office and stopped to offer him encouragement.  I think he needs that. I think I have something to offer here.  

Ah hell, I always wanted kids.